Closing Ranks

It’s not difficult to get annoyed by Kelvin MacKenzie. He’s never been one to shy away from an attention grabbing headline. Although at least when he was at The Sun, most of his headlines had a shred of truth. Now, however, it seems that he’s gone into the fortune-telling business. Which is unfortunate if you happen to believe a word he says.

Kelvin MacKenzie - not letting the facts get in the way of a good headline

Just two days before the BBC published its latest report into Local Radio, commissioned by management and penned by consultant John Myers, Macca claimed to have inside information about its contents. And he couldn’t wait to tell you about it in his Daily Mail column.

“Now there’s a bonus for deadbeats!”

he seethed – exclusively revealing that 

“any employee at one of the 40 local radio stations (which employ a total of 3,000 people) who has gone five years without promotion will receive a cheque for £4,600 — which is described as ‘disappointment’ money.

Nice work if you can get it. In fact, I did get it, some years back. I’m not sure if it was as much as £4,600 – but I did have to work hard for it and, yes, have had no visible promotion or significant increase in my basic salary since I joined the Good Ship Auntie Beeb back in 1997. Unfortunately, Kelvin was confusing my ‘disappointment money’ with something called “growth in the job” whereby BBC employees get modest increases of 110% and 115% of their basic salary after three and five years in the job – subject to meeting a set of criteria proving that you have, in fact, made the grade. I’m sure that similar shenanigans never, ever happened at The Sun, eh Kelvin?

John Myers - the consultant who wants to fire managers

Now I can already hear some people seething at the idea that anybody in the BBC should be rewarded for anything at all. That aside, John Myers didn’t exactly aim his “disappointment” at the foot soldiers, rather than the generals. His detailed report into Local Radio concludes that there are too many managers for the network of 40 stations, and recommends that the BBC should consider sharing Managing Editors across more than one station. One of Myers’ key paragraphs reads :

One of the current difficulties for Managing Editors with an Assistant Editor in place is that a single station may not provide a sufficient workload. The result is that they can overly interfere with the people charged with getting on with the job…. However, some of the Managing Editors are so good and so experienced their knowledge should be passed on to a wider audience as a priority before it is lost in their impending retirement…. In effect you remove duplication, increase value and retain and share vast experience where it matters. You also save the roles of staff at the shop floor level.

The idea of a regional editor might well seem sensible to some, though unusually I’m not going to offer any comment one way or another on this. I should point out that I’m not a manager – and that this blog reflects my own opinions. But at the same time I do have to face the boss each day!

It is, nevertheless, something which is likely to be welcomed by many of the listener-led campaigns that fought against the original cuts being proposed for local radio. Although I’m guessing there’ll be as many managers arguing against sharing their roles across stations as there were presenters who were being lined up to do much the same thing.

And it’s a rarity to hire a consultant who effectively recommends axing the upper layers of an organisation. Perhaps, then, it’s no great surprise that the Controller of English Regions, David Holdsworth, gives the Myers report a somewhat lukewarm reception :

“We are grateful to John Myers for his report which will inform our thinking as we consider the BBC Trust recommendations on savings to be made in BBC Local Radio. We value his endorsement of BBC Local Radio as an excellent service, staffed by dedicated professionals, passionate about delivering much-valued output.”


As a post script, here’s something to make our Kelvin seethe. And yes, it’s all down to the nasty unions. According to John Myers :

…perhaps most worrying of all, I discovered management are powerless to control salary increases to any member of their NUJ staff due to national agreements, even if they believe these increases are non-deserving. No-one within a publicly funded organisation in 2012 should expect an automatic increase in salary without management approval.

This may surprise some, but I actually agree with Team Myers on this one. Of course salary increases should be subject to management approval. Which is why the National Union of Journalists is asking the BBC to reinstate the system of salary appeals, in which employees can argue the case for getting a rise, using evidence of their performance in the workplace.

The fact is, the same national agreements allow managers to take action against staff who are underperforming, right down to a little known “Issues of Capability” policy. Believe me, it takes few prisoners.

Of course, any policy can only be as effective as the managers who oversee and implement it.

