BBC management to gut local radio

Picture of Broadcasting House in London, home of BBC LondonMy favourite radio station is BBC London. I’ve been listening to it for years, and while there are a fair few presenters I don’t like, there are some highly interesting programmes about local issues and local interest, like Robert Elms’s show on weekday afternoons, which have kept me listening for a number of years, particularly during the time I’ve spent driving for a living in London. A recent proposal by the BBC’s trust, which is aimed solely at saving money as the licence fee is to remain at £145.40 for the next five years, to pay for the Welsh language broadcaster S4C as well as the World Service as well as its current responsibilities, would see localised programming ended for much of the schedule, and would no doubt see a number of much-liked programmes disappear for good.

The proposal is to be found here (PDF) and the “future strategy” is on page 4. The proposals are as follows:

  • Focus spend on peak-time programmes: breakfast, mid-morning and drivetime; sport; and faith on Sunday mornings
  • Increase levels of sharing programming in off-peak slots: weekday afternoons, Sunday afternoons and evenings
    • On weekday afternoons most stations would share programming with their neighbouring stations, although a few, which serve a particularly distinct audience, would remain separate
    • On weekday evenings between 7pm and 10pm, programming would be shared across England, with all stations coming together except when providing local sports commentaries
    • At other off-peak periods programme sharing would occur at a variety of levels. Some would be akin to the regional television areas, and during the late evening in five larger areas: the North; the West Midlands; the East Midlands; the East and South East; and the West and South West
    • All stations would broadcast Radio 5 Live from 1am until the start of their breakfast programme
    • A number of locally split breakfast programmes would end
  • Within all shared programming individual stations would continue to provide local news bulletins at present, and would be able to leave the shared schedules in times of civil emergency or bad weather
  • BBC London would lose a number of off-peak programmes and reduce other spend to bring the station more in line with other BBC Local Radio stations

BBC London has five fairly high-profile broadcasters who are also known for broadcasting off the station: Paul Ross (breakfast), Vanessa Feltz (mid-morning), Robert Elms (early afternoon), Danny Baker (late afternoon) and Gary Crowley (Saturday early afternoon and evening). I’m aware that all these presenters are liked and disliked by different groups of listeners; I find Paul Ross and Danny Baker irritating and Vanessa Feltz particularly so, but Danny Baker has quite a few admirers and Feltz seems to be particular with women and seems to have a strong Jewish listener base. Elms, as I have said before, has a strong line on local interest matters such as local history, arts and architecture, interviewing people running or taking part in local cultural events, and also interviews musicians and runs musical features. Gary Crowley is a well-renowned musical presenter who also has a strong interest in the local musical scene.

London does have a lot more off-peak programming than some of the other regional stations, however; many local stations do not broadcast between 1am and 5am, relying on Radio 5 Live for that. However, BBC London seems to have a very long reach, being clearly audible well across most of Surrey and into West Sussex, particularly in the case of the big towns of northern West Sussex (East Grinstead, Crawley and Horsham). The same may be true of towns in the home counties north of the Thames. This makes some sense as many of those listening will have come from London or will be people living there who commute into London, or who have some other connection with London. So, it may well be that at least one local radio station in that area is superfluous, and the two stations’ programming could be merged (BBC Surrey was actually part of Southern Counties Radio until quite recently, and the two counties seem to share much of their programming).

Other regions already appear to share programmes: for example, several regional stations in the midlands, from Hereford & Worcester to Nottingham (but not the West Midlands or Warwickshire) share Ed Stagg who appears on weekdays at 7pm, while late-night listeners from Kent to Dorset and up to Oxfordshire are invited to “Go to bed with Paul Miller, and put a smile on your face!”; the same group of stations share Chris Spedding on the 7-10pm slot. Maybe a lot of people in Surrey and northern West Sussex already tune into BBC London; how many people, even in the Surrey parts of south London, listen to BBC Surrey, or listened to BBC Southern Counties during its day? Perhaps we could share some of our presenters, like Danny Baker whose programme is in no real sense London-centric, but how strong would Robert Elms be beyond London? He often admits that he does not know much about London beyond (that is, south of) the Thames, so it might not be much use asking him to cast his net wider still.

Local radio also fulfils bread-and-butter functions such as traffic news and local news that would not get on wider regional programmes, let alone national ones. There is traffic news on some national BBC stations, but it’s often so widely spread that it is hardly worth bothering with — a few stories about major motorway jams and that’s it. These stories break at other times besides breakfast, mid-morning and drive-time — in particular, a major city needs traffic news in the afternoon and late evening as well, something not provided for by this new schedule. While London does have rival commercial news-oriented stations, like LBC, many other parts of the UK have seen their local radio stations merged into the Capital Radio network, leaving only certain peak-time programmes to local presenters. Have the BBC Trust considered whether their cuts would leave some major regional centres without any local stations with a heavy discussion content at all? The wider proposals, titled Delivering Quality First, mention that “at all times of day [the BBC] will continue to provide local news and information”, but this would still rely on local radio offices and staff (and introduce possibilities for glitches when transferring from the regional to the local coverage), so the amount saved would not be enormous; the presenters are self-employed and are not being paid for a full day’s work, after all.

Although many of the regional stations do already share regional programming, then, I am not convinced of the necessity to merge the London station into the various surrounding regions. London is a city of 10 million people; the regional groupings most likely account for that number of people for the whole groups. And which region would London be grouped into? The different parts of London, particularly towards the edges, have closer links with their own neighbouring home counties than with those on the other side, which leaves two options: either redraw the outer regional groupings to produce a big one which includes London, Surrey, Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and the Thames Valley, or divide London between the two regions. Neither option would prove very popular, either inside or outside London. Incidentally, the provision for “civil emergency or bad weather” does not convince: at the time of the London bombings in 2005, the BBC London station joined with Radio 4 and the BBC Asian Network, and I am not sure what other programming was cancelled. If a local station’s presenters are sacked, how would they be suddenly reinstated at a time of civil emergency?

The set of proposals which includes the reform of BBC local radio may be called Delivering Quality First, but its entire focus is on saving money and, although it has the potential to dump some dead wood, it also reduces the potential to nurture talent and it remains to be seen whether they will indeed throw out the jabbering sensationalists (like Vanessa Feltz in London) or the local treasures (like Robert Elms), people with some degree of local knowledge and enthusiasm for the communities they serve who give the stations their character. We can already listen to these regional programmes online, so perhaps listeners in London should take a listen to the likes of Paul Miller and see if he does what it says on the website, because we could end up hearing a lot more of him. Smile!

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