Tuesday, 23 August 2011

In the absence of Summer, here's a Summary

What's happening with the No To Short Story Cuts On Radio 4 campaign, you ask?

Well, the Executive Layer of the BBC's Corporate Cake appears to be on holiday during August.

There's been no response - yet - from BBC Director General Mark Thompson nor BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten to the letter (Aug 3rd) from the Society of Authors, Equity & The Writer's Guild. 

Meanwhile, as can be seen from recent press coverage (eg this piece on 31st July, by Paul Donovan, unfortunately behind The Times' paywall) BBC Radio 4 have changed their position somewhat.

That shift of position - let's not call it a partial u-turn, horrible expression - would not have happened without the pressure of voices via the petition which allowed radio listeners to join actors and writers in expressing their dismay at what they perceive as "cultural vandalism".

The original Radio 4 press release, in early July, stated: “From next spring, the number of short stories will be reduced from three to one a week on Radio 4.”

Two weeks later, when Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley's support meant the protest had reached storm proportions on Twitter, a new press release was issued, with “information we weren't in a position to announce when the first announcement was made”.  This one said there would be two stories a week; one on a Friday afternoon, and another on Sunday evenings.

This change allows R4 to increase the number of new stories, softening the argument against their overall cuts; but that Sunday evening story slot was formerly used for repeats... so, as I understand it, there will now be no space for any story repeats on R4.

Still, increasing the number of commissions seems like a good thing, doesn't it? They listened, didn't they? Shouldn't we sigh with relief and pat ourselves on the back?

Well, no. It's still a cut. Instead of an Orion's Belt of original short writing across the week, short stories will now appear as isolated singles.  As the joint letter writers put it: 
"This will mean that Radio 4 is cutting slots for new writing from three to two and, even more seriously is cutting the number of listener slots (of which there were six as recently as 2009) from four to two."
 I think anyone, even the arithmetically challenged (that's me), can see the difference there in terms of impact, focus, and respect for the form.

Respect for the form sounds ridiculously grandiose, but I would argue that the short story at its best - especially as a first person narrative - is the basis on which all the other forms of literature are built. For actor and writer alike, the short story on radio offers a particularly wonderful demonstration of their combined skills, creating a very pleasurable one-to-one experience for the listener. I'd add, in echo of wiser minds, that learning happens first through listening, and that learning to listen is fundamental to our development as individuals.

How can BBC's committment to new, original writing be considered solid, when the short story is treated as peripheral in its arts programming? 

Hmm. For many writers, a story is their way into writing. It comes before the confidence to attempt plays, sit-coms, novels. For some, it's their preferred method of telling a story of whatever scale. The choice to reduce story slots seems to have been taken without consideration for its significance re the health of the wider dramatic and literary output.

I've heard from many listeners that they prefer stories to plays, dramatisations, or serialised novels, partly because of the time commitment, partly because they are 'not drawn in' by them, as they are with a story.

What do the cuts mean for listeners, who've been able to enjoy the short story as a regular weekday treat for nearly 40 years? Will those same listeners be able to listen to the story in these new slots? How will R4 "showcase" the short story at those differing times? 

I've not yet seen or been given a reply to those questions.

So, is there any good news?

BBC Radio 4 has stated its plans to have a "new story strand on R4Extra, with 25 new stories."

Ah, no, wait, hang on, sorry - that's not new writing for radio; those 25 stories will be derived from other sources. Difficult, that word 'new', it can mean one thing to one person and something else to another.

What kind of stories, and how often during the year will they be broadcast - as singles, in tandems, in larger batches...? 

Who knows?

Presumably the plan is to draw more listeners to the digital channel.

However, as only one in 4 radios sold is a DAB radio (so I'm told) the "new story strand of 25 on R4Extra" will not reach as many listeners as Radio 4 does. Perhaps a quarter?

So it seems to me that BBC Radio 4 is effectively demoting the short story. In fact, they've been demoting it slowly, over 3 years, and it's only now become apparent to those not directly concerned with their production.  

Here's another oddity. Radio 4 has an e-newletter, which you can sign up to for details of forthcoming radio drama. Which is great. But for some reason they don't include details of the Afternoon Readings. That strikes me as a waste of opportunity to raise awareness of their output, to boast about their own excellent work. Is there internecine rivalry between producers of Big Sexy Drama & Small, Short Stories? Who cares? Why not let them all be publicised, let them all find their audience? Why not help them to do so with all the media tools to hand?

