Birmingham needs a new chapter in its BBC story – but it has friends in high places, according to the man charged with improving the city’s fortunes at the broadcaster.
Birmingham-born Tommy Nagra, who is eight weeks into his role as head of business development at the BBC in the city, accepts it has lost its way in the years since closing Pebble Mill and moving to the Mailbox.
But small steps forward were made this week with the announcement of a new digital innovation unit, tasked with creating the content of the future, to be based in Digbeth, and a major music event heading to Birmingham later this year.
But there remains a long way to go – the BBC spends less than £100 million in the Midlands – less than half that of any other UK region, despite it being the largest contributor in terms of TV licence numbers.
But Mr Nagra said plans were being drawn up for a sustainable new future, making the most of the city’s young, diverse population to forge a digital future – and director general Tony Hall sees the city as a priority.
“This is about creating a story for Birmingham,” Mr Nagra said.
“The BBC’s presence here has had its shortcomings. People are still talking about Pebble Mill and that worries me. I am a product of Pebble Mill, that is how I got into the industry, but that was 10 years ago.
“Clearly, it is about making our presence in Birmingham visible, making us more plugged into the city and bringing things here which are going to make us more sustainable for the future, and exciting things.
“The top line is how do we make Birmingham magnetic? What do we put into Birmingham that is going to make it an important part of the BBC?
“2022 is the 100th anniversary of the BBC. What are we going to do in Birmingham to make it an important and distinctive base by then? That is what is going around my head every day.”
After a period which has seen the region’s fortunes stagnate, Mr Hall announced “a new creative vision” for the broadcaster in the city last November, kicking off with 80 new jobs and a £23.5 million investment.
The changes will take place over the next two years, as the Mailbox becomes a hub for digital and mobile output and training and Mr Nagra said the support of Mr Hall was a vital boost.
He said: “What I can say is Tony Hall, who came to Birmingham in his first couple of weeks, immediately saw that there is a problem here. We have a half empty building, with no real story or vision for it and nobody really owning it and he realised that Birmingham is really important, and always has been, and possibly an acknowledgement that it has been neglected.
“When Tony Hall says Birmingham is a real priority, I have worked in the BBC for 20 years and I have never heard a director general saying that.
“Without that high level support you are on a sticky wicket,” he added. “For us to show we are going to do something in Birmingham it is about being really strategic about what we do here, creating something long-term and magnetic.”
The BBC has pledged to spend more in the regions – promising that half of network expenditure will be made outside London by 2016. While it is on course for that, the principal beneficiaries have been Salford and Cardiff, with Birmingham struggling to keep pace.
But while commitments are already in place for the shifting of some roles, Mr Nagra said he was bidding on behalf of the city for a larger slice of the relocated jobs.
He said the focus was currently on a sustainable plan, with a view to growing employment and spending in the longer term.
He said it was key to finding a way of fitting into the future of a new BBC, with a digital niche offering major possibilities.
Last November’s announcement revealed that BBC apprenticeships and traineeships will also be run from Birmingham, ‘The Space’, a pioneering digital arts partnership, will move to the city and the BBC’s Outreach and Corporate Social Responsibility team, who work with local communities, educating and inspiring people right across the country, will also be moving to Birmingham.
“Some of the things we are going to announce in the next year are the building blocks, and its up to us build on that and build something new,” he said.
“The rationale for the move to the Mailbox was to get closer to audiences and to make the BBC more visible. Actually we haven’t achieved that. We have got the Mailbox, where we are hidden away, and we have a site at Selly Oak, which is out of the way.
“We need to do a lot more amplifying what we do and doing new things. This latest announcement is a small step, but it gives an indication of the direction we are going in.
“When you think about BBC Three going to an online world I am thinking about what can our digital innovation unit to do be a relevant feeder into an online world.”
The world was given a glimpse into the BBC’s digital plans last month when it announced that BBC Three would become an exclusively online channel accessible only via its iPlayer service.
Meanwhile, the announcement of a new digital innovation unit, called the Guerrilla Group, based at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth, will be focused on such content creation.
The group, which the BBC says will comprise a team of storytellers and engineers in Birmingham, will be up and running by 2015.
Mr Nagra said: “What we are going with the digital innovation unit is something new. It is not happening in Salford, it is not happening in Bristol, it is not happening at New Broadcasting House, it is quite unique. It is an experiment, but there is a three-year commitment.
“We want it not to feel very BBC as we know it, which is why it is not in the Mailbox, so it is released from the corporate shackles. That is quite exciting and risky, but if we get it right could be powerful and give the Birmingham digital offer a distinctive flavour.”
“We are thinking about creating a new platform potentially,” he added. “The way people are consuming their content now is a mixture of long-form and short-form.
“This is about getting those people who probably don’t watch the BBC into our organisation in a different way and giving them the space to be creative.
“We want the Guerrilla Group to be distinctive and unique. You can get drawn into ‘corporateness’ in the BBC, and we don’t want that to happen.”