The publication of this week’s BBC Trust service review on Radio 5 live called for more news and more minority sports coverage. But what does its main rival talkSPORT make of the report?
UTV Media (GB) Managing Director Scott Taunton writes for Radio Today on the questions it raises for BBC management…
Anyone wondering what impact the BBC Trust’s review of 5 live would have on the station’s editorial strategy received an early clue on Monday. Approaching the end of Eleanor Oldroyd’s lunchtime show, I’m told that Richard Bacon trailed his programme as offering wall to wall lacrosse, British Bulldogs, fives and kabadi. I don’t mind admitting that I had to ask some of the team at talkSPORT what he meant.
Joking aside, the BBC Trust’s review raises some important questions for the management at 5 live, which is more likely to be associated with sport by its audience despite a requirement for 75% of output to consist of news. The Trust found that 5 live is a successful and popular station, but I was also pleased to see them taking on board some of the important points we have been making over the last year.
The Trust set out a number of amendments to 5 live’s service licence in relation to news and sport. For instance the Trust has asked for fewer ‘non-news’ items within news programmes. They have also introduced a new requirement for minority sports, with live commentary, news and other programming on at least 20 sports every year, including within peak-time output.
The Trust are also asking 5 live to rebalance production spending, following the revelation that despite making up 75% of airtime, news accounts for a lower share of content expenditure than sport. And they’ve tasked management to looking into how they can address the station’s significant bias towards male listeners.
So how should BBC management respond? The Trust has been clear that they have high aspirations, and I am confident that Adrian Van Klaveren’s team at 5 live will already be thinking about how they can take on board these areas for improvement. It’s not for us to make specific suggestions, but we do have a couple of general ideas.
First, there are still too many occasions where light entertainment takes the place of proper journalism. 5 live is not a talk radio station; if it were, it would not require a budget of £73m a year. Instead, 5 live’s news programmes should be expanding upon the major news stories of the day, whilst reporting on important issues neglected elsewhere in the media.
Second, 5 live should reduce the proportion of sports output which consists of football to under 50% from the two thirds estimated by the BBC Trust. 5 live needs to be more editorially ambitious, less reliant on live football or football chat shows, more willing to turn the spotlight onto underexposed sports.
Third, £24m is simply too much to be spending on the 25% of 5 live’s output that comprises sport. It’s far in excess of talkSPORT’s programme budget, despite our recent investments in rights and talent. This imbalance raises serious value for money questions, and risks competitive impacts. I will therefore be writing to BBC management to restate talkSPORT’s offer to participate in a benchmarking exercise with 5 live.
If this review does not lead to material changes at 5 live, it will raise significant questions about the BBC Trust’s service review process. Previous reviews of Radio 1 and Radio 2 have had a mixed impact, to say the least. But I am optimistic that in the era of Delivering Quality First there is a renewed appetite to extract the best possible value from the licence fee.
This is not about opening up an opportunity for talkSPORT, but about living up to the ambition at the heart of the BBC’s Royal Charter. It’s about creating wonderful and unique radio which could never be provided on a commercial basis. And it’s about harnessing the complementary strengths of both BBC and commercial radio to ensure the UK can boast the most diverse choice of radio anywhere in the world.
Just a final thought on Richard Bacon, who so far has offered the only 5 live response to the BBC Trust’s review. Over the last year he has been characterised on more than one occasion (not by us) as typifying 5 live’s drift away from its core remit of news and sport. But his critics miss the point. Richard Bacon is a fine broadcaster, who like Simon Mayo has mastered the art of tackling serious subjects in an accessible way. If his or any other programme on 5 live relies too much on celebrity interviews or trivial text topics it is the fault not of the presenter, but of those responsible for 5 live’s editorial strategy.
Which is why I will be watching BBC management’s response with interest.
Scott Taunton is Managing Director of UTV Media (GB), owners of talkSPORT.
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