What’s The Alternative?

It’s not very often that the words “Jon Gaunt” and “common sense” are mentioned in the same breath. Seriously, the man’s credibility as a broadcaster has been called into question in recent years. And that’s putting it mildly. The shock jock has shocked so much that he can’t get a job these days.

Yet in this weeks’s Media Guardian podcast – from the Radio Festival in Salford – Gaunt emerges as an unlikely defender of BBC Local Radio. In the face of the proposed 20% cuts, Gaunt says that stations will no simply no longer be able to produce the quantity of content it does at the moment.

Nobody’s denying this – though some have questioned quite how Local Radio will manage to still producxe speech-heavy breakfast, mid morning and drivetime content with a quarter or more staff being lost at many stations.

So is there a “third way” here? Cue Andrew Harrison, Chief Executive of Radio Centre who suggests that the BBC could outsource some of its local radio production to the comercial sector.

Radio Centre’s Andrew Harrison

And his suggestion is certainly radical:

“Not outsourcing a programme or two. Outsource some stations. Pilot it. Do it. 25% of TV is required to be made by outside production. What about BBC local radio?

For those not in the know, RadioCentre is essentially a lobbying body for the commercial radio sector. Over many years, it’s accused BBC’s popular networks – Radios 1 and 2 – of replicating commercial radio’s output. Of course, it consistently failed to note the substantial public service elements of those networks – hours of live concerts, original comedy, specialist music, documentaries and so on.

But surely an indy producing BBC Local Radio content wouldn’t be so difficult, would it? They could probably cut a couple of layers of management and still produce hours of speech heavy output, yes?

Well maybe. But Mr Harrison’s argument starts to come apart when he makes this comparison :

“We learnt yesterday that You and Yours – a daily, one-hour show – employs 25 production staff. Classic FM – an entire national commercial station – employs less than half that”

Which not only makes a rather dubious comparison – a wallpaper music station versus a current affairs show – but completely misunderstands the kinds of resources required to make a quality product. That said, it’s worth noting that most BBC Local Radio stations manage to produce around 15 hours of daily content with an average staff of 35.

And those staff facing the cuts mught well worry about the commercial radio industry taking a swipe like this. Because the BBC has decided to hire a consultant to look at how Local Radio can become more efficient. One can only wonder how many hours of programming John Myers’ fee might have made, but of more concern is the commercial radio man’s form in this area. Firstly, there was his report into the management of Radios 1 and 2, which on the face of it looked like a bit of common sense – strip out layers of management – but ultimately, only one main recommendation was taken up; to halve the staffing of Radio 1’s Newsbeat team.

Then there was his recent blog which talked about “opportunities” for the sector – but effectively sidelined the importance of news in Local Radio’s output. And there was the infamous BBC documentary in which John Myers takes a sympathetic approach to religious output – watch from 4 minutes in and draw your own conclusion.

But like it or not, if you work in Local Radio, John is likely to be paying you – or a station close to you – a visit pretty soon. Time to show him what delivering quality really means.

5 thoughts on “What’s The Alternative?

  1. I agree, Mr Harrisons take on You and Yours verses Classic FM is a poor one. Not sure that works at all.

    I read your blog when I can and your views are often thought provoking but you do rather have a distorted view of Mr Myers. For the record I do know him and I have just read the blog to that link you posted but he appears very positive about BBC local radio to me. You have to read all the article not just the bit that makes your opinion stand up. Shame on you for such poor work. You learn not to do that the first week in the classroom.

    For the record, I met John Myers when he acquired Smooth fm. I worked for his company for a while and he was always positive about local radio. If you look at that group now, most of the networking came in once he left the company. I know because I lost my job along with 22 others because of it.

    Please don’t fall into the trap of being selective when using material from others to make a point. It is shoddy work. If you really are a broadcast journalist working in Nottingham and are keen to show him what ‘quality really means’ I hope you don’t put this blog up as evidence. He would send you back to Uni for further training.

    I have sent John a message on facebook with a link to this blog. He might enjoy it.

  2. Hi John

    Thanks for your comment. I take on board what you say about John Myers’ blog, and he is, of course, perfectly at liberty to add his own thoughts to my post.

    However, I think you also have to take what he says in the context of his recent track record. His report into the management of Radios 1 and 2 contained some interesting observations on the number of managers required to run the two networks, and some of his suggestions would doubtless have been welcomed by journalists. However, his observations on Newsbeat seem to have directly led to that department being singled out for huge cuts in the BBC’s Delivering Quality First.

    Going back a little further in his career, the Trouble at the Top video shows a worrying aspect of his approach to some types of speech broadcasting. In the clip I posted he more or less states that a presenter – who may not have specialist knowledge – is capable of presenting a specialist religious show on their own without the aid of a producer. At the time, Radio 106FM was in its infancy. The religious programme which “shows up as an asterisk on the ratings – that means hardly anyone is listening” (Myers) followed an hour of classical music on Sunday mornings. My point here is that the poor ratings were probably as much about poor scheduling as anything else.

