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Journalists have always had their critics. Back in the days of typewriters and carbon paper complaints would arrive in the post, often scraw...

02 March 2012

My Take On Myers

As anyone taking the trouble to navigate here will know, John Myers' report into the options for savings in BBC Local Radio is out. The full text is here, and as it's already been summarised to death I won't repeat that process. I would like to pick up, however, on a few themes.

 Too many chiefs ....

The wisest advice I ever received about the BBC came from an old-time PR man who took me under his wing when I was a bright-eyed teenager. Ron did public relations in the days when journalists drank Scotch at 10am news conferences. He lived his ideal of always looking prosperous, with a smart suit and cigar,  even if he only had tuppence in his pocket.

"Richard" he said one day, "Just remember they're civil servants with microphones"

Fast-forward forty years and Richard's trying to grasp the antique software Myers derides in his findings whilst on placement at the Beeb on a secondment to update skills for the all-digital newsroom.

I'm also trying to fathom out if the workmanlike but quaintly old-fashioned package I've managed to construct (but can't save - Capita having screwed up my privileges) needs to be compliance checked by the Man Ed, the Asst Man Ed (Actg); The News Ed; the Drive producer or the nice bloke in the corner who sorted out my swipe card.

I wouldn't for one moment suggest the guys with titles aren't working hard, but the Byzantine links between the roles need to be simplified. And how.

These are creative people with (in most cases) a wealth of experience, so let's get them down on the shop floor making great radio. Cheers, Ron <clinks tumbler of Johnnie Walker>

Sport. It's the Wild West.

Sport is a vital ingredient of Local Radio, and everyone involved knows it.

I was horrified to learn from Myers that local Man Eds are expected to barge into the board room down at the Cloggers (figuratively speaking) and negotiate their own rights to broadcast games. Whatever deal they reach, Beeb central will pick up the tab with no direct consequence for the individual station; it just racks up against central LR costs.

Try, just try to imagine what those negotiations are like. Go on.

The kid at school who probably liked Jane Austen and was regarded as a bit creative is sent in to bargain head to head with the kid from 4B who ran the Greggs' supply racket in smokers' corner. I wonder whose objectives will prevail in that deal? Especially when there are no actual consequences.

Meanwhile it seems Jim Jockstrap is absolutely required to read sports bulls all day from a separate studio because Felicity ffarnes-Barnes on news doesn't like football and can't be trusted not to give the Arsenal - Man U score as "six - love" if left to her own devices.

The arrangement suits both parties, so the sport team will reinforce difference at every opportunity. The sports specialists are steeped in loyalty, mystic codes and the need to band together against outsiders. In many stations they've become a fiefdom. No-one would accept that finance or education stories need separate readers all day - so get real.

News is sport. Sport is news. Live with it. One reader, certainly outside Breakfast and (just maybe) Drive.

They're all kids.

The average listener to BBC Local Radio is aged over fifty. The average BJ is in their mid to late twenties. Result - mismatch.

A typical desk journo on shift right now probably thinks a Bay City Roller is a pimped-up Bentley in San Francisco. The phrase 'Olde English Spangles' evokes no reaction whatsoever.

I've banged on before about the need for diversity in news and Myers effectively underscores that point. We need much more age diversity in news teams as well as an ethnic spread and a voice for wheelchair users. The Beeb should seek out and utilise older journalists (says Richard from Leeds, GSOH, aged 52 3/4 WLTM open-minded News Ed for a bit of creative treatment on the side with no strings attached).

The equipment doesn't work and the studios are falling apart.

Bin it. Buy the journos some iPhones. End of.

Louise Easton of Bauer played some cracking audio her team had filed that way to a rapt Leeds Trinity Journalism Week audience yesterday. The technical quality on 3G wasn't perfect but it didn't pop and crackle anything like as much as the last UHF radio car link I heard on my BBC local. Doing away with that infrastructure would save a fortune.

The Beeb are screwed with bad premises because of decades' worth of gaming licence fee settlements with leases, leasebacks, and a spaghetti of financial instruments of the kind which got the country in hock to the bankers.

Not much can be done about that short term; but we need to think really creatively when the next High Street Czarina is appointed; maybe we could see prefab radio station pods 'popping up' in shopping malls rather than premises in 'cultural quarters' frequented largely by -er- other cultural types as opposed to actual C2 DE punters. Don't forget BBC Radio Leeds started life in a mall, in its case the Merrion Centre.

Radio England.

I've said before that I reckon Radio England is a bad idea so I won't reiterate those arguments.

Myers disagrees. He says that evening programming is not sufficiently distinctive and reckons the network as a whole would benefit from a network programme presented by an original, committed radio animal with the wit, charisma and larger-than-life personality able (say) to to strike up instant banter on Englebert Humperdinck's chances in Eurovision from personal anecdote. Who can he have in mind for that role? We do agree that any host should not be a telly castoff with a good agent.

Myers is a bit vague about when an 'evening programme' would be scheduled. If he's talking early evening (1900-2200) that would conflict with specialist shows and would be constantly disrupted by sport. If he means 2200-0100 the idea has more merit but I don't see how the content would be sufficiently distinct from Radio 2 or Five Live.

So all in all Myers has come up with a positive and upbeat report which reflects his affection for BBC Local Radio. He may have mentioned a time or two he started off his career reading the 'lamb bank' feature on BBC Radio Cumbria. 

