“I think we’ve run a very fair process”
Updated: May 31
I doubt I’ll be on Rhodri’s Christmas card list.
As BBC Director of Nations, Rhodri Talfan Davies dared to make himself available for a conversation with me. It was probably one of those polite ‘we must meet up soon’ remarks one gets from fluctuating friends where they rather hope you’ll be too busy to ever take up the invitation.
I sought to address many of the points made to me about the new local strategy. An interesting hour of robust conversation ensued and I was grateful that Rhodri turned up. It was good he agreed to be a target, just as he assured me he’d visited local bases even though he knew he’d face anger on site.
But - spoiler - I am not persuaded that £100+m of public money invested in local radio content is in good hands.
Where to begin!
Despatching much-loved presenters seemed to me a puzzling place to start when searching for efficiencies to channel into online. If we are to accept that the BBC needs more online resource, I enquired where else the BBC had looked for savings.
Staff had told me that the options explained to them by various senior managers were: the current plan; do nothing and see local radio wither and die without improving local content; or close stations.
Rhodri explained the BBC’s funding challenges; and suggested a range of options had been considered: "TV news, tech, distribution – look at everything". "We took a view to retain stations" rather than closure.
He would not be drawn on station closures – but I got the feeling that some decisions are simply too difficult to take politically; and that they’d much rather demolish Derby (with its 18% reach) than lose London (5% reach and worryingly low weekly listening hours). No offence to the gifted people working in London, I know they're as frustrated by all manner of things too.
"It’s important that the BBC has a strong radio presence in London and abandoning a city of that scale is not the right move".
I asked about increasing productivity generally across BBC local radio, bearing in mind I’ve always been staggered by the low morale, the absence levels, the daft management tiers and the staff survey results. If these things did not make a difference, no company would bother measuring them. There was not really an answer from Rhodri.
If more and better online news content is the goal, I asked why existing newsrooms (radio – online/TV) have not worked together ages ago (not least given earlier experiments), as so many staff have shared their frustrations on the lack of co-operation. ‘Before my time, guv’ was the sort of Rhodri response.
“We recognise that the online news service needed to be on a higher, more consistent level across the whole of England." He spoke of doing what "practically every operation in the World does now" and pull together a single multi-media team’ to generate "The level of product quality we want to get to", using an additional head per base, plus the investigative team.
I’m just puzzled why on earth newsrooms at the BBC have had walls any time in the last ten years, unlike, as Rhodri just about conceded, every other sensible operation in the World. Progress could have been made without sacrificing local radio just by a bit of leadership.
He alleged that digital should be the first priority, versus the status quo when the "deployment of news gathering efforts across England" has been "overwhelmingly driven by the needs of the 630 (TV bulletin)". That confused me a little, as I know the radio teams have been quite happily pursuing stories at speed; and indeed generating them through its daily programmes.
He revealed his frustration at Twitter where people say: "Can we just get the radio people to press a button and print their stories". When he suggested that, by contrast: "online is a professional service", I bristled on your behalf, reminding him how angry that silly talk makes radio colleagues. He’s creating a multi-media newsroom, but he implies radio folk were not really good enough to play a part. What tosh.
There are a whole host of imaginative solutions to the sensible goal of generating online news of top quality. They've chosen the most destructive and cack-handed.
As we moved from news to ‘radio’ – I detected a shift in demeanour. This seemed not to be his home turf.
I showed him the famous ‘funeral of local radio’ red graph of declining local radio listening - with the naieve 'wither and die' projection and asked what he made of it. When he seemed perplexed, I told him that most programmers would take the graph to mean that there was something awry with the programme strategy on many prime estate radio stations. It did not indicate to me that online was causing the death of local radio, as was suggested.
He said he had not seen the graph and insisted that further decline was not ‘inexorable or inevitable’. I shall hold him to that.
What did he make of the recent decline to the lowest ever figures in BBC local radio history following the last strategy change? "I love the fact it’s more than 5m – I want it to be higher", but dismissed the decline: "Every single month, broadcast viewing is at its lowest ever level – there are shifts in society". Hey, Radio 2’s graph does not look like yours and many other radio stations are holding up decently. Your graph does not echo the market - not least an older market, where the population has grown 8% in five years. It tells a story of someone not doing a good job, despite the star stations within the network.
"Some people act as if local radio is seen as the only true source of local news and info. It ain’t". I got the feeling that Rhodri does not love radio, so I thought it was about time to talk about it.
"What makes a great local radio station?" I asked.
"Fantastic presenters", I was told.
When I posed my supplementary question – "what makes them fantastic?", he flicked his head as if a truculent teenager being asked to put out the bin bag - and spat out my name "David" leaden with meaning. I fenced back sternly that if he could not answer this question, he really should go home.
"Someone with a real knowledge of the area", he volunteered. Actually, my list would not have started there, although it would surely be on the list.
So, if it is the top criterion, why no questions on the relevant geographic area in the interviews for these posts - and why are much-loved famous presenters being tossed aside? It’s a bit like hiring a political reporter and not asking any questions on politics. He said presenters were hired for a range of skills given their presenter/producer responsibilities.
“An extraordinary array of presenters have been appointed as part of this process with brilliant local knowledge.” Yes, and whole lot more lost, whilst others are trekking to work in areas they once went on holiday.
