When the BBC Asian Network was launched back in 2002 as a nationwide digital radio station throughout Britain, the BBC's then-radio director, Jenny Abramsky, called it "one of the most important things the BBC has ever done." Since then, the Asian Network has developed a loyal following, both in Britain and, via the internet, around the world.
[Because of immigration patterns, "Asian" is the UK word for South Asians.]
Today, however, the Asian Network's future is very much in doubt. On the eve of British general elections, a strategy review by BBC management proposes major changes in the BBC's operations -- including the closure of the Asian Network (and another network, BBC 6 Music) altogether.
[T]he increasing plurality and diversity of British Asian audiences are stretching the coherence and relevance of this service, its audience reach is in decline and its cost per listener is high. While the quality of much of its programming is very high, changes in its strategy have led to an inconsistent listening experience and the national station has been less successful at replicating the sense of community which was fundamental to the growth of the original local Asian service. So we have proposed closing the Asian Network as a national service and will be exploring a number of options for redeploying its investment, including replacing it with a network of part-time local services. We believe this would offer listeners a better service - Asian Networks where they're most relevant - closer to audiences and with a mixture of locally tailored and syndicated programmes. [link]
Writer Sathnam Sanghera agrees, finding "the idea of a BBC radio station dedicated to an 'Asian' community a little odd, when those Asians speak many different languages, come from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds and exhibit hugely different degrees of integration."
However, Asian Network presenter Nihal Arthanayake finds these arguments "astonishing" and "ridiculous," responding sharply that "[t]he network doesn't need lectures on what bonds Asians and what separates them":
In a country that largely respects and celebrates diversity, the idea that the BBC would want to dismantle the Asian Network would seem as absurd as if it were to admit that it no longer considered the Asian community worth bothering about. It is now the largest ethnic minority community in the UK....
Every day I host the Asian Network phone-in, and for two hours we discuss subjects from the most traditional and religious, such as the bar on menstruating women from entering places of worship, to Asian takes on the most mainstream and popular topics ... Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs call in, young and old: far from being unable to cater to seemingly disparate communities, the network draws them together....
Perversely, the BBC Asian Network is now threatened with being weakened and diluted by an argument that stems from a certain political correctness. Stating that Asians are not a homogenous ethnic blob but a richness of cultures is correct. Absolutely. But the argument being made is that money is best spent by breaking up the network and allowing targeted programming to be done locally. This ignores the reality that Britain's different Asian communities are not simply separated geographically or regionally. Local is an attractive buzzword. But the connections are national. Until the details of the new plan are seen, I'm yet to be convinced it can better serve the Asian audience than the current national network. [link]
Another Asian Network presenter, Bobby Friction, made a similar argument in an interview broadcast on Channel 4 (video embedded to the right):
There are commercial Asian radio stations here in Britain, and they offer a very different service than what the BBC Asian Network does. Some of them are run along religious lines, focusing on religious groups. Some of them are run along nationalistic lines, with connections to the motherland. What we have with the BBC Asian Network is a secular, British Asian space, that all of us can operate in, whether that 's politics, documentary-making, or indeed music... If we're still going to spend the same amount of money [by breaking up the Asian Network into smaller, local, analog stations], why cancel the one, British Asian space -- national space -- that British Asians have? In fact, it's not just a British Asian thing, it's a British thing for everyone to listen to. [video]
Sunny Hundal, the editor of the online magazine Asians in Media (and a sometime critic of the Asian Network) agrees that the Asian Network provides "a vital media space" for British Asian perspectives:
The BBC still does appallingly bad in representing minorities (apart from on soaps) in doing ‘Asian stories’ outside narratives of terrorism and crime. The Asian Network has frequently brought stories to the rest of the media that its mainstream news journalists would be unlikely in covering....
Axing Asian Network would kill off vital media space for a lot of British Asian content and culture (documentaries, fusion music) that does not get represented on commercial alternatives. [link]
The proposal is now subject to a public consulation period until May 25, 2010, during which members of the public can provide feedback on the proposed cuts by completing an online survey. Already, an online campaign to save the BBC Asian Network has emerged, complete with a website, Facebook page and group, and Twitter hashtags. In an open letter to the BBC published in the Guardian last week, almost 100 prominent members of the British Asian community -- including Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nina Wadia, Kulvinder Ghir, Gurinder Chadha, Asian Dub Foundation, Laila Rouass, Jay Sean, and M.I.A. -- have conveyed "profound shock" at the proposed closure of the station, urging the BBC to reconsider:
The BBC we have grown up with has always prided itself on celebrating diversity. In that respect, the Asian Network is a national platform for musicians, Asian culture in general, news, debate and documentaries. It provides a key platform for the national Asian community, and offers an outlet to British Asian talent, which is demonstrably underrepresented in the more mainstream BBC. This would all be tragically lost if these proposals are agreed.
We urge the BBC Trust to reconsider this proposal and stop the closure of a valued station which is greatly needed by your licence-fee-paying audience nationally, and not just in the five proposed smaller local areas, as suggested by the director general. Reducing broadcasts to just a few hours a day would be a retrograde step leaving us with only the commercial Asian stations. These stations will not and cannot deliver as comprehensive service as the BBC Asian Network. This is a vital part of what the BBC offers in the name of public service broadcasting. [link]
In addition, 55 members of Parliament have signed on to an early day motion objecting to the BBC's proposals.
What do you think? Share your thoughts about the proposed closure of the BBC Asian Network in the comments below.