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The Funding Gap: A Primer on the UK’s New Audio Content Fund

A new Audio Content Fund has been announced for the UK, which takes the form of a non-profit backed by a three-year £3m government grant from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It’s apparently designed to primarily fund public service material from production companies — especially independent ones — that would likely otherwise slip through the cracks of larger commissioning processes at the BBC and elsewhere.

It’s pretty cool, in theory, and I think the fund could be the beginning of a bigger and longer-lasting change to publicly-funded journalism here in the UK. (For a recap on how the licence fee is collected and currently supports the BBC and other public broadcasters, see this primer I wrote last year.) And since what happens at the BBC has a powerful ripple effect through the whole media industry in the UK, this fund is worth paying close attention to right off the bat.

Here’s some background on the fund, for those curious: its origins can found in a white paper published by DCMS in May 2016, during the consultation process before the new BBC charter was renewed at the start of the following year. (The Royal Charter is the constitutional document that created the BBC in 1927, and it is updated every 10 years to reflect the changing broadcasting landscape and the aims of the incumbent government; it has a big red wax seal and everything.)

The report contained some musings on how to “enhance plurality in the provision of public sector content,” which is government-speak for “spread the wealth around a bit beyond just the BBC and its typical providers.” This was part of a wider approach from then-Culture Secretary John Whittingdale — who would lose his job just a few months after this document was published, post-Brexit referendum — to insist on greater transparency about how public money was used by the BBC and to require more competition in commissioning processes.

More specifically, the 2016 report recommended that a new contestable public service content fund be created for television commissions, with the aim of boosting productions in genres that commercial broadcasters traditionally find hard to fund. Children’s television was singled out as a good example of this, since that’s an area of output that’s almost entirely dominated by the BBC, and DCMS clearly felt that it was worth giving a leg up to the competition in the hope it would result in “new, fresh content.”

The TV Fund was created using £57m of unused government money that had been earmarked to support broadband internet infrastructure, and it is now administered by the British Film Institute specifically for new shows aimed at young audiences. After lobbying by bodies like RadioCentre (which represents UK commercial radio) and AudioUK (the trade body for independent audio producers), a further £3m was found for a separate fund to support audio that also meets the requirements set out by the government report, in recognition of the fact that radio commissioning faces many of the same challenges as TV and that even this relatively small investment could deliver a lot of new public service radio content.

The similarly-spirited Audio Content Fund was formerly announced in October 2018 and began operations last week. It’s chaired by Helen Boaden, a former director of BBC Radio, who is also joined by a panel of experts including the consultant Kate Cocker, the independent producer Mukti Jain Campion, and former commercial radio executive John Myers. The day-to-day process will be run by a managing director who takes up office in April.

The two funds — that is, the TV and the Audio ones — are pilot schemes, to be run for three years as the government measures how effectively they deliver content that is currently struggling to get funded by the existing licence fee and commercial models. I’ve already mentioned that children’s broadcasts have been singled out as an example of where the funds might be applied, so I fully expect to see plenty of successful bids from that side of things, as well as current affairs and entertainment ideas.

But there’s an opportunity of scale as well as genre here, with one criteria in the bidding guidelines emphasising the fund’s intention to bring new voices to the industry. As well as other nodes of diversity — it names gender, disability, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation as focus points — ideas are sought which will be produced by “staff who are relatively new to the industry, or from a smaller company.” As a potentially complicating note, it is necessary for groups to be incorporated as a production company to be able to bid, but beyond that the application process for the fund looks much more streamlined than a conventional commissioning round.

There are a few different ways that this new scheme hopes to shake things up, then: greater diversity of content, greater diversity of providers, an alternative route to national broadcast. Another fascinating aspect is what impact this new funding pot could have on commercial radio, which has traditionally avoided resource-intensive formats like audio drama or comedy in favour of more cost-effective music programming. We’ve already seen commercial radio companies, like Global, experiment with podcasts aimed at children, such as the new David Walliams show made via their ClassicFM music station, and the fund could result in more of this sort of thing.

Let’s be clear: if the Audio Content Fund can deliver on any of its aims around diversity, inclusion and accessibility, it will only be a good thing for UK audio. If it can fill in some of the gaps caused by the BBC’s scale and inertia, that could be very positive, as could any less tangible but no less important consequences it could have in opening up ideas about what constitutes “public service” audio.

But there are aspects to the fund worth being cautious about, and in my mind, the biggest one has to do with political context. It’s worth noting that the BBC often comes under pressure from centre-right and right-wing politicians in Britain — i.e. those who are especially fond of free markets and don’t love closed, state-funded systems — to deliver more for its chunk of public money, and it’s a common move in the playbook to politicize different aspects of the state broadcaster. Speaking personally, I tend to think the BBC does a pretty good job delivering public service content for the UK, and though I don’t tend to hold back on criticism of the BBC when it’s merited, it’s because I personally believe in its importance and would like it to continually improve.

However, over the past decade, there has been a rising undercurrent in British politics that needles this point about “competition” as a way of making the argument for a smaller or even subscription-supported (i.e. limited) BBC, and I’d hate to see this new fund become ammunition in that fight. If all goes well, the Audio Content Fund will be a superb addition to how broadcasting works in the UK, not a replacement for the system we already have. But only if it’s allowed to do what it’s supposed to do on its own terms.