Is BBC local radio set to be as irrelevant as Eurovision?
Published by Andy Boddington on Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 13:52 pm
A year ago, I feared BBC local radio would be destroyed by the swingeing Delivering Quality First cuts. Thankfully, the cuts were halved after a vociferous campaign by individuals and groups across the country.
Despite the cuts not being as bad as expected, I have doubts over claims by BBC managers that the local radio service from January 2013 will be ‘improved’ and ‘stronger’. Shows are being axed, overnight chat shows are being cancelled in cities that never sleep, and ethnic minority broadcasting is being swept away. Journalists, sports presenters and production staff are being cut back.
How will stations cope with chaotic and complex events? I have in mind the outstanding coverage of the Dale Farm evictions by BBC Essex. Could that be repeated in 2013? How will stations cope with a major disaster or a renewed outbreak of rioting? The hard working people in local radio will of course pull out all the stops, but they are quickly going to run out of stops.
Many of the surviving evening programmes have been shuffled into the weekend. These schedule changes are partly driven by the need to free up weekday evenings for new national programming. Many listeners are unhappy with their shows being shifted and I am growing concerned about how often iPlayer is rolled out as an excuse for unpopular scheduling. “You can always listen to it on iPlayer”, runs the mantra. That argument ignores one of the big successes of BBC local radio. It is an interactive medium. What the best presenters say and play is influenced by what their listeners are saying during the show. There is no interaction with iPlayer.
The jury is still out on the new All England show set to broadcast across the BBC local radio network on weekdays between 7 and 10pm. Many local radio listeners are still up in arms about the very idea of this ‘national local radio show’ which we are told will “showcase the best of BBC local radio output”. They fear loss of localness and are angry that their favourite shows will be booted into weekend slots or axed altogether to make way for the show.
I beg to disagree with the critics and I think this show might work. There is much exceptional local content that deserves a broader audience. This show will provide that. The programme will also go head to head with BBC Radio 2 for audiences. Given the lack lustre evening line-up on Radio 2, the new show may well draw a new following into local radio.
I do have more than a lingering doubt about the All England programme. It will feature the ‘best’ of the day’s programming from the 40 BBC local radio stations. I rather fear that this will be the ‘best’ in the same way that the Eurovision Song Contest features the ‘best’ in European pop music.
Local radio managers will eagerly study the All England programme to find out what type of output the producers select for national broadcasting. Rather than risk not appearing on the national stage for weeks on end, they will adapt their broadcasting to improve their chances of being featured. If local radio competes for national attention rather than concentrates on local audiences it could quickly lose its local identity.
We cannot judge the All England programme until we hear it. But no one should doubt that it will mean more to BBC local radio than just filling three hours, five evenings a week. Let us hope that it does not lead to a local radio service that contributes to communities the way that Eurovision contributes to music.
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