Obligatory showing of teeth 

23 January 2012 tbs.pm/1289

If you thought that the BBC Trust would object to the BBC’s planned £15m local radio cutbacks under the “Delivering Quality First” proposal, then you guessed correctly, though it doesn’t take Nostradamus to realise that the BBC Trust has to make an occasional objection purely for the sake of remaining in existence.

Local radio is something that major players in the commercial sector are quickly abandoning with perhaps the exception of the major conurbations, leaving what’s left of the smaller regional groups and community radio stations to take up the slack, leaving a very patchy radio landscape with some regions almost devoid of local coverage.

Then there are the BBC locals and regionals, which vary in terms of quality and quantity much like the commercial sector. In London you get Danny Baker (love or hate him), but most of BBC local radio has an ageing listener base and often relies heavily on anodyne generic phone-in formats with relatively little to distinguish between them.

It’s not hard to see how all these “TalkSPORT (usually) without the sport” local radio formats appear on paper as an obvious duplication of precious resources that could be diverted into just about anything else that the BBC does, and high on the list where obvious savings can be easily made from an accountant’s point of view.

So what’s wrong with the BBC saving a bit of precious TV licence fee money by cutting back on local radio?

For starters, it’s perfectly possible to claim that local radio is precisely what the BBC should be doing if the commercial sector doesn’t want to do it, though this has to be balanced with the requirement to provide such a service in the first place. If people just aren’t interested then there’s little point in utilising precious resources to do so.

However it’s also easy to conjecture that there’s still an obvious requirement for local radio in specific areas but the BBC just isn’t providing it at present. Or alternatively the BBC has wilfuly neglected its local radio stations for so long it’s no surprise that they’re rotting away in many cases, having been the sustained victim of cutbacks over the years.

This in turn provides a big challenge for the BBC, because to improve certain local radio stations up to the required standard will require significant investment and commitment, with the former obviously being unavailable for the foreseeable future. Plus the original cutback plan by default suggests a distinct lack of heart (no pun intended).

Basically speaking, all those years of local radio neglect have finally caught up with the corporation, and it will now be very difficult for BBC management to formulate a credible action plan to effectively deal with the consequences, especially whilst maintaining its crucially important public service credentials.

Perhaps one way out of the conundrum might be a new-found commitment to provide radio services on a regional level at a bare minimum, mothballing the smaller local stations so that they can be brought back into action at a later date relatively easily if required.

This would enable the BBC to make savings without losing face from a public service perspective, as well as providing potential leverage in future licence fee negotiations, as in “We’ll bring back into operation a number of local radio stations if cash is available for doing so…”; it’s much easier to do this than to recreate something from scratch.

However the BBC desperately needs to send a clear signal that it is still committed to public service broadcasting despite all the external pressures to do otherwise, because the BBC has all too frequently been losing the PR war even if it has belatedly started to win over more support more recently, most notably in relation to the BBC Trust.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Reginald Murgatroyd 25 January 2012 at 5:23 pm

If you want to make large savings, then you do not make cuts on services which have the smalles budget ie local radio and regional TV.

If the BBC was serious about saving money then it would start with a knife to senior management and the wasteful and expensive non-PSB programming on BBC-1 whose budget is bloated with incestuous deals with private production companies.

David Hastings 26 January 2012 at 3:28 pm

Latest conspiracy theory doing the rounds is that BBC local radio cutbacks were deliberately put forward as a “sacrificial lamb”, knowing full well that they would be highly vocal public protests as a consequence and that the cutbacks would inevitably be reduced on appeal. This smokescreen enabled much more significant savings (daytime BBC2 repeats, BBC3 & BBC4 budgets slashed, etc.) to be quietly rubberstamped by the Trust with minimal fuss and negligible public debate – a win there for Thompson.

I can (sort of) believe this theory to an extent, although I still think that the BBC has perhaps overestimated public feelings towards, say, BBC2 daytime repeats (fewer people might care about this sort of thing than the BBC likes to think), and that the BBC still underestimates the full potential of local radio, judging from the fact that certain BBC local radio stations have clearly been left to rot over many years.

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