Monday 17 June 2019

Is There a Future for Local Radio?

Ask the question: ‘is local radio a good thing?’, and you’ll get the same answer as you would to the question: ‘are local  corner shops a good idea?’. Albeit from a driver who then promptly screeches off in their 4x4 to Tesco.

Local radio has been around for over 50 years. We’ve grown up with it; and maybe cherish those listening memories just as we recall our first car, home and true love. Is it still a decent idea - and, if it is, how should it be structured and delivered in the most disrupted audio world since radio began? Would fresh thinking pay dividends?

Over the decades, local radio thinking has shifted in line with the Government of the day. It was anticipated that the first local stations in the '60s would be commercial rather than BBC, with BBC local radio arriving later - if at all - judging by the general Corporation apathy at the time.  BBC local stations could have continued to seek additional local funding, as they did at the outset, rather than rely wholly on BBC coffers. Commercial radio could have launched with a national model. Community radio would have arrived in 1985, had the Home Secretary's plans been adopted that year. And in 1977, had the Annan committee recommendations been followed, both commercial and BBC local could have been sucked into a distinct joint authority.

We are where we are for historic reasons. In a time of unprecedented disruption in the audio world, should we think again on local radio?

Every piece of solid qualitative research I’ve ever seen, whether for BBC or commercial radio, suggests that localness is not the key driver for most listeners when choosing their stations. If it were, then national radio would not account for almost two thirds of all listening (W1, 2019 - Rajar, UK). Trumpeting ‘we are from round here’ is not enough to drive reach. Listeners likely know that already - and many still choose not to listen. Attaining significant audiences to local radio in many areas will become an increasing challenge. In general terms, it works less well in the major conurbations - and life is unlikely to get easier.

People do, however, value 'local' when delivered well in proud areas by an entertaining, relevant, interesting broadcaster with whom they connect - on a station which is friendly and cheers them up. Let’s acknowledge too that the art of that local connection takes real effort and demands rare skills from the very best communicators. There are those who have mastered the art on both commercial radio and BBC local radio; and there are many more who have not. Just having high street premises and on-air local liners doesn’t make me switch from Jeremy Vine.

How should a future for local radio shape up?

The BBC wholly funds local stations in some areas but does not trouble with other locations, dependent on maps drawn up by bureaucrats in a monochrome age. As budgets are ever-stretched, should the BBC consider the future of its largest local stations? Indeed, such decisions were entertained in the '80s. Should it launch new stations in smaller communities? Whilst it was refreshing to hear the DG attach value to local radio, the Corporation mood can change quickly when money is tight - and the extant operating licence enshrines few  concrete obligations.

Public monies are being injected into news locally too, via the BBC, in local democracy reporters. When the time comes for review, is that the best use of those funds?

Some areas enjoy proud local commercial stations such as Yorkshire Coast Radio, Rutland Radio or Mansfield 103.2. Such stations which take pride in doing local well are providing a valuable and popular service - but do not benefit from public subsidy.

Broadcast infrastructure is expensive, whether funded publicly or privately. Audiences are finite, and one anticipates the listening appetite for local linear audio content to diminish in time.

Is it time, therefore, for a fresh look at ‘local radio’ provision if it is to thrive in future generations? Are the delineations between BBC, small commercial and community impeding clarity of thought?

National radio provision is better than it has ever been. The BBC and commercial sector are investing in an unprecedented choice of brilliantly-defined brands. If local radio were invented today, how would it be structured against that backdrop in a fast-changing audio world?

Is the BBC able to continue to fund the sort of local stations it currently does? Is the Corporation sufficiently agile to facilitate the best local radio; or are stations distracted by a demanding Auntie. Is the BBC the best home for local radio?

Should small local commercial stations be able to benefit from some public funding, underpinning their efforts and helping long-term survival?

Should community ‘stations’ be distributing content via others' transmitters, rather than having to spend funds on premises and round the clock transmission?

And, in general terms, how does on-demand audio and podcasting fit in? Is this not likely to become the best route for some destination programming aimed at specific local communities?

Imagine, for example, a single tier of local radio - in a large number of areas, fuelled by some licence fee funding, but not part of the BBC, some commercial income and the ability to strike partnerships. The stations might have specific content obligations to champion their areas but also many freedoms to deliver local radio and audio to their communities in a popular context.

If local radio is to flourish in a new age, in whose hands should it be entrusted? How should it be funded to ensure standards remain high? Would a review nurture some interesting thinking?

Related blogs:
To Target or not to target (2019)
Is Big Really Beautiful? A hyper-local future (2018)
What Future for Local Radio? (2017)
Goodbye from BBC Local Radio? (2017)
What About the Old Folk? (2017)
BBC Local - Lessons from History (2015)
Hope for BBC Local Radio (2013)
BBC Local Radio - a personal view (2011)

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