Programs/Publications

Feature article from the June 2012 AIRblast

Beeb 101

By Jeremy Skeet, Commissioning Editor, Global News at the BBC

Even insiders at the BBC don't understand all of the organization's vast and complex structure. For a freelancer from across the pond, it's positively daunting: Whom to pitch your idea to? What ideas are wanted? When's the right time to pitch? We asked Jeremy Skeet of the BBC Public Radio Partnership, a new collaboration between BBC and AIR, to help set us on the right track.

 


How does the BBC work? There are multiple divisions with commissioning editors, editors who commission their own material, and strand editors who sometimes use freelancers. There are seven national radio stations and one international one. Finding the right person at the BBC is like looking for needle in a haystack. This link has been designed to help: http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/. But it will only help a little.

So, let me first explain a bit about the structure and where I fit in. In charge is the Director General, Mark Thompson, who is also editor-in-chief, overseeing a staff of 20,000. Our Director General has a Board, which includes the directors of News, Finance, and Audio and Music. Then you start to go down the food chain, continue quite a long way, and you get to me.

I'm in an area called Radio Current Affairs, which produces all manner of programmes for various radio stations but primarily for the World Service (the international radio station with more than 40 million listeners worldwide) and Radio 4 (the domestic talk-based national network). Despite the name, we also make films and produce lots of online material for bbc.com and bbc.co.uk. Until very recently, I was also a commissioning editor for the World Service, so I have been on both sides of the national/international divide. I edit ad hoc documentaries and run a reportage strand of documentaries called Assignment, an environmental programme called One Planet, and a philosophy show called The Philosopher's Arms. And before that, I was the managing editor of the now-defunct programme Weekend America.

In addition to all this, I had a short sojourn in the United States. In 2003, I got a call, out of the blue, from one Jim Russell, asking me if I would be interested in moving my family to Los Angeles to work for a new programme called Weekend America. At the time, I didn't know what a legend Jim was and I suspect that he ended up seeking me out because his reputation hadn't reached across the Atlantic. I loved my time in LA, surfing before work, visiting Joshua Tree, and working with talent such as Krissy Clark, Amanda Aronczyk (one of the winners of the BBC public radio partnership), Barbara Bogaev, and Jim Gates. One of the many commitments Jim made was that we would work with freelancers. But if I'm honest, I don't think we quite cracked those relationships. Why? Because I was spending so much time on the programme week to week that I neglected to develop lasting relationships with the freelancers we used. And as we all know, it's the ability of the freelancer to pick up the phone and speak directly to his/her commissioning editor that brings the greatest dividends.

And that, precisely, is going to be your problem with the BBC. Let's start with radio. There are seven national radio networks, of which three are digital. Originally, they were named Radio One, One Extra, Two, Three and Four, Four Extra, Five Live, 6 Music, and the Asian Network. They are all available online. Then there are audio stations for each of the nations of Great Britain (barring England) as well as local audio stations. Then there is the BBC World Service, which is the international arm of the BBC. It broadcasts in a number of languages. The BBC World Service is the biggest English-language radio station in the world. See here for full list of programmes.

To be honest, though, you'll probably want to concentrate on the World Service and Radio 4. They share some output.

Radio 4 has a yearly commissioning round, but you have to be a registered independent to apply. You can have a look at the guidelines. My advice is to team up with one of the established radio independents here in the U.K. If they like your idea, they will make sure its gets a fair hearing. The World Service commissions less material and has an open-ended commissioning round. Best to pitch directly to its current commissioning editor, Tony Phillips.

To complicate matters, some programmes are controlled by what we call "strand editors." My colleague at radio current affairs Hugh Levinson, for example, runs Crossing Continents. I run Assignment.

Outside current affairs, the other important department is the documentaries unit in Audio and Music run by Rob Ketteridge. They make less newsy features.

I won't tell you how to pitch, but you must know the content of the network to which you're pitching and most importantly, the audience that network serves. And that gets us to the BBC Public Radio Partnership — because one of the World Service's biggest audiences is in America.

This year, my boss Steven Titherington came back from the Public Radio Program Directors annual meeting with an idea: Rather than make American documentaries with U.K.-based presenters and producers, we should tap into the talent pool of U.S.-based producers. The idea we came up with was the BBC Public Radio Partnership. Together with our business development person in the U.S., Heather McLean, we worked out the schemes. I traveled to the States and met people who were universally in favor of the idea. Buoyed by this, we decided to launch the scheme with the help of AIR. We were very pleased with this first run, having received more than 200 applications. From this group, we have commissioned five producers who will work with U.S.-based execs/advisors to produce what we hope will be a collection of documentaries that will say something new about America.



We hope that this scheme will be the first of many. In the future, I can envisage a scenario where independent producers from America, and indeed, anywhere that the World Service has an audience, will be making programmes for us. The network broadcasts across the globe, and that internationalism should be reflected by the talent we use both on and off air. The advantage for you is that our programmes are also broadcast in the U.K. and are likely to be heard by domestic radio commissioners, thereby increasing your chances of breaking into the market here.

So, that's a short overview of the BBC and its relationship with freelancers. If someone else wrote this article, it would probably say something totally different. But I think they would agree that we are becoming more open to talent, wherever it is, and perhaps losing our reputation that we know best. I hope that the BBC public radio partnership is a start to getting the best of U.S.A. radio talent on the air.

Links:

External/Independent Production Teams:http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/radio/pitching-ideas/ideas-from-the-public.shtml

BBC Pitching guidelines:http://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/radio/pitching-ideas/

Jeremy Skeet served for 5 years as Managing Editor for American Public Media's Weekend America and is currently working for the BBC out of Bush House in London as Commissioning Editor of Global News.  Contact Jeremy.

AIR welcomes inquiries about republishing this feature article in its entirety or in part. Please contact us at airblast@airmedia.org