BBC Archers message board closure features on Radio 4’s Feedback

The closure of the BBC’s Archers message aboard was the subject of discussion on the Radio 4 Feeback programme this week. But a new hope for the community may have sprung from an unlikely source…

A comment on one of the recent blogs posts about the impending closure of the BBC’s Archers message board neatly sums up the gulf between audience and media company understanding of size.

“I don’t call 10,000 readers and 1,000 active contributors small” said Tadpole. The Archers is listened to by around 4.85 million people weekly. Message board posters make up a tiny fraction of that audience — 0.02%.

The controversial closure of the board was the subject of one of the items of Radio 4’s Feedback programme on Friday. I thought it was a shame that Interactive Editor Nigel Smith wasn’t able to give a figure for the savings to be made by closing the board. I don’t see what the BBC has to lose by saying that the move will save thousands or tens of thousands of pounds over the next 12 months.

On the show, representing the users was Penny, known as teddyandgypsy on the board, and she came out with a line that is often used by people involved in contributing to online community. When Nigel talked about moving the discussion onto platforms away from, she said:

“This is astonishing. Any large corporation would pay megabucks for the kind of intelligence you are able to pick up from this message board.”

But the truth is, they wouldn’t.

One of the pre-recorded call snippets talked about the Archers message board having “a cat club”, and areas for people giving up smoking, and people wanting to learn French. If these things were so valuable to corporations, then Sainsburys and Ford and John Lewis would all be competing to run the best general interest community forums on the web.

They don’t.

Instead they spend money on social media and reputation monitoring services like Radian6, tracking mentions of their brand where it occurs, rather than hosting it. Of course customer insight should absolutely be at the heart of what you are doing, but if you want market research from a panel of 1,000 people, you’d do it by recruiting a careful demographic mix, rather than put up a message board.

The Telegraph to the rescue?

In an interesting move, the Telegraph have set up a forum for exiles from the BBC’s message board. It’s a neat idea, to capitalise on the bad publicity the closure is undoubtedly generating for the BBC with a magnanimous gesture.

Merging communities can be a risky business, though, and one of the established Telegraph commenters wasn’t so keen:

“I’ve just been over to look, and the first posting I read was a piece of childish abuse. If that’s the kind of thing so-called Archers fans have been writing on ‘their’ message board about the characters on the programme and employees of the BBC, then quite frankly, I think the BBC were right to pull the plug.”

I think it illustrates a point that once a close-knit community has been established online, it is very difficult for them to understand how impenetrable and closed they look to outsiders. It feels to me like this becomes a natural limiting size on this type of community interaction, but often even suggesting this might be the case generates very heated responses.

The process of closing the BBC’s message boards has been a long drawn out messy affair. I was blogging about this as far back as 2005, and back then The Times was writing about campaigns to keep the BBC’s drama message boards open. The Archers is the only remaining BBC radio programme with an associated message board.

Don’t get me wrong, I love community online. One of my first online experiences was chat-rooms on Compuserve, and I’ve been a member and host of lots of message boards over the years. I’ve even been through the experience of the BBC closing a message board I was an enthusiastic user of — BBC Collective — and I still have friends now that I first met online on that service through discussing music in the early 2000s.

But during the course of Feedback, presenter Roger Bolton asked one of the users if, given a choice of prioritising the BBC’s funds, “these message boards are as important as programmes.” They replied: “I think in this case, most definitely.” Sadly I doubt many other Licence Fee payers would agree.

Full disclosure: I worked at the BBC between 2000 and 2005. My company Emblem has done consultancy work for the BBC.