Let's start at the top...
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
I really was not going to post yet more on BBC local radio. Today's announcements make me break my promise.
As ever. I write this because I care about it. And I care about the BBC. Those who knock it for all manner of trumped up, offensive charges get short shrift from me. But if it is mis-managed it will die. It is now that the very best leadership is needed.
Let me say that managing change is never easy. It’s painful; and you will make some people very angry. After today's announcement to her staff in the BBC regions, Helen Thomas, Director of BBC England, will probably be having a stiff drink tonight – and I feel for her. Whenever you witness change from the outside, you never know the headaches and frustrations those involved have had to wrestle with from all directions. There are all manner of conflicting considerations we will not know.
That’s why it needs managing like a military operation. And – of course – the decisions being announced have to make sense. Managing change well is one of the basic requirements of a management position. My DMs have gone wild today from BBC people I respect of all ranks.
I can’t say I always got it right when re-organising, but trying to let people know disappointing news in the right way is crucial, and ensuring that those managing the people being affected are fully briefed beforehand is also key.
The BBC has fewer than forty managers in local radio. It does not take much to brief them first, with due caution, before a key announcement. If you don’t trust them they should not be working for you. They should have learned this from the DG speech in 2017 when Man Eds returned to their bases not quite knowing about the new evening show plans.
And you cast the best person you can to deliver the message. It is a very specific job.
Confining the placing of only lower grade posts at risk of redundancy. Wow. Hoping that others in more senior roles may step forward (and give up their well paid job five years before their pension?) This is unfair and economically mad.
Ask anyone with common sense – or experience of working in a variety of radio stations what they’d do to save cash at BBC local. It's blindingly obvious. Junior, middle and senior management are falling over themselves to either justify their existence – or trying valiantly to lend value but being frustrated along the way. That’s where you would start the savings. John Myers argued this in his report the BBC paid for – and I argued this in the report the BBC paid me for. I can guarantee you’d save cash and the staff remaining on the ground would cheer. And I know too that some of the people in these upper grades are utterly frustrated too by the confusion of their roles.
But no - the savings are planned, instead, in such a way that they have an immediate on-air impact.
Co-ordinated programme timings across the network is a good idea - for junctions and operational efficiency. That should have been sorted in 1967. But four hour shows? In a talk-rich format like BBC local radio, do you get the best from daytimers by asking that of them? It is puzzling to assert that the Covid schedule proved they 'worked'. Well, you stayed on the air with fewer people - but they’re not the best approach for this format. Claiming it is part of a 'significant reinvention' is the sort of spin I'd only write if very desperate.
Yet amidst the savings, the local mid-evening shows largely remain. If I were presenting one as a newcomer, I’d be pleased as punch and working hard – as I’m sure those appointed are. But there are other ways for the BBC to help you serve an apprenticeship in radio. Because this is a hobby horse from the outgoing DG, it cannot be touched for now - even though audiences have fallen. Much more sensible to reduce daytime investment instead, it seems.
There is much talk of culture at the BBC and the aspirations for it. It should not be a challenge to achieve decent morale at the best broadcaster in the World, with guaranteed income, a great history and an exciting future. I have never seen staff surveys as disappointing as the ones I have seen from BBC local stations, admittedly going back a few years – but I doubt they’ve improved. We all have our own stories. If others are dealt with like that – little wonder that disputes end up in court or signing cheques. We expect better.
As with all organisations, there are some people desperately trying to get this huge organisation to behave rationally and sensibly - at all levels - and I know there are people I respect working at the BBC well-equipped to handle things better. My DMs are full of people who adore the BBC - and are spitting blood about the handling of this.
Yes - to make my familiar points – BBC local radio is too expensive. It must be run more economically if it is to survive. But - as I have been writing since my blog began in 2009 - the BBC will randomly cut out the wrong organs and eventually suggest the patient is too poorly to save. I wish I had more confidence in it to behave otherwise. It has never really understood local radio.
