Community Media Discussion – Local Radio for the Chop?

This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about the cuts to BBC Local Radio, and how community radio is becoming the main platform for locally produced and independently managed media. In an age of commercial and corporate homogenisation, however, community radio is also facing challenges to the founding principles of access, participation, education and self-representation, that define Ofcom regulated community broadcasting. If the BBC can take a hatchet to local radio, what’s the chance that community radio will be next for the chop?

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The news today that BBC Local Radio in England is making significant cuts to its provision, and is cutting back on the number of local programmes that are uniquely produced as part of each station’s unique output, is alarming. Are we witnessing a further decline in the viability of local media across the UK? According to the BBC, “all 39 networks in England will keep their current schedule from 6am to 2pm, but after that shows will be shared.”

[Update: Here is the Urgent Question that was discussed in the House of Commons on Tuesday 1st November]

There will now only be ten local programmes between “6-10pm on weekdays, across the day on Saturday, as well as on Sunday mornings.” The idea is to combine production and content from 2-6pm regionally, for example, with Leicester combined with Northampton, and Devon being combined with Cornwall.

Then at weekends content will be further combined, with the breakfast programmes on Saturday and Sunday being amalgamated, for example, to include Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Lincolnshire, and similarly for Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire. Likewise, from 10pm weekdays, and from 2pm Sundays, only one programme will serve all thirty-nine local BBC radio stations in England.

While BBC local radio is being constrained, the BBC’s online approach continues to be pushed forward, with news production being expanded via BBC Sounds. According to The Media Leader, there will be a greater focus on local news production across the network, and “for the first time, the BBC will create multimedia news operations across England to bring together local news teams across radio, TV and online.” According to The Press Gazette, the BBC claims that the plan will “multimedia news operations” across England that bring together its online, TV and radio teams more closely, will “deliver greater online impact and more original journalism.”

The BBC is faced with a significant squeeze across the whole range of its services, with the recently announced reductions in specific language coverage by the BBC World Service coming as a result of reduced government funding. The effects of the squeeze of the BBC Licence Fee are now being felt locally, with this being only one of many significant reductions in service. Local, it seems, is the one platform to get the chop! The question we should be asking, then, is who was consulted about these changes, and what input have listeners and citizens had into the reshaping of these services?

Clearly, the BBC operates as a corporate entity. Indeed, the BBC is a single organisation with little accountability to local communities. The BBC is managed from the top-down, which means that decisions are made remotely from the people who use and make these services. There is some devolution to the nations, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland managing local radio separately, but in effect the structure of the BBC is determined from London, and responds to what the corporate professional managers decide is in the interests of the corporation.

Where is the citizen engagement that determines the BBC organisation policy and programming policies? Where is the published evidence that says that listeners, in the places that are currently served by these stations, actually want programmes that are homogenised and generic? These new forms of combined programmes could come from anywhere, so why should listeners remain loyal to them?

In this regard, it seems that community radio is fast becoming the only media movement in the UK that is specifically informed and shaped by its commitment to place. Community radio stations serve towns and neighbourhoods across the country, based on both their commitment to serve communities of identity, interests, and place. If we compare this to the way that the commercial networks have been given a free rein in recent years, then community radio is vital to media diversity and innovation.

The commercial networks are clearly effective at building brands, but they do this by amalgamating their production processes, and homogenising their programmes. The commercial operators have entered the global stage, competing with Spotify, TikTok and Facebook. So commercial radio stations are increasingly built around celebrity presenters, branding, and an approach that gives listeners ‘more of what they want.’

The link with place, then, as an essential and defining characteristic of local radio is being broken. Are both Ofcom and DCMS complicit in not protecting local media? Is there is an alternative?

Community radio in the UK, with its commitments to safeguarding of access, place and inclusion, is fast becoming the only remaining media movement which is capable of serving the needs of local people, in their neighbourhoods and towns. However, the nature of community, independently produced, and not for profit broadcasting in the UK, is also under significant pressure. But not from without, instead from within, as some call for deregulation of the key commitments’ legislation that defines community radio.

If the BBC is abandoning its commitment to local provision, how long will it be before the key commitments that define community radio are also abandoned?

Siobhán Stevenson summarises the four principles that define the key commitments, as regulated by Ofcom:

  • First, is the provision of sound broadcasting services to individuals who are otherwise underserved by broadcast media services more generally.
  • Second is the provision of education and training services for people to make their own programmes and run their own services.
  • Third is the strengthening of better understanding of communities and the links that people have within them.
  • Finally, community radio has to facilitate discussion and the expression of opinion.

No other form of media has these social gain principles built-in to their licencing and regulation. They are an essential requirement for a democratic and free media that isn’t controlled by the state, or by a corporate network dependent on maximising it’s position in the international media marketplace. Instead, as a movement, community radio is dedicated to guaranteeing access and training for people who would never in a million years be given space within the BBC or the commercial producers.

If the BBC can take a hatchet to local radio, particularly after under-investing in services for many years, then who will be next? Are we at risk of losing all access to all our independent local media and news? The Great Central Gazette is one such attempt to redress the balance, but if the cards are stacked against local provision, then who will come forward to become the providers of independent civic discussion and news in the future?

We can leave our media to the tech giants if we like, but we are being plagued by misinformation and bias, which is ruining business and lives. Can we walk into our local BBC station and leave a comment, or ask a question? We used to be able to. We can’t walk into Google’s offices and take part in how their algorithm works, unless we jump on an aeroplane and head to California.

Not only that, but we need local media to ensure that our local democracy works, that we have local cultures of expression, that we have civic discussion and debate, and that we can get involved and make our own programmes, rather than waiting for them to be handed to us by cynical and distant producers who are superb at telling us what we want, rather than us making our programmes for ourselves.

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