Wednesday 9 March 2016

Trust Report - BBC Local Radio and Local News and Current Affairs in England

Another day. Another BBC report. 

In the context of its specific perspective, the report seems relatively sensible, although the contents illustrate yet again how the poor BBC gets in a tug of love from assorted strategies and priorities.

The part of the report dedicated to BBC Local Radio reminds us at the outset of its BBC Service Licence: "a primarily speech-based service of news, information and debate to local communities across England. Speech output should be complemented by music, and the stations should have a strong emphasis on interactivity and audience involvement. The target audience should be listeners aged 50 and over, who are not well served elsewhere, although it may appeal to all those interested in local issues".

It states too the latest Rajar figures: "BBC Local Radio reaches a large proportion of its target audience and has a high level of unique reach; it is clearly focused on serving its target audience . BBC Local Radio was listened to by 15.5% of adults in England each week in 2014-15".  Amongst the target over 50s, it reminds us that "nearly a quarter of them listened to BBC Local Radio each week, making it the BBC’s third highest reaching radio service among this age group, behind Radio 2 and Radio 4".  For reference, although not stated in the report, Radio 1 enjoys a 39% reach in its highly contested 15-24s.

The report makes reference too, however, to the fact that the service "may also appeal to all those interested in local issues”, so there is a secondary audience, given there is no local BBC service for the under 50s.

The Trust remind us how unique the audience is.  As we might expect from life, older people are less promiscuous.

The crucial question is whether these service are serving the 50 pluses. The Trust says an unequivocal 'yes' in its conclusion in large gold lettering, although there are some points of note in the detail. I am not surprised that "Local Radio editors and staff have told us that serving an older, local audience is of key importance". If I were one of those, I'd certainly say that to the man from the Trust when he grabbed my lapels.  It is suggested that "audience figures illustrate this", and I'd agree that  "weekly reach is particularly high among listeners aged 70 and over: at 30%", but, again, I'd point to Radio 1 figure above. For maths students, the median age of the listener is 58. 

As we know, weekly audience reach is highest out of mainland Britain and in rural areas (like the fine Radio Shropshire), and it performs less well in the big cities, as has been the challenge for generations, although the BBC is arguably no nearer a satisfactory solution. BBC Radio London has the lowest proportionate reach at just 4.1% of adults in the transmission area; "although it reaches a higher number of listeners (478,000) than any other BBC Local station".

The report states that weekly reach of BBC Local Radio has fallen by around 10% from 17.3% in 2010-11 to 15.5% in 2014- 15; and that this loss has been fairly even among all age groups; albeit actually marginally greater (-11%) amongst the over 50s. The context being that "overall radio listening among over 50s has remained broadly stable in the last five years, as an average 91% listen to some radio each week. Total hours per listener have fallen just slightly, from 25.7 hours per week in 2010-11 to 25.1 hours in 2014-15".  So the mature radio market is relatively stable, but local radio's share has fallen.

In fairness, let's just remind ourselves that the world has moved on for 50+ listeners, as with all demographics.  Years ago, there was no Smooth or Classic FM  - and daytime TV would have amounted to an occasional  cricket match or an open university programme given by a bearded Maths teacher in a cheap nylon shirt. Audiences can now choose from all manner of TV and radio channels, with much daytime TV aimed at older audiences - and indeed choose from programmes previously  broadcast. This simply will eat into the amount of time spent by over 50s on radio; and eke away at the edges of reach.

That's my view. The Trust suggests that The BBC has also sought to understand why reach of Local Radio has declined to this extent. "Its research indicates that, as the number of sources of news and information increases, BBC Local Radio listeners are increasingly using other sources for ‘utility’ news and information. Audiences also have greater choice across a range of media". It concluded that "BBC Local Radio must deliver its public purposes and, in particular, its remit of local news, in ways that are more engaging for listeners, delivered with warmth and personality. It hopes that this new approach will encourage audiences to stay with the stations for longer and may help reverse the decline in reach". 

I'm not convinced there is evidence that BBC local radio's audience is rushing to Twitter for its news or anywhere else. I'd attribute any decline, actually, to how well the stations overall are targeting programming at the audience.

Sections 64 and 82 seek to reassure anyone who heard David Holdsworth talk of warmer programming that his plan is more a matter of tone than anything more. "The BBC’s revised editorial approach should not reduce the stations’ focus on news, nor change the fundamental scope of the Local Radio offer". "We are clear that the remit of BBC Local Radio has not changed, and we have been assured by the BBC that its new approach will not reduce the services’ focus on news, nor will it change the scope of the Local Radio offer – news-focused, locally produced and focused speech radio. And we have seen no evidence that this has begun to happen".  The Trust sees no reason to vary the definition of the target audience.

Appreciation is high, especially high among older listeners, "particularly for its companionship role and its balance of music and speech". 

Audience comments are interesting, as ever. These people, who generally liked the services according to top line findings, described them as "warm, friendly and inviting" in qualitative studies.

I was delighted to see, as the first point under 'quality and distinctiveness' a suggestion of  "much appreciation for (its) accessibility and praise for presenters – particularly those who are felt to be knowledgeable about the local area, as well as entertaining".  That's key.  Get that right - with presenters of the right vintage and talent level - and the audience challenges will begin to fall away.

