In My Opinion: John Collins: The case for adverts on the World Service

WHEN I am away on holiday, I do the odd thing that so many Scots do. I start looking around for news from the very place that I’ve taken a break from. So, after some tinkering with the TV in the room – and sometimes the interwebs – I end up watching BBC World News on TV.

This is a bit like the BBC News Channel (formerly News 24) but with some elements of magazine programming and one very key difference: adverts.

A few times an hour the presenter pauses and commercials play out. If there aren’t any ads, there’s either a series of trailers or another item is slipped in to fill the gap. After a momentary shock, I go back to ignoring the commercials and sponsor ‘tags’ and concentrate on getting my fix of news.

The BBC World Service, on radio, does something very similar.

The main version that we’ve grown up with carries on much as you’d expect, with a wide variety of programmes across a broad spectrum of areas. But the move away from short wave has driven the World Service to offer its programmes for rebroadcasting on FM in territories around the world. One such station is the National Public Radio operator in Orlando, Florida. If you wake up in the small hours, you’ll hear the BBC from London on 88.7FM before you rush off to the theme parks.

Several times an hour, the BBC offers a quick pause or jingle to allow those rebroadcasting stations to ‘opt out’, to allow for some local information or – dare I say it – commercials. This process has reached such a level of sophistication that the whole process can be entirely automated, with a button pressed in London playing ads in a remote part of Africa.

The events of a couple of weeks ago – when the funding for World Service radio moved from Westminster to the BBC license fee  – represents a real-money cut in the Corporation’s huge budgets. Massive cuts need new thinking, and the moving of funding of World Service means it needs to find new ways to fund its rich, diverse and distinctive programming mix.

I have a suggestion that I know will appall BBC lifers, but would ultimately give them some degree of freedom. Allow the World Service on DAB – and only the World Service on DAB – to carry commercials.

The programmes are already constructed with breaks built in, so it wouldn’t affect the breadth and quality of their offering. The very nature of the station would mean that the adverts would need to be tailored to the station’s audience while also being for national brands. The income from them themselves would largely be new money and not cannibalise the existing market. This is because, outside the BBC stations and London’s excellent LBC 97.3, there is no meaningful speech offering in radio.

This approach would have to be limited to the World Service; were the BBC’s other radio stations, such as Radio 2, broadcast adverts, the effect would be catastrophic for the commercial radio operators.

The most frequent objection is that, to take commercials, would fundamentally change the character of the service and, by extension, the BBC. So the argument goes, the Corporation would find itself bowing to commercial considerations, not least in chasing ratings.

But monetising an audience – the World Service one – whose programming is already designed to carry inserted material could in turn pay to maintain the Corporation’s services as we know them.

If the World Service took ads, perhaps everybody would win.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone in both BBC and commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up on the radio at Central FM on a Sunday morning.

Pic: Michele Dillon.