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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

BBC Local Radio changes - state of play

Updated: Jun 9, 2023


The BBC suggests it needs to invest more in local online news services and it can only do this by saving money from local radio. It claims that with a flat licence fee settlement it is wrong to focus so much money on the proportion of people who listen to radio when it should be reaching more people locally in other ways.



The way it has chosen to deliver on its objective is, however, destructive in that it proposes to diminish the services in each market by more programme sharing in ever larger areas. It has spectacularly failed to examine viable alternatives.


  • The BBC and Ofcom have failed to consult appropriately.

  • The plan fails to recognise the unique benefits of radio.

  • Alternatives to the plan have not been explored satisfactorily.

  • The objective could be achieved by combining existing newsrooms.

  • BBC local stations could be run more efficiently without losing programmes.

  • The redundancy process has been handled poorly and is over-lengthy.

  • The process has enabled the departures of some of local radio's most valuable communicators.

  • The plan contravenes the BBC Values in that audiences are not 'at the heart' of this plan.

  • The Plan erodes the Charter commitment to 'bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the UK'.

  • The plan penalises most the smaller communities outside London.

  • The plan impacts on older and vulnerable people who value the service most.


LISTENERS ARE ANGRY


Listeners are upset about the depleted localisation and the loss of their favourite presenters – with experienced, established, trusted hosts steeped in their areas often being replaced by some who do not know their areas - or by programmes from neighbouring counties.


The stations may still be there. But great stations are not about the logo, the name and an aerial – they are about the listener relationship. This unique role radio plays beyond news has not been recognised in the plan.


Some stations will be decimated. Effectively, the BBC is saying: ‘sorry your neighbours were killed in their house fire, but we’ve moved some nice new people in next door instead. You’ll love them’. Life does not work like that.


The BBC fails to understand the key value of local radio companionship and that news online is not a substitute.



PROTESTS MOUNTED


Petitions have been lodged; and the matter has been raised in the House of Commons; cross party groups of MPs have written to the DG; and there’s been strike action.


93% of Union members (working in local radio/online/tv) have given a vote of no confidence in senior managers.


Every democratic avenue rejects these changes. The BBC and Ofcom have offered no such avenue for scrutiny.




THE REGULATOR IS UNHAPPY


Whilst Ofcom’s Service Licence for BBC local radio largely permits the changes, there is no doubt that it is not pleased.


In its letter to the BBC to (Feb 2023),inter alia, it says:


"We have been disappointed by the lack of detail and clarity contained within the BBC’s announcements”

"The absence of important information has resulted in a lot of uncertainty for audiences who are not clear about what the changes will mean in practice for the services they use. We have had to request a significant volume of additional information from the BBC"

"We strongly encourage the BBC to consider how it can improve the transparency around announcing such changes; we expect it to be able to explain in detail how services will alter and what audiences and stakeholders can expect."

"(Evenings) We question how shared programming which will cover such large areas will still be relevant to audiences, and therefore ask the BBC to explain why it considers this to be appropriate"

"We will also be monitoring the BBC’s performance in this area closely and plan to commission new research to better understand what audiences need and value from local services"

"In addition, we are considering whether, in light of responses to our consultations on the new Operating Licence and the BBC’s changes to local radio provision, our proposals for regulation of local radio remain appropriate.”

“If we identify any concerns about the BBC’s provision of local content, we will consider whether we need to introduce further requirements into the Operating Licence. (Have they done this?"


Now is the time for Ofcom to act - as the strength of feeling is clear. If the stations are now allowed to implode, as they will, it will be too late.


THE BBC FAILED TO CONSULT


The BBC did not ask for its listeners views explicitly about these significant changes . It suggests that listeners would 'all have said they want to keep their station'. Indeed they would.


The BBC says it uses focus groups routinely for assessing the appetite of people for its various services.


I might remind the BBC that its 2019 groups highlighted the response: "Some presenters are considered to be institutions in their own right and connect with listeners through their long-term integration within communities."


The BBC is publicly-funded yet failed to ask the public explicitly and suitably about its significant changes.




