The Ghastly Impermanence: In the Genes – The BBC Genome Project

When it comes to audio drama, BBC rules the roost. Like it or not, BBC remains the largest producer of audio drama in the English language, if not the world. To discuss audio drama at all, one has to deal with the BBC and their chokehold on the history of the field. In previous installments of this column, I have called for a real comparative history of the medium and a serious revision and promotion of an audio drama canon. Key to either of these endeavors is access to the plays of the past and present. As so many of these plays have come from BBC production, access to the archives of the Beeb is vital to both the writing of a comparative history and the arguments for a canon.

Yet the BBC does not even know its own archives, or its history. Two years ago, they began to figure out that at some point they should, indeed, figure things out. At that time in 2010, BBC announced a project to digitize every issue of Radio Times from 1923 until 2009. This would give the BBC a more or less accurate list of what was broadcast, or at least what was planned for broadcast, from almost the beginning of the BBC itself. Called the Genome Project, it was an extremely ambitious and important project, as well as a surprising one. Primarily it was surprising that none of this had been done at all over the previous eighty-seven years of the BBC’s existence.

Head of the project, Helen Papadopoulous announced:

Even though we may not have a copy of each programme in the BBC’s vast archive, there may still be something related to or derived from the original programme: stills, non-broadcast footage, music, documentation, props or other material connected with what was broadcast.

The skilled researchers who work with programme-makers inside the BBC and independent production companies are used to hunting for additional material and know where to look, but on the whole the public don’t even know where to start. BBC Genome is our attempt to solve that problem, by creating a comprehensive, easy-to-use online catalogue of all of the BBC’s programmes so that people can discover which programmes we have, which we don’t have, when and where they were broadcast and even what else we’ve got that might interest them.

We’re working on the basis that “full or near-full public access to archives is both achievable and the right ultimate goal” and, sitting at the heart of a reshaped BBC Online, BBC Genome is the first step towards that goal. It will provide a timeline from the foundation of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922 and provide details of the programmes, channels and services which map on to that timeline, bringing the broadcast history of the BBC to life.

According to BBC, the project finally saw completion last week. For various reasons, it took twice as long as its projected one-year period, but it is now complete and ready to provide the BBC researchers with a “spine” for their research and restoration of the complete broadcast history of the BBC.

So far, so good. Congratulations on finishing so vast a project are probably in order. And yet, the project is not really complete. The materials may have been scanned and digitized, but there is no public access to them. The trek toward the ultimate goal of full or near-full public access to the archives has not even begun. The sister to the Genome Project, announced by BBC director general Mark Thompson in March of this year, is called Project Barcelona. It aims, according to Mr. Thompson, to open up a “digital shop” for program downloads so that listeners can actually own copies of the shows they like.

Clearly this is a desirable and even necessary goal. And yet the commercial arm of the BBC itself, BBC Worldwide, is at odds with the BBC itself about ever releasing the archives for sale for fear that it will “destabilize the market” by offering so much content.

I leave it to the reader to grasp the ridiculousness of such a statement. It is far from the first absurdity in BBC corporacracy. For instance, despite completing the Genome Project the BBC cannot even reproduce images from the original Radio Times for the purpose of publicizing the archives because BBC Worldwide, owns the copyrights. Such is the elegance of the “restructured” BBC.

If I understand the argument against releasing the archives, it goes something like this. Opening up the archives so that people can pore over ninety years of broadcast history makes consumers desire certain content within their range of interests. That would be a result of public access to the Genome Project archives. Project Barcelona then would encourage listeners to download all the material they wanted. Estimates say that only about 20-25% of the material BBC ever broadcast actually exists in their physical archive. Still, this constitutes over one million hours of broadcasts and opening up such a massive amount of content would prevent commercial interests from selling the same content. (This often happens in the United States. For instance, when the Internet Archive began to archive Golden Age radio shows for free, people who had built entire businesses around charging people for recordings on DVD and CD became extremely upset that the Internet Archive was cutting into their action.)

I am not buying the argument. The BBC have never planned to release any of this material for free. Mr. Thompson has always said that the ideal is a “relatively modest” price for downloads. Given the Beeb’s current structure, these downloads would likely be handled by BBC Worldwide anyway. Even if they were not, there would be no destabilization of the market because such material has never been on sale anywhere else. This is not destabilization of an existing market, but a completely new market. The BBC already own the material in their archives. There is no competition. Even if there were competition, the BBC plan is to offer the Project Barcelona material for non-exclusive use. Producers would be free to work to exploit their programmes in any ways they saw fit, such as secondary TV channels, subscription services, DVD, video-on-demand, and so on.

What lies behind all this smoke and mirrors, I think, is a genuine lack of understanding. The BBC have shown to date an extremely limited and limiting grasp of technology. The BBC iPlayer, for instance, and its associated problems reveal this limitation as clearly as a bright winter morning.

While I take personal umbrage with such an idea, I understand that huge, soulless corporations generally care only about maximizing their profits and would love it if they could make listeners pay for the radio waves that pass through their bodies. But in truth, the citizens of the UK already do pay for those radio waves: with their licensing fee. True, those in other countries do not contribute to their licensing fee by law, but the BBC international iPlayer app for iPad nevertheless requests that users become “subscribers” to the BBC and accept scrolling advertising on their mobile devices–when they can even get the iPlayer to work at all.

BBC have a right and expectation to be concerned with making money from their archives, but not releasing them to the public only ensures that they will make no money at all from them. Now that the Genome Project is complete, the Beeb should put its efforts into Project Barcelona or a similar project. Now that history can be written more accurately, it is only right that listeners should be able to experience it more accurately for themselves.

Filed under Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net