    You may say I have a “distorted” view of John, but I too have met him, and know many who worked under him during his time running GMG. Don’t get me wrong – I think he’s a formidable figure. But his commercial background means that he too comes into the BBC with a somewhat established view centred on efficiencies and ratings, rather than PSB.

    Finally, this blog is my opinion. Yes, I’ll use selected quotes to illustrate my point, but will usually link to the full article so people can read it and draw their own conclusions. The nature of blogging – in this case – is to offer a point of view on current radio policy which others can and should disagree with if they wish. My “parting shot” was to alert journalists working in Local Radio to ensure that John Myers is left in no doubt about the quality of the news side of the product.

  3. Hello NewsMutt. Not sure why you shy away from using your own name for a personal blog, but that is your choice. I thought your blog was a good one. I have no problem at all with you having a view, despite it not being that favourable. I am big enough to accept it. I offer some return thoughts and clarifications.

    1. Even though I come from a commercial radio background, I built up a group that had more journalists in it than any other commercial operator in the UK. In fact, the stations I ran have won more awards for their news coverage than anything else we did on the air. News has always been an essential ingredient of the stations I controlled (dictated by format and running costs of course). I could have reduced news coverage significantly within the formats I operated and generated more profit for GMG Plc. I did not because I believed it was a balance and investment in news within a commercial model was essential. I still do.

    2. The BBC have taken up five of my recommendations from my recent report on national radio so your statement is incorrect. (Check with the BBC on this if you wish). Also, as you state it as fact within your blog, can you point me to the part where I recommended halving the number of staff on newsbeat?

    3. You seem to be suggest that reducing the numbers on Newsbeat is bad. If you are against reducing the number of journalists because you are against cutting their jobs under any circumstances, you are making a different argument. The blog suggests I am wrong to have even commented on this as a number so you must be saying 52 people are essential for what they were producing? If so, can you clarify why or what number you feel would be the right one? I have no idea what the right number of journalists on Newsbeat should be which is why I never offered a view. All I said was it was a surprising number. BBC Local stations were more than surprised I understand also.

    4. I take your point about the religious advisor on the programme, although you seem to have had to go back some 14 years to find that. Hardly recent form I would suggest and in return I could provide you with pages of great things I have done for local radio, journalists, their jobs and indeed local news provision that would more than counter that statement. Not my best decision I would agree but time allows everyone to learn a little.

    My review of BBC local will, I promise you, be a personal one. It will not be based on what a commercial station would be offering, but on what is required to deliver the output the BBC Trust charge each station to provide. However my scope is very limited. Can we do that cheaper? I have no idea as I have not been within BBC Local stations for years in any capacity. Is BBC Local Radio well funded? I beleive it is but this opportunity is also a good one for me. I will be able to bring my own knowledge up to date once I have seen the data, watched how it all works and chatted to the people who do it every day. I really have an open mind.

    Finally, if you believe the BBC accepted and acted upon just one of my national radio recommendations, then I would suspect there is little to be concerned about. In fact, I might even surprise you.

    Thanks so much for allowing me to comment on your blog. I hope you can come up and say hello if I am visiting a station you are in.

  4. Hello John (Myers)

    Thanks for taking the time to reply in some considerable detail to the blog. It’s all healthy debate and one I’m pleased you have taken in the spirit of openness and clarity.

    1. I’m especially pleased you still value journalism in the commercial radio sector. I really do believe that there should be genuine plurality in the market. Clearly news on commercial radio has to be targeted to a specific audience which perhaps explains why not all stations and groups take the same view as you. I do think it’s sad that your successors at GMG decided to close some of the local newsrooms around the country.

    2. I’m happy to stand corrected on the recommendations the BBC have taken from your report. I’ll always hold my hands up when I get things wrong.

    3. On Newsbeat, the DQF recommendations are that Newsbeat reduces to around 35 staff – which mat or may not have been as a resultmof your observations. Clearly within that there may be some managers etc. Do I think 52 is a lot? Maybe. But we are talking a bespoke service for a very particular section of the audience which may not be well served elsewhere. Take politics for instance – a subject which is traditionally hard to relate to a young adult audience. It’s absolutely right, in my view, that Newsbeat has specialist reporters in this field. Ditto technology and showbiz. Can they do it with 35? We shall see – but I don’t believe you can cut so deep and not have a negative effect in output.

    4. The Century 106 exeperience is something of legend within the industry. Of course it’s not an example of recent form – and I apologise if you feel it misrepresents your overall style of management since. As you say, we all learn. In particular, I think the senior journalists still at GMG do great things. I’m sure that’s in no small part due to the positive culture you fostered across the group.

    I frequently read your own blog and find parts of it hugely interesting. There will be times when we disagree, and I hope I can be honest enough with you to offer a counter argument. Ultimately, we both love radio as a medium – I think that’s a good starting point.

  5. Great reply and thank you. Always good to debate as you say. Hope to come across you soon in person over the next few weeks.

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