Friday, 11 March 2011

Local Radio’s Twilight Years – A real concern for the future of the BBC’s local stations.

It seems to be rare occurrence when I can make any comment on public affairs without bringing my political opinions into the equation. It is for this reason that I have so far refrained from giving my verdict on a number of contentious topical issues. However, flicking through today’s copy of the Telegraph on my way to a meeting in sunny Hounslow my attention was arrested by a story occupying a small section at the bottom of the front page: ‘BBC ‘preparing to pull the plug’ on local radio’. Having spent all three years of my student days on (Leeds Student Radio) and as a consequence have many friends who have (or still are) negotiating local radio on their paths to DJ stardom, I felt that I could not hold my tongue any longer.

To give some context: I have always been a great fan of ‘the wireless’, especially talk radio and spoken word stations like BBC Radio 4 and LBC as well as music stations like Magic and Smooth (which generally appeal more to middle-aged women judging from the numbers of requests for Celine Dion, Roxette and Starship that are made daily!). I also love the local radio stations, those fantastic hotbeds of new and rising talent coupled with the reassuring tones of old hands who command loyal followings on BBC Rutland. Look at the marvellous array of DJs who have come up through the ranks from the shires: John Inverdale (Lincolnshire), Victor Lewis Smith (York), Andy and Liz Kershaw (Leeds), Libby Purves (Oxford) and of course Timmy Mallet (Oxford) to name a few.

Of course there is a lot of hit and miss and there are some things that just aren’t to my taste, but on the whole I like a lot of the content on the BBC local stations that I have listened to. This is why it came as a bit of a shock that the BBC are ready to dissolve their local output and replace it with a rolled out version of 5 Live (Accompanied with the relevant local news updates). Inevitably this decision stems from a drive to cut costs in the wake of the 6 year license fee freeze that the BBC have agreed to. Although no cast iron decisions have been made, it would be wrong to overlook this serious matter - it is being considered by Broadcasting House bigwigs as I write!

As everyone has felt the pinch of the economic downturn it is quite right that the BBC should be looking for ways in which it can save money. This has become increasingly difficult as its main source of income has been frozen for the foreseeable future. I would be the first to commend the networking of 5 Live if I felt that it was a necessary step to help the BBC save money, however in this case I disagree.

One look at BBC iPlayer should be enough to inform even the most naïve person as to where the corporation needs to make its cuts: bad and wasteful programming. This of course applies across both mediums, but in particular to television. The amount of weak writing, purchased programme and tired formats that occupies the unnecessary plethora of channels offered by the BBC is shameful. For every deserving programme there are at least two which make me question the license fee! In that statement alone I can already hear my critics citing the poor programming on ITV and Channel 4. I do not disagree, but I’m not paying for their services and as such each respective commissioning editor in these organisations is allowed to do as they please.

The list of programmes is endless and the choice to the viewer is mind boggling. There are old favourites that will always justify the fee just from viewing and listening figures. These are things like The Archers, Eastenders, In Our Time, Antiques Roadshow, Natural World, Countryfile and the like; which to all intents and purposes are as familiar as bread and butter to swathes of the public. There are the news and current affair staples, which for the most part are worth their expenditure (although I remain increasingly unconvinced by the pointless News 24!). Then there is the new and original programming which for me comprises of mostly patchy material.

Whilst I understand why my grandmother cooed over the incredibly dull Canford  (I cannot be the only one who thinks Gaskell incredibly overrated?) and other well executed, lavish period drama. Comedy, on the other hand, occasionally hits but so often misses. If BBC Three showed its worthwhile original output there would only be two programmes on a week! Shows like the 198th season of ‘Two Packets of Lager and a Packet of Crisp’; the plain awful Snog, Marry, Avoid; The inversely sexist ‘How to Live with Women’; the tedious ‘Total Wipeout’ (like a worse version of the appalling It’s a Knockout) and the naff ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ do not merit the money spent on there production. Can someone honestly defend this sort of programming in the wake of massive cuts to BBC local radio?

One of many arguments I have heard on the grapevine is that the BBC have been ‘forced’ into this position through the recent growth of commercial radio. I understand that syndication has become a problem for local radio and that companies like Global have decimated the numbers of such institutions by purchasing and converting them to become subsidiaries of parent stations like HeartFM. However (as with ITV and C4), in a world of free and private enterprise this is hardly surprising. Global are well within their rights to do so and as such irrelevant to this argument.

I don’t want anyone to think from this that I am in any way against the BBC diversifying their output, and there is nothing wrong with human interest content and seeking to make programming which appeals to the Zeitgeist. I really like much of BBC’s cookery output and a good number of their documentaries (I am often impressed by BBC Four) and I am an avid watcher of the excellent Daily Politics. But please, paying for Clare Balding to go round Britain on a bike, Stephen Fry to champion endangered species in far flung reaches, or even paying for a channel to broadcast the proceedings in the Commons/Lords 24/7… Perhaps I am merely being cynical as I cannot comprehend how the BBC Board have been allowed to reach a decision that will effectively kill local radio.

I know that a BBC big bod with far more information, statistics and figures would be able to boggle me into believing that this is a necessary step, and if so, I am happy to stand aside. However, whilst there is still a shred of doubt (which has always been an Englishman’s privilege) I would like to know why cuts cannot be made in other departments, especially lacklustre programming. As a spokesman was at pains to point out, no decision had been made and discussions were still in their early days. I just hope that all other options are carefully considered before an irreversible decision for British radio is made. In light of the recent Question Time fiasco, I don’t hold out much hope…but then again, who does?

I am sorry that I have only scratched the surface of this issue as there is so much to be said! I could write for pages but sadly your attention might wane after a while! I have only presented one argument of many but I hope that this will begin the start of further discussion. I really believe this is an important issue facing the broadcasting and entertainment industry and I would love to hear your comments or – if you have the stamina – a rebuttal to my post. Please feel free to post and I will try to respond as best I can.

Until next time… Henry


  1. Absolutely agree with you but, be fair to poor Clare, it can't have cost much for her cycle ride and I like it's gentle chatty tone. Fry and rhinos, on the other hand.... One less TV channel (3), vamp up Radio 2 and give some new talent a chance (shoot Vine, sack Wright, and put Mayo in an institution), ditch Asian and 6, stop anyone other than Attenborough and Simpson from booking a flight ANYWHERE, and keep our local radio at least from 6 to 10 and 3 to 7 each day.

  2. i'm not sure there is a "lacklustre programming" department.