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09 March 2016

Set BBC Local Radio Free

BBC Local Radio has a lot in common with Higher Education.

Both are publicly funded, albeit in different ways. Both are stuffed with passionate, clever, articulate people who put up with a lot because they love the job that they do.

And both are plagued with a bureaucratic culture which forces the very people who should be leading the organisation to spend far too much of their time being conspicuously accountable through either writing or responding to endless reports.

There's another such report on local radio out this week. I've lost count of how many there have been. I'm not going to try summarising it because, frankly, I haven't got the will or the energy to do so and besides David Lloyd has already written a brilliant commentary on it.

I'm going to spend my time in this blog proposing a solution. The bosses aren't going to like it.

The biggest problem with BBC Local Radio is the chain of command. In the early days, each BBC local station was a self-contained fiefdom in which visionary managers like Ray Beaty at Radio Leeds would try stuff out. Some of it would work, and some of it would be awful.

The station sound varied hugely from one location to the next. Jingles, theme tunes, straplines, all the bits the 21st century industry calls "imaging" were made up as they went along.

The "BBC" bit of the name was often lost in listener's perceptions, always a problem when a publicly-funded service tries to justify its existence. I might be the biggest fan of Radio Grimethorpe but still grumble when my TV Licence came up for renewal.

A rational response to this, from the viewpoint of network centre, was to roll out national initiatives. Create a framework, a template, into which each station manager would sketch in the local detail.

All-speech breakfasts. Common sonic IDs, with a big booming "BBC" motif to emphasise the point. Distinctive specialist progs in the evenings. Dave and Sue. Forget Dave and Sue, just more Sue. Scrap all the specialist crap, have a network evening show. Get jocks to Tweet about their shows. More music. World War One commemorations. More authority. More fun. Stop jocks Tweeting anything about their shows. Female breakfast hosts. More impact. More friendliness.

The problem, as is obvious from the above, is that like the Tribbles on the Starship Enterprise, warm cuddly initiatives, each one lovable and logical to adopt by itself, can soon breed out of control and clog up the works. We're back to the parallels with HE again.

When management time is focused inwards, trying to protect creative staff from the worst of the  bureaucracy whilst simultaneously trying to find ways to reconcile the contradictions, it's difficult to keep the minute by minute listener experience front of mind.

Meanwhile RAJAR tells its own story. The Beeb's long-standing critical friend John Myers has been crunching the numbers, and they're not cheerful reading.

BBC local audiences are declining by most metrics. Each local listener costs the licence payer more each year. Look more deeply though, and there are some stations struggling against the straitjacket. Rural and non-mainland operations start at an advantage, but that doesn't explain all the variations between otherwise similar rural and metropolitan setups.

Some are doing a lot better than others because one size doesn't and never can fit all. Trust me, I know that all too well, trying to teach front-line journalism effectively in a system designed to facilitate the learned appreciation of 19th century Sanskrit poetry.

My solution is to let the local managers manage. Have a bonfire of the initiatives. There's not a lot to lose, in the current climate what's the worst that can happen? The BBC has forgotten that distinctive local regions have different characteristics. An editor who has spent a few years, or better still a working lifetime, in one of those patches is in a far better position than a London-based executive to recognise what those characteristics are, and to respond to them.

This radical proposal would require a major culture change at the Corporation, not least in the attitudes to tenure and remuneration for those in charge of stations. Those who drive up audiences need rewarding. Those who preside over decline must be removed. Stations that don't improve over time would be closed, merged with successful neighbours or relocated to other bases, with all-new leadership, to try again..

No existing manager should be forced to take on one of the new high-risk roles, which might mean a loss of status for those who opt for a safer perch. It would be a change analogous to the introduction of local mayors in place of council leaders and committees.

When the numbers are in, some stations will have done better than others.

That best practice can be shared with but, crucially, not mandated upon those less successful. The result should then be a colourful patchwork quilt of local excellence rather than a bland duvet of corporate compromise.


3 comments:

  1. I've built a blog over 6 years which has won best European blog twice, and been in the top 5 science blogs worldwide. A summary of each new post goes out by email to over 2000 subscribers. But no local BBC station will allow me on air to talk about it because its subject matter does not fit the carefully controlled BBC narrative on 'global warming'.

    This morning on BBCR4 today we were treated to SIR Edward Davey (knighted for services to destroying our country's energy generation capacity) telling us that Gas power is more expensive than wind power, black is white, up is down and in is out.

    Until the BBC allows a richer variety of viewpoints onto its airwaves, it will continue to lose audience share to the free open internet. End of story.

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  2. Not sure I agree that there is a "carefully controlled BBC narrative" on this or any contentious issue - all the editors I know strive to be both fair and independent of outside pressure - but thanks for having a say.

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  3. A precise blog Richard - and indeed a good answer to the HUGE problems BBC Local Radio has...

    Yes, there are good and poor stations as regards ratings/ sound, so YES sack the managers and senior producers on the failing ones.

    But at the same time face the FACT that 50+ listeners grew-up with nearly ALL MALE radio stations, and forget the 'gender balance', politically correct approach to radio.

    And FORGET all these 'academies', networking days and training courses; employ talent from LOCAL hospital radio stations, all of them over 40!

    Lastly, SACK Tony Hall for allowing this mess to fester.... he's playing with people's careers and lives.

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