In a previous post I talked about Delivering Quality First (the BBC’s plan to re-prioritise what it does based on the recent licence fee settlement). Since then the BBC management was proposing that £15m to be cut off BBC Local Radio’s £147m/year budget. Today, the BBC Trust’s Chairman has said, because of feedback from the audience, that those cuts should just be around £7m.
So we have asked the management to look again at the planned cuts to local radio. To see if they can find more money to protect the local identity of services:
- To scale back the plans for local stations to share their afternoon content with their neighbours, although we accept that in some cases that might still be the best option
- To ensure they have an adequately staffed newsroom
- And to give them a bit more freedom to protect some of their more specialist and content out of peak, whether it be rugby league or specialist music.
This isn’t a bad political compromise. The Trust are seen to be the ‘good guys’ asking Management to follow the views of the listeners and the BBC still get to make some savings, something they have to do, as the Government made them take on hundreds of millions of pounds of new costs. Though i’m not exactly sure, where they are supposed to save money – what’s left to cut?
However, it’s not all about money. BBC Local Radio still faces many problems. In my mind they’re a combination of evolution in the radio market, changing listener behaviour, structural problems at stations and management failings.
These aren’t all my thoughts, by the way, my last blog post on the subject resulted in emails from Editors and other Senior Management sending me their own DQF submissions.
DQF was a good opportunity to really tackle some of these things and put the stations on a firmer footing for the future. I hope that they don’t rely on natural wastage and voluntary redundancies to hit their targets and then just carry on business as usual.
The main issue for me is the tyranny of the newsroom.
These are broad based local radio stations that have news-led programming at the heart of what they do. There’s nothing wrong with this. However they are not news radio stations. Unfortunately, at the moment they sit in the news directorate and are (predominantly) led by news people. Editorial judgement is an important skill to have, but you need to be a professional radio programmer as well. Some Editors are both, but not enough.
Executing a successful radio station is difficult. In each of their markets BBC Local faces significant competition from both local and national stations. Providing one strategy driven from the centre (a la Capital and Real) is easy when your proposition is music-orientated. BBC Local is personality and news led. Each market needs to be programmed to reach the needs of each individual community – to do this needs strong local programming skills.
Some of the under-performing stations biggest faults could be fixed through music and presentation coaching.
Music scheduling is difficult and if I didn’t have the skill to do it myself i’d always rather take a solid network log. I imagine whoever runs the current log gets a disproportionate amount of grief, mainly from people who don’t know as much about music as they think. The problem is that BBC local stations have different TSAs with a different competitive set. Music needs to be tailored for the market. In the old GWR days we had 5 logs that you got depending on who your competitors are – it’s not a bad proxy if you haven’t got the music programming talent to do it yourself. In the new world these stations won’t be able to provide the volume of speech-led shows, enhancing the music scheduling will be vital to future success.
One thing that every BBC local station should be doing with their talent is adequate coaching. If they’re not doing daily reviews with Breakfast and weekly reviews with other air talent then there is something wrong the management. Quality is not just about having the right mix of stories. Reflecting listeners lives with presenters who speak to them and their needs is vitally important.
Websites. BBC Local Radio must be be the largest radio stations and the largest network of radio stations in the world without a website. Links to BBC Programmes and a schedule just don’t cut it. Listen to the way the web is described on-air, it’s painful. Radio is so powerful because of the close connection listeners have with the people who speak to them – the website should help and support the station and its output, not just tell you the local news and when a presenter’s on – especially when the description is:
Your Tuesday starts with Paul Damari’s three day weather forecast, a top tune for this day in history and the early paper review. Traffic and travel, showbiz gossip and two songs from Toto.
Finally a note on the money. Much of the DQF announcements were prescriptive things from the top. If you have the right managers all you would need to do is say to them is this:
“Hey, you used to have £1.8m per year, you’ve now only got £1.4m a year. Sorry! It’s up to you how you spend your budget, but you’ve still got to continue to provide high quality output for 19 hours a day. If you want to network with a neighbour, that’s fine. If you want to change your shift pattern to lose a show, fine. It’s your radio station, we trust you, and will help you if necessary.”
So, in summary:
1. Use the new budget to re-design a station, from scratch, that’s built for today
2. The newsroom is not the most important thing at a local radio station. It’s up there, but it isn’t number 1.
3. 40 personality-led radio stations cannot be centrally managed like a music-brand.
4. A radio programmer needs to run it
5. Local management should have the flexibility to run it to satisfy their audiences and provide public value
6. If they don’t/can’t do what they’ve been asked to they should be fired.
7. Presentation staff should receive high quality coaching. Just because you’ve been their 20 years is not an excuse for being a bit rubbish.
8. A radio station in 2012 is more than just the quality of it’s local news – from music, marketing, presentation to web and social – that’s what needs to be protected and supported.