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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

The funeral of local radio

I can understand how DG Davie got to this place with local radio.

An expensive local radio network is costing a huge amount per listener to deliver – to a declining audience - at a time when an increasing number of things need to be done with a licence fee which may well reduce.

In his PepsiCo days, he would have axed this ailing soft drinks brand.

The local radio figures alone would have been quite persuasive. Indeed, a stark red graph was shown to Editors in 2020, showing the decline from around 100,000,000 listening hours in the year 2000 to under 50,000,000 by 2020.

The graph then projected the figures for 2025 and beyond 2030 - where the caption read ‘funeral of LR’.

The accompanying narrative suggested ‘the audience is finding its news and entertainment elsewhere’.

That narrative is correct, of course. There are now so many ways of discovering news – and we do not sit by the radio waiting for a newsflash or to see if our school is closed. We see it on your phones, or a friend does and tells us. And entertainment competition has grown. Things are changing – and the BBC local radio map and structure is ill-equipped for the 21st century. It’s wise to re-invent.

But how on earth he gravitated to the current ageist plan is beyond me.

I suspect there was no-one to speak truth unto power. Good old local radio has never really been understood by the BBC machine from 1967 to now. I fear top Corporation execs feel happier posing on red carpets, taking credit for how they're spending our money and talking about competing with Netflix than bothering overmuch about a lonely listener in Gateshead.

I have been blogging for over ten years on this topic. Today was always going to happen.

Where local radio tends to be done best is at the smaller stations. Out of the head office spotlight, confident managers can just nod to daft decisions by lanyarded idiots keener to progress rather than serve listeners - but then quietly get on and do rather more sensible things.

Key decisions about local radio are taken in London. Tim is a Londoner. London does not understand the power of local radio. That is also why it takes a disaster on the current scale to even make the press headlines. Most journalists do not realise the comparative scale of the BBC local audience even in its illness – amassing in England just half a million fewer listeners than Radio 1 and more listening hours.

Tim should have asked: ‘why is this red graph pointing down so quickly when the demographic is growing in size and few rival commercial stations are even treading on its toes?’ And questioned why loyalty is decreasing to such an extent that even when costs fell, this problem Pepsi was still just as expensive to provide per listener hour (5p).

Honest answers to those questions might have included the shoehorning of local radio into the news division for so long, where it was misunderstood. They might have included programmers having the wrong skillsets - and a lack of awareness of audience habits and the ignoring of research reports which illustrated well the real audience drivers. And BBC local radio self-evidently targeting 50+ poorly - and then deciding to target…no-one.

In terms of why it costs so much; he might have looked again at the John Myers report on over-management and asked why conclusions had not been better considered.

He might have wisely questioned why in 2017, detailed plans to cut costs sensibly were discarded on a whim and 15 hours of extra local programmes introduced. He might have asked about doubling the number of presenters on breakfast shows.

He might also have considered the areas which John was frustrated not to be able to investigate – leases and premises and the like. Why junctions and programme sharing were anomalous. Why staff attitude surveys were poor and absence levels so high.

I would also have asked about the cost of its studio system VILOR. Whilst I admire its technical innovation, the cost of development and of the mega training programme was high – and an inappropriate solution for today’s radio world, not least with buildings now generating so few programmes. Can anyone show me that the plan was economically sensible? It's a capital cost, I appreciate - but it is still our money.

There are so many exciting ways to progress local radio/audio to equip it for this century. I wrote to Tim about these and received a cut-and-paste reply from him and an acolyte. I’m not sure either grasped what on earth I was talking about.

For all his faults, at least the previous DG Tony Hall recognised the value of local:

“Local radio has helped to make people proud of where they come from and where they live, work and play. The output has been truly local but I sense, travelling around and talking with many of you, that’s something we’ve started to drift away from. And I’m determined we put that right.”

That was only in 2017. Maybe Tony should write to The Times about the current plans.

Digital first? Stop giggling. What does that mean exactly? As I’ve said before, there’s little which is not digital these days.

The prevailing view seems to be ‘radio is dying’ - much the same as it was when TV blossomed. No it’s not. Audio overall has never been healthier – provided in more ways than ever.

Linear radio’s audience is changing – and it will never reach its percentage reach highs again – but it remains huge. 89% listen to radio across a week. Amongst those aged 50+, where BBC local radio has proven most popular – that reach grows to 92%.

Over a month, it‘s calculated that radio reaches 98% of all adults. That to me does not smell like death.

Here are a few other stats.

77% of people don’t use Twitter – at all (Ofcom 2023)! Amongst those aged 55+, that figure rises to 80%. You can bung all the local chat on Twitter you like, but a small proportion of people will see it. Twitter is also increasingly not a contemporaneous medium – and Facebook is not designed as such. Posts often reach their zenith days later.

How are we – as citizens - supposed to access this ‘digital strategy’ for local news?

