Is the BBC now equipped for the job of local radio?
BBC local radio will still be required to broadcast an all-speech breakfast show, despite its wish to get some Dua Lipa between the interviews.
The verdict comes from Ofcom in the new Operating Licence, the parchment which stipulates what the BBC must provide. That’s the right programming move too. A breakfast show which is neither chalk nor cheese will see its audiences fall even more.
This ‘modernising’ Operating Licence comes against a backdrop of the BBC’s ‘digital-first strategy’, as outlined in May 2022, which seeks, inter alia, “to reduce expenditure on the traditional broadcast elements of its local services, so it can invest more into online local content”.
I harrumph at this 1990s style ‘digital’ label. A little like commercial clients used to insist they ‘do some digital’ because it sounded like modern fairy dust. Isn’t just about everything digital? Most radio listening is.
BBC local radio trumpets such things as an excellent BBC local radio breakfast show Tweet reaching millions as evidence of the new digital-first approach. It did well because they have some brilliant presenters on BBC local radio who know what they’re doing to create the content in the first place. Are we to disregard the licence fee-funded transmitter networks and rely instead on Elon’s algorithms?
Let’s not clear the table just yet, there are still people eating. 89% of the population listen to radio weekly; 93% in the case of those aged over 50.
Regionalisation is hardly a ‘modernising’ idea – it’s 1990s commercial radio. At a time when hyper local press/online is innovating and yet bigger press titles struggle, the BBC moves to the latter approach for radio, not the former. Madness. The biggest BBC local stations or combined-area ones have always struggled - and now more stations will - effectively – be frequently part of bigger ones. Audiences will decline further.
The BBC rightly recognises that people consume content in a range of ways – but that does not need to be at the expense of radio. It could do all, were it to run things properly.
BBC local radio can operate more efficiently – and broadcast for as many hours per day as it currently does, if not more – and staff can be happier. I appreciate that many within think it can’t – and therein lies the problem. And I don't mean recreate some retro local radio station - I mean devise an operation fit for purpose this century.
As I’ve said before, whilst some staff are run ragged – there are managers paid well for making an inverse contribution. I know of some staff who, since Covid, have been paid well to sit at home for months, years in some cases, doing very little even though they’d rather like to feel valued and do some proper work. That cannot be right.
Are the architects of the BBC’s future grown up enough to design one without them in it?
Now, as this ill-informed strategy is imposed, hard-working staff get their suits out the cupboard and turn up in their dirty, demoralised buildings to join the slow-moving circus of staff selection. I appreciate the legal requirements of re-organisation and staff losses; and have been on both ends of such processes. They are never pleasant, but executed decently, they can at least aim to leave candidates with a shred of dignity.
I only hope that if you are involved, you are interviewed by a manager who knows what on earth they are doing and is allowed to get on with it. I know there are such individuals battling away. I fear the wrong people will get the jobs – those who game the system, not those who deserve the gigs. As ever, ‘what the listeners really want’ is rarely a topic discussed.
As it assumed responsibility for BBC oversight from the BBC Trust in 2017, Ofcom’s first Operating Licence tore up the requirement for BBC local radio to ‘champion its communities’. It also reduced news requirements to “news and information of particular relevance to the area and communities at intervals throughout the day".
In the new Licence, Ofcom splutters and gets really tough - by appending the word ‘frequent’ to the ‘intervals’ in this lame provision. Wow. Even Capital Radio is obliged to do it more frequently.
The new Licence also now requires BBC local radio to provide “a significant amount of news and information of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves during the Breakfast Peak”.
This is all not very difficult to achieve.
Ofcom also suggests it: “looked at whether any audience groups may be particularly affected by the BBC local radio changes, given the importance of the BBC continuing to serve all audiences and not leaving any listeners behind as it seeks to modernise its services”.
It didn’t look very hard at older audiences – and it never has. 85% of BBC local radio listening is amongst those aged 50+.
Let’s remember, it was Ofcom that took away the requirement that BBC local radio should serve those aged 50+ in the first place. The Trust had previously insisted that: “the target audience should be listeners aged 50 and over, who are not well-served elsewhere”.
It’s true that many stations had never really focused too well on it anyway, hence declining audiences despite a growing demographic - comprising people who adore their radio.
As a programmer, I can justify Radio 2’s programming strategy. Indeed, the average age of its presenters, post changes, will only be around 5 years younger than when young Ken Bruce started on mid-mornings proper in 1992. However, one cannot expect a listener to be persuaded by a Powerpoint slide on BBC strategy. They liked Radio 2 the way it had become and now they don’t. What are they supposed to do now?
BBC local radio cannot even now be an alibi for Radio 2’s gear-change. That’s no longer aimed at them either.
Witness now too how BBC local radio loyalty is at just 6.8 average hours per week – it was over 8.0 four years ago – as befits the format. When your loyalty seriously declines and your reach isn’t in growth mode, listeners are falling out of love with you. Remember too that loyalty impacts on how many people accumulate to tune-in to, say, your treasured 8.00 am news bulletin.
Ofcom thinks that it should not worry about Sundays after 2.00 on BBC local radio. The weekends overall can be huge days on BBC local radio if only the programming were decent. They once were. It’s another illustration of the BBC’s canny approach of running things so badly that they fail and they can pull down the shutters and replace them with something more interesting.
Little wonder that our proud run-on-a-shoestring baby Boom Radio, embracing those aged 60-75, has made such as astonishing start. The outpourings from listeners day after day are evidence how, contrary to Ofcom’s glibness, listeners have been disadvantaged by the BBC. There is no doubt that Boom is public service radio – providing companionship to a generation. Goodness only knows what our audiences would be had we access to the BBC’s transmission networks and marketing firepower.
Similarly, I have become a huge fan of the excellent Times Radio – which talks to me as a grown up - at the expense of time I used to spend with Radio 4.
Little BBC output talks to me anymore – indeed, programmes make me feel guilty for daring to live to be older. That’s despite the Corporation being home to some truly amazing, gifted people caught up in the Corporation’s morass.
I support public investment in media wholly. It can make a significant contribution to society. I have a lot of love and respect for the BBC – and for many of the people who work tirelessly there. But even as an energetic supporter I question whether, in its current form, it is now fit for purpose.
Is ‘public service broadcasting’ safe in its hands?
It is simply too large, doing too many things and increasingly self-serving. Brilliant people there tell of how challenging it is to deliver a bright idea with any speed or without creative compromise from too many cooks who’d struggle with a fairy cake let alone a decent broth.
Poor, beleaguered Tim Davie will never have time to focus on what really matters. He’s too busy battling the daily skirmishes in some corner of his Empire. And there’ll always be one – when you are running so much. It can never win in its present form – and matters will get worse. That’s not fair on anyone.
And once an unhealthy narrative exists, as it sadly does now, individuals at the BBC will also be unfairly maligned. Ask Fiona Bruce.
If what is great about the BBC is to survive, it’s time to break it down – and see what can really be achieved with £3,800m of our money. Keeping it as it is will not preserve what is brilliant.
The BBC has never really understood local radio – and that’s as evident now as it was in the ‘60s when Gillard fought to create it.
Annan recommended the creation of a ‘local radio authority’ in 1977. Imagine how great a UK local radio tier could be, given a blank sheet of paper and even half of the current £117m for content. A combination of community and BBC local radio - afforded free transmission, modest accommodation, few head office overheads and no tiers of daft managers with dangly lanyards.
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