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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

How can the BBC reach another Centenary?

It’s not the Corporation’s hundredth birthday, of course. The candles come out for that in 2027. This is the centenary of the original British Broadcasting Company being soldered together. But who can blame the BBC for claiming a second Royal birthday.

There is no doubt that the BBC has achieved truly great things - delivering astonishingly high-quality programmes over the years and rightly respected around the World.

Not just fondly-remembered landmark programming and news coverage from yesteryear, but a wealth of much more recent achievements.

In the radio sphere, Radio 1, is brilliantly focused. Radio 2 attracts huge audiences; and its mid-life shuffle is understandable. Radio 4 has so much to be proud of; but is maybe now just going through a stage of finding itself a personality for the 2020s - as it faces proper competition for the first time thanks to commercial radio’s scale and growing platform-equivalence. 5 Live similarly. But every group of radio stations will always have some family members on top form and others needing TLC in an ever-changing media world.

BBC Sounds was a relatively prompt and clear offering, now delivering huge numbers, although maybe its functionality and search might be bettered. Access to the BBC's wealth of content is an impressive offer. I suspect another generation of app is being planned.

I’m less convinced that BBC local radio is in any danger of sorting itself out, despite the wealth of dedicated and gifted staff. This peculiar beast has always been a puzzle to the BBC since Gillard sold in the idea back in the ‘60s. Misunderstood then, misunderstood now.

Out of the spotlight, because it’s always been a much more powerful force out of London, it’s been batted from pillar to post, with the key players moving on before the fruits of their labours become apparent, or otherwise.

Housed within BBC News for the wrong reasons, then pulled out with no new natural home. Targeted at 55+, then quietly not being. Charged with ‘championing’ local communities, then quietly not being. Hugely talk-biased; and likely soon being able to play more music.

Wholly local at most peak times - it’s likely soon to be more regional. Not that many human beings care much about their neighbouring towns. Regional is an organisational device, not a human trait. As other media exploit geo-location of their audiences, BBC local radio goes regional. As audiences to local in big U.K. cities are eroded, the BBC chooses to make all footprints big!

There is much to be proud of on individual stations, and I know many of those involved, but if you were planning a way the BBC could make a valuable local contribution via local audio in the 21st century, you really wouldn’t start here. And it probably wouldn’t be costing a staggering £117m on content alone - and using huge numbers of transmitters puffing away fuel and licence fees across the U.K. All that - for a service of which alarmingly little is actually demanded by the current Operating Licence.

It’s time to start again with a plan for local BBC radio/audio. I suspect Gillard would have already done. We've had too many U turns.

The BBC has always faced challenges in its life right back to Reith's grumpy squabbles with the Governors. But recent decades have appeared more so. From Sachsgate to Gilligan, contesting fraud to Savile. In tough times, top-rank leadership is crucial, and, just like the U.K itself, the BBC has not always boasted that. It’s been slow; and lacks vision, focus and confidence. It is often unfairly maligned - and I actually rather like it when the Press Office spits out its dummy.

What’s also worrying is management and morale. Whenever I speak with a BBC employee, their adulation for the Corporation is swiftly followed by a swift account of their latest frustrations. The BBC may excel in many areas, but I’d suggest that excellence is less evident at management and leadership levels.

The BBC’s mission statement has been printed on battered lanyards for years, but it’s just words. Too many significant staff issues have been batted sideways and not addressed promptly, from women’s pay to bullying. I have never seen staff survey responses as abysmal as those at the BBC. From all I hear, the right people are rarely held to account.

I’ll readily concede the answers are not easy. Like the NHS, the BBC is huge. They both cost a lot of money - are both notoriously inefficient - and yet both remain untouchable Crown Jewels. To dare to try to reorganise either risks the Nation’s wrath and yet the future of both is under threat as long as they remain so flawed.

In todays polarised world it seems one is not permitted to support the BBC utterly and yet also favour a cool clear look at how it does what it does. Not tinkering at the edges, but substantive reorganisation. Today’s communication world is so different from the 1900s, and yet the legacy of those days still appears to be the framework of what it does, whatever the PowerPoint slides say.

It’s understandable that, owing to the BBC funding mechanism, it can appear to be driven to serve its own survival rather than the interests of consumers both tomorrow - and today. Maybe if the very foundation of the Charter and funding - and the BBC’s role - changed, all else could more readily be addressed. Where should public money really be spent? The BBC still enjoys majority support as a duly impartial news provider and that status is of growing importance. And - given the scale and scope of BBC content - how can its sub-brands - now stations and channels - be exploited in an increasingly non-linear world. What content does the BBC deliver by voice invocation - and how?

It’s easy to ‘have a go’; and I could easily write reams on truly inspired BBC outputs. But if they are to be sustained, and the BBC - in an appropriate form - is to enjoy a second centenary, we should allow it to reorganise radically. Provided the right people are creating the vision; and the right ones are - at last - managing the gifted creative folk charged with delivering the content.

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