News leaked a little while ago that the BBC’s DQF (Delivering Quality First) team were thinking about ‘networking’ BBC Local Radio with Five Live – that’s local radio at peak time and Five Live for the rest.
All of DQF has been a bit odd, the main aim seemingly floating multiple ideas simultaneously so it makes it difficult for the press to pick up on any one particular. Also it gives the BBC management some plausible deniability as they can argue these ideas have bubbled up from the staff and have been ‘out there’ for a while, so it won’t seem like a surprise when they make their final decisions. I think that is, perhaps, wishful thinking.
The bottom line is that with the licence fee frozen and the BBC forced on taking on more operations (World Service and the like) they’ve got to significantly cut costs. It’s also the kind of money that’s difficult to achieve through salami slicing. The BBC needs to think differently and instigate significant change to make these savings.
Ideas like merging local with Five Live do tick the box of thinking big, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. The idea is that there’s about £30m of savings – getting rid of Five Live’s AM network and cutting staff locally. To give some background, BBC Local (not including Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland) costs £137m a year and Five Live costs 72m a year.
The licence-fee payer reason that it won’t work is that it causes major upheavals with two successful networks, both have very different audiences and they both do different jobs. An internal positive is that it will enhance Five Live as it will bring it to an FM audience who don’t currently use it. I think that’s a big gamble.
What isn’t acceptable though is just saying no to something. There needs to be money-saving changes, so if I disagree with something, it’s only fair that I come up with my own suggestions.
My main caveat is that I’m not an expert on BBC Local Radio. I’ve some experience at looking how stations can be run and i’ve got friends at a variety of local radio stations, so hopefully these aren’t shots in the dark. Also, of course, it would be nice not to do these things, but there needs to be some financial savings.
The tone of this is going to be quite brusque and I know this is of little comfort to the people who do a great job every day working for these stations. However, I still think it’s better than the Five Live option.
The concept of networking the BBC Locals isn’t a terrible idea (it already happens regionally and Five Live overnight), but in today’s world shoving on another network isn’t the solution. If we’re going to share programmes lets at least make ones that are specific to the local radio network.
First, let’s do some research across the network and identify the tastes and interests of the audiences and whether different competitive make-ups affect the kinds of programming that people want from a local service. Let’s say there might even be one or two different feeds. Either way, we’re going to put those network shows into one building, say Birmingham.
This will be the beginning the network team – who’ll take significant responsibilities from the local stations. National news and sports audio cuts, all music scheduling, all audio production, promo scheduling – in fact anything that doesn’t have to be done by a local team falls to network. At the moment, there’s massive role duplication across the network that needs to stop.
We need to make some decisions about how many of the shows are locally orientated. Let’s aim for 6am to 7pm weekdays and enough on the weekends to cover sport. However, out of breakfast let’s dispense with the need to be all-speech. The exact mix should be based on the talent at each site and the competitive set of each market.
One of the biggest ways to save costs is to cut the number of physical locations the stations come from. So, for brevity, some speedy rules. If you have any field offices, they close. Sorry Radio 4 – your contributors can use Skype or a phone. If you’re co-located with telly you keep your building. If you’re (relatively) near somewhere else you’re moving in with your neighbours. Lets punt that half the stations will lose all their buildings. Local newsgathering will predominantly tele-work out in the field with regional teams helping set up.
FM is relatively inexpensive for the number of people who can hear it. AM on the other hand is in massive decline. Unless there’s a sizable area that can’t get FM, all AM transmitters are off.
Get it out of News
BBC Local isn’t about news. At their core they’re personality radio stations with lots of content around local topics. It doesn’t belong in the ‘News’ division, it belongs with the radio people. So, from now on local radio is under Audio and Music – with any sensible back-office functions – research, technology etc, moved to the A&M teams.
At the least it’ll mean that local stations actually get some websites.
At the moment there’s the worst of both worlds – TV rarely integrates with radio, but management compete on salaries – making radio overly expensive. There needs to be a decision. Either proper integration, especially newsgathering, or keep it completely separate. It can work either way but it has to be 100% focused.
Management will need to be significantly restructured, firstly there’s lots of management – Editors, Assistant Editors, SBJs etc at the 40 stations. Our co-location and networking means that they’ll be less senior people needed plus they’ll be a headcount reduction to match the number of new locations.
Secondly, what these significant changes will mean is that they’ll really be a need for excellent leadership. The network needs a strong central operation and Controller and charismatic leaders in the field to deliver one vision.
Strong leadership is necessary as the structure of programming will have to change dramatically. Many of these stations have evolved with similar staff doing similar jobs for a long time- they share more with 80s ILR than they do more modern radio stations.
A significant structural change in these stations will provide an opportunity to re-imagine the way local content can be created and deployed – whether that’s live, as inserts or on the web and mobile.
I think it’s important that changes to ‘local’ aren’t just about cuts or Five Live mergers. There is an opportunity to save more than £30m and build a great local service that’s fit for tomorrow.