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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Re-arranging the furniture at BBC local radio

“I understand how you feel, because it's a little bit like I've come into your living room and I've rearranged the furniture, and I need to make you feel comfortable again.” Chris Burns BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning

I wish I were prouder of my hometown these days, but hey, we have a mayor now, so just maybe there could be some welcome vision.

It was odd, however, that my local BBC radio station was not across the result of the election of this first ever mayor for Nottingham and Derby in the way I would have imagined.  If you’re going to claim to be local radio, then here’s something you should throw your arms around. It’s a matter that cuts across politics into real lives.

The Friday afternoon announcement of the result would always have real resonance – but whilst there were boots on the ground with several skilled, able journalists on the job - the station chose to continue sharing live programmes with Leicester.  That would always cause operational and editorial challenges – and it’s not the approach they’d sensibly taken with other elements of the campaign.

There was build-up and follow-up coverage relevant to individual parts of the whole patch, but obviously broadcast to audience including those with no interest.

The drama of the announcement was missed as the station was in the middle of pre-recorded split messages promoting sport and travel. Then, reaction and follow up was incorporated – but served, of course, also to Leicester. I used to live there. Not only do many there not give a fig about Nottingham, they dislike the place in typical neighbourly fashion. As one Leicester listener told me: “Big feature on it now going out on Leics and it has no relevance to us”.

This is not having a bash at the teams involved. Election work is exhausting – and there were many brilliant moments of challenge and insight across the whole campaign period in local hours. I know many of the individuals involved – bright, able, committed and hard working. It’s not their fault their diligent efforts over the whole period were compromised at the very climax.

I know some share my concerns. After I posted about this issue on social media, one staffer dropped me a quiet message suggesting how much he wanted to ‘like’ my message – but ‘others had been spoken to’ about such behaviour!

I suspect my complaint to the BBC will not get far, judging by the fruits of my two other complaints about similar matters on BBC local elsewhere in the UK. One response failed to mention the next stage required before one is permitted an Ofcom referral - and did not reply to my follow up. The other took three months to earn a half-hearted reply (commercial radio is regarded as non-compliant if it fails even to respond to Ofcom in 28 days). The BBC complaints process is wholly flawed and the broadcaster which should be most accountable is least accountable.

Should East Midlands’ stations have made logical decisions about  programme-sharing at the time of the result? The BBC has said that it would adjust programming when required: “…in times of need, please be assured, all of our stations have the ability to provide local programming”. There are several examples where, whilst some stations have reacted sensibly to seriously adverse weather, others have not – sometimes owing to resourcing issues rather than questionable decisions.

But should we be bothered?

This cuts to the heart of the issue. Is local radio a thing anymore – or is it just old folk waffling on about the good old days wanting to work on programming that no-one wants to listen to these days.

Chris Burns, BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning, was, at last, a guest on Radio 4’s Feedback programmes last week, hosted by the great Andrea Catherwood.  I like Chris and know her of old and refuse to join in with social media silliness about an individual, but I have to take issue with much of what she said.

“The first thing to say is we still have 39 local radio stations across England…sometimes we have been misunderstood…because people have almost assumed that we're turning off our local radio stations at a certain hour of the day and that's not the case.”

It that true? In the submissions to Ofcom, the BBC stated it would incorporate material from all areas across the region in shared programming. Whilst it did for the Election – much to the chagrin of people not in the least interested – many routine shared programmes contain little local relevance whatsoever, save for the news, sport and travel nuggets inserted. For much of the time, these stations aren't really what they were.

The BBC misled Ofcom in its assurances; and I hope monitoring pledged by the regulator identifies this. Some broadcasters are told to mention nowhere in their patch - lest they annoy someone somewhere else.  And, although Chris suggests the East Midlands is a happy cohesive region, she knows from her own background here that it really isn’t – let alone the programme sharing regions invented wholly by the BBC.

“You will also have a bigger presence now on Sounds than we previously had. There's a local rail that's there. We are doing much more in the digital space”.  Chris Burns, BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning, BBC Feedback

The local rail. That term puzzles many. Nothing to do with trains, it is the slice of local audio content on the Sounds homepage (/sounds) if you happen to be logged in with your local postcode.

No-one disputes that the BBC should do more online – nor that people increasingly go online for news. We know that’s true. But is this ‘local rail’ doing what local radio did?

Firstly, it is different in tone and style. Some people in the UK have never experienced the very best local radio – the sort that soaks up the spirit and character of the place.  This has now been compromised hugely by networking and – and the BBC shows how little it understands of it by often hiring and firing the wrong presenters.

There is, of course, some stunning content on Sounds of which the BBC should be rightly proud, delivering huge audiences.

