Is this the right move for BBC Local Radio
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
It’s no fun having the rug pulled from under you.
My sympathies are with those at risk from the proposed BBC local radio changes. Uncertainty is foul – and being let go from a job you love is painful. For many, it’s more than a job - it’s part of your life. It’s part of who you are – and moving on is a bereavement.
I hope you are allowed to leave with your head held high – and with a fitting celebration of your years of efforts – and all due practical and emotional support. Alas, I’m not awfully confident of the BBC’s track record in this regard. The BBC’s staff surveys I’ve seen are the worst I’ve witnessed.
Reith grumpily handed over the keys when he resigned in 1938 and wandered into the night in tears; and things have got little better since.
May I wish you well. Believe in yourself. There has never been a more exciting time in audio – and if you have the right skills you will find a new path and love this wonderful world once more.
What of the changes?
When the visionary Frank Gillard pushed water uphill to get the stations established in the ‘60s, he realised that their strength would lie in local governance:
“Station managers would be free to provide the programmes which in their judgment best met the needs of their communities”.
Alas, in recent generations, the direction has been from the centre – ever changing - and not always awfully sensible.
Anyone with any idea of the pace of change in both audience behaviours and technical advances – would have realised some time ago that it could not carry on in its present form. Local radio costs the BBC an absolute fortune; and it sees little signs of its audiences finding new heights.
Over-long programmes and increased programme sharing was always going to be their predictable solution. I’d suggest it’s an unimaginative one.
If you were to launch local radio now, you really wouldn’t start here. The network is based on a monochrome map from a bygone age, too often directed by people who don’t ‘get it’, based in expensive over-large buildings, broadcasting to whomsoever.
BBC local radio now costs £117m per year and, from my interpretation of the annual report, that does not include the huge cost of related premises and infrastructure; and the eye-watering cost of an enviable web of analogue and digital transmitters puffing away to distribute programmes in the very highest quality.
I cannot agree that it is undergoing death by a thousand cuts – or blame ‘The Government’. The BBC has simply been operating and programming these stations poorly. There is more than enough cash.
Local news is clearly desirable; and the BBC’s track record impressive. Rebalancing resource as circumstances change is wise for any business. I can see the logic in the proposal for investigative teams charged with 'digging out the stories that matter' - and for the extra sites. The fruits of those efforts may then be disseminated via a multitude of platforms. I would like to know more about what the podcast fund will pay for and would welcome more accountability for existing and future offerings. What are they spending our money on?
Platforms cost cash – and the cost of those should be considered. Is an 8am bulletin on a local radio station with a reach under 10% really going to hit sufficient people amongst the BBC's new 50% target to justify its cost, if many of those individuals can be reached in other ways? The Truss interviews were evidence that reports can cut through on demand where they are relevant and interesting. Managing BBC Sounds locally and local radio together is wise - if in qualified hands.
The days of sitting by the radio eagerly awaiting the next news bulletin on local radio are largely gone. People want their news - now. As the Royal Family showed us - it really is digital first, as the BBC local strategy suggests.
The Local Democracy Reporter (LDR) scheme where BBC-funded, yet independent, reporters file stories for all local media is a useful illustration too. Should the BBC have more of a role as a publisher rather than a broadcaster?
The radio environment matters. Given today’s wealth of excellent music radio offerings, am I really going to sit through an hour of music I don’t really like, just to hear a news bulletin?
BBC Radio 5 Live, broadcast via the local radio transmitters, with local inserts for local news and related windows seems a better solution. Technically, it’s what used to happen years ago on the BBC; and commercial radio does it now. If you’re going to do linear, that’s a decent complement of services which would also usefully help to re-define Radio 5 Live.
Creating, effectively, new national and regional music and chat sustaining services carries risk. Few people say they feel part of 'a region'. Most are organisational constructs which exist on paper only - in any sphere - never in real people's lives. I live in Nottingham, I care not a jot about Derby. Sorry. Let alone Northampton.
The Ofcom Operating Licence seeks to ensure that “…at least 95 hours are allocated… to original, locally-made programming.” Ah – but the “original, locally-made programming” includes programming shared with neighbouring stations”. Local programming shared with neighbouring stations is no longer local. It is a shoddy definition.
I’d argue that any service which is not local is, de facto, unlicensed.
Alternative inspiration comes from This is Alfred, hatched lovingly by my friend Keri Jones in Shaftesbury. A radio station almost built around a podcast and its spin offs. When you dip in, it’s always talking Shaftesbury – as opposed to dipping into a BBC local doing yet another ‘guess the year’ with no local clues. That’s a great example of brilliant efficient, informational local radio/online content for 2022. Again, if you are going to be digital-first and lean on linear, that’s interesting.
Incidentally, under the Ofcom Operating Licence, BBC local stations must have: “news and information of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves at intervals throughout the day; and… other content of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves”.
Intervals throughout the day? Ofcom demands more local news from Capital.
