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03 January 2013

Radio England Revisited

This is going to be awkward. Not as awkward as the Mayans trying to explain away January, admittedly, but still difficult.

In October 2011 I wrote a blog entitled 'Why Radio England is a Really Bad Idea'.
That self-same Radio England, now known as the Mark Forrest show, launches on Monday.

None of us knows what it's going to sound like yet, but I'm at least prepared to give it an impartial hearing. Not everyone is. More of that later.

Here's why I've changed my mind.

 What I feared, back then, was 
Clapped-out B-list telly celebs revising their CVs hoping for a comeback gig. It's the easy option, if you're setting up a big show, to go for the name that will at least attract a glimmer of recognition from Cornwall to Tyneside.
To be blunt I expected a Cheggers character. A bit of a cheeky chappie, known to the fiftysomething demographic, not obviously overexposed this century (unless you count that game show) playing way too much Celine Dion and chatting away to superannuated soap stars with a post-Christmas diet DVD to flog.

I thought it would most likely come from a spare studio at Broadcasting House in that there London and feature rejects from Steve Wright in the Afternoon and any under-subscribed clients from the day's GNS offerings.

As an aside at this point, why do Beeb locals compete so hard for their 'share' of dire GNS interview guests? I recall seeing a producer go into an epic battle to win a slot for his station with some boffin wheeled out to explain 'how cats can lap up milk without getting their chins wet'. I'm not making this up, sadly.

I was wrong.

The reality is different. The new network show is being presented by Mark Forrest, the voice probably best known for saying just two words ... 'Classic FM' ... between random tracks selected from the Reader's Digest Hundred Best Orchestral Tunes boxed set. If I say I can't recall a single Mark Forrest link (other than the one mentioned) it's a compliment. Really.

When you're waiting for a filling in a dentist's waiting room or stuck five miles from junction 25 of the M62 in stationary traffic you don't want intrusive personality. Evans or Wright jocking into Mozart would be like putting a Monet watercolour in a flashing neon surround. That kind of art requires subtle framing, and Mark does it superbly.

That should mean less Celene, less ego-waving and more focus on the journalism.

Anyone who has ever attended the Gillard awards (I was honoured to be asked to help judge the original journalism category a couple of years back) will know there is some superb reporting and production across the BBC local network which (by definition) doesn't normally get heard beyond the confines of each individual TSA.

I've suggested previously that the Beeb should save money when savings are required by axing the worst examples of tweeness on Radio 4 and instead provide a national showcase for the best of what local can do.

To be honest, when I suggested that for Radio 4 I'd envisaged 45 minutes once a week on a Wednesday. This will be fifteen hours a week, every week of good stuff to find on a brand new English network, so it's a much bigger ask.

Another aside at this point. Can anyone .. anyone .. tell my why Midweek is still on the air? Does Libby Purves know some awful secret? She certainly reveals plenty of youthful hanky-panky at the World Service in her excellent autobiography. But the programme she does now is so insufferably, suffocatingly middle class. It's like being waterboarded over an Aga.

Back to the main argument, and now for the self-interest. The Forrest programme's not coming from BH or even the gleaming towers of MediaCity. It's coming from Leeds, the centre of the known universe, and two of the three-strong production team are alumni of my Broadcast Journalism course at Leeds Trinity University. I'm very pleased about this outcome.

The cynical reader will see tokenism in the choice of Yorkshire to host the output. Just the thing to tick a few diversity boxes in the battle to win a commission.

Others will point out that running expenses for Matthew Bannister's Wire Free Productions in Leeds will be way below South Eastern or even Salford levels. The bankers used to have call centres in Bradford before they twigged Bangalore was even cheaper, and before they'd taken control of the international telecom networks.

Those less prone to conspiracy theory will note more prosaically that Leeds is the nearest biggish studio complex to Mark's home in the Dales.

Being away from 'hubs of creativity' should bring benefits. There'll be less temptation to recycle guests, as has been known to happen with BBC Breakfast and Five Live coming out of the same building. Producers are more likely to rub shoulders with and pick up the concerns of real  50-summat C2DE local radio listeners in Leeds bus station or Kirkgate Market, the Beeb's immediate neighbours, than they are in Costa Coffee amid the Disneyworld perfection of MediaCity.

So I for one am prepared to give this version of Radio England a fair chance. I'll be listening on Monday, and watching out for the inevitable Twittering classes response on Tuesday.

Some Twitterers - notably the self-styled BBC Radio Forum - have already decided the show's a disaster. That's unfair. There may be genuine unresolved grievances over DQF cuts, but that's no reason to damn a new programme unheard.

