Radio presenter and writer Martin Kelner says BBC local radio should be radically overhauled to make it more local.
In the wake of the recent Delivering Quality First announcements, Martin gives RadioToday.co.uk his thoughts on how less direct control by the BBC in London might give it a welcome re-birth.
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I cannot pretend to have read every single sentence in the BBC’s Delivering Quality First manifesto – or indeed any single sentence – but I gather the radio world as we know it is about to be shaken to its foundations. That is how the BBC sees it anyway, responding to swingeing cuts; or the economic facts of life, as they might be called in the commercial sector.
The cuts outlined last week are due to be implemented in 2013 after the customary attenuated round of public consultation, letters to the Daily Telegraph, marches on Broadcasting House, and so on.
I should be surprised, however, if there is any orchestrated campaign to save the poor cowed, crippled, unloved creature that is BBC local radio, where the deepest cuts will hit. It would embarrass the BBC if there were. If you want a notion of how local radio is viewed within the BBC nationally you only need recall the words of Rhian Roberts, Head of Development at BBC Radio 5 Live, outlining the risks to the station of its move to Manchester, one of which was that it might “make it sound like a local radio station.”
I am sure that was not meant to sound as insulting as it seemed to the hard-working hordes labouring to fulfil the prescription for local radio issued from Rhian’s colleagues in the BBC’s News department.
Oh, by the way, these are not the views of the BBC. These are personal views, not the views of the BBC – did I mention that? Well, it would not hurt to say it again. These are not the views of the BBC, and please can I keep my job co-presenting the breakfast show at BBC Radio Leeds, which I very much enjoy, and believe is progressing well.
Not the views of the BBC, then. I write as a freelance with an opinion based not on any inside knowledge, but on observations in 25 years presenting for BBC and commercial stations; on Radio Two in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, on the original Radio Five, on Talksport, Jazz FM, and at various local stations.
My conclusion – and, believe me, this is intended purely to help the BBC maintain its position as the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world – is that the BBC are the right people to run local radio, in much the same way as the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation are the right people to run Barnoldswick Parish Council.
We know what a centrist organisation the Corporation is, a fact it is acknowledging, in fairness, by moving some departments to Manchester, including sport, interestingly, in the year of the London (!) Olympics. In my experience local radio never has been of much interest to the BBC in London. I have read enough letters in Ariel from regional BBC people over the past 25 years to know how abandoned and unloved by Auntie they often feel.
Historically, it is perfectly understandable. Local radio was foist upon the BBC – alongside Radio One and Two, incidentally – by the Labour government in the Sixties when it shut down the highly popular offshore pirate stations. I recall from my childhood that in London, Liverpool, and Manchester where the signal from the pirate ships was loud and clear, hardly anyone listened to the BBC. The pirate stations boomed out of shops and coffee bars.
This was seen as something of a crisis for public service broadcasting, and as land-based commercial radio was anathema to Labour – Tony Benn, I love you, but you knew not what you were doing at this time – the BBC was charged with providing a replacement. Hence Radios One and Two – which some commercial radio types will argue skewed the radio landscape fatally – and local radio.
Local radio did what it promised for a while in the ’70s, pre-Internet, when a bunch of maverick local radio managers produced truly local programming in the certain knowledge that no-one in London gave much of a stuff what they were doing.
I remember listening to Radio Manchester and later Radio Bristol, when I was working in newspapers down there, and hearing quirky little programmes made by the Irish community, or by West Indians in Bristol or Jews in Manchester. It was genuine local radio. Radio Merseyside even brought in local lad Kenny Everett to do a show or two after he was sacked by Radio One, satisfied that nobody in the BBC in London would care, or even notice.
A little bit of that still goes on, but autonomy has been chipped away over the years, the fatal blow being struck four or five years ago during what local radio folk know as the Dave and Sue era, when BBC Nations and Regions (crazy name, crazy people) invented a mythical couple, a 55-year-old plumber and his second wife, to whom all our programmes were to be addressed. I was sacked during this era because I was considered not to be female friendly, despite my female colleagues finding me perfectly female friendly (in some cases too friendly).
When Dave and Sue died – both literally and metaphorically – the BBC’s next shot at micro-managing its network of local stations from London was to bring them under the BBC News umbrella (as Chris Morris might put it) and charge them with producing “quality, original journalism.”
And to all those people from commercial radio who point to the fact that an hour of BBC local radio is way more expensive than an hour of commercial radio, and certainly hugely expensive per listener, I would argue that it is dirt cheap for what we are trying to do, and in some cases achieve with scant resources. I presented a Saturday afternoon music show on Radio Two in the mid-‘90s commanding a bigger budget even then, than two hours of solid speech on Radio Leeds.
Commercial radio knows how expensive speech is, and that is why they no longer do much of it. With a very few exceptions, the commercial boys are now running quasi-national networks. Heart, Capital, GMG stations like Real and Smooth, have all been stripped of most local content.
This is understandable; they are businesses. What it means is that the BBC local stations are the last refuge for local voices, and as such, really important for local democracy, which is why I feel – personal views, remember – the BBC should cede some control, and allow local stations to become local again.
This could happen via a similar kind of arrangement to the one under which Channel Four was set up. If you remember, in its early days, the public service/originality remit of Four was paid for with a levy from ITV out of its enormous profits. Clearly, commercial radio has no enormous profits to fund a public service rival, so my plan is that the BBC should pay a levy out of the licence fee – which would still be much cheaper than actually running the stations – for the first five years to get the new service on its feet.
The BBC would also continue to provide a service of local news and sport bulletins – which local stations could take if they wanted but would not be compelled to – from its regional headquarters, where the regional TV programmes are produced. The BBC would rent out studios and engineering support at advantageous terms while the new stations got on their feet.
Beyond that, the BBC’s involvement would be non-existent. The more relevant and properly run community broadcasters would be invited to participate. At the moment, community radio is choking to death for lack of funds. My new local/regional stations might pay for content from community stations in its area, especially if it could get commercial sponsorship for the programmes.
The new stations would be limited in the amount and type of advertising they could carry to avoid competing with existing commercial stations, but would not be confined to an all-speech format, as that has been proven to be extremely difficult to make viable commercially.
I would envisage such stations being the kind of mixed-service format that ILR provided in the late ‘70s when I started out at Radio Hallam in Sheffield. But there would be nothing to stop local stations – if they could make it economically viable – being a station akin to GLR of blessed memory, whose small but dedicated audience might have proved commercially quite viable, and who created its own stars in Chris Evans, Chris Morris, and others.
I should add I know nothing about running radio stations, but I know that the current local radio formula, even without the cuts, is extremely difficult to operate – especially if audience figures are to improve – and I feel it might be time to try something new. Local radio in Leeds that sounds like it comes from Leeds, and is notably different to Radio Cornwall. I am merely trying to help.
And while I am in a helpful mood, my advice to BBC Three, threatened with ten per cent cuts, is to get your order in for some more episodes of Family Guy.
Martin Kelner co-presents breakfast on BBC Radio Leeds, weekdays 6.30-9am. His 35-year career in radio started at Radio Hallam and has since included appearances on stations including Radio Aire, Pennine Radio, Radio 2, Radio 5, BBC7, talkSPORT and Jazz FM. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian alongside writing for various magazines.