Yesterday, BBC Woman’s Hour proudly announced that from 17th May they are going to be on air for a A FULL HOUR! Their caps, their exclamation mark.
Well, they might be celebrating with the emoji party poppers at Woman’s Hour, but back in the real world this is nothing less than a cost cutting exercise, signalling the loss of over 250 fifteen minute dramas – equivalent to sixty-four hours of commissioning – mainly of original work, which have been incorporated into the programme since 1998. It’s not just a body blow to the writing community, but this is work now lost for hundreds of actors, technicians, producers, directors.
Of course there is always a discussion to be had about scheduling. I would never argue that these things should be set in stone. There’s a good case to be made for Woman’s Hour having their whole sixty minutes. Good luck to them. Genuinely. But this isn’t a scheduling decision. That sixty-four hours of drama production isn’t magically going to appear elsewhere on the Network. It’s gone. This is just the most visible of a series of incremental cuts, hot on the heels of the erosion of the Saturday afternoon drama from a high point of forty original commissions to just twelve in the current year. No longer The Saturday Drama… it is now, effectively, The Monthly Drama. At the same time the weekday Afternoon Drama has lost fifteen minutes per week, which may not sound like much, but amounts to a further twelve hours lost commissioning, again, primarily of original work.
In total, Radio 4 has cut over a hundred hours of Radio Drama commissioning per year. At a time when the BBC is facing unprecedented pressures on its financing I can understand the attraction of a move that is saving them many hundreds of thousands of pounds. Drama is one of the most expensive of the radio genres. This is true. A sixty minute BBC radio play costs between £20,000 and £24,000, which might sound like a lot, but remember that you’d be hard pressed to bring in an hour of TV drama for less than £500,000 and most cost a lot, lot more. Once you’re into the kinds of SFX that TV audiences expect budgets regularly run into the millions, while on radio those amazing visual effects are conjured up in the listeners mind, so the production costs remain the same. Yes, some of the Audio Drama slack is being picked up by BBC Sounds but it’s hard to find concrete figures as to how much, and a back of the envelope calculation doesn’t get anywhere near them making up the shortfall.
‘Hang on a minute!’ I hear you say. ‘There’s still The Archers.’ Yes, that’s true – and the Sunday Drama remains largely untouched, although this latter slot is, according to the BBC’s own commissioning guidelines, ‘almost exclusively the home of dramatisations’. Meanwhile what remains of the Afternoon Drama is increasingly devoted to series and serials which tend to go to more experienced writing talent.
Not only is this a near critical erosion of Radio Drama, but the loss of this hundred hours is disproportionately targeted at original work, and the changes as a whole are hard to tally with the Corporation’s often stated commitment to developing voices new to radio. Where radio used to be a significant entry point into the industry, where the relatively low production costs allowed it to be a platform for untried voiced, now anyone looking for their first break is faced with an increasingly fragmented and bewildering commissioning system. Meanwhile as production shifts from in-house to independent production companies – a move that has been extremely successful in the world of television – when Radio 4 takes a chainsaw to its radio drama schedules, so they take the same chainsaw to the independent production infrastructure they themselves have encouraged, undermining the economic model that sustains it.
But it isn’t just writers and creatives who lose out.
During the pandemic, drama has never been more important. Audiences have flocked to television – the BBC and all the streaming platforms – hungry to find solace and inspiration from the telling of stories. It is bitterly ironic that the only medium able to continue drama production virtually unhindered throughout lockdown… was Radio.
In an age when the television industry has placed drama front and centre like never before, BBC Radio 4 is choosing this time in its history to diminish its role and its responsibility to one of the greatest treasures to be found in the nation’s dramatic landscape, one that the BBC itself pioneered for nearly a century, and one that has been an inspiration to millions and a seedbed to countless artists and technicians across the decades.
Yes, there is an expanding non-broadcast presence for audio drama away from the BBC, but it’s a genuine tragedy that the Corporation seems so willing to let its status as the champion and benchmark setter of the genre slip away so carelessly. Or perhaps the decision makers are simply unaware of the consequences their actions are having.
These cuts have been happening over a period of years – and the loss of the fifteen minute drama has been challenged by the Talent Unions and Professional Associations since it was first mooted over a year ago, sadly to no avail. The timing didn’t help. There was little appetite in the creative community for attacking the BBC during a pandemic and at a time when the corporation is going through an existential crisis.
But with this very public celebration by the BBC – ‘now the drama’s gone the party can begin!’ – which left writers and creatives feeling unloved and unwanted…
…perhaps it’s time for a more public dialogue to begin. This isn’t a plea for an unsustainable status quo. Scheduling – and where audio drama has its platform on the BBC – most definitely needs to change, but it’s time for the industry, writers and the audiences who love to get lost in the unique imaginative landscape of a radio play, to let the BBC know how they feel, and demand that the BBC rethink its approach. An email to email@example.com could be a starting point, or fill in a comment on the online complaints page at:
This writer of nearly a hundred radio dramas wants Radio 4 to learn to love drama again, and to make it – us – welcome on its airwaves, and to work with the creative community – who have felt almost completely excluded from the decision making process – to re-establish the BBC as the Gold Standard in our art form.