Opportunities for BBC Local Radio

I’ve been trying to write a blog post about BBC Local Radio for a couple of months. It’s been really difficult because it all seems a bit of a mess. Here in the UK, the local radio network is 39 stations in England that provide local news and programming, and it’s about to go through a lot of changes that remove some local programmes and introduces more regional and national shows to save money to re-invest it into ‘digital’. 

‘Change’ whether for good reasons or not, can often be messy, difficult and uncomfortable. Like many, I’ve been through it on both sides – sucking up the changes as well as being responsible for implementing them. 

When introducing them, what I’ve found is you can reduce the pain by being clear, by being evidence-based and make any personnel affecting decisions quickly. It’s also essential to have the management implementing this to be across the detail and able to answer questions. They also need to be on-board with the plan. It’s also pretty essential to have an end date of the old way of doing things and a start date of the new way. The new way needs to be a new start and be the point when any staff who’ve been let go have departed. 

Rebuilding a team, and confidence, is tough, but it can be done with clear strategy and direction. Often coming through a tumultuous time, together, can be enabling for a team – particularly if they collectively work on the ‘new’ way of doing things.

Talking to BBC local radio folk, at various levels, shows that the key issue is actually the time this has all taken. Of course there are Union-related things to deal with, but the extended time on staff hearing the details of how they will be affected alongside the number of staff who know they have been let go, but still have to continue to work (sometimes for many more months) makes moving on particularly difficult. 

Moving Forward

Much has been covered online on the process and strategy that’s got to this point – David Lloyd has written a lot about it. I’m going to take a different tack and look at the challenges and opportunities of the new structure. 

As I understand it, the new structure splits off the news team and the programming team into two different groups. News will be a service provider to the local station. HQ will ‘commission’ local material from the station team – the on-air output, social media – and teams can pitch ideas to HQ to do new things. On top of that there’s other BBC departments, like BBC Sounds, who have a say on things like local podcasts. 

It seems like a functional management process rather than a locally managed one. News reports to news, programming to programme bosses etc. This isn’t something that’s unusual in large organisations. 

The challenge for the Local Programming team is whether they will be able to effect change and deliver on, I imagine, growing audience. If the News team is working into News HQ they’re unlikely to be focused on growing local station reach – I imagine they’ll be concentrating on delivering content for the station, for the TV region and online. 

So what levers does the local team have to increase audience? They’ll have the local breakfast and mid-morning shows, input into the regional ones and the sports programming. 

The reduction in staffing, particularly at weekends, and the move of the news team away from the local programming team will mean it will be very hard to do anything special. Activities that need ‘all hands on deck’ will be harder. Maybe it’s the Tour de France coming to an area, a football team winning the cup or a social action campaign – the things that aren’t in the wheel of the day-to-day shows will be hard to staff. What I think is the challenge, is that these are often the things that generate awareness and sampling – the things that grow audience. 

I’m not aware of any local marketing resource at most sites. 

To me the digital opportunity is potentially a good one. I think the idea that a BBC Local Programming team can create content for whichever platforms reaches licence fee payers in a local area is great. Not only does it potentially reach more people in a local area it can also drive sample of the local station too. 

With this, though, the local stations are somewhat stymied. Digitally they will be able to control the social media pages and will be able to put clips on their website (that they link to). Websites for local radio stations are long gone and as has been reported, the content created by local stations isn’t generally used by the BBC News website. 

If the aims were to reach people locally, digitally you would probably use Facebook – where much of the older audience are, but also Instagram and LinkedIn. TikTok use is also on the rise for all demographics as well. Most of these platforms are video-first and require some good skills to execute well. They are, together, probably the best way to grow BBC reach in a local area – and be the free marketing for the local radio stations too. 

Podcasts, potentially, are an opportunity to reach new audiences as well. Right now there’s little podcast knowledge and understanding by local teams, but that is something that can change. The new structure has a local podcast role. I hope this goes to podcast people rather than move staff to this role without podcast experience. The bigger issue is that the BBC podcasts are predominantly delivered by the corporation’s audio product, BBC Sounds. BBC Sounds have their own objectives, particularly driving reach of under 35s. Getting local podcasts launched seems to be the result of commissioning decisions by Local Radio HQ and BBC Sounds – if unaligned this could be difficult to get done. 

Even if BBC Sounds and Local Radio work really well together – the battle between what’s shown where in the app will still be a tough one. Would BBC Sounds want to promote a podcast about loneliness for over 55s?