The new show will different to what went before, and I'll be reviewing it here once it's had a few editions to bed in.

The biggest challenge Mark and his team face is to make me care about something that's happened in Shropshire .. or Cornwall .. or Kent. I feel no natural affinity with any of these places the way I do if a story breaks in York or Lancashire. How will you make me care?

Also as I type this I'm a little nervous to see the show is soliciting responses on social media to the question 'how many pets do you have in your house?' Hmm. That sort of query might just be a way of testing the messaging system. It might. We can but hope so.

I concluded my original 2011 post with the line
If the BBC's going to survive its latest crisis it needs to start thinking and working smarter.
 We'll find out next week how far they've succeeded in doing so.


24 comments:

  1. I see some members of the BBC Radio Forum have been sucked in by the unneccsarily negative thread. Two people say this will be a programme of "repeats". Untrue. The idea is to take some of the best stories and air them across England with a "take on" line or discussion

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well it's flattering that you feel we have the mind control powers of Derren Brown but I can assure you that some people are capable of taking information on board and reaching their own conclusions based on rational thought.

      Of course I appreciate this may be an alien concept to a member of BBC staff who, like so many, may choose to tweet links to the Mark Forrest blog without a thought that it is exceptionally patronising.

      Delete
    2. Rational thought is something which would appear to be an alien concept to the folk who write your thread titles. they're more loaded than a 1980s lad's mag.

      Delete
  2. Hi Richard,

    I am sure as a journalist you will understand presentational license to attract attention to a story of value to many who may be unaware of changes that have been under reported on their local station. It is called pragmatism and democracy.


    There is a distinct difference between discussing a concept(ie a nationalshow on local radio) and then reviewing the actual contents of thatconception. It is like saying do we want Jeremy Clarkson as a leader? and then being accused of pre bias by not being open to listening to his subsequent speeches. An extreme example of the concept and conception theory, but it really seems to take dramatic example to get the message across.


    The BBC Radio Forum, thankyou for the mention, has NOT prejudged the show atall. It is judging the concept of the show .


    Do I need to spell this out? National broadcasting on local stations?

    What message do you think that concept will send to thousands of local BBC listeners? It is clearly an attempt to save money and in the recent climate of massive management fail that will be a clear betrayal of public service broadcasting..


    The listening project on Radio 4 is an excellent program on an excellent station to carry the words collected around the local stations incollaboration with Sussex University.In 15 MINUTE CHUNKS!


    AND indeed I may be interested to hear some things that I could have missed on my own local station during the day, but the bottom line is that I do not want local to become national.


    As a media commentator I would have thought that you would have been able to divorce concept from conception in local broadcasting and at least have been able to address the very serious problem of networking in the commercialsector that has destroyed local radio in many areas? And the damage that
    could be done if that becomes acceptable within the BBC?.


    I also have to comment that the evening show will of course dramatically change weekend output.


    All of this is very important to many many listeners who contributed to the petition to save BBC local radio, I would ask you to read some of the comments on that petition, before you either judge the BBC Radio forum(which was established to save BBClocal radio and we attract comments, that is what
    democracy is about) or judge that it is right to go straight to a conception without looking at the concept first.


    The petition is here.

    http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/theindependentbbc


    Tamsin

    BBC Radio Forum

    Ps the fence is always a comfortable place, but rarely makes a difference.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Tamsin, thanks for your comments.

      Yes I appreciate how a gripping headline can attract attention to an issue. However 'presentational licence' can easily become 'misrepresentation' if it's suggested that a 3 hour evening programme 5 days a week amounts to 'the end of local radio' - it doesn't.

      I would have more sympathy with your argument were you to base it on the premise that partial, off-peak networking could be the thin end of the wedge, paving the way for (say) a networked afternoon show at some future point.

      As you will be aware networked afternoons were proposed as part of DQF savings but subsequently rejected in the light of listener reaction. I'd be right there with you on the barricades if shared afternoons were proposed now; but it would be a brave Controller of English Regions who would re-open that wound in the forseeable future.

      Where we disagree is over the likely impact of losing three hours of specific local output on weeknights (with the rider that sports coverage will continue on editorial merit, and that specifically local news bulletins will still be broadcast to each TSA).

      If we're honest can we really claim that the quality and impact of existing weekday evening programmes on all 39 stations is such that they must be defended to the last gasp? There may well be individual gems. It's up to creative Managing Editors to find the best use of exceptional talent elsewhere in the schedule (including offpeak weekends, which will not now be networked).

