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12 November 2017

A New Hope For Cinderella

I've been privileged to be a Gillards judge four times in the past six years. There's some great work going on in BBC Local Radio, and hearing station entries from places I've never been is like opening a door into a different world.

There's also some astoundingly average stuff going on. What I heard often sounded too much like a logging tape. Competent, but not attention grabbing, or award-winningly good.

I wasn't invited this year, though - so I wasn't in the room when DG Tony Hall announced that ten million pounds worth of cuts to local radio were being scrapped.

It's normal to hear platitudes from the suit handing out the Gillard gongs about how valued and important local radio is. It's unheard of for fine words to be backed up with hard cash, even if the reward for 50 years of sterling service amounts only to a reprieve from yet more punishment.

But the surprises were not yet over. Dave and Sue are finally banished. No more catering for the over-50s alone. BBC Local Radio is for "everyone". The All-England network show in the evenings will be scrapped in the spring. Each Managing Editor will in future be responsible for filling the whole schedule.

This creates a wonderful opportunity for local radio, as it moves into its sixth decade. But it also creates a number of problems.

Other commentators have been quick to point out that industry lore dictates no station can really be for everyone. That ambition has been the downfall of many a bright-eyed community hopeful.

I'm going to be uncharacteristically upbeat and suggest instead that the DG mis-spoke; or, more likely, didn't have enough time to finesse his arguments between dessert and coffee.

What I hope he meant was that local radio is to be given the freedom to respond to the unique needs of each community in a way that will serve each community in the most appropriate way.

If the turmoil over Brexit has taught us anything it's that the English regions are totally and utterly pissed off at being told from the centre what they are supposed to think and do. The BBC in its London bubble has some serious soul-searching to do about that, as most London-based TV and London-based network radio were (to varying degrees) part of the problem.

However the BBC also has at its disposal a unique resource; look at the praise routinely heaped on local radio whenever a tragedy like Grenfell or the Manchester bomber strikes a community, or when places suffer the more mundane but still devastating weather events of storms, flooding and snow.

Whenever a community is in need, local radio is there. Just read the Gillard award citations.

The Cinderella service, working hand in hand with fire, police, ambulance, coastguard, councils, volunteers. Reliable information, even in a power cut. Consistent information, reassurance and help with rebuilding lives long after the national and social media, with their goldfish attention spans, have moved on.

I want to believe Tony Hall intends to build on that reputation and goodwill, by giving every BBC local station the opportunity to develop in a way that responds to the currents and longer term needs of urban and rural areas; north and south; prosperous and less fortunate.

Of course, developments must be online as well as on air; but without the oppressive diktat from London that everywhere must do the same thing at the same time.

For this to work, each Managing Editor must be given the freedom to manage.

Clean sheet of paper, power to change things radically.

With power comes responsibility. Each station should write its own strategic objectives, with measurable performance indicators (of which RAJAR is just one, albeit important, aspect). Those managers who meet or exceed targets should be rewarded. Those who fail should leave, with good grace, as those in the commercial sector have done for decades. No more jobs for life above SBJ level.

They wouldn't be asked to do the impossible on their own. The Beeb has fantastic resources to call upon. The DG's speech suggested music programmers from Radio 2 could help with playlists, and across the BBC there are experts in imaging, engineering, digital and promotions who would relish the opportunity to make a real difference.

Critics will say local control is a recipe for anarchy. But surely we've tried central control and homogeneity and it's resulted in demoralised  production teams and declining audiences. Try something fresh and radical.

Let localness thrive .. and let there be something for everyone in the process, but not necessarily all on the same station. Share the learning. Build on the best.

Here's to the next 50 years.

(These are just initial thoughts. I'll return to this topic in future - in particular to address the worrying sentiments, expressed elsewhere, that journalists have too much say in BBC local. They don't, but that's a post for another day)

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