I asked too of the dangers of changing almost entire familiar line ups at a stroke. He agreed about the value of consistency: “Most successful stations tend to build off the familiarity of audience with their presenters…Attempting to build a stable of presenters who command the respect and admiration of audience”. So why the demolition of some station line-ups? “We need to do this with real consideration for it making sense to the audience and taking the audience with us“. He suggested it would not all happen on a single day although some decisions had to ‘march together’. Do let's ask the listeners how they feel about things.
So – a poor recruitment process, leading to the wrong hires and unnecessary change.
Given Rhodri suggested that "knowing the audience" was key to a "fantastic presenter", I asked who it is.
“I think the heart of heart of local radio listenership is predominantly an elderly audience.”
This perplexed me. It is at odds with Tony Hall’s "We need to end the idea of serving the over 50s" and at odds with the music mix and presenter topics I hear on several stations. I can't see it mentioned on any of their programme briefs. Do their teams know?
“Overwhelmingly (daytime) tastes and preference of older listeners”. He suggested the average listener was aged 57/58 (it’s currently 55).
There seemed to be a puzzling confusion between actual audience and target audience. I got the feeling I was not talking to someone with a huge understanding of strategic radio programming.
"Targeting 55+" he insisted, with "its primary audience elderly". That’s even older than it was before the last tranche of changes. It may well be sensible, but I’m not sure it’s what I’m hearing on the radio and – again - did the interviews take that into account, given how many excellent communicators to that generation have been lost?
I questioned whether things were ready operationally’, knowing that the broadcast system VILOR was not poised to split as needed any time soon and routing software was being re-designed. No offence to the techies - I suspect they were late in the loop and the software was puzzlingly not suitably specced for a changing world in the first place.
“Everything I’m hearing is that the stations will go live when we want them to”.
I am surprised that an operational plan which was devised last Autumn will take a year to get ready. I’m sure GHR would have loved a year to think about planning their rollout.
I asked for evidence of how the BBC was "confident" to Ofcom that regional programming would ‘resonate’. Rhodri described his love as an 18-year old, of Metro, and how it owned the North East.
When the conversation stopped and no further evidence was forthcoming I asked whether his teenage ear cocked to Metro was the foundation for his assertion. He snapped back.
“You make judgements based on the data”, he said - yet offered none. I reminded him about the comparative reach of smaller single area stations and amalgamated existing ones.
He questioned "radio wisdom...there’s no law that says a show shared across county boundaries cannot cut through". Yes, he’s right, but is that local radio? It may often just as well be national.
“It’s our responsibility to demonstrate through our performance to the regulator that we are right- if we’re wrong we’ll have to amend the plan. But, of course, I’m accountable. Jason’s accountable. Chris is accountable.” That is good to know. We’ve made a note.
“In terms of a popularity contest, the smaller stations always win - they always have”. Indeed.
“I think we’ve run a very fair process”, he said.
He defended the inordinately long time scale (beginning last October) by the fact that the 90 day union consultation ended in Jan. It’s still too long. I reminded him that promises for outcomes were not being met.
I read to him some of the heartfelt and desperate messages I’d received from people caught up in the pain for far too long.
He was duly sympathetic, but clearly not of the view it could have been done any more quickly, sensibly and with more dignity.
“I don’t know what a fairer process would have looked like.” I think most people on about £250,000 might have had had a bash.
The BBC Values seemed to me to be of relevance here.
Whilst at the BBC, I sometimes twiddled my lanyard and looked at the Values etched on on the rear, puzzled about how the culture I and others experienced seemed so at odds with the statements.
I asked Rhodri about the BBC Value relating to ‘Respect’. Disappointingly, Rhodri was unable to cite the wording, beyond the word ‘respect’ I’d offered as a clue. I reminded him of his role as a leader – to know every substantive word of the pledge and to deliver on it. That's the gig.
We RESPECT each other - we’re kind, and we champion inclusivity
I do not doubt his integrity, but I know there are many involved in this process who would not agree it had been done with due respect to them – nor kindness. A senior team must be held to account when they fall short of BBC values. And they have.
“I do know what respect means.” He insisted his teams on the ground did a "very difficult process to the best of their ability". In many cases, I too sympathise with the honourable managers amongst them, delivering indefensible verdicts to people they’ve grown to know and like and arrive each morning at a hostile workplace.
“I want our staff to feel confident in where we’re going – I want them to feel well led”.
“I can talk about the importance of online until the cows come home but if your life’s work has been invested in radio of course I understand this is a wrench.” Radio people seem to be other people – not him. Radio people seem to be deemed old-fashioned and out of touch - even though many of them are further ahead in their own extra-curricular digital work than the architects of this madness.
I suggested to him that the operational plan is wobbly, the staff surveys are poor, programming plans are flawed, local MPs are annoyed, listeners are furious, and the union is about to have a vote of no confidence. Given that, I asked who exactly might think his top team were doing well. He swerved the question.
"I don’t believe this is the end of local radio" he insisted.
The BBC is excellent at thinking of itself – rather than the listener. That's another of its Values ignored, by the way. Audiences are not 'at the heart of everything (they) do'. If they were, they would not be so daft as this.
I would hire Rhodri tomorrow as a politician; and I would defer to him in other areas too. He's a class act. But if this were a speed-date to hire a radio programmer, alas I am not sure I would have the confidence to hire him to run a medium sized radio station.
But, again, I am grateful that he bothered to talk to me. I just hope he reflects on at least something I raised.