However, standing still is not an option; substantial changes will have to be made at BBC Local Radio under Delivering Quality First. If adopted the Myers recommendations would save around £11 million rather than the £15 million envisaged under the first draft of the DQF plans.

That process will still be painful for some; to speak of having 'saved' local radio is probably a bit simplistic, many people, probably dozens across the country, will be shown the door.

All in all, however, a sometimes much-abused poor relation of Auntie's family could hardly wish for a more kindly surgeon than John Myers - IF the Trust accepts the report, and then acts upon it.

6 comments:

  1. All good points and I agree with most of it, especially about breaking down the sports desk ghetto. Sport-interested C2DE listeners get just the right mix on R1 and Newsbeat is a pretty good model here: separate reader at Breakfast (usefully adding a voice to the mix) but part of the general news mix thereafter.

    But I disagree with you and Myers about stripping out layers of management. No doubt a laudable aim and few rank and file staff would disagree with taking an axe to roles not aligned closely with a discrete area of output. But Myers rightly notes high absenteeism rates and failures to properly manage poor performance. With HR outsourced to Capita, now all performance management rests with local management. A team of 50 staff,who on average, don't deliver as effectively as they might, are unlikey to be improved with only 3 people offering feedback, criticism and, when needed, an "honest conversation" or two. Dismissal of just one underperfoming staff member can quickly become a full time role lasting 6 months. The remaining, potentially developable staff would be neglected if the management team were to be stripped back as far as Myers suggests. If you and Myers can crack better performance management with fewer managers,you will be on to a winner!

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  2. Thanks Anonymous; I gather from your insights you're well placed to comment on the issues raised, and your contribution is appreciated.

    I agree entirely with your observation that teams need coaching, and that just 3 individuals to cope with the creative development of over 40 colleagues is a heavy, perhaps impossible, load.

    But maybe that view assumes you need the word 'Editor' in your title to develop a junior; the BBC could delegate the on-site mentoring process more effectively with SBJs reviewing BJs, BJs reviewing BAs and so on. What you could end up with that way is a more formalised version of 'learning by Nellie'.

    As for the 'taking six months to sack an underperforming staffer'; isn't that what Capita, HR Direct or whatever the outsourced personnel function is called this week is for?

    Forgive me if I'm being naive; in commercial radio the whole system is maybe a bit more brutal. In my day the underperforming BJ might find their rota consisted of an awful lot of lates followed by earlies, Bank Holiday shifts and holiday requests declined. They usually got the hint.

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  3. Richard, another very focussed blog, thank you.

    To me the KEY problems BBC LR has are:

    1. All speech breakfast ~ often young (trainee) journos asking off-point questions as they interview rather elderly listeners unable to express their thoughts briefly = DULL listening

    2. Trying to do 'specialist' shows in the evening AND at SAME TIME cover football matches that start late, over-run and are already covered on tv ! = women switch-off / VAST waste of MONEY!

    3. Presenters who are far too YOUNG to understand the 'lifestyle' of the older audience = no 'feel' for the correct topics to cover

    Len

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  4. Yup me again Richard and thanks for the earlier thanks!

    In reply to your two points (which I think may point the way in term of how things could be resshaped at a corporate level), things on the ground really don't help. The on-site mentoring ought to work as you suggest. As staff are developing, ambitious and keen, often the development can be done successfully by a non-titular "Editor". However, when it's not such positive feedback, those who have not allied themsleves with a "management" or "business-focussed" role, don't deliver the message. And of course, it's not helped by the unbalanced nature of the pyramid -- and union rules that prevent those on the same grade being managed by their peers (despite experience, aptitude etc). A typical team of 45-EFT staff might consist of 2 Editors/Ass Eds. 5 SBJs and 3 BAs. The remaining 35 are all BJs -- none of whom can offer mentoring, to anyone but the 3 BAs. Daft!

    Incredibly, no, for all the money they're paid, Capita/HR Direct centrally play no role in managing bad people out of the business. It becomes a long, tiring process for local management: i.e. the Editor (usually alone, possibly with some support from the 1 HR Manager overseeing 1 or 2 TV regions: so with responsibilities for circa 450/500 people). Those Editors become quickly sucked away from all other day to day responsibilites -- and those I know who've been through it usually question whether they will put themselves through it, so unsupported, a second time.

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  5. Hi again Anonymous .. thanks for the further input and clarifications.

    I can see your case up to a point; but if I understand you right seven people at SBJ or above mentoring 35 BJs works out at five each.

    Surely not too much of an ask, especially as the system should allow felexibility for matching between individuals, so each mentee should have an empathic mentor?

    As for 'union rules' preventing performance management at the same grade I have no sympathy with that anachronism - presumably left from the GBH days, when a journo touching an engineering cable could provoke a strike.

    A BJ with (say) 3 or more years in post should not only be allowed, but should be postitively required to mentor new starters. They're actually in the best position to do so.

    I am appalled by the Capita nonsense you outline and if it were the Horsman report before the Trust I can assure you that supporting station senior management to wield the knife quickly, effectively and (ultimately) kindly would be a top priority.

    Long drawn out HR procedures are a cancer in any organisation, but especially in what should be close-knit, creative teams.

    Strategy should be to support local management's judgement - and if they occasionally get it wrong, accept the compensation payouts that may be required; that way is much less expensive in the long run than an exhausted manager and a demoralised, poisoned team for months on end.

    Thanks again your your input to the discussion.

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