The BBC is planning to axe its Asian Network, which is run its offices at city’s Mailbox. Birmingham Post columnist Ammo Talwar MBE, chief executive of Punch Records, says the station should be a big hit.
The UK Asian radio and media marketplace is thriving. Zee, TV Asia, Star and a galaxy of local stations like Sunrise and XL are still loud and proud, jostling for advertiser revenue.
So why, you ask, is the one British Asian media giant that doesn’t have to worry about sponsorship bailing out in a bull market? How has the Asian Network gone from hyped powerhouse to the BBC’s most expensive listen?
The answers are simple. On the air, the station has a clear line up of winners, all setting the pace for UK Asian music culture. In the back office, the BBC management has no clue what the station is for and partitions its airtime from above like Mountbatten in 1947.
When the BBC’s chief operating officer Caroline Thompson told the House of Lords that the Network was confused because it had to “cater for many disparate groups simultaneously”, what she was actually told us was that for some at the BBC, the network is still a multicultural project and not the professional entertainment venture we know it should be.
And however well meaning that sentiment is, we know it dooms the UK Asian music industry to failure. That’s why the BBC needs more Desi programmers and managers at top level – we’ve spent 60 years establishing our Asian selves, our Asian businesses and our Asian entertainment industry here in the UK. Any self described community leader who writes in to my business with demands for representation based on dodgy demographics has posted their letter thirty years too late; we listened to those people before and found out they just don’t bring anything to the table.
I happen to believe that the music of South Asia is up there with the best in the world. I also happen to know that the new, fused, engaged, exciting sound that the Asian Network is currently fostering is going to be even better.
What we must do, today, is to get the office-bound BBC hierarchy to listen to that music and get some contemporary context from professionals across the UK music industry. They need to know this music is open, urban, diverse and immediate – it’s the unique sound of our contemporary UK streets and clubs.
The Asian Network will succeed when programmers stop try to respond to demographic breakdowns of supposed listeners and start getting Desi artists and tracks on the playlists of new listeners. Listeners from the world beyond the Asian massive and its welcome but limited circle of enthusiastic converts. Sadly, even the name is a admission of limitation.
It’s a “network” when it should be a station, a structure when it should be a rallying point, a maze when it should be a signpost. The Asian media industry needs to take charge of the BBC Asian Network tomorrow with the goal of making it genuinely popular across the UK as a whole, not just potentially representative of abstract interest groups.
Still, I’m not surprised there’s knee jerk reactions in the carpeted corridors of power. The recent listening figures must make uncomfortable reading at Yalding House.
Nearly 20 percent of the Asian Network’s audience turned it off for good last year.
So where have we gone, all of us Desi divas? Is there a secret station in Southall, staffed by Masonic Indian brothers, that only we know about? The answer – for Asian listeners at least – is that the digital dial is crowded out. We’re all of us online 24/7 now; surfing stations that speak to us in our mother’s mother tongue. We tune into Mumbai drivetime and Delhi downtempo. And of course, the demographic that really matters is the youth; and they’re busy playlisting bootlegged Desi tracks onto their smartphones via YouTube. For kids today, that’s their Asian Network.
The closure of a national radio station is no small thing in our current economic climate. One hunded-plus media professionals are today hoping that their nightmare won’t come true – that the door hasn’t shut forever on their careers.
But for some there will be a dream they dare not speak aloud - that this is their moment, that the mainstream is ready for them; that a ladder will come down from above. But is a Desi Asian radio professional going to be climbing up to a mainstream drivetime or syndicated breakfast show anytime soon? Let them dream on.
Many young bloods won’t remember, but “mainstreaming” is the word that haunted the emerging Asian media business, during the big Bhangra crossover of the eighties - the one that never happened.
But aren’t things different today? Contemporary Asian media pundits argue that Bollywood has successfully crossed over to the UK’s big time media. What they can’t or won’t see is that it plays as a cocktail party cliche; just as the US mainstreamed Latin sounds into “Mambo Italiano” fakery of the 1950s; stripped of its grace and pathos.
The fact is that only people in the media think that contemporary music benefits from being bracketed by big name DJs, quizzes and chatter. What people want to hear is new, fresh music and classic tracks that continue to hit the spot and light up their day. When, as now, programming and scheduling appear desperate and convoluted, it’s proof positive that station management have little confidence or understanding in the sounds that go out over the air.
Our campaign must be, not just to save the Asian Network, but to turn it into a flagship for the new, hot and popular music that draws deep from the well of Asian culture and can engage every listener in the UK. It’s all about the music.