      I assume you accept that some savings had to be found somewhere in local radio? If so, I believe the concept of a network evening show is the 'least worst' outcome. Salami slicing all local programme budgets would have diminished the quality of output overall, an outcome nobody wants.

      Thinking positively a well resourced evening show with high quality content could generate a new reason to listen in early evening, which could in turn boost audiences for local radio overall.

      As for sitting on the fence .. I generally prefer judgement to prejudice. I state in the OP that I'll review the new programme once it's had time to bed in.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      R

      Delete
    2. Thankyou for your reply Richard,

      I am very aware of DQF issues, and as a forum we helped considerably in halting daytime sharing. Exactly why is it wrong and deserves little
      sympathy from you to examine the concept of evening sharing? Given, that it is not just about a nationally networked evening show, but it seems to come with a package of canceling many local interest shows on many stations. All different and diverse and presumably fulfilling a need..



      I could argue with you point by point but I am not sure there is any pointin doing that.


      So will say the following.


      As a professor of journalism, I would be interested to know how you would have entitled a thread head about an All England Show being broadcast on BBC
      local stations? I believe that my thread title was accurate, but designed to attract attention to a subject that may not be that exciting, but is of
      importance and the intention was to engage attention and attract discussion.Surely that is part of journalism? I wonder what your students would
      suggest?


      I am going to be very honest, and say that I agree with you that there are some shows that have outlived their sell by date, and possibly give BBC
      local radio an undeserved cheesy reputation.


      My overriding impression is that there is no one with power and influence within the BBC who is prepared to fight for BBC local radio. There is no
      need at all for a networked evening program. It just takes a creative brain somewhere to have seized the opportunity some time ago. Or indeed remember
      what journalism and broadcasting is all about. Most news starts locally.


      For example , just send a BBC local radio presenter/journalist with a microphone(and intelligence and humanity) to the home of a holocaust survivor and listen to her story, or a couple of brothers who had been separated during the war, or listen to the struggles of a mother with an
      autistic son. Brilliant moving emotive broadcasting. All done on my localstation, and delivered in short clips. Why not put that sort of thing out as
      the first hour of a local broadcast in the evening, better and more engaging than a quick whip around the country. And then deliver what BBC local radio
      is all about, letting the listeners interact, the premises are there the technology is there so use it.If it becomes redundant there will be a reason
      to lose it QED.


      AND take up local stories during those 3 hours send a reporter to an important meeting about building an eco town., turning the local school into an academy,protest about phone masts, synagogues, whatever it may be.That is what local life is about. And it does not flipping matter if allthat reporter has is a mobile phone to report with, at the end of the day it will be interesting if it is delivered with passion and will mean much. Or indeed let that local reporter who has attented a court case for the day explore it in more depth.


      As Nick Davies said in Flat Earth News, When local news becomes understaffed and under resourced we are left with churnalism, the passive processing of
      material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied by outsiders, wire agencies and PR machines.


      AND no I absolutely think that there is no justification for BBC local radio to face any cuts. It is our grass roots and our means to contribute to our democracy.


      What must change is the abusive wastage of the licence fee in areas such as management, that have failed to protect the ideology of public service
      broadcasting.


      Shall I set an essay question for your students, the next generation of journalists,? it would be about the importance of local broadcasting. One thing that I would advise as research is to actually listen to the pilots of the new show and to divorce concept from conception and be creative.


      We will all review the show when it airs, but it is like looking at the horse that has bolted?


      Tamsin
      BBC Radio Forum

      Delete
    3. Hi again Tamsin,

      I think we've both had our say on this now.

      You make a passionate case for local radio, all local, all the time and I respect that.

      I'm following the forum on Twitter and will follow the debate on there with interest.

      R



      Delete
    4. Thankyou very much for bothering to take my arguments on board and condensing them to a single sentiment.

      The forum will be interested in your review.

      Tamsin
      BBC Radio Forum

      Delete
  3. There is nothing at this stage I can add to the eloquent and succinct comments from Tamsin. However as the person responsible for our Twitter account in the last few days I would ask you to point me to our particular tweet in which 'we' 'have already decided the show's a disaster'?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'BBC Local Radio will cease on 7/1/13 ...' (1 Jan and repeated today) sounds pretty apocalyptic to me.

      Thanks for participating.

      R

      Delete
    2. So, we didn't actually say we'd already decided the show would be a disaster, it was your misinterpretation. Glad we've got that cleared up.

      Delete
    3. I don't have enough hairs left to continue splitting them :)

      Delete
    4. You don't have to Richard, you only have to concede the point, I know we haven't pre-judged the show. Indeed the link to the forum you use is criticism of the rather nauseous blog/PR that's been doing the rounds, now if you believe that was a fine use of licence payers money I'd be interested to hear.

