What does the BBC’s Annual Plan say about Radio?

OPINION: The BBC is required to publish its annual plan each year. Just as with every broadcaster, however – and every industry – this year’s is atypical. Even when the COVID crisis abates, life will never be the same again.

My notes here focus largely on radio, but it is worth citing the general headlines from the report, which bear out Ofcom’s latest research published yesterday: “As social distancing began in the UK in the third week of March, pan-BBC reach among adults peaked at 94%. That is: 94% of the British public used the BBC that week. 86% of young adults aged 16-34 used the BBC that week, up from 77% the week before”.

As ever, the BBC is hugely valued in times of crisis. That is not to say commercial and community stations have not done their bit – there are numerous examples of the role they play – but our nations have a history of leaning to the BBC in times of crisis. In terms of trust and accuracy, this report leans on credible research which does

something to address the most egregious and ill-informed accusations about the Corporation which riddle social media.

The level of mentions of radio and of live radio seem refreshingly plentiful in this report. From an organisation which, at top level, seemed to me not always to grasp its power and influence, it is a good sign.

Early doors, the report highlights Radio 4: ‘Today, World at One, PM and The World Tonight lead our news coverage for Radio 4’. The PM programme in Evan Davies’s custodianship is simply remarkable in its transparent, good-natured, personable constructive analysis of topics – and it also carried the daily briefings. I can see the earlier 430 start returning permanently.

‘5live has successfully focused on being a forum for debate, answering listeners’ questions with regular phone-ins…’. The report cites too Newsbeat, with its ‘tailored News content for young audiences on weekdays…across Radio 1, 1Xtra and the Asian Network’. There is mention too of the Asian Network’s Big Debate and how Newscast has become a daily edition of The Coronavirus Newscast (5.7m combined plays and downloads) – and Coronavirus Global Update, heard on radio and on World Service websites.

Local radio usually merits few mentions in despatches, so it is good to see the focus. ‘On local radio in England, all schedules have been changed and stations are now running a three-shows- a-day format. In ‘Make A Difference’, ‘every BBC local radio station in England has joined up with local volunteer groups to help coordinate support for the elderly, housebound or at risk…The service gives half-hourly updates…’.

In a prompt sensible move, ‘virtual church services are aired all 39 stations at 8am’.

‘There have been more than 640,000 interactions with BBC local radio since the campaign was set up. It is far and away the biggest response the BBC has ever had to a local radio campaign.’ Well done to all involved, as the real job of adjusting to a new norm and reflecting just the right mood is underway, using all of radio’s gifts.

For children, two ‘brand-new education podcasts are available on BBC Sounds aimed at parents of primary and secondary pupils. Radio 4 is also ‘broadcasting new commissions to educate and entertain students, families and listeners of all ages…’

In health and fitness: ‘BBC Sounds and 5 live Sports Extra have been broadcasting 10Today – an exercise programme from Sport England and Demos designed for older people to protect against poor health and disease, and improve mental health and maintain independence. Radio 1’s Life Hacks – the Sunday afternoon advice programme for young adults – has also been retargeted..’.

Culture and quarantine’ ‘keeps the arts alive’, with participation from Radio 3 and 4.

In terms of using its influencers ‘the BBC has also been communicating its own public health messages to very broad audiences, both through trails, and perhaps most effectively to our younger audiences through our on-air talent in our programmes on TV and radio’.

Jeremy Vine always seems inexplicably to escape deserved mention in most key BBC reports. He earns it this time with his discussion of ‘the pivotal moments that led to the end of the war in Europe’ as part of the dedicated programming about the 75th anniversary of the end of the War.

The section headed ‘audio’ rightly begins with ‘radio’, bearing in mind its huge share of the audio cake. Stations are: ‘providing company, escapism and entertainment to millions of listeners, as well as comprehensive news and current affairs programming that help them stay informed…’. There is mention for Radio 1’s distractive programming and of its support for those missing live music events, including the ‘most ambitious Radio 1 Live Lounge in its history’.

‘Radio 5live has been the place for a national conversation on coronavirus. Radio 4 has commissioned new programmes such as Fallout and Viral Exposure…and Life in Lockdown is sharing the experiences of those in isolation around the globe. The station is hosting Your Desert Island Discs, inviting listeners to make themselves ‘castaways’.

On Radio 4 and on Sounds, the BBC is ‘bringing some of the best programmes from its rich archive for listeners to enjoy again’. In the first week of lockdown, BBC Sounds enjoyed 3.6 m listeners that week, its highest ever audience.