BBC LOCAL REGULATION IS POOR


Ofcom has failed to regulate BBC local radio appropriately. Unlike the BBC Trust, the Service Licence demands very little of the stations and thus fails to protect their very essence.


Provisions regarding any requirements of this huge network of stations are scant.

This has been the case since Ofcom took over responsibility although it is only recently that it has become apparent as the BBC has sought to take advantage of the considerable latitude. Community stations are regulated more rigorously.


The consultation on the Service Licence was unfit for purpose. Ofcom dealt with the matter in the same way it might do a b2b consultation for major telecoms providers. How would a BBC local radio listener know their station was at risk? Unlike the Trust, Ofcom required no on-air announcements; and the consultation was impenetrable to the average listener.


The analysis by Ofcom of the BBC’s plans was of sixth form standard. It failed to acknowledge the strength of listener relationships with stations, the value of localness – and the dependence by older listeners on the service generally. Armed with little knowledge of operational matters, it was also deceived by the BBC’s pleas of being cash-strapped.


The CEO of Ofcom suggests there was no feedback in the consultation on the definition of ‘neighbouring’ stations – so it nodded to the BBC’s request to stretch geographic boundaries for programme sharing even further. This key matter was buried on page 96 of the consultation.


The consultation was not in line with Ofcom’s Principles of Consultation, which require clarity and appropriate summaries.


The existing Ofcom Licence provisions do not prevent further erosion of local programming.


Ofcom has not complied with its own rules on consultations - and if it now feels that extra measures might now be required to contain the BBC’s excesses, it should have included them in the Service licence originally.



THERE IS ENOUGH MONEY


The BBC annual report states it currently spends £117m on ‘content’ for local radio in England.


One presumes this therefore excludes premises, the hefty transmission costs and a whole lot more; but does include on-air/production/news staff and content-related overheads. Each station will cost different amounts, but in broad terms, it works out at the equivalent of £3m pa for each station.


If one shaves 10%, off that for savings – it leaves around £2.7m pa per station.


That figure is easily more than enough to run a full local radio station – with some to spare. Whilst there will be other costs in this, the bulk will be staff – and a lot of them.


The BBC talks about expenditure through the mouths of those accustomed to the luxury of a guaranteed healthy income. Having been blessed with this forever, it is incapable of seeing how it can possibly operate in a more sensible way.


This is why, in general terms, when making economies the BBC tends to merge and close channels or major programmes/programmes, as these are the only efficiencies it can identify. Such changes often also carry the benefit of being publicly visible and politically sensitive and thus form useful weaponry for licence fee settlements. The BBC does not routinely examine how overloaded and counter-productive its supervisory structures are.


If one were to invite half a dozen of the most sensible people at every BBC local station to huddle around the budget and save 10%, they’d be able to – with ease. The resultant station would emerge stronger, more agile and more fun to work at.


If the BBC used zero-based budgeting, it would reach very different conclusions on the funds required for an efficient local radio service for this century. You’d struggle to spend anywhere near as much, unless you really over-manage and mis-manage.


Even after any savings, there is easily enough to run full-time BBC local radio stations if all expenditure is scrutinised. It is simply incorrect to state that it cannot be done with reduced budgets.




STAFF ARE FURIOUS


BBC Values demand that staff show respect and are kind. This process has seen neither behaviours - with no respect shown to accomplished members of staff; and no-one could say the interview process and subsequent delays have been kind.


Many staff feel they have been dealt with very unfairly: 'a minute to save your job - 'think of it as a gameshow'. Established presenters were humiliated by being asked to submit audition 'tapes'; and at the time of the interviews, some candidates suggest their recordings had not been listened-to when they asked for feedback.


Despite the logical demands of the best local radio, local knowledge and an understanding of target audiences was not explicitly covered in the interviews.


Some staff have been at risk of redundancy since last October. In many cases this has impacted on mental health, and on their chances of future employment. The complexity of the plan is not an adequate defence. The BBC has the resource to discharge this much more quickly - planning by the hour and by the day – not by the month.


The process has resulted in the loss to the BBC - and to listeners - of staff who can produce the very best local radio. The managers of this process should be held to account for the breach of the BBC's published 'Values' which demand 'respect' and 'kindness'.