11 thoughts on “Closing Ranks

  1. Thanks for this fair blog. On management I was saying you can do either – or by cutting back on just 50% of Managing Editors or most Assistant Editors. I even said some Man Eds were so good they should be shared more with other stations. I was being more positive than just saying cut 50% but headlines get the attention I guess. In fact, thousands of companies have too many managers so I doubt it was a surprise I would have come to that conclusion.

  2. It’s certainly an interesting one, and worth noting that extra layers of managers have – perhaps unsurprisingly – been created by… you guessed it, managers! Having said that, if you’re going to maintain 12 hours of speech heavy output every day, you need the resources to do that.

    Purely paying devil’s advocate on this one, you observed that some of the producers are younger than the target audience (and often paid accordingly!). So perhaps you need a certain level of experience – reasonably remunerated – to add the required editorial gravitas?

    And in terms of salary/talent management, you make some fair points. Which is why medium term talks are currently ongoing to address the whole pay/conditions structure. One of the most contorversial of this is the Unpredictability Allowance, or UPA, which I’ve blogged on before. UPA was invented by the BBC in the early 1990s to effectively replace overtime payment. The unions certainly didn’t demand that!

  3. I agree. I stated that you need a balance of experience in any radio station. I was not too concerned about basic salary payments it was more the add ons that were a concern.

  4. Absolutely. But let me clarify the three and five year progression rates. In any commercial job, you’d expect to aspire to promotion or movement up the salary scale as you get more experienced. It’s far easier to do this in the open, commercial market by way of discretionary pay rises or – if you’ve performed exceptionally well – a great big bonus.

    The challenge in the BBC is that you have to manage the pay structure within the public domain, and to an outsider the 110% and 115% pay grades might seem like easy pickings. But it’s a far cry from the situation 15 years ago where staff got “over and above” pay rises every single year just for turning up.

    I think pay is an important issue in itself – and perhaps a good topic for another blog in the near future. Stay tuned, as we used to say…

  5. I posted this on DigitalSpy…I can only assume the quotes won’t work here, so apologies for that.

    I think it’s a very interesting report, and I would agree with most recommendations. Indeed, I’ve made several of them myself (as, I’m sure many other BBC LR staff members have).

    Certainly, I think his argument on Managing Editors is sound. In my experience, Ass Ed’s deal with the majority of day to day managerial duties.

    His argument about the outdated tech is spot on. It is madness that so much equipment fails whilst smartphones aren’t standard, given their ability to deliver broadcast quality content nowadays.

    I loved his comment about Quick Edit…

    Editing facilities are antiquated and slow and Quick Edit is „quick‟ by name only.

    The funny thing was that it was pretty damn quick, until the recent ‘upgrade’ – which must have gone through 5 minutes of beta testing – adding what must be dozens (if not hundreds) of man hours across the network to the working week.

    Radio is an art form and the best practitioners have a knack of understanding their remit on pure emotion and gut feel. Research can help but the best in the world only use this as a guide, it is never their slave. There are good programmers in BBC Local Radio, significant research tools are used and the network has some great presenters, yet the audience figures for BBC local radio have been in decline for some time. It points to the need to revisit the core vision and content strategy if this is to be halted. Listeners must be served a range of distinctive programmes on local radio that offer choice and companionship and it must be delivered brilliantly and in a style that is all of its own. The fastest growing demographic is the over 50-age group, yet they now appear less well served than ever before so it is confusing why the network is not moving more quickly to fill this gap.

    This is a fantastic paragraph.

    BBC LR went through a period of targetting 50+s – using research – in the mid 2000’s. That is also the period when audience decline set in.

    It was heavily based on the ‘Dave and Sue’ idea. Not a bad plan in concept, but terribly executed. This was followed up by the use of an American consultant whose mantra consisted of ‘never be boring’ (which, to be fair, is very good motto) and using the word ‘imagine’ in programme cues a lot.

    Whilst the advice and thinking behind those strategies had value, an awful lot of people seemed to stop using their gut and completely missing the point of what they were supposed to be doing.

