BBC Local Radio and sexy. I accept this may be the first time ever you have read a sentence with these words in it but my question is serious and it is a very personal one for me, so please keep reading.
You see my love affair with radio started more than 30 years ago with my then local station, BBC Radio Northampton. Apparently in the mid-Eighties it was a rebellious star in the network, nicknamed “commercial radio without the adverts”.
Young, enthusiastic but hugely warm broadcasters such as Howard Stableford, who went onto BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, and Martin Stanford, now Sky News star, ruled the local airwaves. They talked everyday about where we lived and, even as a kid, we connected. They became heroes to me. As a 13 year old I struggled to believe that this big, shiny, sexy radio station broadcast down the road from me.
Ok, it was a different time (let’s face it a different century) but there are learnings. BBC Radio Northampton of 1984 was bold, fresh sounding and continually upbeat. (Can you think of a certain RAJAR busting national station from the BBC that currently exudes these characteristics?) BBC Northampton was what I would call a sexy listen. So, the question for me is how can the network bring sexy back?
In his much debated blog post, John Myers asks where is the vision? I would reframe this slightly and ask, after monumental changes in our industry, what is BBC Local Radio? I was Assistant Editor at BBC London from 2007-2008, probably the best job I have ever had by the way, and in a market well served by clearly defined radio stations, I often wondered where it left us. I would say this has been one of the smartest moves of LBC over the years, clearly and confidently positioning itself as a news/talk station, “Leading Britain’s Conversation”.
I do not think it is an easy question for BBC Local Radio management to answer but for me it is fundamental – for listeners and staff. It is not enough to think that in a market of increasingly networked content, BBC Local stations are genuinely local because the likes of Capital, Heart, Smooth and increasingly Bauer’s City stations are so smart at localising the audience doesn’t know the difference.
So, is it the speech? If it IS, then isn’t BBC Radio York, for example, “Talk Radio For North Yorkshire”? Admittedly it doesn’t tell the whole story but it focuses on what makes BBC Local Radio unique and unique locally. It’s a starting thought at least.
What of that speech? I want to focus on news which John Myers feels there is presently too much emphasis on. Perhaps he would be happier if the definition of news was broadened out and teams were encouraged to be more creative. For me, local journalism is very important but so is creating unmissable radio.
Let me unpack this. Typically with BBC Local Radio I find engaged journalists (reporters and producers) who work really hard and care an awful lot. Fantastic! But often I feel they are trying to cover too many local stories. Resources then get stretched and it can result in frankly average packages or radio car hits.
So, let me make a few suggestions: What if News and Programme Editors took bolder decisions? Focused on 3 or 4 local stories a day to cover? Used this time to think of fresh new ways to tell stories? Experimented with treatments? Got listeners talking?
I was honoured to be a judge of the network’s Gillard Awards this year and I can tell you the quality of news content was extremely high. Again, fantastic! BBC Local Radio is still breaking big stories, such as BBC WM’s Trojan Horse scoop last year. This was a local story it invested time into, stuck with, owned and it made a big impact. I think the network needs to make more of these impacts and it shouldn’t be shy about claiming them either. LBC does it almost weekly through the A List politicians it attracts to its super branded, You Tube streaming radio station.
It aims high, it is bold and it reaps the results.
I worked for many years in commercial radio with the Managing Editor now charged with developing the BBC Local network and I would say his appointment is a very positive one. He’s served his time in news and programming roles and I have always found him to be ambitious, bold, creative and committed to talent. He’s a good guy. Most importantly he’s a radio guy.
And let’s not lose sight of the many positives within BBC Local Radio. Brilliant formats such as Robert Elms’ wonderful championing of local culture on BBC London every lunchtime.
An example of non-news but local compelling speech I would want other stations to learn from. Also, I would mine the rich experiences and lessons from the genius story tellers on air everyday across England to support training and development, the likes of Sheffield’s Toby Foster and Rony Robinson.
I am a glass half full kind of bloke and I believe there is so much potential and, as uncomfortable as the debate may have been for Local Radio managers over the past week, it does show as an industry we care about BBC Local Radio. Without its inspiration 30 years ago I probably wouldn’t be writing this now.
By Justin Kings who enjoyed 25 years in local radio before becoming a consultant and trainer, working worldwide specialising in news/talk radio and social media. Find him on Twitter @newsleader