STAFFING LEVELS


The BBC suggests that, under the new plan, it is resourcing the new shows well and that makes them better.


Some senior staff are puzzled that production of some programmes under the new plan will be resourced better then before,


The BBC feels that extra resource makes better programmes. That does not always follow. A tight team of committed individuals, particularly if they know the patch, its decision makers and its characters can produce award-winning, much-valued, much-loved programming. That would free resources for more programmes.


There are ways to re-cast the reduced budget differently to keep the number of programmes on-air. It is incorrect to state this is not possible.



AUDIENCES STATISTICS ARE MISUNDERSTOOD


The BBC seems to repeat the assertion that BBC local radio reaches only 12% of adults in England, when the BBC needs to ‘cover all audiences’.


No media reaches everybody. If that made any sense, you’d also take apart Radio 1 on the same basis and that is a more substitutable service these days than speech based local radio.


If Tesco were unhappy with its 27.3% supermarket share, it would not shun its heaviest shoppers in pursuit of selling something totally different to different people. It would address the quality of its core offering.


The 'Funeral of local radio' graph above was shown to senior staff in 2020, suggesting that local radio audiences were going elsewhere and predicted that linear local radio would ebb away and die in the foreseeable future.


This has been echoed by the language of BBC representatives. Without change they say they would have to 'accept decline' and local radio would 'drift to the margins of local life'. It is as if lapsed listeners are being blamed for the decline when, in reality, BBC local radio reaches only 12% these days largely because of poor management.


An accomplished programmer looking at this graph - given these budgets, the existing format freedoms and the enviable transmitter network would see no reason why the decline should continue. They would be excited about the potential and shake their head in disbelief about past trends.


Radio - still reaching 88% of all adults weekly - is not about to die any time soon. If local radio dies, it is because is is shoddily run. With audio now available universally on all manner of gadgets and with human beings having ears, there is no reason why radio in whatever form will not remain popular long-term. Audio will not be replaced by online – the two will live alongside.


The figures have fallen a worrying 17% year-on-year, according to the latest published data (Rajar BBC local radio England W1 2023). The personal architect of the puzzling format changes which have generated the recent decline is holding the reins of the latest changes too.


The Head of Nations brushed away BBC local radio audience decline, asserting that it reflects a changing market and lifestyles. But little has happened in the last THREE MONTHS! BBC local radio listening hours are falling faster than the market. See the graph below of the all-adult market, the 55+ market and Smooth and Magic.




There are, of course, BBC local radio stations which fare much better than the overall local radio statistics for good reason. They are usually smaller and better-run, out of the gaze of the over-paid incompetents. I enjoyed listening to BBC Herefordshire & Worcestershire last week – and could hear its focus.


Smaller stations do better. The BBC's plan is to make them bigger for much of the time.


It’s also over simplistic to suggest that only 12% use BBC local radio at all and the BBC must cater for ‘the rest’. Across a month even in the sorry current state of audiences, Rajar calculates the stations reach 19% of the population across England.


Also, the stations most at risk from the changes - owing to the size of their areas - often have higher reaches than 12%. Radio Humberside reaches 16% in a week. – and across a month it’s projected at 25%.


The stations most valued by their audiences already reach a significant proportion of local people in those areas - and those are at most risk from these changes.



NEWS CONSUMPTION IS CHANGING – BUT RADIO PLAYS A PART STILL


No-one disagrees that we are increasingly gravitating to online sources for news.

However, radio remains a key supplier; as can be seen in this Ofcom data for the older demographics (news consumption in the UK 2022).




Even when adding together all internet sources and comparing them to radio, the radio figures remain healthy. 60% (55-64); 50% (65-74) and 34% (75+) for all internet, compared to 47% 47% and 44% for radio.


Whilst online is a key source of news – so is radio for the older generations – but its role in explaining, analysis and comfort must also be recognised: news has never been the key driver for its audience.




ONLINE CONTENT COULD HAVE GROWN YEARS AGO


The BBC already has large newsrooms, generally platform-specific. It seeks to unite them and add to the resource levels from the local radio savings to boost online content.