    One other thing I found particularly interesting was this:

    I discovered management are powerless to control salary increases to any member of their NUJ staff due to national agreements, even if they believe these increases are non-deserving. No-one within a publicly funded organisation in 2012 should expect an automatic increase in salary without management approval.

    As an active but non-card carrying member of the NUJ (they simply never sent me a card), I did take this as a slight dig. Whilst I know that ones mileage may vary with the NUJ, I’ve always had an excellent rep who truly believes in achieving the best for staff AND station – and therefore the listener,

    I also agree with Myers when he says that you simply shouldn’t get paid X for turning up for Y amount of years.

    Prior to that, Myers does say:

    I came across a number of instances where the difficulty of removing underperforming staff was raised. Managers complained that it was slow and in the end, some of them just gave up trying or hoped to move on the under-performing staff member via an attachment. Nothing disappointed me more than this comment. A good manager must invest this time for the benefit of all those who perform brilliantly. It gives an impression that poor performance is tolerated rather than dealt with and a time-consuming system is never an excuse to avoid responsibilities.

    I’d like to think that Myers’ point is that underperforming staff should be shipped out, whilst those who excel should be rewarded.

    That is how any business should be run.

    But his recommendation that….

    Investigate how staff salary levels can be reduced within the current agreements. Deliver a plan to pay staff according to skill, talent and local market conditions.

    …concerns me, especially when he compares BBC salaries to the local pay rates of commercial radio and local newspapers.

    I’m paid not far above national average salary. I work more than 40 hours a week (often much more) and deliver what I consider to be a good product.If I was expected to work for what I could expect in local commercial (noticeably less than the national average) I simply would have to find a job in a different sector.

    Whilst I think the NUJ is far from perfect, I think its important that it helps to guarantee something approaching a decent wage. Without, BBC LR’s quality would definitely suffer.

    Another point I find interesting is:

    One last thought, given that I’m sure Mr Myers was well-paid for this report, it’s disappointing he didn’t get a proof-reader. I noticed at least one missing full-stop and several Americanisation’s of words with ‘z’ often replacing ‘s’ in words like ‘organization’.*

    Overall though, I think he’s written a good report with many points that should be adopted to provide a better product.

    *If you want to point out any typos or grammatical errors in my post – and I’m sure there are – I’d like to point out that I’ve had a long day and a glass of vino, and I wasn’t paid to write this.

  6. Thanks for sending me this. You make a fair point. The BBC corrected, sense checked and proof read my report. That does not mean I am not at fault.

    1. @John – interesting. Anyway, as I said, I think it’s a very sound report with many good recommendations.

  7. Thanks for those comments Donald. Specifically on pay, I do think that’s a good topic for a future blog and you make some good points. John Myers assumes an average salary for a Broadcast Journalist of £30k, and makes many of his cost calculations around this. He also makes a fairly big deal of this being more than the ‘market rate’ for those in commercial radio and local newspapers.

    But the reality is that many journalists within LR work for a good deal less than £30k. After you deduct tax, NI and – if you’re lucky enough to have it – pension contributions, the take home pay might just about see you through the month. Additionally, some of the production staff at stations are paid as Broadcast Assistants, one grade below that of a journlaist – and some managers are reluctant to promote them. I’ve represented a few over the years in my NUJ capacity, and it’s quite a task to get them to shift.

    But even at £30k, the fact is that a BBC Local journalist is required to do far more than collect a 20 second clip and write three lines for the web. The sheer amount of speech content means each story needs time spending on it, thorough research. There’s a reason why BBC Local Radio’s news coverage is as strong as it is.

    1. Another interesting topic is the role of BAs – who are often underpaid for the work they do. In my experience, they are some of the hardest working, multi-skilled team members – without them, most (if not all stations) would probably fall off air. Yet they receive some of the lowest pay and worst treatment.

  8. For the record, I have not stated anywhere that I have assumed an average pay of £30,000. I said that the majority of staff earn a basic salary of UNDER £30,000. I cannot therefore do, as you say, make my calculations around that. I take the 30K point as an example and is relevant only to highlight the general point.

    Hope that is helpful.

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