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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Another day - another BBC exec defends its local radio position

Updated: May 6, 2023

Today, Rhodri Talfan Davies was called to account by listeners in the Radio 4 Feedback programme.

I’m not sure how many local radio listeners DG Tim and all those involved in the latest debacle have spoken to.

I’d rather like them to visit the 100-year old WM listener who’ll miss his Caroline Martin each night. I’ve always found hearing from the mouths of the right listeners in the right way is the most educative thing any programmer can do.

Change is always horrible for audiences – and every presenter will bid goodbye at some stage for some reason. But when no-one can quite understand the reasons, the task is more difficult. It’s more difficult still when the listeners include society’s most vulnerable – including some of BBC local radio’s 2.7m listeners who have dared to live to be aged over 60.

I was keen to hear Rhodri, given he was credited with ‘considerable editorial and strategic experience’ when he was appointed to the role in 2012 and recognised that “Our services the length and breadth of the UK are playing such a vital role in people's lives right now”.

Well done to Andrea Catherwood who was on good form on Feedback. At the outset, she pointed out fairly that the BBC’s decision was “to deliver new digital services and modernise the delivery of local news” – but that it has done “little to appease listeners”.

Rhodri explained “We know the audience behaviour is changing, but we also know that in England we focused virtually all our investment and energy on television and radio services, but, in the end, this is about reaching out to more people. In more communities more often”.

Andrea pushed Rhodri on what the displaced investment will bring. “When you go on to the BBC News app, you'll find your big UK and global stories and then immediately below that you'll find an index of local stories relevant to where you live.”

There is a local search facility online at present, of course, although the offering is paltry. I’d like to know how much cash and resource is spent already in this area to begin to gain an impression of whether the BBC is managing this area well at present – and what scale of improvement they are planning.

I suspect they’re already spending a decent amount on ‘digital’. In my experience there was far too little co-operation between online and other parts of the newsrooms. It just needed joining up. I suspect if you gave someone sensible the job of running local radio and making the online offer better on the ground, breaking down barriers and getting rid of over-management and under-performers, you could do better ‘digital’ tomorrow. Sorted.

Listener Ken Oliver in Wiltshire asked: “How relevant is a programme made in Bristol going to be for listeners in Wiltshire and beyond?”. He’s right. If it’s not going to be local, it often might as well be national, then at least you would not hear too many irrelevancies. I get the feeling that people ‘up North’ or, wherever, are too readily grouped together by decision-makers in London who don’t grasp life outside the Capital city.

In local radio - the bigger you get, the less you belong. This plan will only reduce audiences. (Rajar data below. BBC England TSA, W4 2022)

Rhodri insisted that there’ll still be fully local programming from 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM on every weekday- and that “All the local news bulletins will remain all our local live sport will remain”. As I said last time, those bulletins will be heard by fewer and fewer people as they kill the host stations.

“This is not about trying to diminish local radio.” he pleaded. Rhodri, it is. If your listeners feel it is. It is.

He pointed out the funding challenges from the frozen licence fee. Rest assured, Sir, these are the sort of challenges that every broadcaster faces. ‘Frozen’ would be a golden gift from heaven to many commercial organisations as revenues plummet in Covid and semi-recession. We pay you to run it efficiently.

It’s interesting that BBC local radio’s budgets are cut to generate more for online. They could have chosen to save the money elsewhere.

Rhodri claimed that there's “an increasingly large proportion of the audience that doesn't use local radio but still wants valuable local services”.

Let’s just pause there.

BBC local radio in England reaches 12% of all adults weekly, down from 13% the previous quarter. It’s been around 13/14% for the last 5 years actually. I’d suggest to you that the reason it‘s not higher is that your programming policies in recent years have ebbed from daft to dafter. You have not done the job well – in a demographic that is growing in population size. You frightened listeners away.

Rhodri says that news is consumed online these days: “even if you take the age group age 65 to 75, more of them now see online news as the most important source of Daily News coverage than radio. The world is moving.

He’s right – the world is moving and no-one disputes that people increasingly get news online. However, they don’t get discussion about it, comfort, reassurance or depth – and no sense of neighbourhood and community. There is more to local radio than news. Any listener focus group will tell you that. It is the companionship. If the BBC does not understand that – it should hand over local radio now to someone who does.

A lonely older listener would rather hear their friend’s voice on the radio than learn there’s a new multimedia investigative team and podcast commissioning fund.

And on the sources of news for those aged 65-75. (Presumably the BBC don’t bother about you if you are one of the 4m folk in England over 75). Of 65-74s, 47% use radio for their news. 17% use social media. 30% use other internet sources, 6% use podcasts (Ofcom).

Andrea put to Rhodri that the local radio policy: “is also unpopular with many of your colleagues at a senior level". That’s what I’d heard too. It’s a relief. I appreciate you have families and futures, but you owe it to the BBC and your life’s legacy to break cover now.

She probed whether the BBC was open to change if they got things wrong. Ofcom is also asking for analysis.

I hope Ofcom consider any evidence better than they considered the original Service Licences which have been an embarrassment for local radio. In the first one in an Ofcom World, BBC local radio was obliged to do just about nothing. I don’t think it was deliberate – it just wasn’t bothered about. News required from time-to-time, confused hours of local output-sharing, no championing of communities any more and don’t bother about any older target audience. How they agreed to that I do not know. More news was demanded of Capital.

2,200 staff is a lot. If the BBC cannot deliver top notch comprehensive service of local/regional radio, TV and online with those, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Radio 2 moved away from the older audiences it had acquired to better serve thirty-somethings in line with its remit. I helped to launch Boom Radio to mop up its disaffected listeners. But no-one can afford to launch a rich local radio network - that's why it benefits from public monies that are entrusted to the BBC.

Finally, as is painfully clear, they have implemented this change with perfect and heart-breaking uselessness.

In terms of their staff, they have tackled the wrong posts in the wrong way. And chose this very moment to launch a new careers hub which messed everything up anyway. I am told it has impacted on the mental health of people involved and I can understand that fully.

Let’s hear from some BBC staff:

“Change management is of the lowest level I’ve witnessed”. The plan is “more of a vague desire with very few concrete fundamentals”.

“The powers that be want us to lose listeners so they can then say, well, local is failing, so we’ll shut it down.”

“It shocked me to see that things had not been thought through yet”.

“I’ve fallen out of love with radio. I’ve been milked dry. Just joyless.”

“The whole thing has been a total cock up”.

“I can see this all happening again in 2 years’ time, I hope I’m wrong"

"we are all utterly bemused by is how they have introduced two new tiers of management - effectively creating 12 new (probably very well paid) roles whilst cutting so many presenters. We now have three daytime presenters covering 12 hours whilst we have 5 managers on station, two more above them and then this top table of management who seem lacking in any relevant radio experience! What are they all managing?!!"

I doubt anything will change despite our efforts. BBC decision-makers simply do not understand that there are lots of great – and innovative - ways to serve local communities with what they want, in the way they want it, at the right cost. A half-arsed regional radio operation is not that.

There are much, much easier ways to save 10% of costs even if you needed to.

The BBC at present is now too big, too full of too many of the wrong people, too poorly led and too poorly managed to do a decent job. It thinks only of itself.

* * *

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