Local letdown 

11 March 2011 tbs.pm/1251

It’s hard to know exactly what BBC management are thinking with their latest money-saving proposal to be made public, namely to replace some local radio broadcasts with a simulcast of 5 Live, because such a move superficially seems to simultaneously contradict public service requirements together with the BBC’s own basic remit.

On the face of it, something that would be very difficult to get approved by the BBC Trust even if there’s a lot of supporting statistics that show a general decline in BBC local radio listening, because the previous rejection of the 6 Music closure plan proves that numbers are nowhere near enough when it comes to justifying service cutbacks or closures.

(Especially at a time when the UK’s commercial radio sector is in the process of creating semi-national radio stations out of local ones.)

If BBC management are remotely serious about putting forward such an idea, we can only hope for their own credibility that they have constructed a more coherent argument this time round compared to the previous fiasco that was the BBC Strategy Review.

We also have to answer the question as to why BBC local radio in general has supposedly been in decline recently, and it’s true that the previous rampant growth of commercial local radio stations in particular – especially prior to 2005 – has been a significant contributory factor.

Before blaming the BBC for years of local radio underinvestment, bear in mind that commercial local radio provision was also growing rapidly and at the time seemed to be doing a very good job of serving local radio audiences in the process; of course this was until the recent recession caused a rapid corresponding decline in advertising revenue.

Unfortunately the following contraction of commercial radio services proved to be messy, not least helped by group mergers, bankruptcies and financial imperatives helping to dictate the nature of the cutbacks as opposed to a well-organised retreat, combined with the fact that only a percentage of local radio station licences issued remained viable.

(Not to mention a weakening of local radio regulation caused by the intense lobbying of major commercial radio groups.)

Larger metropolitan areas are still reasonably well-served by local radio stations because of the large number of licences approved in recent years, but commercial radio stations are still few and far between in certain parts of the UK where BBC local radio stations tend to dominate; these areas could ultimately suffer the most from such a proposal.

Perhaps the real issue here is that there’s a question that needs to be answered but still doesn’t appear to be properly addressed, namely what exactly should the BBC be currently doing in terms of local radio service provision above and beyond the notion of merely cutting back its current output.

Preserving a public service purpose whilst attracting new listeners to BBC local radio in order to offset its dying (literally) demographic will be the future challenge, and dumping 5 Live on these stations may just serve to annoy existing local radio listeners whilst at the same time weakening the real public value of these stations.

At this point in time, it superficially appears that the BBC ought to be strengthening and promoting its local radio offerings where possible, even though of course it can’t be expected to fulfill all requirements in this area at present.

Cutbacks of this nature highlight an ongoing ratings and marketing obsession with BBC management that’s now directly interfering with core public service values. Granted that it’s difficult to justify certain services on cost per listener grounds, but the actual assets are still much more valuable and such measures clearly indicate a lack of will if nothing else.

BBC management still appears to be uncomfortable with the notion of actively supporting and developing relatively expensive services with strong public service potential that have comparatively few listeners/viewers (as also the case with 6 Music), even if they are/were underperforming for other specific reasons (6 Music again, due to lack of promotion).

Such an outlook betrays a lack of vision, insight and imagination. It’s true that the BBC now needs to save money by cutting back on services, but the current overall strategy – if there is one (!) – seems to easily overlook many of the dust-covered public service jewels in the BBC’s portfolio as well as disposing of them where (in)appropriate.

And, as others have pointed out in that Guardian article’s comments section, the listener demographic for 5 Live is substantially different from the aging audience for BBC local radio, therefore you can’t help but wonder if this is also a somewhat clumsy attempt to get more younger people listening to BBC local radio by stealth (if nothing else).

It’s perhaps understandable why 5 Live was chosen as a local radio ‘sustaining’ service because BBC local radio also majors on local sports coverage, therefore the two superficially seem to be the best complementary match, but local radio in itself is so much more than just a local version of Radio 5 Live.

Conversely, Radio 4 or a music station would be a poorer choice for daytime opt-outs, and (perhaps even more importantly) simulcasting 5 Live programming on BBC local stations would also ensure better quality listening on FM frequencies compared to medium wave and reach a larger audience – another shot in the foot for DAB digital radio?

Of course you can’t help but wonder whether or not BBC management are now resorting to several cutback and closure proposals in the hope that at least the majority of them get approved by the BBC Trust, but that in itself doesn’t represent a coherent strategy for the BBC as a whole, especially from a long term financial planning perspective.

So if the 5 Live simulcast proposal gets rejected by the Trust, BBC management will have to come up with yet another plan if they still need to save money, which may help to affirm that the Trust has regulatory teeth (and a purpose in life) but at the same time cast even more doubt on the basic competency of management.

Whilst we continue to wonder whether BBC management actually listen to the very radio stations they are supposed to be managing.