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 bbc.co.uk, 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.
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.
Robin Hamman, who used to work at the BBC, reacted to this post on Twitter:
“I closed the BBC’s local message boards years ago — low user numbers & largely ‘off topic’ but a gut wrenching decision. We tried, with some success, to point community towards 3rd party forums members had set up. Saddest thing — many of our most frequent posters were socially isolated offline but celebrities on the forums. Off topic for us led to super serving a specific audience that had become exclusive & lacked broad appeal. Shownar was a BBC attempt to point audiences to communities rather than host them.”
I can definitely echo the phrase “gut wrenching” there. Nobody who gets involved in this kind of decision at a media company approaches it with any other mind-set than knowing that not only are you bound to generate negative PR, you are really going to hurt and upset people with your decision. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about the Archers, often the people who become the lightning conductor for that hurt and anguish are the very couple of people inside an organisation who have cared most about the community.
A quick illustration of how personal this can get – a thread on the Archers message board where they are talking about pursuing the interactive editor who spoke on the Feedback programme on his personal Twitter account.
I don’t know if this is a private blog or anyone can join in, but…
The thread you have linked to is not urging people to pursue Nigel Smith. It is suggesting that people could try interacting with the Interactive Editor that way, because there are still questions about the reasons for this move and the way it was handled, that haven’t been answered.
Can I link a couple of other threads, which might show why we’re not just ladies who lunch on the net? http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/NF2693940?thread=8415358 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/NF2693943?thread=8415412
Someone has counted the responses to today’s TA Omnibus this morning, and the message board has more than Twitter and FB.
Not a private blog at all Trudie M, all welcome here. Well, except for SEO link spammers, I guess.
And yes, I should stress I know that lots of lovely and meaningful interaction takes place on the board. I think it is heart-breaking for the community to see it shut.
But if you imagine it wasn’t there, and someone proposed building it, what would the reaction be? “You’re going to take tens of thousands of pounds away from the BBC’s radio programming budget in order to host an internet forum, the likes of which can be found all over the internet, for an audience of just a thousand people?”
The budgets are quite a good point with forums. Often the moderation and maintenance of a good forum takes a sizeable chunk from the budget, often for a relatively low user-base compared with other projects in a digital / social / online circle. And when it comes to justifying that budget spend higher up, forums often stand out like a sore thumb.
Of course, that talks about the forum in a rather cold numeric light. They’re obviously much more than that. I’ve been a member of a few assorted forums for many years and if they were to be shut down, it would leave a hole. Most of them are independently hosted and the discussion of cost and time for the owner and moderators frequently come up. It’s no different for an organisation like the Beeb.
In an ideal world, the BBC would keep the forums running, but there are often alternatives out there and there’s nothing stopping a member setting up a new community elsewhere.
I’ve never been part of an organisation where the decision to close a forum has been taken lightly though. You’re quite right to highlight that the people ultimately taking that decision are often the ones who care the most about the community and do so with a heavy heart.
[Disclosure: I used to work for the BBC’s social media department, although not in the radio department]
Thanks Martin. The thing is, it wasn’t there, and someone at the BBC *did* propose building it, 10-12 years ago, when someone presumably thought it would add value to the listeners’ experience and to the BBC product. And it’s been very successful.
I realise budget constraints are different now, but it’s a shame the customers are rarely consulted over budgetary choices. You talk of tens of thousands of pounds, but no-one is willing to reveal real figures in this discussion, it seems.
Yes, I can’t imagine it costs less than a thousand pounds a month to have a host and moderators, so that is at least twelve thousand pounds a year. I should imagine it is more than that. In fairness to Nigel, from experience working at the BBC myself, it is probably quite difficult to quantify exactly, as I’d bet the cost for hosting comes out of a central pot for the software for all the messageboards, so I do imagine he doesn’t have the figures to hand. It is a poor show from the BBC not to be able to give a ball-park figure though, and I think he should have been briefed better before appearing on Feedback, as it was a question that was obviously going to come up.
If you had to surmise, Martin, as you seem to be doing a lot in your blog entry, would you say it was justifiable for BBC Television to have two boards/topics, while BBC Radio now has none (since The Archers’ boards were always viewed as separate, being open 24/7, with even separate pre-modding before the squeeze began)?
Listeners have always been a more natural fit for messageboards than viewers, not just because they can type while listening but because, and particularly in the case of Radio 4 listeners, they are more focused on words than images. For all the tensions created by a tiny minority of posters, the Radio 4 boards were altogether a more cerebral experience than practically anything I see on the PoV TV board.
So why did the R4 boards go? Primarily, in the opinion of most participants, because they were mucked about with too much. In the end, although other boards, such a Woman’s Hour’s, were scrapped on the grounds that too many users made them too ‘expensive’ to run, the excuse for one final cull was a drop in use. Which begs the question, if instead of all the dickering about with a bespoke message board system (which, as covered by ‘Feedback’ many years back, did any more than anything else to drive away posters), the BBC had simply bought one ‘off the shelf’, or even just left what it had alone, bar essential upgrades, would BBC messageboards be thriving now, and causing other departments to thrive in turn?
Do you really think that when all the boards are gone, leaving only blogs, the BBC will be in a *better* position to know what it’s audience wants?
You may not realise this, but Nigel Smith lied on “Feedback” about his reasons for closing the board, and wasn’t challenged on it.
He said that, as a result of the BBC Online budget being reduced by 25% he was forced to close the board in order to help achieve those savings. But check out this posting from the board’s Host, Tayler Cresswell, back in last April: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/NF2693942?thread=8343293#p112267106
The Archers board was (is) fully funded from within the budget of the programme itself, and takes not a penny from the BBC’s “Online Budget”, so closing it will achieve none of the “savings” he claims to be looking for.
I’m sorry, but the man just came across as a buffoon. His job title is “Head of Interactivity”, yet throughout the interview all he could name of his achievements were the closing down of the properly “interactive” services, replacing them with a “broadcast” model where people could sit back and listen to what has been described elsewhere as “dead white men”. The philosophy seems to be “anything as long as it doesn’t cause us work” – perhaps he should be renamed the “Head of Inactivity”?
I still don’t get why it makes any difference financially whether the forums are used by 20 people a week or 20,000. OK, I failed O-Level maths three times, but I can’t see how it works – we aren’t charged per posting for instance. Anybody?
I think the same when a minority interest programme, usually cultural (where did all the opera go?) is scrapped because of low viewing figures – on the BBC I mean, not the commercial channels. The licence is paid regardless.
And now, in a comment on his own Blog, he’s posted “…this decision is not crudely about saving money”. That’s completely the opposite position to that which he took in his “Feedback” interview. (Still available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01qkqr7 …)
So I guess the question we’d all like an answer to is, if it’s not about money, how many more than a thousand posters does he feel would justify the retention of the boards..?
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