Tuesday 7 November 2017

What Future for Local Radio?

Fifty years ago this week, local radio returned to the UK, with an armful of pioneering BBC local stations, thanks to the steely determination of the truly brilliant Frank Gillard and a cautious BBC and Government.

During several welcome appearances on numerous stations to discuss the anniversary, one question was repeatedly put to me. Will local radio survive the next fifty years?

After all, these jolly stations with their very proper BBC voices arrived tentatively at a time when there were but three TV channels, bath night was once a week and dog poo was white. Given all that appears to have changed, why on earth should we still think the aged idea of local radio should survive?

In those sixties days, I’d be sent to Coopers’ at the end of our road to fetch a quarter pound of smoked bacon, a KitKat and 20 Park Drive Tipped. Our family really valued that shop and it became a real part of our community, the little bell over the door dinging as we entered. I confess, however, that nowadays, the range, freshness and price from the new gleaming Tesco down the road from where I now live is leagues ahead. It’s now my new corner shop and I’m not unduly alarmed that its head office is in Welwyn Garden City.

Radio has evolved in much the same way. For it to have retained such impressive popularity against ever growing competition is no accident. There are now beautifully-programmed stations for every taste and, crucially, every mood. They are available round the clock and can be consumed with increasing ease.

Local radio of all kinds accounts for around a third of all listening currently, down from almost 40% ten years ago. And an appreciable proportion of that ´local radio´, arguably now comprises little local content. Great national brands have been created, and each ekes away at the audiences of others. If local radio is to survive in any market, it must simply remember why it is there - or change to doing something else - or close. 

When small, independent businesses thrive on the high street, it is because they know why they are there and what need they fulfil. They offer something special, distinctive and valued. They don’t try to be Tesco.

Let’s examine a few radio answers to the ‘why’ question for our beloved medium, and consider which might pass muster in the years to come.

Location. Simply asserting that local radio is a good thing because it’s based above the kebab shop on the high street is not hugely persuasive. The great Radio Merseyside voices would arguably sound the same from a pre-fab in Stevenage. The FCC, UK Radiocentre, Government (seemingly) and I agree on this. Some self-indulgent stations just play at being local - they may as well be based on the moon. Whether commercial or BBC, if you are only local by virtue of where you pay your business rates, you may as well close.

Serving the right area. It’s either local or it’s not. Citizens define the area which relates to them. Regional is most often a concept invented by media organisations. If you’re not local to your listeners, you may as well be national. The early BBC local radio planners even agonised about how local London could ever be - and whether to break it up into smaller neighbourhood stations, or even ones aimed at certain trades.

Spirit and character. A presenter who knows their area lends real value. On a format which allows that to really cut through, it brings real listener affinity - the presenter is, or has become, ‘one of us’ and loyalty has been established. Local ‘spirit’ matters more to some areas than others. More to smaller areas, and more to proud, distinct larger areas which might otherwise feel a little unloved.  Great stations belong.

Friendship and Heritage. We trust people with shared common values and beliefs - hence the smile of recognition when some random in the hotel bar tells you they hail from your town too. Presenters are your lifetime friend. They know this place where you grew up and experienced first love; they know the pub where you had my first drink; and the garage where you bought your first car. When they allude to it, it chimes with your life and reminds you of your deepest memories. Here’s one reason why the local thing chimes more with settled, older audiences.
Context and Reassurance. Listeners tell us they value local radio for bringing local news and information but, looking to the future, are other media increasingly better geared for dissemination of immediate hard data? Is the real ongoing and irreplaceable value of radio to reflect and analyse whatever the news brings? And an understanding friend who puts their arm around you when times are tough. Witness BBC Radio Manchester after the MEN Arena bomb, or City Talk the day after the Hillsborough verdict.

Interesting company. People choose radio’s conversation because they find it company, and they find that company interesting. Just because an item is local, however, does not render it automatically interesting. Things have to matter. As a listener, I need to care. Great local stations don’t carry content just because it’s local and fills a hole.

Championing. In the absence of local press, there’s been talk of a local democracy deficit. BBC local radio attaches importance to holding local decision makers to account, but could this be addressed just as well through investment in online news channels acting in the way press used to? Possibly - and the BBC local democracy reporter scheme, in some ways, takes this into account. Where radio excels is the more emotional business of championing an area. Local pride and involvement. Not holding people to account just because it makes today’s 8.00 a.m story, but trying to make life better round here forever. Mood is the single biggest reason for listeners to listen.

In summary, we must establish where local radio is an ongoing sensible prospect in each market; and, whether commercial or BBC, prepare to give up where it’s not. 

In the areas where it continues, it has to super-serve the people in its area. Not play at being a bigger station, but offer the sort of irreplaceable, distinctive visceral service where there is a demand for that service. Such a service must be wholly targeted at its most likely audience, and anchored by presenters and journalists who truly know what they’re doing, managed by managers who get it.

And, in fairness, that’s where it all wisely began in 1967.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments': 50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

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