Live and… erm… local… sort of

OFCOM says local news bulletins "should not be merely tokenistic box-ticking exercises"


Much has been written recently about how exactly we should define “news”. It should be simple, but of course, one man’s news is another’s chip paper. Things came to a head last month when UTV Radio, the owners of TalkSport, failed to have a complaint about BBC Radio Five Live upheld – yet the BBC Trust acknowledged that UTV’s gripe did raise “significant questions” about what is and isn’t regarded as news content – compared to, say, a phone in, sports commentary or current affairs strand.

Of course, commercial radio has also come in for its fair share of criticism on the amount of local or regional news being provided by newly networked stations. At the start of this year, Capital FM launched as a national network, with local or regional breakfast and drive shows. In return for reducing local output to seven hours a day, it agreed to operate what the regulator OFCOM termed an “enhanced local news service” – local bulletins on the hour throughout the day.

But not everyone was convinced. not least in the East Midlands, where Capital used to be three separate radio stations serving Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. And trying to cram local stories into bulletins of 30 seconds was always going to be a challenge, especially because Capital decided on a bulletin “format” of one local, one national and one showbiz story to run each hour.

Could do better : Revised localness guidelines could force a rethink on news content

So now, after a number of complaints to the regulator – and some further sampling – OFCOM has reissued and revised its Localness Guidelines. Significantly, and for the first time, they address the issue of daytime “enhanced” local news as follows :

In our research on localness in commercial radio, published in 2009, local news was the type of content most valued by listeners, and its delivery also benefits communities and local democracy.

It therefore follows that local bulletins running during daytime hours as part of an ‘enhanced’ news service should not be merely tokenistic box-ticking exercises, and each bulletin should meet the requirements set out for local news in general (see guidance above) just as comfortably as bulletins aired during peaktime (i.e. weekday breakfast and drivetime, and weekend late breakfast).

While we have never prescribed minimum durations for any type of news bulletin, as that is a matter for the licensee, we would always expect each enhanced daytime bulletin to feature more than simply headlines, and to include at the very least one fully-formed local news story, and normally more than this, alongside national stories.

It’ll be down to individual stations to decide exactly how they interpret and implement these new guidelines. But OFCOM has made it clear that any future complaints about local news provision on commercial radio will be assessed against these fairly robust rules.
It also provides foods for thought for those working in BBC Local Radio. Most journalists would agree that “insert local place name here” does not automatically make a story more relevant to a local area. It’s often less about whether a story is local – and more about whether it’s interesting to listen to. Then again, if a station is specifically licensed to serve a local area, surely it should reflect the issues in that area.
It’s all too easy to put on the rose-tinted specs, and hark back to the day when commercial radio newsrooms employed a dozen journalists or more – when stations used to run twice daily 30 minutes news programmes. Nobody’s asking for a return to that. But take away the local identity of your brand – and then try taking away the news – and you run the risk of losing large parts of the audience. Whatever their age.

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