If we access it via social media, it is fed by the algorithms designed by others, influenced by the scale of post responses – even negative ones. I saw some election candidate statements from one local station on Twitter the other day – with a variety of impressions figures. As we know, people surround themselves on social media with people they agree with – their feed is no longer the carefully balanced channel of information which broadcast provides.

Aside from broadcast, the BBC website is probably the only platform the BBC controls. For a reliable news feed, are we just supposed to keep checking that? How often?

The ‘BBC Oxford page’, for example, this morning treats me to but one story from almost 24 hours ago – the rest of the page is all from 2 to 4 days ago. I’m sure they’re going to do it better – and they need to. Social media and digital has a huge role to play in the dissemination of news and information in today’s world. The lack of joined-up thinking between online and on-air has been laughable.

But let’s be clear - radio has a role too. It is huge. Only 11% of people do not come to radio in a week. The medium offers a chance to discuss, analyse and comfort, social media does not do that.

As I’ve said before, I do not cling to the models of the past. With imagination, local news bulletins can be despatched in hyper-local ways even in national services. There are all manner of creative solutions to consider, bringing together community and BBC local radio - and drawing on lessons from the Local Democracy Reporter scheme.

Beyond news, there is the rest of BBC local radio content. If the BBC thinks that the companionship of the best local broadcasters is not worth troubling with – it should really close itself down. Had it hired more of those great people - and understood how to get the best out of them rather than just piss them off - audiences would be higher.

When the BBC took local broadcasters off-air under cover of Covid, made programmes too long and played music the audience disliked, it did indeed ‘make a difference’. It turned its back on its most vulnerable listeners just when it was needed most.

So – more programme sharing amongst larger regions? The alibi is offered that regional news on telly works, therefore regional radio will. Bunkum. Most TV viewers would rather have more stories about where they live – not a city next door they never go to. It works as it squats on a huge TV channel – is available on channel number 1 - following the national news, with little competition. And - to state the obvious - radio is not TV: listeners even define themselves by the radio stations they listen to.

Without proper local stations, the stature of local radio will diminish in local communities. The great campaigns they’ve been involved in, making a positive contribution to society will be absent.

A decade ago, anyone with an ounce of common-sense would have seen which way the wind was blowing in media consumption. They would have adjusted investment and staffing inch-by-inch to ensure that it was deployed in the right way – evolving local radio itself in a way fit for this century – more hyper-local not less, maximising the value of both online and radio content.

No. Instead they dismantle local radio at a stroke. I dread to think at what cost in redundancy.

And what of how the change has been managed? Reorganisation is part of any operation in today’s media world. It’s horrible. I’ve been on both sides of it. I can’t say I always got everything right, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it quite as badly as they have. The stories I hear are heart-breaking.

Firstly, it’s taken far too long. And from what I can see, the people they are losing are often the wrong people. Either because the wrong execs are choosing the wrong staff – or because the right staff are saying ‘stuff this for a game of soldiers’ and buggering off. Some people are being offered gigs far away from the areas they know and where audiences know them.

And I’m not sure the people who really deserve to lose their jobs have.

With any re-organisation, you start with the objective. If that is clear and sensible, you stand a fighting chance you might take some people on a defensible journey – even if you then have to lose them.

Then you do your best to ensure that the process reaches its conclusion swiftly, consistently, legally and humanely. The BBC’s performance is appalling, despite its surfeit of management personnel. The Corporation in so many ways simply fails to understand people.

Local radio is an expensive business. Significant newsrooms cannot be maintained across the UK without public subsidy. The public subsidy for local media is being managed by the BBC and the BBC is proving that it simply is no longer a fitting custodian.

£119m on content alone – plus all the transmission costs and the many other service costs not included - is a lot of money. It is easily sufficient for great local operations across the country in well chosen areas providing radio, audio and online content.

There need not be the local radio funeral, as predicted by the red line graph. But there will be if the current plan is carried out. Audiences will decline further. The BBC may as well close it down now – rather than waste further monies waiting for it to become so small that no-one will notice its quiet assassination.

Why walk away from local radio when 5.7m are listening? The audience could be much higher and the costs lower were it run properly.

I appreciate that the BBC’s priority is self-preservation and listeners rarely get a look in. But may I quote a few human beings from research this week I’ve been involved in? Of BBC local radio, they say:

"The music lost its appeal Many of our favourite presenters left."

"Not for my age group and they have no interest in public opinion but have their own agenda."

"BBC seem intent on abandoning their core listeners."

"Rubbish music and getting rid of all older presenters."

"Poor quality of presenters and music"

"They are not interested in our generation and to add insult to injury they make it abundantly clear."

"Radio station doesn't really serve my local area although it claims to"

"Because it is becoming less local and has really bad presenters"

The demolition of BBC local radio is little short of scandalous.

Dear Tim, this is new Coke. No-one will like it.

Dear Ofcom, this is regulatory capture. I find your analysis of this matter of sixth form standard. Could do better.

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May 05, 2023

Do you think this is worth saving? Or a good way to spend the BBC licence fee?

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