The report highlights the BBC’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Community Media Association, where stations may now rebroadcast selected BBC local radio content, at least for now. Similarly, there has been an open offer to local commercial radio stations to take bulletins ‘in the event that a local commercial radio station is unable to provide its normal news bulletin as a result of the crisis’. These are valuable, agile, politically astute moves and I welcome them.

Alongside several other organisations and individuals, The BBC has also contributed to the Audio and Radio Emergency Fund to help those in the sector facing hardship. Our industry uses so many freelancers – and I am one of them – whose income has dramatically fallen and thus it is good to see the BBC recognising this, not least because the way BBC freelance income is puzzlingly taxed means that their freelancers cannot qualify for the specific self-employed Government subsidies.

In trying to make sense of consumption: ‘There has been conflicting data on the reach and use of on-demand music and podcasts during the pandemic. It will take time to form a clear view on likely trends post-crisis. However, it appears that, after an initial dip, music streaming may be regaining that loss and there has been a shift towards live listening of speech-based radio (consistent with the huge demand for news and information)’.

We wait to see how Rajar methodology will be adjusted this quarter and – particularly – how that data will be fed into the historic data for those stations surveying over longer periods. I suggest it may be a welcome catalyst for a change to the methodology being tolerated by its users generally.

The report notes ‘a significant reduction in advertising revenue across all types, including broadcast and digital’. Facing an unprecedented revenue dip, commercial radio groups large and small will be facing very tough decisions. One benefit of the consolidation and rationalisation of recent years is that more stations will be more resilient than they would have been. Commercial radio has also had ‘a good war’, with creative solutions and presenters doing their best from their homes. In a sense, for feel-good music radio presenters, these times are the most challenging of all.

The BBC is hopeful that the way young people are sampling BBC content in this time of crisis might be helpful towards its routine challenges in these demos: ‘We have a great opportunity to try to convert that reach into a valued daily habit’. I wish I were as certain that the two things would naturally follow, but were I the BBC, I would be striving similarly to that end.

‘At the same time the current crisis has shown the crucial role that audio, and particularly live listening, can play in our lives. The resurgence of live radio listening seen at the point of lockdown demonstrated how much we need live news and information, but also companionship and entertainment.’

Hmmm. I am delighted the BBC has recognised the value of live (linear) radio in a way that had not leapt out in prior reports – and I recognise the victories for live radio in crisis – but the word ‘resurgence’ suggest that it has been brought back from the dead. It hasn’t.

‘The BBC’s online audience experience recently reached peaks of 3.6 m users and 11 m hours listening – higher than the iPlayer Radio it replaced’.

‘Over the next two years we will evolve the user experience in Sounds to make it easier to use and more personally relevant to each user, innovate around new listening formats within Sounds, develop new exciting content, and in a significant new step incorporate discovery of the best third-party content.’ ‘Sounds-first content like That Peter Crouch Podcast, and Tunnel 29, as well as a suite of content meeting lockdown needs from Grounded with Louis Theroux to the Coronavirus Newscast, have set a new bar for the quality and the timely relevance audiences now expect from speech audio’.

‘…we will make BBC Sounds a place that loves music and helps listeners love music. We will do this in the way we always have done: curated by music lovers and focused on artists.’

It is good to see too that Sounds aspires to be: ‘The best radio listening experience online. We will put radio and, in particular, live radio at the heart of BBC Sounds, amplifying live moments by promoting them from the front page and supporting them with on-demand content.’.

How great that live (linear) radio is being recognised as a huge part of the audio experience, and not as some elderly grandmother.

However, there are financial constraints to the BBC’s ambitions: ‘This will not be easy: the BBC must meet this challenge in what was already a time of constrained funding (what the BBC can spend on its radio services had fallen by c20% in real terms in the last decade).’

The BBC must focus on what it needs to do – and do it brilliantly. But it must also do it efficiently. Without sounding like a scratched record, the BBC remains over resourced in many areas in a way those who have always worked there cannot see. There is scope for sensible re-organisation – freeing cash to focus on the right things. Those who advocate they want to save the BBC by keeping it as it is will kill it.

Interestingly: ‘most of our (news) stories appear on only one platform – one of TV, radio or online. Less than 10% reach all three simultaneously. As the report says: ‘The result is that we overserve some outlets and groups while many of our audiences miss the very best of our journalism’. I guess it may be this stark stat which is feeding those thick trolls who complain that ‘the MSM are ignoring this’ when it’s been front page on one of the World’s biggest websites.

Online, style may learn something from radio: ‘…will showcase the BBC’s extraordinary expertise and personalities online and give the stories a warmer, more personal and engaged tone, just as we have always done on TV and radio.’

