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07 January 2013

So What Is 'Local' Anyway?

Once upon a time it was so, so simple.

Newspapers were printed in city centres and distributed by an army of semi-itinerant guys shouting 'Eeenin Po' or 'Teeaneh' on street corners. A fleet of Bedford vans carried bundles of papers to outlying communities maybe -oo- five or ten miles away.

Local radio came from musty cupboards of pegboard and wires, with the news often enunciated by bearded men of a theatrical pedigree. Their coverage area was determined by the laws of physics and the accidents of geography.  The signal could frequently get knocked down crossing the road.

Television was generally monochrome, for the better-off garishly coloured, and delivered to ’regions’ which placed Caernarfon in the North of England and King’s Lynn in Yorkshire. Viewers selected from two, three or (amazingly) four channels by pressing big springy buttons on the front of a ‘set’ rented from DER or Rumbelows.

Then the Internet came along and spoiled everything.

I was reading a post on Phil Riley's radio blog the other day in which he spells out the changes that have happened in the radio industry in his daughter’s lifetime.  

Editing (of text, sound or pictures) that took minutes can now be done in seconds. 
Outside broadcasts which required telecom engineers to link miles of copper wire can be done from a standard-issue smartphone. In the inky-fingered world whole pages of national newspapers are produced by an unseen army of battery-farmed journalists based at Howden, just off the M62. 

All of which begs the question; do audiences care where their newspapers or local radio programmes come from so long as they get the information they need, when they need it, in an appealing and accessible form?

Tonight sees the launch of the BBC’s first regular evening show across all 39 local radio stations in England. Mark Forrest, the presenter, and his production team of three are based in Leeds. That’s a small but significant achievement for Leeds as a creative city. 
I'm proud that two of the team are alumni of my Leeds Trinity course.

The programme came about because of the need to save money. Two years back the Beeb proposed a response to cuts imposed by the governmentBBC Local Radio was asked, arguably, to absorb more than its fair share of savings with a proposal to axe afternoon programming .

A public outcry led to a compromise; afternoon programmes were spared, but offpeak evening output would be shared instead (with important provisos which mean sports coverage and news bulletins are not affected).

This follows a quiet revolution in commercial radio, which now regularly ‘hubs’ news with a single newsroom providing bulletins to a number of stations. So bulletins heard on Radio Aire, Hallam FM and Viking FM all come from Sheffield at certain times. Capital FM’s bulletins for the North East, the North West and Yorkshire are often read from Leeds. Likewise Real Radio’s news for the same three regions may be delivered by someone sitting at a microphone in Salford Quays. 

Does the listener know, or care? 

Arguably the audience is better served by a hub newsroom. A radio journalist requires three skills. He or she must be a reporter, an editor and a newsreader. Few people can claim excellence in all areas. I’m a bloody good reporter, an OK technician and a poor presenter. I can assure you some household-name newsreaders wouldn’t recognise a news story if it bit their ankle, looked up and said ‘hello, I’m a news story’. Others have the screaming abdabs if they’re asked to edit anything unaided. But they look and sound wonderful.

Putting journalists in a hub lets them play to their strengths.

The flip side is local knowledge, which tends to dilute across a bigger patch. Woe betide anyone talking to Bradford who pronounces Keighley as ‘keely’ or Allerton as anything other than ‘ollerton’. Old time district reporters are also more likely to recognise the names on the New Year honours list and have some clue why they’ve earned a gong beyond ‘services to education’ or ‘the arts’. 

The new Mark Forrest programme has faced hostility in some quarters, notably (as readers of my  previous post will be aware) from the  BBC Radio Forum, which vigorously opposes all and any sharing of programmes between stations; to them localness is a matter of principle. 

Along with what many see as the decline of ‘traditional’ local media there has been a flourishing of new information sources such as the Leeds Culture Vulture blog, for which this post was originally commissioned.

It's just one of a dozen or more thriving, volunteer-driven news, lifestyle and culture websites operating in Leeds. But here’s the rub; I’m not being paid for writing this.
Nor would I expect to be. I can produce the odd 'public service' article above and beyond the requirements of the day job. It's a given that local and hyperlocal news relies an awful lot on goodwill.

Do we – can we – expect in 2013 all our local news to be produced by paid professionals, or all radio programmes to originate from a designated broom cupboard? 

I’m prepared to judge the new BBC network show on its merits. The biggest problem if faces, for me, will be getting a Leeds audience to care about something happening (and no doubt reported superbly well) in Truro or Gravesend.

There again, Frank Bough and Michael Barratt did the concept of bringing local stories to a national audience pretty well on TV in the seventies with Nationwide. If it works, the Forrest show could emulate that success.

Perhaps with less beige and orange. And certainly fewer skateboarding ducks.

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