In all of the fallout from the BBC’s Delivering Quality First programme, a lot of focus has been placed on BBC Local Radio. And rightly so, in my opinion. Much is said of the fact that is costs some £143m a year to run – far more than some of the BBC’s networks. But, of course, that’s 40 distinctive radio stations, not just one. And healthy audiences, too – over seven million people a week listen to Local Radio.
But while an ever louder vocal debate rages over the cuts, another important piece of work is happening in tandem. The BBC Trust is reviewing the Service Licence of BBC Local Radio. And the results of this review could well determine how stations will cope following the cuts.
The BBC Trust holds the Corporation’s purse strings
Service Licence reviews are carried out every five years or so. In the case of Local Radio, the broad aim is to provide all speech programming for the whole of breakfast and part of drive, a music/speech mix for the rest of the day, specialist programmes for diverse communities and music programmes relative to the region. All of which is designed to primarily serve an older audience, which may not be well serve by other BBC services.
Quite rightly, the Service Licence consultation starts with a very specific question about the cuts. This data will be added together with that gathered from the main DQF consultation, which closes on 21st December and will report back in the New Year. But from this point forward, some might question whether it’s worth having the rest of the review at all.
It concentrates solely on current performance, with questions framed loosely around “how well do you think Local Radio does xyz?”. In previous reviews for the likes of Radios 1 and 2, the Trust has acknowledged that there’s room for improvement or change. Radio 2, for instance, was told in no uncertain terms to keep its older audience happy, and to have more daytime speech.
But in the case of Local Radio, the Trust Chairman, Lord Patten, has the dual challenge of simultaneously balancing the books and balancing Public Service Broadcasting commitments. Few would question the commitment and ability of BBC Local Radio to “be there” in the case of a major news story. The M5 disaster just last weekend saw BBC Somerset (already a part time station, shared with Bristol) carrying eyewitness reports of the unfolding tragedy. And BBC management insist that, after the cuts, stations will still be able to do this.
But with whom?
20% of cuts means an average of 9-10 staff being lost at each Local Radio station. That’s the equivalent of the entire newsroom – though the cuts are likely to be spread across the board. How many journalists will be left to react to these big events – or even to produce a three hour, all speech breakfast show five days per week?
Critics often scoff at the apparent rich resources of BBC Local Radio compared to the commercial sector. But higher staffing levels simply reflect the high number of speech hours its required to make. The BBC Trust could take a radical view and scale back the amount of speech carried. That might well ease some of the burden. But there’s a danger that it would also mean LOcal Radio losing its distinctiveness, having less time and resources to hold those in power to account.
Ultimately, the Trust holds the Licence Fee purse strings. Let’s hope it doesn’t resort to penny pinching.
IN OTHER NEWS
Back in August I commented on Capital FM’s commitment to local news. In the East Midlands, the station was formed by the merger of Trent FM in Nottingham, Ram FM in Derby and Leicester Sound. I suggested at the time that Capital increasing its news bulletins to 70 seconds might keep the regulator off its back.
Well it did – sort of. Just a couple of weeks later, OFCOM carried out a rather unglamorous sounding Content Sampling Report. And whilst it concluded that Capital was operating within its format, it also warned:
“Following its rebrand from to Capital FM, the station is clearly aiming its output towards at the younger end of its broad target audience of under-44s, and the station‟s output as a whole is mainly focused around music and celebrity. While, in this context, the licensee‟s decision to run very short news bulletins is understandable, it has made the local news offering for the Nottingham & Derby area rather thin, in terms of both quantity and – on occasions – quality. As a consequence, any future reduction in the level of local news provision we heard during the monitoring period could easily take the station below what Ofcom would regard as being an acceptable level of local news provision in relation to the station‟s Format requirements.“
I’ve always maintained that plurality in the market – healthy competition – is essential to maintain high standards of journalism. A city the size of Nottingham needs radio stations that are kept on their toes when it comes to relevant, local content. In this case, OFCOM has acted firmly, yet pragmatically.