      Delete
    5. Darcy, you are living in a fantasy world if you think anyone who has read the "forum" (which is in truth largely you and Tamsin agreeing with each other) would conclude you weren't pre-judging it. Tamsin said she agreed with a posting by someone else that it "sounds as if it will be diabolical" and prior to that had stated "I cannot feel positive about this at all". So please don't pretend that the pair of you came into this with an open mind. It's absolutely laughable. Just when are you two going to stop pretending that you are running a "forum" and accept it is just an attempt to give yourselves credibility and exert influence on the BBC? If I was the new DG I'd classify the "forum" as a vexatious complainant and stop wasting valuable licence fee payers money responding to you. You represent no-one but yourselves I am afraid.

      Delete
  4. A nicely balanced, informative Blog Richard, and with lines like 'It's like being waterboarded over an Aga' maybe when you retire we can expect some very (English) amusing novels !?

    Let's judge it once the 'accused' is in the 'dock'!

    My take on this:

    Despite this cost-cutting show, the BBC is still spending a VAST amount covering opts outs for 'local sport' (FOOTBALL) where players and managers from anywhere except Britain are paid far too much, yet it makes the BBC ZILCH.

    Make them PAY for the coverage!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers Len ... much appreciated.

      As for the novel I was thinking of love, betrayal, jealously, lust, ambition, envy and hate set in a commercial radio station. On, hang on that's still bloody journalism, isn't it?

      Don't get me started on sport.

      Have a good 2013.

      R


      Delete
  5. As someone who is so keen on this issue I find it staggering that you did not listen to any of the "demo" shows running overnight on some BBC Loocals with said presenter. If you wanted to write and give a flavor of what was to come wouldn't this have been helpful and insightful?

    https://soundcloud.com/flamingoodmedia/bbc-local-radio-mark-forrest

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Michael - that's a fair comment.

      Call me an old fashioned journo but I don't break embargoes, I don't reveal contacts and I don't review artistic performances in rehearsal or preview; I wait for press night.

      I have actually heard bits of the Forrest programme pilots (although TBH not a whole show) and what I've heard has sounded interesting. However, the whole purpose of a pilot is to try things out and decide what works (and what doesn't). The first scheduled 'performance' is on Monday.

      I'll base my judgement on programmes intended to be heard by a given audience, and as I state in the OP I think it's only fair to let the programme become established before rushing to criticise.

      Thanks for your interest (and the link).

      R

      Delete
    2. Thankyou for your reply Richard,

      I am very aware of DQF issues, and as a forum we helped considerably in halting daytime sharing. Exactly why is it wrong and deserves little
      sympathy from you to examine the concept of evening sharing? Given, that it is not just about a nationally networked evening show, but it seems to come with a package of canceling many local interest shows on many stations. All different and diverse and presumably fulfilling a need..



      I could argue with you point by point but I am not sure there is any point in doing that.

      So will say the following.


      As a professor of journalism, I would be interested to know how you would have entitled a thread head about an All England Show being broadcast on BBC
      local stations? I believe that my thread title was accurate, but designed to attract attention to a subject that may not be that exciting, but is of
      importance and the intention was to engage attention and attract discussion. Surely that is part of journalism? I wonder what your students would
      suggest?


      I am going to be very honest, and say that I agree with you that there are some shows that have outlived their sell by date, and possibly give BBC
      local radio an undeserved cheesy reputation.


      My overriding impression is that there is no one with power and influence within the BBC who is prepared to fight for BBC local radio. There is no
      need at all for a networked evening program. It just takes a creative brain somewhere to have seized the opportunity some time ago. Or indeed remember
      what journalism and broadcasting is all about. Most news starts locally.


      For example , just send a BBC local radio presenter/journalist with a microphone(and intelligence and humanity) to the home of a holocaust survivor and listen to her story, or a couple of brothers who had been
      separated during the war, or listen to the struggles of a mother with an autistic son. Brilliant moving emotive broadcasting. All done on my local
      station, and delivered in short clips. Why not put that sort of thing out as the first hour of a local broadcast in the evening, better and more engaging
      than a quick whip around the country. And then deliver what BBC local radio is all about, letting the listeners interact, the premises are there the
      technology is there so use it.If it becomes redundant there will be a reason to lose it QED.


      AND take up local stories during those 3 hours send a reporter to an important meeting about building an eco town., turning the local school
      into an academy,protest about phone masts, synagogues, whatever it may be. That is what local life is about. And it does not flipping matter if all that reporter has is a mobile phone to report with, at the end of the day it will be interesting if it is delivered with passion and will mean much. Or indeed let that local reporter who has attented a court case for the day explore it in more depth.


