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 ( 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.”

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