There was, however, a feeling from some respondents that "presenters can lack local knowledge". I wonder how many BBC recruitment boards (interviews) for candidates who may, as part of their post, end up hosting a programme, pause to probe a) knowledge of the target audience and its cultural references and b) the understanding of the locality.

Section 74 suggests that the BBC was asked to consider measurement of quality across its services, but concluded the cost was too high.  I can suggest some very cost-efficient solutions.  It's critical that every single person inside a BBC station knows what its audience thinks.  I find there is simply no substitute for that education when programming. Once digested, such findings influence every single decision.

Compliance levels are high, boasts Section 78.  They are.  Now, the time is right to forget Russell Brand and stop wasting time and money on auditioning pre-recorded music programmes for compliance reasons, and having someone sitting someone through the glass purely as a second pair of ears for accomplished presenters who probably don't need it. Listeners would wish you to spend that effort on more worthwhile pursuits.

The report concludes that BBC Local Radio is distinctive.  I believe, as it seeks to re-build audiences, it should not be tempted to ape the approaches of other stations. It should turn right and not left - and pursue its own 50+ audience with vigour. That will be the right route to growth  - and ever more distinctiveness.

Section 84 confirms BBC Local Radio "is not meant to be a rolling news service". Indeed. 

It stresses that "audience interaction is very important to Local Radio’s role as companion and a friend to its listeners".

Listeners suggest that the quality of news at present is good. I would agree.  It suggests, however, a ‘performance gap’ when audiences are asked how well BBC Local Radio “helps me understand politics and decision-making in my local area and holds decision-makers to account”. There may not be a performance gap, if one adds a degree of healthy caution to listeners' expression of hunger for such information.

"BBC Local Radio can initiate powerful community initiatives".  Yes, it can - and it should. Hats off to my beloved Radio Nottingham for, as cited in the report, its World War One centenary programming, when it launched a “big poppy knit”, asking listeners to "make flowers representing those from the county who had died. More than 100,000 poppies were made and were turned into an art exhibition and then sold in aid of the British Legion". More of that please.

"Respondents in our qualitative research told us that they feel it provides a voice for the region, and that local accents and the breadth of subject matter covered helps them feel connected to the local community. It also highlighted that BBC Local Radio’s role as a companion is very important, particularly for older listeners. Listeners feel it helps them feel more involved with the local community, provides a comforting and reassuring voice/friend, and that it can help some people feel less isolated". It is interesting to examine the words listeners utter when offered an open-ended question. 

Sport fares well, although the Trust accepts that coverage may now increasingly be found elsewhere.  The findings suggest that "its perceived performance is higher than its importance, resulting in a positive ‘performance gap". Do I take it that the BBC is doing more than its audience feels is necessary?

The service licence sets a limit for current and recent chart hits of no more than 15% of weekly music output. The BBC estimates that an average 9.5% of its music output in daytime is current and recent hits. The Trust  concludes "that older listeners are content with the music on Local Radio and they are happy with the balance of music and speech. They typically prefer more speech to music, and this is more likely to be the reason they tune in". 

Onto the money. The BBC spent £115.6 million on BBC Local Radio content in 2014-15, against a service licence budget of £118 million. When adding in BBC Local Radio’s allocation of the BBC’s distribution and infrastructure/support costs, its total cost was £153.8 million in 2014-15. Overall, each hour of BBC Local Radio costs 3.8 pence per listener. This is up from 3 pence in 2011-12, albeit  largely due to a reduction in listening hours.

Overall, this is a sensible report, quite understandably addressing the scope of the consultation, rather than focusing on the broader BBC local radio questions.

As always, the poor BBC is a rose caught between rather more than two thorns.  It is beaten up for not sustaining reach, whilst being urged to do more challenging radio and calling 'decision  makers to account'.  Whilst listeners might suggest this is what they want, we all appreciate the difference between what consumers say they want and what they then go on to consume.  Similarly, it is criticised in this report for the small amount and pace of online news, whilst being challenged elsewhere for treading on commercial toes. And - it must target the 50+ with vigour - but is also asked to remember everyone else who lives locally and any specific appetites from BAME audiences.

Overall, I'm pleased this report highlights how BBC local listeners value the talk more than the music, and they value informed, warm, talented, entertaining presenters who know their locality.  They attach importance to a great spine of local news, including challenge in its reporting where warranted, and the station playing its role in it community. The Trust also recognises the value of stations doing more to understand their audiences.  

Where from here?  The cost of BBC local radio will always come under scrutiny - and I believe that thinking must advance on how to deliver all the above and more on a budget which simply must decline significantly in future generations. I suggest that will take a wholly different model from the familiar approach - but it is eminently achievable.

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is out now.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations to the BBC journalists who spun the report nicely to suit their own ends. BBC Local Radio has never been renowned for its music so they CAN only emphasise their empathy with speech.

    They have ignored previous, more commercially-based reports, and now produce one of their own in the (vain?) hope they'll be left alone.

    The output of these stations is rather like an old family dog that spends most of its day dozing in the corner. It's good that it is still there, but you only glance at it briefly, and that is to recall the days it brought much more into your life.

    The 'mature' people I know don't sit around ageing, they live MORE, expect more, as they have more TIME in their lives - and many buy a puppy for company...


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