D-Day For Local Radio

Tomorrow’s a big day for BBC staff. We’ll find out the results of the long awaited DQF programme. DQF stands for Delivering Quality First, but likes its predecessor “Creative Futures” it actually stands for cuts. And some of the biggest the BBC has ever seen. The Corporation is looking to save 16% over the next four years, and a further 4% which will be reinvested back into programmes.

Almost every section of the media had been busy speculating since DQF was first mooted earlier this year – and one of the biggest areas of speculation has been over the future of BBC Local Radio. The network of 40 stations has arguably become more important than ever in recent times, as commercial radio moves towards networking and ultimately reduces local news content. But it’s not that simple.

First was the “plan” to merge Local Radio into a regional version of 5 Live. The BBC quickly said that it was “just one of many” ideas put forward (by staff, during a consultation process) and was quickly dismissed as a non starter. But more recently, the rumours have centred around the possibility of regional afternoon and late shows, and an England-wide network show in the evening – at the time when, traditionally, radio listening is at its lowest.

If true, these plans would certainly save money – you’re talking 40 daytime presenters becoming 10, the same reductions in production staff, and – off the top of my head – a further 50 or so staff going in the evenings. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s small fry. Certainly not enough to reach a 16% saving.

The truth is, nobody will no for sure until tomorrow. But it’s not the only starting gun being fired in the ears of Local Radio. This week, the BBC Trust will also announce a review of Local Radio’s Service Licence. This is a hugely significant document – it shapes the sound of Local Radio stations – stipulating, for instance, an all-speech breakfast show, an hour of speech at drive – all news-centred. It also sets out minimum standards for specialist output, and a broad target audience of the over 50s.

The Trust’s review is open to public consultation. And along with Joe Public, the rest of the radio industry will get to have its say too. Cue John Myers, a former commercial radio boss, now a consultant. In his blog this week. Myers pulls no punches – he’s that sort of guy. And he makes some very interesting arguments about the real selling point of BBC Local Radio. Not just its journalism, he argues, but its presenters – the talent. It’s an extensive analysis and well worth a look. And it concludes:

There is a huge amount to protect. There is a wealth of content and journalistic values that need to be enshrined and there are, right now, fantastic local radio stations operating all over the UK. Well done them. But if BBC Local Radio as a whole is going to take giant leaps forward, managers must have the freedom to run their stations in the way they think it should be run. You can still have guidelines. Most importantly, presenters have to take centre-stage again. They have to have their jackets removed, their personalities restored, their freedom of expression (within limits) re-instated and, most of all, the audience needs to be invited in to be entertained first and informed second. This is not difficult to deliver.

I’d be interested in your comments.

So – there is much to celebrate. Though, over the next 24 hours, much to mull over. Not least if, like me, your job depends on it.

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