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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

BBC Local Radio seeks to explain itself

On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Jason Horton, Director of Production at BBC Local, had the difficult job of defending the indefensible. The plan to reducing vibrant BBC local radio stations to a shadow of their former selves – with no intelligent plan whatsoever to make the most of this almost universal medium.

Let’s listen in to what he said.

Jason insisted “every single one of our 39 BBC stations stays”. He forgot one thing. The relationship is not with a radio station – it is with the human beings on them. Human beings that are no longer there.

Many key people are being side-lined - those who truly owned their patches. He paid tribute to Burnsy at BBC Humbs for how he has continued to ‘connect’. Moving Burnsy on is not the sort of tribute I’d wish for.

Radio is considered a friend. That’s what so much radio research says. What is Jason going to say to his network’s listeners? “We’re sorry we can’t bring you your best friend any more – but here’s a nice new friend for you”. It doesn’t work in life; and it doesn’t work on radio. Have the right people been selected to front those 6am – 2pm programmes.

He reassured that “the core principle of local radio is to connect communities”. You can only do that with the right people who understand those communities – yet some appointees are commuting from completely different areas. And any suggestion that listeners to regionalised programmes will suddenly relate to adjacent cities they visit rarely is nonsense. As even Ofcom said: "We question how shared programming which will cover such large areas will still be relevant to audiences. (Letter to the BBC Feb 2023)"

People come to radio for the friendship and the way it makes them feel, the impact on their mood. This is not emotional waffle – it is the conclusion of very bit of radio research I’ve seen. I know the BBC’s did too.

Listeners value the news and info – but the reason they turn on the radio is companionship - being part of something. If you don’t provide that properly, listeners won’t come. If they don’t come, they won’t hear the news bulletins.

“All of our local bulletins” will endure, said Jason – although I gather that an operational plan to incorporate them is sketchy at best.

On that note, one staffer said to me: “inexperienced journalists are thrown into key roles with little or no oversight of what they’re doing”.

Since the BBC started the last dose of messing around with local radio, the audience for the BBC local radio’s 8.00 am news bulletin has already fallen by 17%.

Here’s my prediction, it will fall further. The BBC will invest our money in serving news bulletins on ‘local radio’ to ever-declining numbers of people. The are killing the host station. And when audiences decline quickly - they'll say that things are changing and build bigger regions with even fewer programmes.

Jason asserted: “We’ll be broadcasting at a time of day when we know we have the most audience locally.” How will you feel when those figures fall?

Let me draw on an example close to home – my other half Paul Robey was side-lined unkindly from his huge Sunday afternoon programme on BBC Radio Nottingham. He knew his city intimately and the audience relationship was self-evident. Following the audience targeting and station direction change after he left, total listening to that daypart has fallen by 54%. That’s what happens when you take a much-loved player out the market.

What are they going to do online or on BBC Sounds that is new? What more will we see and hear? We’ve had no detail. Can we have some illustrations of what the new investment will bring and how it will be judged – and how listeners can expect to consume it?

Jason said he would increase localness through the website. It’s not the same sort of localness. It’s not what radio provides. Does the BBC not understand radio?

Given the staff implementing this policy rarely Tweet – I’m not sure they understand Digital either.

Ask people on the coalface about how joined up online and radio have been thus far.

Jason says he is responsible, ‘not just for local radio audiences’ but for ‘all local output across radio, regional TV and online and digital services’. It is, therefore, his responsibility to run it effectively. Yet it remains over-managed and wholly inefficient. In this rationalisation, he has chosen to cut front of house staff who are run ragged - rather than make the right economies. You can keep rich local output on all stations - and more - if you run it better – plus free cash for the needed investment in more online content.

“For some reason the management always employ totally useless people and then protect them”, said one BBC staffer to me.

Jason harrumphed that he has to worry about all licence fee-payers, “not just the 13-14%” who listen to local radio. Thank goodness the Controller of Radio 1 cares more about his 14% audience.

BBC local radio has already walked away from older audiences. Jason talks of changing media habits – and that’s true – but I’m not sure he took much account of the 46% of 55+ who use radio for news, vs 15% for social media (Ofcom 2022). They use it because they rather liked the radio stations the news was on.

All this W1A-speak suggests to me that the BBC really do not know what they are talking about in local radio - but they really have managed to persuade themselves. I gather the explanations on the ground to staff have been similarly unsuccessful.

Jason suggested he would be proud of BBC local radio in the future. I am not sure he will be.


Earlier blog this week on the situation in full

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