Ratings or Reputation?

Last week the latest audience ratings for UK radio were published. As usual there was more spinning from station managers than Alistair Campbell in a gym class armed with comedy plates. And, as usual, the raw numbers can never tell the whole story.

In unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, I’d like to think that my own sector – BBC Local Radio – trades less on audience figures alone, and more on distinctiveness. In other words, an element of public service that may not always pull in large numbers of listeners.

So it was initially refreshing to read the Radio Centre’s response to the BBC Trust’s current review of BBC Local services. In a rare fanfare of support, commercial radio’s trade body was bigging up the BBC’s role in providing high quality, in depth news coverage aimed at an older audience. But it turned out to be faint praise, going on to suggest that BBC Local Radio shouldn’t focus more on personality.

The report bemoans a recent strategy briefing, which recommended – among other things – that stations should put greater effort into bringing entertaining and engaging presentation back on air. Local Radio sits in a curious place within the BBC structure, being part of the News division rather than Radio. Down the years, programmers from all sides (including those who have a commercial background) have been banging on about personality being the key to success.

At the risk of again banging my own drum (though I was working elsewhere at the time)  it’s no coincidence that BBC Radio Nottingham’s breakfast show has just been named the best on BBC Local Radio at the Gillard Awards. Yes – it’s a self serving pat on the back – but the winning entry demonstrated how important persinality is : one clip of our reporter playing loud construction noises outside the council’s HQ after months of noise complaints from its housing tenants.

Commercial radio seen quite happy for BBC Locals to remain pigeon holed into “news” – but has the deluded idea that news and personality should never mix. Well, I hear no evidence of that on Radio X – where the excellent Dominic Byrne sits happily with Chris Moyles, yet retains complete authority when delivering bulletins. Or how about commercial radio’s best speech brand, LBC – does Nick Ferarri wear a dinner jacket and bow tie to relate the days’s big stories?

Ratings will always fluctuate, and it’s a harsh reality that no radio station can be complacent in retaining its audience. I stand by my argument  that public service sometimes means shockingly low numbers in the RAJARS. But equally, BBC local Radio cannot be expected to stand still simply because commercial radio’s having another mardy (look that word up if you need to).

It’s also worth remembering that only the BBC regularly subjects itself to such detailed self analysis and accountability. Something RadioCentre rarely has to be concerned about.

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