      As Nick Davies said in Flat Earth News, When local news becomes understaffed and under resourced we are left with churnalism, the passive processing of
      material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied by outsiders, wire agencies and PR machines.


      AND no I absolutely think that there is no justification for BBC local radio to face any cuts. It is our grass roots and our means to contribute to our democracy.


      What must change is the abusive wastage of the licence fee in areas such as management, that have failed to protect the ideology of public service
      broadcasting.


      Shall I set an essay question for your students, the next generation of journalists,? it would be about the importance of local broadcasting. One thing that I would advise as research is to actually listen to the pilots of the new show and to divorce concept from conception and be creative.


      We will all review the show when it airs, but it is like looking at the horse that has bolted?


      Tamsin
      BBC Radio Forum,

      Just posting again incase of technical probs, but no worry will be published on the forum.

      Delete
  6. Tamsin makes some interesting points about what makes engaging radio - the holocaust survivor is a great example. But if that story is engaging enough to somebody in Surrey, why wouldn't in work in Saltburn? I'll examine some of these arguments in my own blog.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I find it very sad in an ‘aside’ that you have been so disdainful of the BBC department in London which works very closely with local radio. Your description of GNS guests as ‘dire’ undermines a service which is highly valued by those who use it. My colleagues and I – who are all passionate supporters of local radio – work very hard to offer the stations interesting guests, or experienced reporters – to enhance their daily output.

    We don’t get it right all the time but are in constant dialogue with all the stations about how we cover, with them, the national stories for local audiences. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive. To dismiss GNS with the ridiculing of one guest (and that was a number of years ago, I remember it!) while ignoring the careful, quality journalism which is made available to all the stations EVERY day, seems mightily unfair.

    Best wishes,

    Jane Prendergast
    BBC General News Service

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jane - no offence intended.

      I hope the tone of the piece overall was light hearted and the anecdote - placed and introduced as an aside - was intended to induce a smile of recollection .. as indeed you do recall the guest in question.

      I frequently include blog references to my own embarrassing and better-forgotten moments in the same spirit. In fairness I have previously praised (for example) Paul Rowley for his excellent Westminster contributions via the GNS service.

      Any barb in the piece was aimed at those local producers who do seem to snatch at all and any GNS offers uncritically; reaction from BBC LR staffers (and former staffers) suggests they can recognise an occasional lack of ambition in some producers who may 'fill slots' at all cost rather than select offers carefully.

      I accept the line 'why do Beeb locals compete so hard for their 'share' of dire GNS interview guests?' was clumsily written. It was referring to 'lapping cat' stories and was not intended to demean the majority of GNS interviewees by any means.

      Apologies again for any offence caused.


      R

      Delete
  8. In an ideal world it would be lovely to think that BBC local radio stations could be local 24/7. But we don't live in an ideal world and the BBC has to make cuts and it is entirely sensible that every area takes its own share. I do like the concept of giving a national platform for local issues - a sort of Nationwide for radio. Some very important issues that resonate across the country are dealt with by local radio, so just because it isn't local to an area doesn't mean it is not relevant. I think the problem is that the programme may well struggle to cement itself with an audience in areas with several major football teams. For example, Radio Merseyside will opt out and broadcast midweek Everton, Liverpool and Tranmere matches when they are playing. This will irritate people in the area who become regular listeners as they will tire of the inconsistency. This is further compounded by the fact that previously there has always been sport on Radio Merseyside from 7-9pm every weeknight, so it is having to attract a completely different audience. But in the likes of the shires, I can see it working quite well. And as Richard has pointed out, this is far more preferable than cuts to daytime output.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Having taken a listen to this programme last night I thought it was polished and had high production values, but lacked a distinctive personality. The technology seemed to work OK with nice use of local idents into some of the songs. The music was generally safe, although I liked the use of BBC Introducing tracks from around the regions which will give new bands and singers more national exposure. They need to think carefully about the topics, as some will already have been done to death on BBC LR during the day (eg: wearing of religious symbols). Mark Forrest is a very good presenter, but in selecting someone who doesn't have a regional accent it sounds like they have deliberately gone for someone who has a very neutral voice so as not to alienate anyone. As a result it did, as I thought, have a very shires feel - almost like something you'd hear on Radio Berkshire, although hopefully the regional voices in the bits of audio will counter this. I still think the lack of consistency is an issue as there were repeated references to being on every week night, and "back with you tomorrow night" when some stations will be opting out, and this will just confuse the audience.

    ReplyDelete