“We've got fantastic storytellers. You know, look at a series like Undercover Spy Cops that Andy Whitaker did in Nottingham. You know, those are stories that wouldn't be told without those local storytellers”.  Chris Burns, BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning, BBC Feedback. That local storyteller has now been made redundant. He knows his patch through his local radio role.  

Alongside great efforts like Andy’s and others - there’s also a lot of stuff people are labouring hard over which few people are hearing.

The other thing about Sounds is its unaccountability. Beyond the boasts of the biggies, we are not told how well this public investment in Sounds content is paying off. We do not know the costs of its elements and there are no safeguards to ensure it remains distinctive from what others in the market might wish to produce.  The BBC has its own local data dashboard – but unlike Rajar, we don’t see it.

Across a single week recently, I gather the mighty BBC Radio Merseyside team amassed 2,244 clicks for its Sounds content. A piece of that content would have been heard by ten times that number when aired on the radio station at 2.00pm. (By the way, this station is one of the Top Ten stations that week – there are many with lower figures!). A negligible proportion of clicks for this content and that of other stations is from the under-35s. Not a great deal of interest in work generated by, I am told, around 45 full-timers across the network.

This sits at odds with the BBC’s objective of “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”. The BBC misquotes this as ‘universality’ – a word that appears neither in the Charter nor the Operating Licence.  Dirty big transmitters, for which we pay handsomely, are a great way of serving a lot of people at once. If you then wish to place content on Sounds – good idea. 

“We've been investing in digital services in terms of news online, and if you look at our news online figures, they've increased by 20%.”  Chris Burns, BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning, BBC Feedback

Is that all?  All this change for just that gain, some of which has been achieved by better channelling of traffic. Given the size of the online journalistic effort, the amount of content online and its navigation and timeliness remains poor. Add up the number of local stories online and divide that by the number of staff, and I suspect we’d see an interesting figure.

Let’s cut to the truth.

If one accepts that news consumption is moving online – which it is – there was no need to sacrifice local radio to deliver more. They are two different matters. There are many ways of saving cash if you need to – and many sensible BBC staffers will tell you how if you ask them. And most sensible folk within and outwith the BBC could easily run the stations on a fraction of the £100m+ still available.

The fact is that the BBC doesn’t like local radio. It wants to move on from it. I am told that in an early meeting on the re-modelling, DG Tim Davie observed that these are changes he would have made even had he not had to for financial reasons.

“In 2003, local radio had an audience of over 8 million. What we've seen happening since then is local radio audiences have declined.”  Chris Burns, BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning, BBC Feedback

A large proportion of this decline, Chris, is because they’ve been run very badly for years. Whilst some dedicated managers and staff have tried their best, the latest head office foolishness has ensured audiences are eroded - including the change in targeting from 55+ to, well, nobody in particular. Now I’m told it is quietly back to a 55-64 remit. The BBC has neither understood nor valued the best presenters over the years and not acknowledged what drives local audiences.

I agree utterly with the BBC, however, that the future in local will be different.  Many of those listening to BBC local radio now have a particular relationship with radio and expectation of local radio. That will not be the same in twenty years’ time. There will always be a case for local audio, particularly in proud local areas – often smaller ones – but in the future it will indeed be served in different ways.

But that’s the future. The BBC is also charged with serving today’s audiences. There is demonstrably a ready audience in many communities still, particularly from older audiences, for traditional local radio. They depend on it. They value it. It’s expensive to do – so commercial radio struggles with providing it – so the BBC either should do it or give the cash to those who will.

The BBC doesn’t like local radio. It wants to spend its time and effort doing sexy things it fancies - in an ill-judged strategy to make itself as big as it can to prove its case for a hefty licence fee funding model. Hence the sudden appetite for yet more national radio channels. These include the Radio 2 spin-off to serve older audiences (the very folk local radio used to address), when, actually, that plan is just a way of freeing Radio 2 to pursue commercial radio’s 25-44 heartland without compromise.

Similarly, the local radio changes are actually just a quiet way of starting to wind

-down local radio on the pretext of freeing cash for ‘digital’.

Should we not expect more honesty from the BBC? There are some great people there – but, as at the Post Office, it’s just too easy to get caught up in self-preservational groupthink.

“Because at the heart of what local is, and it always has been, it was the image of Frank Gillard when he set it up in 1967. It's about actually giving local storytellers a platform to tell their stories…. He was a visionary and I think if he was around today, he'd be doing digital. I think he would be doing digital."  Chris Burns, BBC Controller of Local Audio Commissioning, BBC Feedback

Hmmm.  Frank battled against much the same misunderstandings from head office in the ‘60s. Were this determined figure here now, I suspect he’d likely cluck and say: ‘They never wanted it. They never liked it. And now they’ve got their way. Bastards”.

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