New BBC Local Radio Evening Shows

Radio Today is starting to list the new shows that local BBC radio stations are launching at 7pm to replace their previously networked programmes.

It stems from a speech last year from BBC Director General Tony Hall where he said:

“Local Radio should be for everybody. It’s there to serve the Facebook generation every bit as much as the rest of us. My ambition for BBC Local Radio is for it to have more creative freedom, to celebrate local life, to be the place where we report local news but also the place we reflect local identity, nurture local talent and engage local audiences through digital platforms. I want to see a renaissance in Local Radio.”

It’s a great sentiment but it, and the announced shows, demonstrate the inherent conflict between building successful radio stations and delivering public purposes.

Let’s look at BBC WM’s new shows

BBC WM 95.6 has a different show each night on offer.

Samantha Meah, back on-air at the station after 20 years will host a Monday Night Party, and chatting about how it feels to be 50 in Birmingham and the Black Country.

DJ Vital, the grime, rap, and dancehall specialist from Wolverhampton, is launching his Tuesday evening show tonight (28th August), with arts and entertainment features.

Wednesday and Thursday evenings now play to the sound of Sasha Simone, The Voice finalist and former Brummie and bricky. WM says Sasha will tackle the issues that young people are facing and brings her own selection of music to the station.

The new schedule also sees BBC WM producer Lisa Smith debut her new Friday night music show, Lady Lisa’s Kitchen Disco, featuring the biggest songs from the seventies, eighties and nineties ‘to make a quiet night in feel like a big night out’.

At the moment 66% of WM’s audience at 7pm is over 55. I’m sure they’ll enjoy the new show on the Monday. I think Tuesday will perhaps be tough going. Rap and Dancehall fans will probably not entirely be on board with a speech show around young issues on Weds and Thurs, and those teenagers are unlikely to be into club classics on a Friday.

Across the whole station, 76% of WM’s audience is over 45 (and 59% is over 55). Over time their programming and brand values has led to local listeners understanding what it does. The closest thing they have to a youth programme – BBC Introducing on Saturday nights at 8pm to 10pm – already has no listeners under 45. Young people do not see BBC WM as a home for their ears.

Indeed, younger audiences on the whole, are not the appointment to listen generation. Their media consumption is driven by easy to understand branded environments – using channel choice as a tap to deliver something specific or a la carte on-demand consumption through services like Netflix, podcasts and Spotify.

It’s a similar story for ethnic groups and specialist music fans. A single show a week on a station that’s built no brand association with a topic has an almost zero chance of any ratings success. And when I talk about ratings, in this context I’m talking about something that demonstrates a target audience is consuming the programmes made for them.

The only thing that give these programmes any chance of success is through above the line marketing. Advertising the shows to existing listeners isn’t particularly helpful because as we know (for WM)  it’s predominantly 45+ (and 84% white). Promos after the local TV opt-outs is also not particularly helpful as TV and local news has an older average audience. So to tell people that these exist they’ll need to be investment in outdoor, direct mail, digital etc.

Now do I believe that the BBC should be creating local programmes for diverse audiences and should they be catering for a broad selection of local licence fee payers – including those under 45? Yes, absolutely – the problem is that the existing local radio station is not an effective delivery mechanism for this. Indeed it’s probably counter-productive as existing listeners will find their station is less relevant for them and it will promote the sampling of other stations.

It’s also not as if the BBC hasn’t realised ghettoising programmes on networks doesn’t work. Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra ran children’s programmes on those channels. What was the result? No children listened and it interrupted the flow for the regular listeners. They knew there was public value in kids shows, but hoping this audience would magically find and turn up for them was naive. The shows were axed and they now provide an online channel in the form of Cbeebies Radio.

So in a modern media environment what should the BBC do to launch programmes for broader demographics?

Firstly they need to establish a local brand and products that they can use to communicate to different audiences. They also need to integrate this into the BBC’s existing output.

Firstly I would re-imagine bbc.co.uk/derby or similar as a true local aggregation of content and information for broad audiences. At the moment it’s very local news-driven, instead it should be a bit more love of local life. It should be picking up a local band who’s performing on the BBC Introducing stage at Reading, referencing that a local stately home is hosting the Antiques Roadshow and featuring interviews with big names from the local area. It should be a digital product that can then highlight local content across all of the BBC’s output.

I also wouldn’t limit this to BBC platforms. A Derby YouTube page, Twitter and Facebook should exist, reaching the audiences where they are, and not being limited to local news and instead tuned to the demographics of each of those platforms. The BBC is perfectly placed to launch a local podcast for each area, again reaching out to people who have an interest in their area.

Secondly, new shows can’t just be one three-hour programme on the radio. If you’re trying to launch output that reaches particular communities, randomly choosing a single platform – the radio – to reach them is basically a gamble. Once again these shows should be mini-brands in all of the relevant places. The content should be platform agnostic. If your response to that is that we haven’t got the resources to do it – THEN YOU SHOULDN’T BE LAUNCHING THEM ANYWAY!

Thirdly, these shows should be able to be promoted programmatically throughout the rest of the BBC’s digital output. It would clearly be a non-starter to promote a local show nationally after Eastenders, but promoting the WM Asian show as a pre-roll to logged in Asian audiences in the West Midlands before catching up on Eastenders in iPlayer? A much better option.

Similarly all of the BBC’s digital output should be designed so local content can be traffic’d to reach the right audiences.

Fourthly, if you want local radio to reach new audiences, don’t mess up your existing channel, launch a new one. Spin offs, be it Absolute80s or 1Xtra have demonstrable success. With DAB, local Freeview and online there would be decent enough distribution to reach local audiences. Modern production techniques, voice tracking, re-using material and introducing new voices, all made by existing local radio production staff is entirely deliverable today.

A new channel would also be easier to promote to new people without complicating the existing, successful brands.

Launching a wave of one-off shows on local radio as a way of trying to grow reach and deliver to new audiences is based on outdated thinking about how modern audiences consume media. More crucially its a waste of the time and effort that all the teams will be putting into their content. If the BBC truly wants to reach new, local audiences, it’s got to think about platforms, marketing and the right content not just shoving 60-odd new shows on the radio, one day a week, at 7pm.

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.

BBC Local Radio/Five Live – Delivering Quality First

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.

Understanding audiences

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.

Modern 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.

Local programmes

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.

Building locations

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.

Transmission

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.

Local integration

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

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.

Content creation

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.