In times of a local democracy deficit, the regulator appears to be puzzlingly not-bovvered, beyond the demands of the BBC's unmeasurable Public Purposes, about what one of the BBC’s most expensive radio services per listener hour has to do on the public purse.
What of more traditional local radio formats? Is there a future?
As with all radio, it’s a question of who is the audience and what do they want? Don’t say 'everyone in Trumpton', because Chippy Minton won’t share an appetite for the same topics and music as Miss Lovelace, despite living in the semi nearby.
On target audience, the sensible answer is probably older people – stepped in their area – more likely to consume chatty linear radio – with the time to engage. Sadly, regulation has not been helpful. Whilst BBC local radio was charged by the BBC Trust, inter alia, to ‘champion’ local communities and to serve 55+, those requirements were quietly withdrawn under Ofcom’s operating licence.
As it is, 55+ are leaving BBC local radio in England, down 17% in reach in the last five years whilst the 55+ population has risen 9%. They’re possibly a little puzzled by the music they’re now expected to tolerate and the presenters they relate little to.
BBC local radio still reaches 9% of a fairly stable 15-54 population, five years on, despite the changes to broaden the appeal - but listening has fallen 24%.
The BBC is judged by audience reach. I get that. It needs to show it is reaching most people if it is to sustain its funding model. Listener loyalty, as represented by time spent listening by listeners on average each week was regarded sniffily as a ‘commercial radio thing’. No. It indicates how much your audience care about you – how many are looking for the exit - and how many people are amassed for your treasured 8am news bulletin.
Amongst the ‘all adults’ audience, larger stations have not fared well. 95% of Londoners don’t listen to BBC Radio London at any time in a week. The ones who do manage just 3.5 hours per week.
The relationship between TSA size and reach % is fairly clear. Any proposal to make smaller stations part of larger ones more often – as is proposed effectively by more programme sharing and giving up at the weekends - is madness. As other media becomes laser sharp in its audience and geographic delivery, BBC local gets broader. What was an imperfect local radio map is set to become more so for even more hours of the day.
However, a decent 18% do listen to BBC Radio Humberside and 17% to Radio Stoke and Cumbria. It’s probably down to some management who know their patch, are sufficiently out of head-office sight and allowed to get on with it. And local radio suits the area.
High-performing stations also probably have an on-air star or two. A presenter who truly commands their area, for whom listeners would likely die. The gifts of these often misunderstood true communicators are rare – but they exist around the network. These people define their stations. The BBC’s own research speaks volumes of that relationship. If these get shafted from their stations, the BBC is mad.
Too often the BBC is built for itself, not for its audiences; run to save tomorrow's licence fee model - not today's audiences. Staff are despatched from areas they know to areas they don’t. Local characters are moved on. And whilst solid training is essential, I suggest this network is a rather expensive training ground. There are now many other ways for people to hone their craft.
If traditional local music and chat radio has a future, there a case for more smaller stations and fewer bigger ones. Just get the right people to run them. People who understand the magic of radio - and inspire and value on-air talent.
Could BBC local radio do what it is currently doing and still save cash? There are people who could create a powerful audio presence in a local market at a fraction of the cost. Some of those individuals likely work at the BBC already and sit frustrated at their desks. There are certainly people outside the BBC who would relish the chance to run a great local station on a fixed income.
In his 2012 report at the invitation of the BBC, the great John Myers tactfully identified the savings which could be made. Over dinner with me whilst he was assembling the report, as I shared my insight from my time there, he was a little more entertainingly indiscreet. His report was largely ignored – and the bounds of the report constrained.
I remain of the view that BBC local radio is over-managed and poorly-managed. Amongst the hard-working excellent staff run ragged, there are - by contrast - also tiers of, variously, here-today-and- gone-tomorrow/hanging-on-until-I-retire-folk who either poke their nose in to reverse decisions to prove they are alive - or just keep out the way. To the person on-air at the front end – they contribute little and are a different species. They sit at their desks (or at home) just answering BBC internal emails; and rarely engage with or consider – the listener.
Erase the real non-contributors – at whatever level - from each station today – and you’ll get more listeners and a happier more efficient team. Tomorrow. Let's see evidence that the 'too complicated' BBC in England really has changed. You'll create the cash you need to do all the programming you wish.
As budgets were threatened, I was called upon to assemble a report to ascertain whether a BBC local station could be run on half the cost. I listened to every second of the output and, given access to management accounts, drew a plan to deliver that same programming at around half the cost. My exercise ran in tandem with many working groups spending much BBC executive time looking at cost reductions.
Yet, in his ill-judged 2017 speech, the then BBC DG Tony Hall chose not to make savings. In a rabble-rousing volte-face 50 years on from Gillard’s proud launch – he announced he was to spend even more. Particularly off-peak. You just couldn’t make it up.
This is all so painfully sad. A lack of sensible thinking disguised in W1A-speak.
Are we about to spend yet more money on the wrong answer to the wrong questions. Is the BBC still the best custodian of local audio?
Frank would not have got us into this mess in the first place.
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