Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the National Campaign for Children's Radio

  1a.   The need:   The reduction in children's viewing hours on ITV and the effect new advertising restrictions may have on funding programmes for them keep children's television at the forefront of debate about the future of UK media. However, radio is of equal importance for the young but is too often neglected as the poor relation.

  b.  It is important to maintain this trusted and accessible medium as a key component in children's culture—both for the radio industry and the benefit of society as a whole. Children are radio's future—both as the makers and the takers—but history shows that, left hostage to commercial pressure or the whim of BBC executives, radio services for children go to the wall. Sustained public lobbying and the commitment of a few dedicated professionals has generated a small renaissance in radio for children over the last few years but their share of this vastly extended territory is relatively small and listeners aged birth to 10 years remain the most vulnerable and poorly served audience.  

  c.  In an extraordinary anomaly UK law protects children's television but not their radio. Conversely, adults [designated as 15 years and above] have their radio safeguarded by legislation and enjoy many hundreds of stations.

  d.  By what criteria do policy makers dictate radio to be less important than television for the leisure and development of the young? This would seem to contravene the UN Convention on Children's Rights, which commands their access to media, information, education, and for their voices to be heard and listened to... all most certainly the business of radio.

  e.  Many parents and professionals in child-care consider radio to be the preferable medium for children—especially in early years. It encourages listening: a prerequisite for language acquisition, it promotes concentration, imagination, physical and mental co-ordination and can assist families with English as a foreign language. Radio can help to address the worrying increases in language delay, attention disorders and obesity by bringing a necessary balance to the predominant screen and keyboard culture that is often blamed for these problems.

  f.  Radio can also provide an excellent seeding ground for other children's media, such as publishing, TV and film—extending employment opportunities for Britain's creative and technical workforce and generating important overseas sales.

  2a.  The BBC: For years, as public service provider and brand leader, the BBC claimed children didn't want radio but only TV and pop music. The rest, they said, could buy tapes. So children's radio died, while grown-ups enjoyed ever more listening choice [and also bought tapes]. Do we remove fresh fruit and green vegetables because kids prefer burgers and pop? It was only through sustained public pressure and a few enlightened executives that the BBC revived a meagre half hour for children on R4 on Sunday evenings in the same slot where they had argued that children had not tuned in.

  b.  In 2001 the DCMS held a public consultation about the BBC's new DAB proposals and Children 2000 commissioned a MORI survey to inform the debate. Results showed the public to prefer a network for younger children by 18% above any of the corporation's five new formats but Auntie opted instead to schedule children's programmes in BBC 7—an adult speech service to which its own research showed children would not be drawn and which was acknowledged to favour a middle class audience.

  c.  The public's preference for a dedicated national children's network remains unfulfilled

  d.  It should be remembered that the nation's airwaves are not the private fiefdom of governments, regulators, commercial interests or the BBC. They belong to the people who, too often, have little understanding or say in the deployment of this national resource. Consultations about broadcasting and communications developments need to range far wider than an increasingly challenged industry dominated by a few large players. With innovative thinking beyond the bottom line, radio can serve both commercial and public interests wisely and well.  

  3a.   The technology: As pointed out at a recent Westminster Media Forum on Children's Media, the rush towards convergence of broadcasting services on mobile 'phones is of little use to young children. The jury is still out regarding the effect of microwaves on young brains and ear-buds, trailing wires and small batteries can cause infection or choking. A solid kitchen radio that can be moved around and taken outside for solo or shared enjoyment is best.

  4a.   The added value: A priority has been made of early education, with the government pledging free part-time nursery places for all four-year-olds and now all three-year-olds. The 2005-06 per capita spend in the UK for a pre-school child was £4,645*. A complementary radio network could be added for under £4 per annum per child. What better value could you ask for?

  b.  Radio can help to maximise the many millions from the public purse invested in early years and family support. The Minister for Children and Families, Beverley Hughes, has unveiled plans for training a 'Parenting Workforce' to ensure that parents who need tuition in sharing nursery rhymes, songs and stories with their children are identified and supported. Her declared purpose is to ensure that high quality provision can be delivered by people with the requisite skills. Similar funding has been allocated to help and advise parents how to steer their children away from crime and the DfES wants to re-introduce foreign language teaching to primary schools. The FSA has recently launched "Cooking Buses" to tour schools and teach children, parents and teachers how to shop and cook nutritionally.

  c.  It is essential to offer families help in these basics and daily radio can so easily enhance such schemes: sharing high quality songs, stories, games, rhymes and helpful information and advice, produced by professional practitioners and broadcast free to homes, nursery-settings and schools. Radio can add fun and support in a friendly, non-patronising way and play a significant role in helping parents, carers and teachers in their challenging job of rearing our youngest citizens, in addition reaching those mothers and grandmothers who, through their religious or cultural requirements, may be more confined to the home.

  5a.   Solutions: Community Radio has been mooted as one way to serve children better but the costs and constraints on this fragmented network could not allow for the requisite quality and range of material. A dedicated national network could support community activity and—operating in not-for-profit public/private partnership—would provide the economies of scale necessary to make such a service viable in the long-term.  Hand-holding with the BBC, to generate additional funding for programmes would be an option and, with careful management, the network could well become self supporting over time.

  b.  There is no need for the BBC to assume all responsibility for what is regarded as public service broadcasting. Indeed it is desirable to spread such responsibility wider and so encourage public private partnerships and greater corporate responsibility. Children's Radio makes an ideal medium for this.

  c.  Last month Ofcom invited applicants for a third national digital [DAB] multiplex, allowing for some eight to ten new networks which must offer choice beyond what already exists. In anticipation of this and in recognition of public preference Don Foster MP tabled two EDMs [Nos: 2607 and 2608] about children's radio, proposing greater protection in law, together with independent research into the potential value of a dedicated service within the new multiplex. It is an unprecedented opportunity to achieve something innovative and worthwhile using this important new public space.

  d.  When approached on the subject, both Ofcom and government have expressed some sympathy but, while clearly mandated, and publicly committed, to protect children and provide choice, Ofcom has declined to intervene—choosing instead to rely on market forces. We believe the regulator, backed by the DCMS, could take a more positive approach and tell the world, loudly and clearly, that it will look favourably on a well-constructed children's network as a component of any Applicant's proposals for this multiplex. It should do this in spite of selective legislation which favours children's television above radio and safeguards listening choice only for citizens aged 15 and above—legislation that the government needs to re-visit as a matter of urgency.

January 2007

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