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.

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