Locally, the BBC recognises its local strategy was ‘created in the 1960s and 1970s’ – and it still uses the same tired map rather than make best use of its transmitters. It recognises too that BBC local radio reach has fallen from 9.3m to 7.7m in seven years. ‘In short, we must extract more value for local audiences at less cost. Using our portfolio effectively will mean being more flexible and scalable, and move us away from one-size-fits-all. Content created under this model will also be used across BBC digital products: BBC News, iPlayer and Sounds’.

The learns from recent events include: ‘Our local and regional services need to be less fixed and more dynamic and responsive, becoming more local at times and sharing content at other times as audience need demands’. Is some daytime networking on the way when peacetime returns? There are better ways to do this.

The report says ‘We need to build around a definition of ‘local’ determined by audience need and by a focus on an audience that is less well served by the BBC’s current network portfolio’.

If this is just shorthand for ‘local radio should be for young audiences’, then I worry. Of all audiences the ones less entrenched in their areas are younger people given they have not lived in a place so long and are likely still hopping around the world to find their forever home. Although the BBC performs well amongst older audiences – and one might say ‘job done’, there is now no BBC companionable music and chat service aimed at over 55s – radio’s most loyal listeners.

‘The need for the BBC to reinvent our audio offer for younger audiences (and increasingly for all audiences as new listening habits are perhaps accelerated by the current situation) is as pressing as ever.’

Ofcom is pressuring the BBC ‘to take significant further steps to engage younger people’ and there is a case that its funding model demands a healthy penetration of all demos, but attracting young people to the BBC is not a case of throwing youth dust across outlets. I agree that local bases should generate content for distribution on all platforms and services.

As I have said before, I believe it is a time to take stock of local radio generally – bringing together all small commercial, community and BBC local in a way which is fit for this century. We should also consider the role that on-demand audio plays in local. It is not ‘the poor relation’ of a radio station – it is an excellent way of targeting content, reaching audiences – and certainly the sort of way that young people will expect to feast their appetite for local talk content.

The BBC seems to be thoroughly convinced of the value of on-demand generally – but puzzlingly defaults to linear radio when thinking of young local audiences. I appreciate the new localised evening programmes have brought welcome new opportunities for many hard-workers – and I would have seized it for sure. But the 15-24 audience in that daypart, at which many programmes are targeted, has fallen in the last two years, not grown. Tony Hall might have curried more favour by taking them all for a night out at Spoons. I would question the wisdom of that investment – and of that vehicle for a thoroughly understandable objective.

‘In local radio, our biggest impact is in the key dayparts of breakfast and mid-morning where a simplified schedule has had an extraordinary response from listeners’.

BBC local radio has enjoyed some great successes over this crisis period, but I am not sure it is ‘the simplified schedule’ which has been the cause – it’s been great people making programmes. I suspect this may well be a soft route into a decision to have longer programmes generally. BBC schedules are usually notoriously odd in terms of programme length and a puzzle for commercial radio programmers who are used to budget-holding. Tidying up is sensible, not least for programme network junctions (please sort out that awkward 5 live into local radio messy breakfast opt out!)! – but four hours is a long time for a talk heavy daily daytime format. There are other ways to save cash.

‘ …we have demonstrated that new technology is allowing us to operate in simpler and more efficient ways to decrease cost and increase impact’. Yes, you don’t need to spend anywhere near as much on local real estate for local stations. I appreciate the property deal was struck in a different age, but you could house all the nation’s homeless in the Radio Leicester building. The BBC has been very slow to accommodate the benefits of intelligent remote voice-tracking.

The New Voices project earned a mention: ‘the biggest talent search in the history of BBC local radio’, with 3,500 people auditioned over one weekend and 420 have already been given opportunities to present, report and contribute on air on stations across the country. That’s great- let’s make sure they have the help and coaching they need to thrive – and let’s have younger voices as part of the mix in the right places. But let’s also not deprive listeners of experienced hands. Which broadcasters are better at 22 than they are at 32 or 42 or 52? And let’s remember good casting. There is a reason Radio 2 chooses Ken Bruce for mid mornings on Radio 2.

‘Both the reach of broadcast radio and the time audiences spent with radio fell in 2019. While the overall reach of live radio is broadly stable (88% in 2019 compared to 89% in 2018), the audience spent an average of 18h11m with live radio per week in 2019, down from 18h34m in 2018 and down an hour over the last five years.’

Overall, a decent analysis – and fitting recognition of how agile the BBC has been in times of war. I suggest that the BBC’s return to a new normal will, ironically, be more challenging as all the peacetime decision-makers log into Zoom to chip in with their views.

David Lloyd

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