Is there a future for local radio?
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Everyone loves local radio.
Many of us started our media lives working in it – and know how brilliant the service it provides can be – at its best. We have a huge fondness for the concept; and it has attracted huge audiences over the years. There are many impressive stories both from the past - and today - about its value. Not surprisingly, press columnists and commentators wax lyrical about it.
What picture do the facts now paint? Almost nine out of ten adults in England do not choose to listen to any BBC local radio station and it is market leader by reach in no market. Almost half of UK commercial radio listening is national. The biggest UK radio station is BBC Radio 2. Local radio is statistically a minority sport – and if it has a future, it must be manageable and affordable. Not about recreating a fond yesteryear - but about identifying and serving a need.
Around fifty years ago, the plans for BBC local and local commercial radio were mapped out. For the BBC in 1967, it was a reluctant trial, pioneered by Gillard, recommended by the Pilkington report and embraced grudgingly by Government. Commercial radio made its debut even later, with its growth promptly stymied by a change of ‘70s Government. Still, those early maps underpin the local radio network we have today, supplemented by larger and smaller commercial stations and a tier of community radio. It’s an odd foundation for a 21st century affair.
What are the likely trends in the listening environment?
‘Radio’ listening loyalty will continue to decline. Its reach will decline too. The trend of the latter will be slow, and linear radio will still remain huge for years to come.
‘podcast’ and on-demand listening will grow, both ‘taking away’ some listening from linear radio and generating fresh audiences. Podcasts will professionalise.
There will be a significant demographic shift in audio habits, with generation Z and Y1 having a very different relationship with radio from the Boomers. Listening patterns across the population, however, will take generations to shift wholly.
The BBC network radio channels will remain huge but Radio 1 and 2 will likely and understandably never see audiences scale recent heights ever again.
Those seeking music radio will increasingly choose national services/brands – and streaming will become part of that competitive environment.
Financing UK radio will be a challenge, with the BBC struggling to cover off its new liabilities and ventures alongside its old; and commercial radio fighting for the advertising £ against other digital advertising options - and podcasting. Podcasting revenues will continue to grow.
In a world once confined to around 50 radio channels - but now enjoying hundreds of radio stations and other audio offerings – powerful well-marketed brands will be everything for mass market offerings.
To navigate a more populated audio world, trusted audio curators will be relied on – provided they deliver the right content. Now is the time to claim the territory.
There will be an increasing appetite for high quality, dependable, trusted news and expert analysis.
Voice activation will become a hugely popular option for selecting audio – meaning the competition for the ear will be from worldwide offerings – and rely on name/brand recall.
Talent will command a premium price and will not need to rely on others for their platforms.
Audience habits may shift a little in a post-COVID World. The balance of where and when people listen will change. Working and travel habits will change, as will their accompaniment.
Radio will no longer command a reserved monopoly on the dashboard.
Broadcast no longer gives you a shop on the high street. Even on DAB, you are already in a huge rambling shopping centre being extended each day.
A mixed ecology of FM, DAB and online listening will prevail for some time yet. AM will close.
Listening to a station online by stream rather than by broadcast will grow. Already some niche radio offerings are delivering almost as much audience online as to their DAB services, with their DAB having 'marketed' the brand.
Overall audio listening will grow, with more and more devices delivering it – and headphone listening.
Audience measurement will change.
Audio's current sexiness will remain for some time.
How can local survive and thrive? Is there an appetite? What do listeners really want – and how should it be delivered? If local radio did not now exist, what would we create? How connected are listeners with their localities, or are they increasingly bound by other interests and characteristics which can now be feasted; communities of interest which can be served well by means other than broadcast.
I hope, in a Tim Davie regime, the approach to ‘Reinventing the BBC for tomorrow’ in local radio will be in sensible hands. Whilst I have high regard for so many of the people who work hard across BBC local radio, it is structured for a bygone age. If I had only ever worked there, I might also find it a challenge to envisage a different structure.
BBC local should have been sorted by now. Five years ago, plans were being developed to run BBC local radio sustainably at a lower cost, using different models. I believe a sensible alternate model would have produced a service which listeners valued more, not less. The cost could have been halved. Not only did the outgoing DG choose not to modify the established approach in November 2017, he invested more. That was the wrong decision for local radio and its listeners. Listening is down 15% since then, at a higher cost - as I feared.
I could set up a station tomorrow with modest – or indeed without - premises, a few hundred quid playout system and allied facilities and the right number of staff for the format. In the hands of a gifted manager and the right team and attitude, it could sound easily comparable to the best BBC local stations.
One looks at the achievements of BBC locals in times of crisis, using a different schedule, fewer people and a proportion of management safely out the way. It begs a question. I suspect BBC local radio will accept redundancies, pare down staffing - then, longer term, regionalise some daytime programming, retaining local bulletins therein; and pledging to ‘go local’ in times of crisis. The BBC will use, quite understandably, the cover of Covid to implement change – as sensible businesses will – but I feel any regional solution would be ill-advised.