What would I like to happen?

I'd like there to be 5 stories a week, of course. The Morning Story, the Afternoon Story, but in any case, a regular slot with the word STORY in it, which allows for creative planning and commissioning of writers, employment of actors and choice for listeners.

I'd like there to be space for repeats; when something really good has provoked listener response, there should be a way to broadcast it again.

I'd like the BBC to develop ways to make their drama & story archives more available, as downloads, to find a model which gives the licence payer better value for their investment. There are listeners all over the world who appreciate the BBC's broadcasting of stories, and who listen free.

I'd like people not to confuse the word SHORT with UNIMPORTANT.  Not to underestimate the power of FICTION amidst the continual clamour of FACTUAL programming.

To quote a former news-journalist friend, we should not diminish opportunities to hear "the small direct intimate voices which speak to the hearts, minds and souls of millions of Britons."
Most of all, I'd like the Controller of BBC Radio 4 to really hear what those petitioners are saying, about the value of a 15 minute oasis in the day when, by choice or by accident, listeners are afforded surprise, refreshment, entertainment.

At the moment, there's nothing more I can do about this, apart from remind people of the issues, point them towards the petition, and wait for the BBC to respond to the charge that they may be in danger of breaching their Charter.

Waiting is something I do very badly. Enforced passivity is, I feel, damaging to the creative energies.

So, I'm diving back into the novel I had been re-writing/re-dreaming, before my own recent BBC Radio 4 story-trilogy commission green-light in June and broadcast in early August.

At the moment it feels like wading through mud... but that's long stories for you.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Letter from the Society of Authors, Equity UK & The Writer's Guild

To The Right Honourable the Lord Patten of Barnes, Chairman, BBC Trust
& to Mark Thompson, Director General of BBC

 3rd August

Radio 4 Short Stories

We are writing to you because we fear that proposed short story cuts are in breach of the BBC Charter.

In a press release issued on the 6 July, the BBC announced that from Spring 2012 the number of short stories it broadcasts on Radio 4 will be reduced from three to one a week in order to make way for an extension of the World at One from 30 to 45 minutes. We sought clarification and a reversal of the decision from Radio 4 controller, Gwyneth Williams. In a meeting with the Society of Authors on 28 July Ms Williams explained that Radio 4 will be cutting the three short story slots currently at 3:30pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (up until 2009 these were every weekday) and instead creating a new slot at 3:45pm on Friday, and using the current slot at 7:45pm on Sunday, which is now used for repeats, for new short stories. This will mean that Radio 4 is cutting slots for new writing from three to two and, even more seriously is cutting the number of listener slots (of which there were six as recently as 2009) from four to two.

We are deeply concerned at these proposed cuts and believe that they will lead to the BBC breaching its Charter and particularly its duty to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence. The BBC has a duty to offer the best examples of creative work that engage and delight audiences, break new ground and encourage interest in cultural, creative and sporting activities. Short stories, with the use of the single voice, provide an opportunity to create great moments of drama and intimacy for the listener. It is a versatile and flexible medium which can surprise and delight and encourage audiences into unfamiliar territory.

Generally, the short story is experiencing a revival in popularity, having proved a perfect medium for the internet age; it is excellent for podcast and download. We are surprised that the BBC has not seen the commercial possibilities of this format and note that it is one of the most economical forms of programming - the only costs being those of paying the writer, the reader and studio production.

We are concerned not only at the loss of half the short story slots but also at the proposed new timing: up to two years ago and for almost the last 40 years there were opportunities to hear the short story every weekday on Radio Four. Under the new plans the only weekday offering would be at 3:45pm on a Friday. We believe that it will be difficult to give sufficient impact to the short story when the scheduling is so piecemeal. Listener comments on our petition (see below) repeat again and again how important it is to have the short story as a moment of space in a busy working day. The regular slot of 3 per week (previously 5 per week) short stories at the same time each day allowed for linked themes and creative programming. We fear that this will not work with weekend scheduling.

The BBC encourages active participation in short story writing by supporting the BBC National Short Story Award but new writers will not be encouraged into this medium if they are denied the opportunity to engage with it by hearing a wide range of stories and appreciating the possibilities of the medium.

