Failure is an interesting word. Especially when it’s used as a justification for protecting something. Yet Lord Patten, the BBC Trust Chairman, says that “Market Failure” is one of they key reasons why drastic cuts to BBC Local Radio and Regional current affairs should be scaled back. After hundreds of days of uncertainty, and thousands of angry responses from listeners, myself and my colleagues are breathing a collective sigh of relief.
But just like my blog earlier this week, I’m still keeping the champagne back for a special occasion. Because what’s been announced this week marks the start of some hard work ahead for all us who work in BBC local and regional broadcasting. Looking at what the Trust has said in its interim report, it seems likely that we’ll keep our existing afternoon shows, and largely protect the size of newsrooms. All good stuff.
But there’s still real concern that off peak programmes could see more sharing. In particular, the idea of a pan-England evening show doesn’t seem to have gone away just yet. That means redundancies are still likely to follow in a year or so, albeit not on the scale first feared. As with all of these sweeping announcements, the devil will be in the detail. And right now there is none of that detail. However, I’m heartened by a hint in the Trust’s report that local managers might be given some leeway to make decisions about change on a local level.
We don’t expect that the answer will be the same answer for every station.
Local radio is not the same everywhere. It means different things to different communities in terms of news, sport, culture, identity and music. The changes should reflect this, and look to give station managers some discretion to be flexible and run stations with regard to the particular needs of their audiences.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that giving local managers freedom has been a key call from radio consultant John Myers. He toured several BBC Local Radio stations just before Christmas as part of his work commissioned by English Regions management.
At the time, some staff baulked at the decision to hire an external consultant – with a career in commercial radio – to look at how the sector operated. But although we’re not going to see John’s report in public until later this year, I think he saw what we saw : that the scale of the proposed cuts in their original form would seriously jeopardise our ability to provide quality journalism.
And journalism is by no means protected by yesterday’s announcement. The BBC Trust has largely backed the Executive on most of the rest of its programme of cuts, Delivering Quality First. The National Union of Journalists has raised concerns, particularly about plans to cut newsroom staff at the BBC Asian Network.
So the uncertainty will continue for some time yet. The fight is by no means over. But on the issue of Local Radio, the Trust has shown that it can and will respond to grass roots concerns raised by the listeners.
And they, after all, are who should come first.