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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

Why radio matters

People are now getting their news online - so we are shifting cash from local radio to online to better serve our licence fee payers, says the BBC.

You might just as well terminate the Today programme on Radio 4. Or close down BBC One TV. Those two channels are about much, much more than news, as is local radio.

Anyone who knows anything about radio knows why people listen - from all the research ever conducted.

Whatever the format, the audience drivers are, at their heart, emotional.

It is the human voice that affords radio its key difference – cheering, empathising, explaining, exciting, sharing, confronting, debating, comforting.

Crying. Laughing.

“I’m going through a bad patch at the moment, but (Redacted) always lifts my mood.”

No-one wakes up in the morning and turns to a BBC online news article to get them in the mood for the day. No-one browses for a BBC news online article for a bit of cheer to accompany a busy but dull day. No-one reaches for a BBC online article for companionship on the darkest, loneliest of days.

Valuable though it is - no-one regards BBC online as 'their friend'. No-one defines themselves as a 'BBC online reader', as they do 'a Radio Derby listener'.

When people reach for their friends they turn to radio – and a human voice in their ear. Whether simply making a few songs feel special, chatting cheerfully – or having a conversation which challenges - amuses - or touches the heart. Listeners call in to radio stations to tell the presenter things they have yet to confess to their family.

There are some people at the Corporation who don’t get radio. And they certainly don’t understand it in its most intimate form. They get news – they don’t get radio. And - to be clear – the BBC was not established purely as a news provider; its Charter demands much more. These people are not up to the job.

One BBC local presenter tells of a listener who had not left her house for two years having been burgled. She phoned in. The station arranged for the police to visit to reassure and fix window locks. The next day, she visited the station.

And from the mouths of BBC local radio listeners themselves:

“Your show has helped me through the last year.”

“We recently lost my lovely Grandma who fell asleep one night and didn't wake up the next day. She was like that for 5 days before she peacefully passed away and each day you kept her company on the radio while my Mum took a break which was a great comfort to us all.”

“You've been a tower of strength & great solace to me over the years. You've made me laugh, cry & given me courage to face difficulties. Thanks so much for being you! Thank you for being such wonderful company over the years. Words can't express how much I will miss you”.

“I listened when we moved up and she kept me company during many tearful mornings surrounded by boxes. I doubted my sanity and felt very alone”.

“During Covid (presenter) and (presenter) saved lives”.

“When I did have my leg amputated, I was completely house-bound and your station was on all the time as that was the only contact I had with other people”.

“I've never met you but consider you a friend”.

“I don’t spend my time with just anyone. It’s a choice I make to spend time with you. Your intelligence, interesting and above all good company, my day would feel incomplete with you”.

“Just feel like I need to say thanks to you for getting me through when my mental health hasn't been good. Just being able to pop the radio on and hear two familiar voices that I know are coming from just down the road in the City Centre has made me feel so much better, sort of like a warm hug”.

“Sadly, both of my parents have passed away now but listening to the shows takes me back to the earlier days.”

This is radio. A one-hundred-year-old medium which 88% of people aged 15+ spend over 20 hours of their lives with each week (RAJAR) - even on linear alone - plus 84% of children. That’s more than TV, including on demand (BARB: 4+ adults - 91% monthly, 147 minutes per day).

Radio is going nowhere. It may be time-shifted, delivered on all manner of devices, defined in different ways - but people will always want some friendly voices in their ears. Forever.

BBC local radio best-serves communities outside London. The audience figures indicate how it is valued by those who are not blessed with as much income as others – and those who are older. The very people who should be able to count on their BBC are having it taken away by those who claim to know better.

Local online news does not compensate for assassinating radio stations. Every BBC savings and local strategic objective could be realised through running the local radio operations better - and larger audiences could be achieved were the orchestra not conducted by tone-deaf amateurs shifting from one ill-conceived strategy to another.

There are many answers to what local media should look like in this Century – and I’ve said many times that the present model is not best suited for this century. It’s badly run, poorly structured, poorly led, over-managed and over-expensive. But you have forsaken this opportunity for rational refocus in favour of a lazy half-baked plan which is crumbling around your ears.

Government is not best pleased – but cannot intervene directly owing to the arm’s length relationship – and Ofcom has yet to prove itself as a fitting regulator for the BBC.

The people, however, have spoken. Listeners have spoken. Community groups have spoken. Staff who care have spoken. And Parliament has spoken. This ill-judged attack on local radio cannot succeed. You have no moral authority to proceed.

I muse on the BBC’s motives. What do they really think? Do they just think radio is dying? Do they believe that local audiences are ebbing away overall and they may as well stop wasting money on it, without conceding the decline was their fault in the first place? Or maybe they just want to make a fuss so Government knows what to expect if it dares tamper with the funding model. Maybe they just want to appear 'modern' to their colleagues. Perhaps they just have not a clue how to run radio stations efficiently. Or just maybe the executives are simply over-promoted and not up to the job.

I say to the architects of this plan and to the BBC Board: your BBC contracts demand that you do not bring the BBC into disrepute. Your behaviour is in breach - not that of those you are preventing from speaking out.

If you have any self-respect and a belief in public service broadcasting, you will now be the first to raise your head and say you’ve got it wrong. Others will follow. That will restore the faith of the people in whose name you act.

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