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Russian service – BBC's reply

6th November 2008

Dear all,
I have been in touch with Sarah Gibson, the head of the Russian Service of
the BBC who has forwarded to me the BBC's response to the letter that was
sent round which you will find below. It will also be made available at
the AGM this evening. She is very willing to come and speak to us if
there is interest amongst the membership.
With best wishes
Anne

"Open letter to Members of GB-Russia Society

I am writing this letter because it has come to our attention that some
members of the GB-Russia Society have signed a letter for publication in a
British national newspaper.

We have been shown a draft copy of the letter and are dismayed at the
misleading claims made about our proposals to strengthen the BBC Russian
Service output.

Although you may not be a signatory, we feel it is important that all
members of this respected society have the opportunity to hear first-hand
exactly what the BBC World Service is proposing to strengthen the BBC
Russian Service.

Like you, we want to see a Russian Service which has as much impact with
audiences as we can achieve, and uses all the most effective means of
reaching them, including a mix of radio and new media. From the audience
figures, we know we have to put considerably more resources into
bbcrussian.com as audiences for it in Russia are growing rapidly and at a
much faster pace than radio.

I will first deal with the claims in the letter before outlining our
proposals and the reasons why we are taking these decisions.

Firstly, the BBC Russian Service broadcasts are not being cut by 22 hours
a week, as claimed in the letter. It’s important to understand that we are
adding new programmes to the schedule as well as dropping some titles. In
fact, the net loss is 19 hours a week, and many of these are repeats.

It is important to see this number in context. It is not simply a matter
of hours added or reduced.

We are proposing to close off-peak news bulletins specifically designed
for FM broadcasting partners, which are obsolete because we no longer have
any FM partners.

We are closing a number of feature programmes. These are not news and
current affairs programming and are not regularly bringing significant
amounts of analysis to the output.

Each of these feature programmes tends to be repeated many times in a
week. The loss of these repeats makes up a significant proportion of
reduced hours of output on the Russian Service.

However, we are extending our high quality news and current affairs at key
times of the day. This is a very significant addition to the schedule at
a time when audiences will listen to us. It also plays to our core
strengths: to provide unbiased news and information to Russian audiences
when availability from other broadcast sources in Russia is becoming much
more limited.

So, far from dropping analytical programmes, as claimed, we are increasing
our investment to produce more.

The letter claims we are cutting cultural output. In fact we are putting
many of the elements of our cultural output into extended editions of our
peak time flagship programmes. We are also increasing the current affairs
reporting of British cultural and social affairs.

The whole strategy is based on trying to increase the “unique depth and
diversity of opinion on matters of serious political and cultural
concern”, as the letter demands, by putting these important elements in
parts of the schedule when most Russians are able to hear it; and in ways
they have shown they wish to receive it.

The letter says the BBC has reduced short wave. In recent times the BBC
has ensured that all its programmes in Russian are transmitted on
shortwave. We have kept faith with shortwave despite clear evidence that
usage is declining among audiences and is rapidly becoming a miniscule
part of the Russian media landscape. But all our shortwave signals are
affected by the current cycle of sunspot activity that has diminished the
power of our broadcasts over the last 18 months or so and will do so for
another year at least. This natural phenomenon is outside our control. We
are negotiating to obtain extra and stronger frequencies.

The BBC is not “largely dependent on the Russian authorities”, as stated
in the letter. The majority of the BBC Russian Service’s audience comes
through a mixture of short wave and online which has no interference from
the Russian government. Some commentators have described this as the only
true unrestricted medium in Russia. We supplement this with three medium
wave relays. We have no FM partners.

Here is a detailed outline of what we plan across radio and new media in
Russian.

The major change is a greater investment in bbcrussian.com as the key
method for delivery of all our content and the strengthening of some
existing areas such as news, video and interactivity on the site.

Radio will also change, with our key news and current affairs blocks at
peak audience listening times. Utro and Vecher na BBC will become longer
and a new weekend edition of Vecher will be introduced. Other key
programmes, such as, BBSeva, Vam Slovo and Ranniy Chas will remain.

The key elements of the new offer will be:

Radio
• A re-focusing of the BBC Russian Service’s radio resources on peak
audience listening times, with more investment in flagship news and
current affairs programmes

– Key daily radio programmes on short and medium wave will be expanded to
make up a simpler schedule – focused on peak morning and evening drive
time audiences – which will be easier for audiences to find.
– The flagship morning weekday news and current affairs programme Utro na
BBC will be increased by one hour to three and a half hours each day.
– The existing half hour programme focusing on the FSU, Ranniy Chas, will
remain and reporting on FSU for all outlets will be strengthened.

– The afternoon weekday drive time news and current affairs sequence
Vecher na BBC – which includes the hour long BBSeva hosted by Seva
Novgorodsev – will be increased by one hour to four hours each day.

• Filling a gap in the current radio schedules at weekends by increasing
the availability of our in-depth news and current affairs output

– New weekend editions of Vecher na BBC will be launched, on both Saturday
and Sunday, to take the place of current short updates. They will focus on
current affairs, analysis, and culture and will incorporate many of the
themes and issues currently covered by longer format programmes.

• Strengthening our newsgathering

– We intend to develop extra newsgathering resources in Russia, resulting
in increased reporting and analysis of Russian affairs in the key flagship
radio programmes. We also intend to increase the current affairs reporting
of British, cultural and social affairs, as well as reporting on the FSU,
for all programmes and online.

Online

In Russia bbcrussian.com is having a significant impact, where it is
easier to access than BBC radio services and where demand is growing. In
August, at the height of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the
number of monthly users increased dramatically to nearly three million.

The audience is also accessing other platforms online – listening to audio
doubled in August; demand for video jumped sixfold to nearly 2,300,000
views. Even page impressions to our mobile services, in which we are
currently working without a partner, more than doubled.

We are therefore investing in strengthening bbcrussian.com through:

• Launching a new online rolling news service, updated 24/7, on
bbcrussian.com – the Russian market has shown a considerable appetite for
this type of content.
• Increasing the number of high quality video reports, underpinned with
original journalism from Russia, to be updated 24/7.
• Strengthening resources for bbcrussian.com during the morning peak
periods.
• Increasing the resources for interactivity.
• Boosting the Learn English part of bbcrussian.com
To pay for these improvements we will have to reprioritise resources from
within the current Russian Service budget. This means there will be the
changes to other parts of the radio outlined in the first part of my
letter.

These improvements are self-funded from within the Russian Service which
will continue to have the second highest level of funding and radio output
after the Arabic Service.

We believe that a fuller multimedia news offer for audiences will
strengthen the impact of the BBC’s second biggest non-English language
service, and that these changes will help the BBC Russian Service become
the most trusted and influential international news provider in Russia,
serving audiences in the global Russian-speaking community, across all
borders and platforms. It will continue to be a distinctive public service
which sits squarely within BBC World Service’s core mission.

I hope this fuller account of our plans allays your concerns. If you
require further details or wish to comment on these changes, please do not
hesitate to contact me.

Nigel Chapman CMG
Director, BBC World Service"

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