I love BBC Local Radio. From phone answerer to presenter to producer, reporter to manager, over the last 25 years I have worked almost every role. And I’ve relished every minute.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the spine-tingling moment a local commentary team reports on their side snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – when they know just how much those three points mean to the fans, their community, their listeners. It goes way beyond the sport on the pitch.
Sharing the agonies and the ecstasies
I’ve picked up the phone to lonely and vulnerable folk for whom local radio is a lifeline – I can even still remember some of the phone numbers of regular callers back in the day. I’ve shared the anger of the communities who are up in arms about woeful public transport … I’ve felt their fear at the latest cost of living rise and I’ve shared their joy when good news has come to town. Who can forget The Tour De France taking over Yorkshire in the summer of 2014? What about Hull becoming City of Culture in 2017? BBC Local Radio was in the heart of communities telling those stories of and with local people at the centre.
It’s a unique service that no one else can offer. No wonder people are protective of it. I know I am.
This is why I don’t just want BBC Local Radio to survive, I want it to thrive. I also believe for that to happen local radio has to change. For more than a decade now listener numbers have been trending downwards. Habits are changing, people are changing. The local news bulletins, sports updates and weather information that once drove people to switch on are now being accessed more routinely on the internet via smartphones. We still make great programmes but 39 local radio stations don’t provide the same value for everyone they once did.
Taking on the competition from digital media
We conduct regular local audience research across ages and demographics and when asked where they get their local news, not enough people say they listen to local radio, they say ‘online’ and more specifically mostly through social media.
We need to take the hint and start serving up our great content and our local stories in places and in ways our audiences want to find them. If we don’t change, we will become irrelevant.
There are opportunities here. All our local radio stations have a growing presence on BBC Sounds – the BBC on demand audio platform – where we serve up the best output and local podcasts tailor made to bring in and attract new listeners. In Yorkshire the recent launch of podcasts for Leeds United, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday fans have all been met with great praise (and downloads already in the tens of thousands). There is a Hull City podcast also coming soon.
Strengthening the unique bond with listeners
But what of the remarkable connection between local radio and its audience? I remember producing one programme a few years ago when loyal listener Bill rang the presenter to tell him his wife had died that morning. Such was the level of companionship brought by his favourite show he felt more comfortable making that first call to the radio station, than to his family. Surely that kind of connection can’t be maintained if the service becomes less local? I believe it absolutely can.
We are not pulling out of local radio. Far from it. In our new schedules we’ll still have weekday breakfast and daytime shows as live and local as they’ve always been, daytime local news bulletins and all our local sports coverage. Our shared programmes will have great presenters with big personalities who have the potential, with great production, to be appointments to listen. Pooling the best of the stories across a wider area, plus the best choice of callers and the best guests should see an increase in quality, not the reverse.
It’s not so long since Peter Levy hosted a popular lunchtime phone in that worked very across BBC Radio Humberside and BBC Radio Lincolnshire. The right presenters and the right content can transcend boundaries and forge connections anyway. Listeners like Bill will still feel they can call in.
Securing a brighter future
I believe the changes will see our overall product become more local. By investing in producing audio for BBC Sounds, by creating podcasts for local communities of interest and with social media producers using their expertise to push the right content to the right people we should be reaching far more local people than we’re able to with just a local radio service.
The BBC is committed to our local services. The BBC is spending more than ever outside of London. Our ‘Across The UK’ plan will see an extra £700mn of licence fee money being spent outside of London. This is providing a real financial and jobs boost to the creative economy across Yorkshire.
We’re not giving up on local. We’re future proofing our services to make sure that special connection local radio has with its audiences grows even stronger.