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BBC accused of planning “the death of local radio

March 15, 2011

The BBC is said to be planning to downgrade their local radio stations.

The proposal – to use the national station 5 live to replace most original programmes on local radio, retaining only the breakfast and drivetime output – is one of a number of options being considered as part of the BBC’s ‘Delivering Quality First’ savings review.

But listeners, employees and the broadcasting unions are already predicting this would mean the ultimate closure of many stations and the destruction of the local service as a whole.

As with other recent cost-cutting proposals at the BBC, such as the move to axe the digital station 6Music, this might just be a kite-flying exercise to gauge public reaction. To move any further the BBC would need a full public consultation and the approval of the BBC Trust.

These are nevertheless worrying times for local radio staff. The service has fought off extinction before. A new Conservative government in 1970 wanted to close the BBC stations and hand local radio to commercial operators; Lord Annan’s Committee proposed merging Independent Local Radio and BBC Local Radio under a separate authority, and the BBC faced difficult decisions about cutting back, again during a financial crisis in the late 70s.

Despite these challenges, BBC Local Radio, which now numbers around 40 stations in England, plus those in the Nations, amounts to a considerable success story over its 43-year history.

The network has championed local communities and neighbourhood needs, given airtime to minority groups and good causes and provided comprehensive coverage of news stories in each area. It’s been a platform for debate and discussion and attracts most attention when the weather turns bad, providing valuable information on travel conditions and school closures. Audiences are healthy, though there has been some contraction in listening of late, but hardly a terminal decline.

Why then is the BBC taking a serious look at its future?

Part of the problem is the lack of a clear direction of what local radio is intended to be. Once upon a time there were firm roots in the community aspirations of local radio, with significant amounts of airtime available for interested amateurs and dedicated enthusiasts to get involved and make radio.

These slots have largely disappeared, apart from some specialist music and ethnic minority shows. One Managing Editor of a local station told me that they didn’t care about ratings in the evenings any longer: what mattered was the daytime audience.

The claim to be a community champion has been stolen from under their nose by the new community radio sector, licenced by OFCOM to serve small geographic areas and definable interest groups.

BBC Local Radio has gradually homogenised in recent years, turning over its output to the ubiquitous phone-in, dubbed by one former BBC executive as ‘5 live lite’.

The move away from a truely local focus went to another level last year, with the syndication of programmes between stations as with the south east of England sharing one drivetime show across Surrey, Sussex and Kent; a step back to the old regional concept which petered out in the early 1970s.

The other operator in this field, commercial radio, has already ceased being local, with the re-branding of many stations as part of the Heart, Smooth and Capital networks.

Each time it has faced the threat of closure in the past, BBC Local Radio has fought back and survived, gathering a powerful and vocal alliance of supporters from amongst politicians, community groups and listeners.

A most useful ally has been the Local Radio Advisory Councils, a board of volunteers recruited to monitor output and advise on local issues. But the councils were abolished in 2007,  replaced by larger Regional Audience Councils: perhaps the loss of such an appreciative lobby will be felt in the months to come.

One thing is for certain: once you start dismantling this kind of local radio network, it is unlikely it’ll ever be built again in this form. Perhaps the BBC should consider opening up their local radio stations for partnership arrangements with universities and other public bodies, or merge them with community stations?

Matthew Linfoot

Matthew is the Principal Lecturer in Radio at the University of Westminster. A Sony Award winner he is currently writing PhD on the history of local radio.

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