Jeff Zycinski left the BBC in April 2018 after almost 25 years and was head of radio at BBC Scotland for 12 years. This year he wrote his memoir The Red Light Zone and set up the production and consultancy company Writes And Speaks

THERE’S no doubt that BBC executives in London and Glasgow will be wondering and fearing what the next government has in store for them. It’s been my observation over the years that the BBC is not particularly good when it comes to playing politics and that any funding discussion usually ends up in a back room in Whitehall with the BBC having to make some fudge or compromise to get its charter renewed.

I remember the BBC once threatened not to go ahead with building its base in Salford unless it got a generous licence fee settlement. The then Labour government basically told the BBC it had to build Salford and there would be no generous settlement … so that tells you where the real power lies and why the BBC’s threats and shroud-waving usually have no effect. It is the same with the free licences for over-75s – another last-minute deal done in a back room.

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What usually stops any plans to abolish the licence fee is that no-one can come up with a better method of funding the BBC short of block funding out of general taxation. That leads to the BBC trying to show that it is making savings, or earning more money from selling programmes abroad. The current chaotic split of in-house production unit, BBC studios, Nations And Regions and the independent production sector were all driven by that need to show it is trying to operate as an efficient commercial business. That has undone all the good work done by former director general Greg Dyke, who decided it was stupid for the BBC to be “playing at shops” with internal trading.

If there are more BBC funding cuts ahead, you can be sure you will see more shroud-waving. The BBC will highlight the costs of crowd-pleasers like Wimbledon and The Proms, or politician-pleasers like Radio 4, but in fact savings are always made through salami slicing a percentage from everyone’s budgets, and that’s when BBC Scotland struggles to make ends meet. At the same time, politicians (of all parties) are reluctant to let the BBC make changes that would actually save them real money. Having multiple production bases across Scotland – in places like Selkirk and Dumfries – belongs to a time when studios were located next to big analogue transmitters. But closing them now would create an outcry from local MPs.

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Meanwhile, there is insufficient production facilities in a city like Dundee.

In my 25 years at the BBC (12 years as head of radio for Scotland), I argued time and again about the unfair method of distributing money across the UK and why the concentration of commissioning power in London created a cultural bias for the organisation. If you wanted to make a programme for BBC 1 or Radio 4, you had to trek down to London and convince a very small group of executives in W1A.

The National:

For radio, the cost of these plane or train journey often outweighed the money you were given to fund the programmes. It made no sense. It also meant that the version of Scotland that you heard on Radio 4 was one that had been approved by a commissioner in London. They tended to back the familiar names, so you could sell a comedy with Billy Connolly or a drama written by Walter Scott or Ian Rankin, but it was much more difficult to persuade them to take a chance on new comedians or writers. I would go to these pitching meetings at Broadcasting House and there would be a smug commissioner at a table festooned with fruit and pastries, showing a complete lack of interest in the cultural scene in Scotland. You only have to listen to Front Row on Radio 4 to understand their outlook on the world. I think the producers there think their annual trip to the Edinburgh festivals covers Scotland for the year.

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I argued that in a federal structure, money should be devolved to commissioners in Scotland to decide which content best reflects the culture of Scotland. These would play on BBC Scotland’s TV and radio services but could be picked up by the UK networks if they liked what they saw or heard. It would have opened up more opportunities for writers, performers and production companies in Scotland.

There’s been progress. The new BBC Scotland TV channel now funds about 50 to 80 small production companies in Scotland and those companies are growing in experience and reputation and many are now bidding for more business with the BBC and with other broadcasters. It’s a start, but the money devolved to Scotland needs to be tripled to allow the commissioning of more high-quality content such as drama and scripted comedy. I think that’s one of the arguments BBC Scotland should be making loudly.

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Of course, the BBC shoots itself in the foot a lot of the time. I doubt the money spent on marketing BBC Sounds has been well spent. It seems like an on-demand TV strategy has been imposed on radio, failing to understand that viewers love programmes, but listeners identify with entire stations and presenters. The commercial sector understands that, that’s why so many new radio station are being launched from commercial companies like DC Thomson and Global. Meanwhile, the BBC seems to have jumped needlessly on to the podcasting bandwagon, forgetting that it doesn’t need podcasting when it has hugely successful radio stations in its portfolio.

When I worked at the BBC I thought it was a dream job. I was proud and grateful, but I couldn’t understand why so many jobbing executives need salaries in excess of £100k. Maybe the director general needs more, but few others. Cutting executive pay might drive some of them to other broadcasters, but would attract those who genuinely believed in public service broadcasting.