Fundamentally BBC Local Radio doesn’t have a website it can control and doesn’t have an audio destination it can lead either. The resource to deliver social media is small – potentially now smaller with the BBC News team split off. As a real world example at the moment – in Norfolk there’s a Facebook page for BBC Radio Norfolk (65k) and one for BBC News in the East of England (330k followers) – which replicates the TV coverage area for Look East. I imagine the news team will be creating content for the latter rather than the former. 

For the BBC (or anyone really) to be successful locally it has to concentrate on three things – content, distribution and marketing.

If I was the King of Local my job would be to try and ensure that the local team is resourced to be great content creators for all the platforms that they can use to reach licence fee payers. They should have audio, video, social and podcast skills. Perhaps by managing two stations together this could be a better way to create this resource.

I’d then really think about platforms and access. FM and DAB radio transmitters as well as the stream provide opportunities themselves. What splits can be created, economically, to derive a better experience for listeners? Can this be done in regional and national shows as well as local ones. Gig guides, local news, travel, weather could be split a hundred different ways. If commercial radio streams can have local ads why can’t you drop in a local weather bulletin down to a town? Why shouldn’t national and regional shows be able to reference a clip from the local breakfast show. Can it be linked to, re-versioned as a social clip. Could it appear in a Newscast Norfolk podcast, spun-off from the national brand? Is it mentioned in a local daily newsletter? 

When you stop thinking about just a local radio station and think about being about content plus platforms to reach people, it’s incredibly freeing and lots of fun too.

I know many might read this and think “how could we do all than on this number of staff”? Well for my children’s radio station Fun Kids we run fresh programming from 6am to 9pm every day plus material for seven spin-off stations. We have seven weekly podcasts (ranging from science to stories, from streaming to activities) and usually a short-form series or two (on air at the moment a fully featured historical drama). There’s an updated website, a weekly newsletter and social content across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. We have two full-time producers, four part-timers and input from six freelance presenters. It’s all manageable, but you need to change the way you work. 

The final thing is marketing. Marketing is essential for any station (or content operation). The content can be marketing in itself – providing it’s deployed well on the right platforms. But also there’s a need to be visible locally. This doesn’t mean you have to have a roadshow every week, it could be as simple as having branded open/closed signs on shops supporting a ‘buy locally’ campaign or going to the chamber of commerce meetings and be able to broadcast the soundtrack to the fireworks. 

For me, though, the MASSIVE opportunity is using the BBC’s own media. All users of BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer have to give their postcode. Every bit of media streamed from Eastenders to the Archers has the users’ location associated with it. 

Why aren’t their pre-roll ads, post-roll mentions, or dynamic inserts that talk about the local radio stations. Why isn’t there the equivalent of a breakfast trail popped at the end of every In Our Time catch-up? Why can’t the national Newscast podcast have a ‘here’s what’s happening in your area’ section? Why doesn’t the streamed version of BBC Breakfast have an opt-in at the end saying what’s coming up on the local station’s mid-morning show?

The BBC announced that they’re working with Spotify’s Megaphone to do promos for non-BBC Sounds listeners on podcasts. What another great local promotional opportunity! 

I still don’t entirely know how the new BBC Local Radio setup will work. I worry, like many do, that the cuts and strategy will weaken local radio output and the ability to create local digital content. However, there’s absolutely nothing to stop it being a success too. 

New local websites and social channels have been launched by National Word. Older audiences have managed to re-tune radios to find Boom Radio, who are adding 100k listeners a quarter with some clever marketing and not much cash.

Fundamentally though, to achieve this the BBC local teams – both bosses and staff – will have to think about content, platforms and marketing – not just local radio shows. They also need to be aggressive about fighting their corner. As many of the other BBC departments are already excellent at doing.

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  • A good Media Podcast is up with Brett Spencer and Chloe Straw from Audio UK. We touched on Phil & Holly’s relationship (RIP), the move of programmes from BBC Audio to Studios and Carol Cadwalladr’s legal bills. Plus we speak to Dino Sofos and Ellie Clifford from Persephonica.
  • I hosted a session last week for Spotify and BBC Sounds last week which looked at the challenges and opportunities of a closer working relationship. Some good insights from Jonny Kanagasooriam, Mary Hough and Rowan Collinson, and good that they talk about it in the open. They’re two of the leading digital audio operations in the UK and hopefully we’ll see more companies happy to do something similar so everyone can benefit from good knowledge and experience.