I may be wrong, but I struggle to think of a BBC station which has grown better by being part of a larger combined ‘region’. Which listeners would choose a newly-regionalised service, likely with a music policy not to their taste, of less local relevance and probably lots of mentions of adjacent cities they care little about. Is not Jeremy Vine preferable?
If there is virtue in a local service, you must set out your stall to say ‘local’ - and deliver on it with every trick in the book, given it's an expensive business. For example, the job can be done - in part - perfectly and more economically with voice-tracking. Local does not have to be live. Radio used to be routinely live because there was simply no other way. The BBC needs to embrace voice-tracking more - and remotely - in delivering efficient linear local radio; and it must be part of the future.
Almost a third of BBC local audiences are aged over 70. Should the BBC launch a cost-efficient new national network targeted at the over 65s to deliver the company and music policy absent now from all BBC radio, and deliver local differently?
What would happen if BBC local radio funding were channelled instead into a sustainable single tier of public service local radio covering all parts of the UK, with those individual services topped up by commercial and partner funding – converting stations from the existing community/commercial and BBC sectors as applicable.
Such stations might draw, inter alia, on news from the BBC’s local and regional newsrooms – and be free to recruit the great local personalities on-air in every patch for general programming. Beyond news, delivering trenchant local character on-air is a job for a very skilled broadcaster – and there are some great examples now of such people on BBC local and small commercial radio. If the BBC were more of a publisher and less of a broadcaster, it would achieve universality by the reach-generation efforts of others and less on the public purse.
Some small areas currently enjoy publicly-funded local stations and others do not. Why is it defensible for the BBC to fund local public service broadcasting in one town and yet not spend a penny in another? Post consolidation, the remaining small commercial stations will likely find the going increasingly tough, not least after COVID. Many of these provide a solid local service, with much public service broadcasting, yet with no public subsidy for their newsrooms.
In harnessing new talent too, smaller BBC-supported stations could bring on new recruits in a more appropriate way. Throwing them on-air at a huge BBC local, which does happen at some stations, seems unfair to them and to the listeners. Better training and ongoing coaching at decently-funded compact neighbourhood operations could genuinely help 'reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities' of of the media work force.
I have heard several impressive community radio services recently, and I commend their efforts, but in today’s world, it is a challenge to carve out an audience for a full-service radio station. In some proud local communities, particularly smaller, the full-service community offering can work, but in larger ones, audiences are likely to go elsewhere for their music and entertainment and much of their news, so does that general output maximise the value of any public funding or subsidy? Are listeners at large disappointed when they dip into a community station and just hear the ‘Hot 10 at Ten’?
In a sense, did community radio arrive too late? Is on-demand audio the long-term future for much community content? When you live in a town and want some localised audio targeted at me, you download it and listen when you want to. Listening to Petersfield Radio or Alfred's on-demand content is a powerful and persuasive illustration.
Similarly, there are some excellent quality online-only stations now, run with no public funding and few concessions. As IP starts to take over from broadcast in the long term, the thing separating these from traditional brands will be the scale of the marketing. But, on a small scale local level, where the word can get around with ease, what scope is there for low cost ‘local stations’? The appetite, or otherwise, would be quickly self-evident.
Local radio generally thrives in proud smaller communities, as shown in both the BBC and commercial sector. The best performing English BBC local stations are in Shropshire and Cumbria, the two smallest English TSAs. In Scottish commercial radio, Moray Firth, Northsound and Tay punch enviable reach percentages, as does Isle of Wight Radio, Lincs FM, Radio Pembrokeshire, Pirate FM, Spire and Yorkshire Coast.
Is it time for the BBC to think carefully about the money it invests in the largest of its stations? Whilst those at BBC Radio London will be hugely proud of what they do, as would I be, does a 3% reach merit the investment in that radio station? Lincs FM enjoys three quarters of the audience size of the BBC’s London offering. The future of the major metropolitan stations has been under threat before, for good reason.
To what extent is the route for local, hyper-local? Something which is genuinely near me, rather than an area defined by a broadcaster by virtue of where the transmitter happens to serve.
How can radio remain as relevant as possible to its listeners? As online listening grows, we will likely know more about our audiences, where they are and what they are interested in. How do we take advantage of that?
Is there scope too for thinking back to the days when Radio 4 had regional optouts? Does the BBC make appropriate use of its many huge transmitters? If the objective is for localised BBC content to be heard by as many people as possible, could we squirt it into windows in the national networks as commercial networks do?
Just as commercial radio re-defines the use of its transmitters constantly, maybe the BBC can too. Is it time to shake up the BBC FM transmission map for the final FM fling? What would happen if some existing local transmitters carried Radio 2 with short local optouts? Can any of the BBC’s transmitters be forsaken? Can BBC DAB capacity on multiplexes be used more productively?
This is the most exciting and changing time in the audio world since the invention of radio - and radical solutions are needed if we are to continue to harness what is great about our medium. If we believe in local- and we are to get the right UK content in people’s ears in their neighbourhoods at the right cost, it is time to put the current models to one side.
Related post - BBC culture and managing change
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