I always argue that if you have appointed the right Man Eds - and give them responsibility to organise their own operations within appropriate guidelines - they will come up with solutions which reward the right people and serve their specific local audiences.
To the hard working person who loves the BBC – at whatever level - sitting reading this tonight – and getting up at dawn tomorrow for a job you fear you may not have in future - you deserve better.
To the managers handling upset people by your desk asking questions you cannot answer. I feel for you.
And to the listener – you deserve better too. I am not sure that the current strategy on-air generally reflects what you want. It certainly is not what the many research projects suggested.
If I have a criticism of the BBC - an organisation I would die for - it is the fact that the BBC's unique role means it becomes over-focused on itself rather than those it serves.
Tim Davie, you have a job to do.
Am I wrong?
RELATED BLOG: Is there a future for local radio?
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Some staff comments from my DMs. Abridged and redacted for confidentiality:
We have senior XXX that do precisely nothing and earn a fortune. Indeed when asked to do anything they don’t want to do they throw in the sick card.
I can’t believe how badly today was handled. For staff (even Editors) to read detail on Radio Today that hadn’t been shared internally is unforgivable.
Yet people like XXXX never have their roles put at risk when they steal a living from the license fee payer. Sorry for ranting at you…
We have new producers that have breathed fresh air into the place with new ideas and a passion for radio, they will now go. The ones who stay will be those who are tired, bored, resist change at every turn and harp on and on about how good things were back in the day. They don’t work hard, they don’t need to they’re safe!
I’m 24, a XXX, a former XXX and, now, at risk of being made redundant. I’m appalled that it’s only my band and the band B workers at risk of compulsory redundancy. I hope there’s some way we can bring about change, in whatever form, but not cutting the talent of the future from the BBC ranks.
There are other managers who from the day I started to this day I don’t actually know what their role is.
Badly managed and badly communicated- by an organisation which is self obsessed and has forgotten about its product and those who would consume it.
Enthusiasm is not embraced. You have a good idea and it takes months to put into practice because it has to go through so many layers. I love this place but it needs someone with passion and an ability to ‘make things happen’ to move it forward.
Have lost my passion for it all. XXXX has a station manager, three assistant managers, two senior news editors and a senior journalist manager. None of them do anything to directly shape output, apart from the two news editors who just go round saying no to stories that are suggested.
No answers. No vision. While I agree there were too many staff presenters, the management structure is the biggest problem.
I’m trying to remain pragmatic; I’ve had XX years of wonderful opportunities, presenting, reporting, bulletin reading and more. There are a lot worse off than me, and are going to be.
To see the problems from outside is so reassuring for those of us who have to face the problems within on a daily basis. It's been an intoxicating long rudderless period of uncertainty and lack of care and direction. Today was the definite proof we expected, but really didn't want to experience.
Myself and colleagues I've spoken with today have never felt so low.
I have no idea how these managers are so protected. You’ve run amazing stations with 20% our staff numbers, focussing always on the output. We’ll never learn.
The real question to ask is if the BBC is serious about appealing to non metropolitan, C2DE audiences - who pay their licence and have as much of a right to services as everyone else, why starve local radio of money, and WHY does Radio 4 swallow up HALF of the entire radio budget. I have worked at numerous radio stations within the BBC who are all scraping around for cash, while R4 sails on, doing half as much for twice the cost.
I’m told managers didn’t know about the shared late show. They were told by the Unions
I have never seen such a shambles. ....we haven’t been told the whole story. Strip out a layer of management and the jobs done. Instead a whole series of contortions and pissing off the very people we need to keep working well. And at a time when they’ve been working long hours to tell the Covid story and connect our communities
I can’t believe management and SBJs are being protected. They will end up at XXXXX with a station of managers and legacy SBJs and no one to actually make the radio.
It would just feel easier if it felt that those guiding from above had any idea what they’re doing