I’ve always been a great supporter of the BBC - having watched, listened to and worked on their programmes for many years I still believe them to be one of the best television broadcasters and probably the best radio broadcaster in the world. They are a many-tentacled beast, outside their core remit of radio and television they host a vast website, a publishing arm, several orchestras, education programmes and much more besides.
They embraced the advent of digital technology with admirable foresight and enthusiasm - their iPlayer service, launched in 2007, has been a runaway success - in January 2015 they received 343 million requests. Programmes funded by the license fee are offered, free, to those who funded them - so far, so good.
So why, you might ask, are the BBC so obsessed with copyright and the protection of their programmes? Why have they lobbied ISPs to spy on their users and report ’suspicious’ activity? Why have they very recently joined forces with their competitors to combat the EU’s Digital Single Market Strategy (a complex proposal, but one likely to reduce commercial broadcasters’ profits). And why is a public service broadcaster so notoriously litigious, from threatening someone posting Doctor Who knitting patterns, to muttering about lawsuits over a modernised Sherlock Holmes, and above all why are they seemingly obsessed with DRM and the protection of copyright?
The answer is simple: BBC Worldwide. In 2014 BBC Worldwide, the commercial wing of the BBC, made £157.4 million with a turnover of over a billion pounds - these are figures worth protecting. Whilst this isn’t the place to discuss whether a public service broadcaster should even be involved in the commercial sector, I do think that this creates a massive contradiction for the BBC, they must consider not only how they can best serve the public, but also how they can protect their income. Whilst the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are certainly mutually antagonistic. Can we really believe, for example, that programmes are left online for only seven days (recently increased to thirty) due to technological limitations, or are they simply protecting their sales abroad? When a programme is commissioned, is it likely that the question ‘but is this commercially viable?’ never slides across the table? Impossible to know, though we can make an educated guess. This terrific interview from 2007 demonstrates that these concerns have been raised since the iPlayer’s inception.
In terms of radio and radio drama, you might think that there is so little money to be made that the BBC would at least tighten the leash on their army of lawyers. After all, if no-one wants to buy radio shows, what is there to protect? You would be forgiven for thinking that the same luxurious indifference of CBS towards The Mercury Theatre (which allows this site to continue) might also apply to the BBC - who’s going to pay for a box-set of The Moral Maze, or shell out on a gift-wrapped CD of Farming Today highlights?
In fact there is money to be made from the BBC’s radio broadcasts - a quick search on Audible, the largest audiobook and radio drama re-seller, reveals 3,206 BBC shows available for purchase. No figures are given by the BBC, but presumably this provides a useful revenue stream and one which the BBC deems worthy of protection. This was evidenced by the closure, in late 2013, of radioarchive.cc, a torrent-based website where users shared radio programmes not commercially released by the BBC (an important caveat, even if it was somewhat liberally interpreted). Although the founder of the site has not responded to requests to discuss the issue, it is widely understood to have been closed down by the BBC’s lawyers (almost all programmes on the site were BBC productions).
However, the majority of the BBC's radio productions are not available for purchase. This is the moment my blood starts to froth and bubble, and little waves of indignation begin rippling through my body. We can forget the arguments about crippling access to protect BBC profits, about copyright and authors’ rights - these programmes are not available for purchase, they are not available for free; in fact having served their 7-day moment of glory on iPlayer, they have simply disappeared. The BBC, like some slathering, litigious dragon, simply don’t want people listening to their radio programmes. At least there is a logic behind protecting Top Gear and Doctor Who and their wildly profitable television shows, however grubby and avaricious it appears. However in the case of radio programmes, at least those which are not commercially available, there is simply nothing to protect.
Would you like to enjoy Christopher Ecclestone’s magnificent performance as Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984? You can’t. You can’t buy it, you can’t pirate it, it’s simply vanished. Would you like to hear Benedict Cumberbatch performing in Kafka’s Metamorphosis? You can’t - you funded it, but you can’t. Paul Rhys in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot? No, it might as well never have happened. Emile Zola’s Germinal, brilliantly dramatised by Diana Griffiths? Nope. Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher? No. Turgenev’s First Love? No, nothing. Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood? Nope.
The list goes on and on, these programmes have simply disappeared from the face of the earth - I’ve listened to and enjoyed all of the above and it’s an absolute scandal that they are not available to anyone, anywhere. The BBC has a sorry record of losing, taping over or simply not preserving their own programmes and it is not impossible that these productions will never surface again. It is not unreasonable to ask if the BBC can be trusted to preserve and distribute these programmes, and my complaints to them (which I’ll publish here in the coming months) have been met with an impenetrable wall of complacent obfuscation. I would be happy to serve these programmes on this website - just one request and I’ll do it.
I love radio drama with the blind, devoted passion of the naive idealist and it is heartbreaking to think that these programmes might never surface again, all because of the BBC’s inexplicably muddled attitude towards protecting their copyright and their income. If, in eighty years time, you would like to think that today’s radio programmes might be shared in the same way that Orson Welles’ are shared today, please express your concerns to the BBC. Please remind them that their primary remit is to serve the public, to serve the cause of creativity, to enable cultural advancement and not to stifle it. Above all, please ask the BBC who this policy benefits; it isn’t the creators, it isn’t the BBC and it certainly isn’t the listeners.
You can contact the BBC here.