Why Localness Matters

Radio Centre says public service broadcasting still matters

Since starting this blog, I’ve talked a lot about the importance of local content – mainly from a BBC perspective.

So it make a pleasant change to read a report from Radio Centre highlighting some good practice in public service broadcasting in the commercial radio sector.

PSB and commercial radio used to go hand in hand. In fact, a strong commitment to local news and current affairs was built into many of the local licences originally handed out in the 1970s. Back in the day, this often meant extremely high costs – employing lots of journalists, commissioning specialist programming and trying to find a slot in the schedule that might just attract and audience for it.

These days, it’s on a smaller and much more subtle scale. Some highlights from the report included :

Trent FM’s Big Sleep Out : A tie in with a local homeless charity in Nottingham – featuring advertising and editorial elements – to highlight the plight of homeless people.

Real Radio Websafe : A campaign to keep kids safe when they’re online – including the biggest survey of its type on internet safety.

Jack FM in Afghanistan : The Oxfordshire radio station broadcast live from Camp Bastion, using the studios of BFBS.

All of these projects, and others highlighted in the report, are to be welcomed.

What’s interesting is that RadioCentre has been careful to select output from a variety of stations, big and small. It certainly gives the impression that commercial radio is “doing its bit”. But the big question is : should it be forced to do so?

Alongside the examples given by RadioCentre, some argue that localness has been lost in commercial radio. Stations that used to be local are now regional, and it’s increasingly difficult to provide what might be regarded as “meaningful” local output.

On the other hand, if your target audience says it doesn’t care about local news all that much, why should you bother? It’s a fine line between providing the service your station was licensed to do, and recognising that times are rapidly changing. So – if you’re in an area that has a decent BBC Local service, you might argue that it’s their role to do the news, and yours to do the other stuff, right?

Well, not so fast. Because another bonkers idea has emerged over the past week or so to reduce the number of regional TV news bulletins and potentially scrapping smaller services in Cambridge, Oxford and the Channel Islands. The Oxford Mail wisely pointed out the scrapping so-called “sub opts” for parts of the country would be mirroring ITV’s recent form is scaling back local content, and creating “super regions”.

The simple fact is this : competition is healthy. Without it, a diverse media landscape is lost – and the true value of public service broadcasting is diminished. Whatever else it does, commercial radio shouldn’t lose sight of that.

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