Thursday, 6 October 2011

BBC Local Radio - A personal view

I was eight.  Shy. Nice short trousers and a braided jacket with badge.  The poem was ‘the Great Fire of London’; and when BBC Radio Nottingham’s ‘Magic Microphone Club' visited our local infants school, I was called to the front to recite it into a huge microphone with a red foam pop shield bearing a smiley face.
As my own voice trickled out of our huge old FM ‘VHF’ radio in 1969 (the only one in our street), my relationship with radio began. A huge love for BBC local radio evolved into a love for all radio and a hugely happy lifetime spent largely in the commercial sector.
In those days and through the ‘70s and ‘80s, BBC Local Radio was a formidable force.  It knew what it did.  Gifted communicators, usually from their own parish, talked to their audiences; and their audiences listened and engaged just as they would with a friend. Good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes not.  Sometimes issue-driven, often not.
The BBC’s research project ‘BBC Local radio 2010’ highlighted what really appealed to listeners and potential listeners. Lively, friendly, entertaining conversation. Company.  Yes, news was hugely valued, but not the principal driver. Not the reason for turning on the station.  The results echoed a very similar study I had been involved in when running London’s LBC just five years ago.
In 2008, as I found myself temporarily unemployed after years in commercial radio management, I was touched to be invited to host some regular weekday shows on BBC local radio in my home-town. As I walked through the door, trembling as I passed the BBC logo for the first time ever in my thirty-plus year radio career, I remembered 1969.  The poem and the braided jacket.   My mother would have been proud.
That time, plus a regrettably short spell in BBC management just afterwards (three weeks!), curtailed because of an unmissable and appallingly–timed fresh opportunity in the commercial sector, afforded me a privileged insight into the BBC.
My BBC time was hugely enjoyable; and I met many incredibly talented and hard-working, gifted people.  My sympathies this week are with people just like that, often tarred with the errors of those around them.
What alarmed me was what I witnessed.  Appalling people management.  Laughable operational efficiency.  If any of my commercial companies produced the staff survey results which some areas of the BBC produce, I would, as a manager, expect to be out of a job.  Individuals who understand neither radio nor management, are paid to do both.  Forever. ‘No-one ever gets sacked from the BBC’, I was told.  Not true, of course, but if that be the perception, well.  More commonly, those whose performance is rather too left-field find themselves in imaginative new jobs.  Poor attendance levels are rarely scrutinised; bad performance poorly-managed and the sheer number of people in the management chain led to unclear decision-making and operational errors.  Some individuals struggled even to explain their own job to me. 
e-mail inboxes are full of navel-gazing BBC contemplation and systems.  The BBC spends as much time running itself as it does producing output.   Individuals are shunted from one city to another, and 'attached' here and there, regardless of the collateral damage, creating uncertainty of ‘back-filling’. Talk to anyone about what their job is and the answer will be complex: ‘I’m here filling for X for six months, as she has gone to Y, and we are not sure if B is coming back from Z".  Whereas those in BBC Local stations used to love the area they serve, I am alarmed that some interviews for BBC Local Radio posts, in my experience, rarely demand much (if any) knowledge of the area.  As for interviews (sorry, ‘boards’), the undue obsession with ‘procedure’ mitigates against getting the person best suited to the job.
BBC Local radio has lost itself in ‘news’. As adumbrated earlier, news and sport information is of huge value, yet it is not everything. For some inexplicable reason, BBC Local Radio management cannot distinguish between the role of a great journalist and a great presenter. The two jobs on this format have overlapping skills but a different focus.  Those lining the streets of Nottingham in 1996  were marking the passing of a great broadcaster – Dennis McCarthy - not the axing of the 7.00 p.m bulletin. BBC Local Radio is run as a news operation because it sits, erroneously, within BBC News.
I was moved to write a paper in my early days, alarmed by what I had seen. I suggested that if BBC local radio were ‘cut off’ from the BBC machine and afforded an income stream and left to get on with it, yet able to buy in BBC material and functions as it wished, it would produce better programming at half the cost, provided it were managed by a skilled manager.  I recalled the programming costs of LBC vs BBC London: at LBC, we produced around double the audience from a very similar talk format at half the cost.  With a rolling news service on AM thrown in.  As the inevitable programme for identifying BBC efficiences began its slow journey in 2008, I offered to help them, aided by my experience of ‘both sides’.  Nope, they were fine, thank you.
Meanwhile, at the front end, some great people are getting out of bed trying to produce great programming.  They know they will get little appreciation, little inspiration, and often not even the support and resources their programmes warrant. In many areas of output, there is no ‘bloated’; they should command greater resource.
Hints of regionalisation are worrying and rarely the answer.  Where the shows work, it is often simply because one station has hired exactly the sort of person which every station should.  Regions do not exist; only in media-land. Nottingham people are usually less interested in Derby because it is their neighbour, rather than more so.  Similarly, Manchester and Liverpool. The closer areas lie, often the larger their rivalry.  Local is local.
Every time I speak to any BBC folk, as I often do, I am careful not to be portrayed as a ‘BBC basher’.  I need have no fear: so many of the huge numbers of ‘good folk’ there are more frustrated and outspoken than anyone on the outside. They feel powerless.  Decades of mismanagement have allowed the BBC to descend into a place it does not deserve to be.  It is thanks to human nature and a love for the medium that still there is so much output of which it should still be hugely, hugely proud. 
I adore the BBC and everything it stands for. I would join those on the streets campaigning for the right areas to be retained. Grown. I am moved to tears when I hear great moments of BBC output, just as I am with output from my own stations.
Here’s my local radio plan.  Get modest premises; hire a great manager; identify some gifted local communicators; find the best journalists who love their job and are capable of reading. Get on with it.  Remember Frank Gillard’s vision: there is nothing 1967 about it. Better output can be produced and huge efficiencies realised: the two things are not mutually exclusive.
At a time when commercial radio is regionalising, there has never been a better time for great BBC Local Radio in many areas to fill the gap with enthusiasm.

My book, 'How to Make Great Radio', is published by Biteback

1 comment:

  1. Yes David as someone who has also experienced both sides of the fence firstly 25 years at LBC and then an 18 month stint at BBC London as a freelance - I loved the people at the BBC there was a core of dedicated talented staff desperately trying to deal with the mighty monolith BBC riddled with bureaucracy and waste.

    The only way for BBC local radio to survive is to be run as an LBC type operation and budget! But we both know and you have proved - the BBC are not interested in doing that, shame.

    Steve

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