How well can the BBC deliver its local radio plan?
Updated: May 9
There is a risk the BBC is about to funnel funds out of local radio - which it appears not to be managing too well - into areas it’s also not been managing well.
The ‘Digital First’ vision is about getting more news online – quicker. It believes that online is the first place breaking news should appear - given current trends in media consumption. I get that.
It wants to invest more resource and draw benefit from such things as the new version of the BBC News app, placing your own local content under your nose.
It’s a puzzle, however, why they’re not already doing it excellently. Not least when they have always had well-staffed local newsrooms brimming with well-trained very bright people.
They’ve had a team of both local radio journalists - and online journalists covering regions. Yet much work was not getting online - far more stories being carried on radio. In the BBC’s own words, it has been platform-bound. As one BBC senior staffer told me: “We are years behind others”.
In preparation for my brief spell in local radio management in 2009, I spoke to the heads of both radio and online and suggested to the online chap that I’d like to help things work more sensibly. ‘Good luck with that’, he said with a wry smile. The issue was clear even that long ago.
One former editor told me today that: “fifteen years ago it was technically possible to publish material to online simultaneous to approving an item for broadcast in a TV or radio running order. So why didn’t this happen? BBC politics. Online pushed back on any suggestion that anyone but them could place items online”.
One online journo dared to suggest to me a few years later that the seeming permanence of the platform means they have ‘to be more careful than radio journalists’. There are some pretty powerful episodes in radio history which illustrate that radio has to be pretty careful too.
Another ex-editor told me this week: ‘I could do anything I felt appropriate on my station…but I could not write a sentence on my own website without it going through a sub in (City)’ was it any wonder we gave up trying?’.
Internal systems are unhelpful. Another member of staff pointed out to me that local tagging of stories generated in one area with relevance to another is poor. Content of all sorts is wasted because many BBC colleagues across England do not know it exists.
Things have simply not been joined-up. For years.
If the BBC have not solved it by now, how confident can we be that this new elaborate, painful plan will do so? Having tried to get my head around the detail, it seems to me to have had rather too many cooks and may simply create fresh, exciting new rivalries, barriers and frustrations between teams, areas and platforms.
And why demolish local radio in the process? More online resource could be achieved within existing budgets with fewer senior posts, better operational planning and the right digitally-aware leaders in the newsroom. This painful and expensive year of heartache and distraction was simply not needed.
131 extra journalists is a lot. One commentator asked: ‘where will all the local news come from if it’s not being found now?’. Not least because one BBC staffer expressed concern to me that “most online journalists will rarely leave their desks”. Real local journalism comes from journalists knowing their patches and their people - and that will be the case forever.
There will be new projects – investigative reporting teams and a podcast fund. Time will tell what value they will bring to licence fee-payers.
Whilst there will, of course, be areas where the BBC should wisely invest resource and experiment in a fast-changing media world, it’d be useful to see more evidence before significant cash is invested. Let’s see some figures of consumption and cost of the various podcasts and other initiatives already in place – just as broadcast is held accountable.
I’m led to believe that consumption of the local Alexa bulletins is very low - ‘zero is not uncommon, double figures is rare’.
I've just tried one of them. I'm unsure the BBC has considered how this new audience might actually like to hear its news presented. Oh, and it's 12 hours out of date. Good morning? It's 6pm. Thus reflecting on stories from 24 hours ago.
Why is the BBC local audio offering - trumpeted on its website - worse than that of my good friend Keri with his Alfred Daily - run on just about one member of staff?
Another member of staff suggested that sometimes just a couple of dozen incremental listeners benefit from the effort spent in repurposing radio content for BBC Sounds. If you don’t know it’s there, you’ll never listen to it. The value of rich audio content that doesn’t come from news bulletins is squandered.
And to an organisation about to spend a lot of new cash online, I'd expect your social media to be better. Sport seems pretty good, but news appears to be inconsistent.
Moving from news - more programmes are to be networked. That requires quite a bit of work.
I’m not comforted by what I’m hearing of operational planning for the changes. Staff asking questions on how programmes will be delivered, what’s in them, how bulletins will be delivered and fed to different areas etc are telling me they are far from reassured.
Another BBC staffer cautioned: ‘The splits won’t work without the right mindset and tech – and they don’t have either’. It was suggested to me that one of the plan architects was making rather belated enquiries about how the playout system VILOR might help. I covered its limitations in a report they paid me to write in 2016 examining ‘BBC Local Radio Future Scenarios’.
Someone who presented a shared programme reported to me how the poor co-ordination of localised station idents resulted in ‘major cock ups’. ‘I hammered on for months and it appeared I was the only one who cared’.
It can be done (although the objective is all wrong in the first place). It’s something we in commercial radio has done for years. But there’s work to do – and the BBC is not known for agility. Any organisation which has hundreds of people still at risk of redundancy since last year, seems to me to be unfit for purpose.
The BBC has many, many gifted people in its midst who know the answers to all these dilemmas, but they are not given the chance - and there are far too many people in the way. Clear the decks and give the right people clean authority. At the BBC, the good people get lost whilst those who talk a good game rise to the top.
Things only go well because of the sheer dedication, pride and initiative of committed staff on the ground - in spite of all those seemingly paid a lot to make things more difficult.
Is it in good hands?
I’m struggling to establish from the track record of the plan's key architects, which local radio stations each of them would cite as evidence of their ability to lead a team well and programme successfully.
A current member of staff said: “There are mistakes on the air but most of it goes under the radar because most of the time our managers aren’t even listening”, said one staffer. Another said: “There are now as many managers sitting in the management meeting than staff out in the newsroom”.
‘Inexperienced journalists …don’t get…guidance or development. In times gone by, they would have worked in tandem with experienced (staff) they can learn from - whereas they are thrown into key roles…with little or no oversight of what they’re doing.”
As long as it exists, the BBC will always have staff working on local news. Take the cost of these out of the ‘BBC local radio’ bill - and you get the real incremental cost of something which is hugely valued and utterly distinctive. And, as I have said before, local radio could be done more efficiently – and become more, rather than less, local.
I’m told by someone who recently spoke to an architect of this plan who asserted that it is based on linear radio being in decline. Of course, things are changing quickly, but we are in 2023 and it remains a platform of major significance at the moment. The BBC annual report suggests that 62% of people use BBC radio in a month, 61% use BBC online.
In summary - this is an over-complex ill-advised solution with wholly unnecessary collateral damage. It lacks programming nous, human comprehension, imagination and a full understanding of the real potential of local. There are ways of making online and audio of all sorts better. This is not it.
The mood in BBC local radio is alarmingly poor. Or, to quote two more current employees the situation is ‘carnage’ or 'a clusterfuck'.
As a huge BBC supporter, I have never been quite so worried about dear Auntie. I suspect I’m not alone.
If you believe anything here is inaccurate - please let me know and I shall post accordingly