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15 December 2011

Outside-In Thinking; Towards a New BBC

As time runs out for audiences to make their views known to the BBC Trust over its 'Delivering Quality First' proposals (the deadline is December 21st) it's becoming obvious that the BBC, in considering DQF, has been guilty of inside-out thinking.

Bosses started with their concept of the organisation. The corporate view. The London-centric view. Like so many organisations, they could benefit from some outside-in alternatives. What would listeners across the UK, the people who actually pay the licence fee, want from any restructuring?

The suits' starting point was to ring-fence Radio 4, granting it the status of a national treasure unparallelled in world broadcasting. To pay for that safeguarding other areas had to take a hit, including the BBC's 40 local services in England.

An outsider might instead look at what local radio can contribute to the national offering.

A rational review of the BBC's resources might start with allocating some hours of Radio 4's sacred airtime to showcase some of the best output from local radio; after all, as the Corporation is constantly reminding us, it's One BBC.

Use Radio 4's airwaves to let a national audience hear the best of what's happening in every corner of England. If it's really meant to be a national radio station surely that means representing the nation to the nation, not aggrandising a self-selecting London elite.

Sadly this is where metropolitan bias kicks in. The sort of ignorant, ill-informed argument that resists moving major programmes to Salford because any cultural life outside the M25 has to be inferior to that enjoyed in the capital. Siren voices, the usual suspects, will wail about dumbing down and a loss of quality.

I'll tell you about quality.

Last year I was honoured to be asked to be a judge for the Original Journalism category of the Gillards, BBC local radio's own in-house Oscars. A very large Jiffy bag arrived on my doorstep full of entries. I was blown away with the quality of the material. Any one of those entries was more deserving of a national airing more than (to pick an example at random) Libby Purves and the smug coterie who inflict Midweek on the nation at prime time every Wednesday.

Using that national peak slot to showcase just one 45-minute documentary from each BBC local radio station in the land would fill the best part of a year with quality material from the regions, and at the same time the chance to compete for an airing in the the slot should inspire local teams to give their very best (as they often do already) way above and beyond the call of duty.

That's what you call a win-win situation. And it would save 52 hours of Radio 4's budget.

No need to stop with Midweek, either. Gardener's Question Time could be fronted by Tim and Joe from Radio Leeds' gardening show, and by their equivalents around the network.

Let Dimbleby put his feet up on a Friday evening and let Andrew Edwards front Any Questions from the National Media Museum in Bradford; he did a superb job of something very similar during the 2010 general election. And so on, and so on.

The Beeb's superb sports desks in 40-odd locations could contribute real, incisive team knowledge and local passion to Five Live football coverage. Take the Salford ideal to the next level; as Frank Bough used to say, it's time for us to go Nationwide.

I'm sure others could come up with many great ideas along the same lines. Outside in thinking. Being radical. Making Radio 4 (and maybe 5 Live) genuinely national stations, drawing on the strength of the grassroots, not killing them, and connecting the BBC to audiences in new an innovative ways.

I get the feeling that Frank Gillard, the pioneer broadcaster whose name is honoured in the local radio awards, would approve.


  1. Nice article - hope you have sent it to the DQF consultation team. Fingers crosssed.

  2. Thank you, and a timely reminder; posted my formal response yesterday.