The BBC has a duty to foster creativity and nurture and support UK talent across a wide range of genres. Radio Four has historically been a major showcase of the short story, and provided opportunities to new and established writers and actors. Equity's Audio Committee, made up of members who work regularly in radio and other audio areas, is currently collating data on the reduction of budgets at the BBC Radio as part of an investigation in the threat to radio drama, which includes readings and short stories. We believe that these cuts are symptomatic of a wider threat to radio drama by the lack of resources allocated to it by the BBC resulting in the number of productions being reduced. We fear that, if the number of productions continues to drop, radio drama could sink below the critical mass that will keep it viable. This appears to be what occurred at the BBC World Service. This will be exacerbated by the loss of a slot for repeats. Ms Williams has emphasised that she will be running short stories (although not newly commissioned work) on Radio Four Extra. It would be difficult to move any of this to Radio Four, even if successful, when there are no slots for repeats.

Finally we are concerned at the way in which this decision has been made. The BBC has a duty to monitor the BBC’s delivery of the Public Purposes, but this decision appears to have been made without any consideration of the impact of these cuts. Despite requests we have not been given any listener figures for the short story and it seems that there was no consultation, whether of listeners, writers and performers or opinion leaders in the wider creative community and amongst the creative community within the BBC itself before making the cuts.

National Short Story Week has hosted a petition to save the short story (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/noshortstorycuts/)which currently has around 6000 signatures. The signatures and comments on the petition (extracts are attached) are testament to the great love people have for the short story, which gives unique value to the listener, to the writer and performer in becoming established and being heard and to the wider creative community, providing inspiration and delight.

We believe that the decision breaches the BBC Charter for the reasons set out above and urge you to press Radio 4 not to cut the mid-week slots, which are of such importance to writers and listeners. 2013 will be the 40th Anniversary of the short story on Radio 4; the anniversary should be marked by an expansion of the short story not by cutting all weekday story slots. We know that budgets are tight but ask that funds be ring-fenced to ensure continuing funding and promotion of Radio Drama. We would very much welcome a meeting with you to discuss these issues further.

Yours Faithfully

Nicola Solomon, General Secretary, The Society of Authors,
Bernie Corbett, General Secretary, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain,
Christine Payne, General Secretary, Equity

Stephen Fry    "Please reconsider. I know budgets are tight, but there are few VERY few things the BBC does better. Commissioning and helping the world hear of new writing. Giving actors confidence and experience - but most of all being the best, the only place for listeners to enjoy the uniquely satisfying immersion and pleasure that a well told story can deliver."
Ali Smith    "This seems to me a terrible failure of imagination on the part of the BBC, since the short story, in terms of both form and voice, is so suited to the particular powers of radio, so at home in the open place where radio and the imagination meet. It's a loss to the writers, yes, but it's a huge loss to the listening public, a cancelling of a rich source of thought, voice, art, imagination."
Ian Rankin  "I got my real start with short stories on BBC Radio 4; I would hate for future generations of writers not to have the same chance." 
Listener: Claire Rush    "As a blind person I rely on radio 4 for up-to-date short stories which are not often available on audio. It means so much being able to switch on the radio and just listen like anyone else with no barriers. If you cut these stories out it will be another of my lifelines gone. These short stories are a great platform for new writers and I love the variety. I feel that radio 4 would be selling its soul for a bit of silver if this decision was made. Audiobooks cost around £30 each for unabridged versions, so having a tremendous source of literature at the press of a button is fantastic. If short stories are thrown in the path of radio 4's bulldozer, a chunk of your audience will automatically get buried in the rubble never to be seen again." 
Joanna Lumley    "Radio seems to be made for the short story. News, yes and information and discussion, of course: but the strength of the unseen face and the one-to-one voice reading fiction aloud is a perfect escape from the woes of the world. There should be as many stories read aloud on Radio 4 as there are fish in the sea. Don't cut them down or send them to a backwater; they belong in the heart of the listener's menu. Without this little time to dream and escape we become dull and predictable: without our own minds painting the landscapes and characters we diminish ourselves as people."
Simon McBurney    “Being read to is one of all our earliest experiences. It is how we learn to listen. The short story is the most succinct, complete and intimate form of this. Its function remains essential in our society. To make sure we keep listening. To reduce our access to the short story in this increasingly deaf, and hurrying society would be to remove another civilising aspect of our culture. The short story can make us stop for a moment. And listen. To listen is to hear others, and to awaken our ability to feel.”