Music To My Ears

The headlines are rightly focussing on the Government’s deal to make the BBC pick up the tab for paying the Licence Fees of the over 75s. But yesterday also saw a smaller, yet significant announcement that could ultimately shape one of the services the BBC provides to you. And it’s personal, because it happens to be the bit I work for.

The BBC Trust announced a review of the Service Licence covering Local Radio – though this time around it will also encompass local TV and online; a significant chunk of the workforce. While Service Licences don’t exactly dictate the content, they do provide a fairly rigid framework for what you hear. Obviously, any future arguments may end up being irrelevant due to huge cuts. But – if you will – please indulge me.

I’d like to propose a 50% cut in peak time speech.

You might find this an odd notion, coming from a journalist and trade union rep. But for too many years, BBC Local Radio has been hamstrung by what are known in the industry as “speech shoulders” – the all speech format required for much of breakfast and (supposedly) one hour of drive. The result is often a running order rammed with content. Some of it is good content and some (speaking frankly, and including some of my own material) is pure filler.

It puzzles me that during holiday periods we sometimes drop the rigid format and – heaven forefend – play music in breakfast. Does the audience implode with incredulity? Does Ray in Lenton moan because he’s not heard another phone in on your favourite kitchen gadget? I think not. And I only partly jest in my selection of stories here.

And while we’re at it, let’s bust a few myths about what might happen if we cut back on speech.

1. You can halve the size of your overstaffed newsroom.

Or, you could have more journalists doing what they should be doing – gathering the news and creating better and more original content – which could be spread across the daytime output and fed in to local TV and online services.

2. You’ll stifle the competition from commercial radio.

Apart from LBC and TalkSport very few commercial stations bother with the level of speech coverage provided by BBC Local Radio. Where news content is given extended airtime, it’s to sections of a tightly targeted audience demographic. The BBC would still be providing distinctive output.

3. You’d threaten the very existence of local newspapers.

An old argument, peddled recently by George Osborne and before that by Theresa May. And demonstrably untrue. Local BBC news sites are now giving more prominence to local paper websites than ever before. Despite most of them being horrendous to navigate thanks to pop up advertising, and many being badly subbed – if indeed they are are subbed at all.

4. You’ll lose key elements of public service.

A controversial one here. What exactly counts as public service in 2015? Should Local Radio really be reading out a list of closed schools during bad weather, given that every parent now gets a text message? There are still times when local radio can connect like no other medium – providing a sense of well being to audiences which might otherwise be isolated or excluded. But public service has to move with the times. And in some places, it hasn’t for 30 years or more.

5. You’ll open the door for more networking.

A few years back – and one of the very reasons for this blog’s birth – the BBC proposed daytime sharing of programmes with Five Live. A huge campaign followed and – largely – stopped the idea in its tracks. The one change was the evening Mark Forrest show – which mostly replaced regional content anyway. Let’s be clear, future cuts will have an effect somewhere. But strong original content can and could cross some local boundaries.

Obviously I’m out to protect my own job and those of my colleagues. I recognise that these views may not sit comfortably with all. But I also believe that reassessing the core format of Local Radio will provide a game plan for survival. 

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