Back to BBC Local Radio

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.

7 thoughts on “Back to BBC Local Radio”

  1. A very fine post Matt. Good local journalism is at the centre of these stations but unless presentation, music and marketing is treated seriously nobody gets to benefit from it.

  2. Some interesting points. After years of hapless interference from London, the idea of giving local radio managers a budget and letting them get on with it seems to be flavour of the month.

    But what if, as you note, the current incumbents aren’t able to hack doing a meaningful re-design? Fire someone for being incapable? The BBC? I don’t think so.

  3. An interesting overview of the topic – thanks.

    Can I add that since Capital, SmOoTh, et al greatly increased syndication there is now a glut of very good, experienced presenters, and News staff, from these stations that BBC local stations would be WELL advised to recruit. They are KNOWN in/ know the areas, often financially comfortable so would work for BBC wages as they ‘love radio’. Indeed some PRESENTERS would do a better job of being station manager than the people who might recruit them !?

    We know that BBC = ‘job for life’ until now, whereas ILR* = ‘hang on to your job OR apply somewhere else soon!’

    Bring in good local, known, on-air personalites, use the existing Radio 2 daytime music list (take off the Bruce Springsteen Elaine Paige extremes) and let the (very competent) presenters CHOOSE the music. NO need to PAY a music person !

    Lastly, your comment “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”.

    Surely GWR were the ‘bad’ old days, DARK days for radio? Stations that previously, pre-93, crafted the music to each locality, had their Heads of Music thrown out for financial reasons, and Australian consultants told the PC/ Music person what to do.

    These changes led to an exodus from the stations of most of the ‘good’ people, leaving them staffed with ‘yes men’. I doubt if today’s presenters, BBC Local, or music programmers can learn ANYTHING from the GWR model? And don’t even mention those stations that let the Head of Sales replace Programme Controllers!

    There is VERY good and VERY bad BBC local radio, a simple ‘clear out’ of old wood, a great playlist, and fresh (enthusiastic) non-BBC style presenters, could vastly ‘hit’ ILR* where it hurts !

    Len

    * ILR (for younger radio people I do not think it anachronistic to use ‘ILR’; the people who kept trying to strangle it should squirm at what they did; using the name now is a Tribute to what was a great-sounding industry.)

  4. A very thoughtful post and a great reponse from my former boss, Len Groat. In my view the BBC could free up a lot of money for local radio by getting rid of the embarrassing local TV news programmes. No matter what part of the country I’m in, the contrast between the real news and the regional BBC opt-out never fails to make me squirm, if not actually switch the TV off.

    Even if the BBC can’t be persuaded to get rid of local TV altogether, why do they have so many local weather presenters? Here in the East Midlands there must be four or five of them that appear for a few seconds to tell us what the national weather presenter has already told us.

    I don’t actually like most BBC local radio very much at the moment, but I accept that the commercial sector isn’t going to bring it back, so I would welcome a greatly improved service from BBC local radio.

  5. Dave’s comment on local TV reminds me: I know it’s a little off-topic, but I’m amazed at how MANY different Sports presenters crop-up on BBCNew24, and how many are female and BLONDE! How many do they really NEED?

    Is the boss of the department a man, and do they really need to dress-up as if they are dashing off to a party in Kensington?

    They all act as if we should know who they are, but to me they look more like models than reporters ~ NOT very ‘newsy’ or BBC.

    I agree about the point on local tv news looking bad, but ITV is far worse; those tatty small yellow sets are straight out of 1984…

  6. I have a suggestion that would give greater local autonomy to all of the BBC local radio stations including Radio Humberside or should it now be Radio East Yorkshire & Humber. This could be done by an annual sum being given from the BBC licence money to a separate “BBC English Local Radio Company” who would then operate the English based radio infrastructure and support services network for the local stations separately from BBC News, where I understand that BBC Local Radio Management currently sits. Each of the 40 local stations in England would then be able to form their own local areas for co-operation as they felt appropriate, such as in Yorkshire – Radios Leeds/Humberside/Sheffield/York. This would be real localism without a ‘top-down’ solution being imposed from BBC Central. In addition the individual stations should be free to set-up ‘listener membership schemes’, similar to those run by many National Public Radio stations in the USA, such as WKNO Memphis (www.wknofm.org), which would further help to build the local station identity. The funding would still come via the BBC licence money but additionally there could be income from such membership support schemes. Currently many of these BBC local stations seem to have lost their local focus and should not try to ape the music being played on Capital FM, Smooth Radio or other commercial stations but offer alternative choice that reflects the audience profile of listeners.

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