The objective is understood.


However, the existing dedicated newsrooms do not work satisfactorily together at present.


If they were run together with the objective of generating more online content, they could make huge strides with NO further investment. A united team under a cross-platform manager could draw on the gifts of the platform specialists and produce much more content.


At present, radio teams are frustrated that so few of their stories appear online – and I have examples of some that do appearing very late. There is also distrust between teams with perverse claims that radio journalists do not understand law. If they don’t, they should not be in the radio team.


Many in the radio team are hungry to make a heightened contribution and my ongoing analysis of the level of output from some online teams is not commensurate even with their existing scale.


Had the local newsrooms been united under clear goals, the desired increase in online content could have begun months ago with no disruption to BBC local radio and the lives of listeners and staff.



REGIONAL IS NOT A THING


The BBC has, to my knowledge, offered no evidence that listeners relate to the huge random areas they have welded together arbitrarily for the regional programmes.


Let’s remember that around a million of local radio’s listeners listen only at times of the week when the stations will become regional.


It is suggested the areas reflect regional TV areas; and the regional half hour TV news programmes attract decent audiences. For the BBC to suggest that its own already imperfect TV regions should be the foundation for its own local radio strategy is bonkers.


Firstly, the relationship between a TV viewer and their chosen half hour news show and that of a radio listener with their chosen station is utterly different.


Secondly, genuinely regional news is rare. It can be engineered conveniently into regional statistics etc, but matters are usually local – or they are not. I am sure, for example in my patch, that the Derbyshire viewers of East Midlands Today would much rather have their own local TV magazine rather, than just the 2’30” of content their huge County amassed in Monday's programme, amidst all the Nottingham and Leicester stories. And often the general stories may just as well be national as regional.


Importantly, localness is not just news. It is about local characters, heritage, spirit, colour and pride. The best local broadcasters echo that- and the BBC has chosen not to employ many of them. The BBC's Director of Production speaks of maintaining a 'fabulous linear service' with 'absolute roots in our communities' whilst simultaneously assassinating those who deliver that best.


In an interview with a BBC regional head this week, he had to reach back to a gifted broadcaster who died tragically early over 25 years ago for a single example of someone who cracked the regional daytime gig. That’s despite many examples of off-peak shared programmes since. What's more, the gifts of the incredible Dennis McCarthy would have been great nationally too. And from all I know of him, he would have walked out on the current management teams long ago.


In so many respects, in so many geographic areas, this regional construct does not exist – at a time when hyper local media is hitting the mark in today’s society.



OLDER LISTENERS ARE DISADVANTAGED


80% of BBC local radio listening is from over-55s. This includes many lonely listeners who rely on the BBC for the companionship.


BBC local radio was required by the old BBC Trust to target over-50s. That requirement was taken away by Ofcom; and Tony Hall, then as DG, was keen to sweep it aside. Then many stations leapt younger in music, topics and staffing.

Now the Head of Nations says it is targeted at 'The elderly', a puzzling phrase for audience targeting. It certainly does not tally with the approach I've heard on-air on stations. Some seem sensible - others are not even targeted at me – let alone ‘the elderly’.


If the BBC really cared about ‘the elderly’. It would tread with care when touching the one medium that has been the most special through the whole of their lives. As a founder of Boom Radio, I know a little of how older generations view radio; and local radio provides the added benefit of feeling ‘close by’.


If you are older and if you do not live in a big city – the BBC cares little for you.



A MISSED OPPORTUNITY


BBC local radio is far from perfect. In a fast changing media world, it is based on a map drawn up in the 1960s with bits added on; and it has bounced from imperfect strategy to imperfect strategy. Its management and oversight structure is unsuitable for today's world; as is its use of premises and both broadcast and transmission technology; and how it reflects itself digitally. And its leaders have little clue how to programme it. Where it succeeds, it does so despite all the above.


It is clear that the strategy for local radio is in poor hands. Those determining its future do not understand the medium nor how it is consumed and valued. At a time when an exciting, flexible and affordable model for local radio/audio could have been implemented, serving more people better, it has instead chosen one which will accelerate decline.


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