DCMS Committee on Changes to BBC Local Radio In England

Earlier I listened to the discussion between MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee with BBC executives exploring the decision to cut local radio services in England. I can’t say it was an illuminating conversation that inspired me to think more seriously about the BBC local radio services.

Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director of Nations and Jason Horton, Director of England, both did an impressive job of making this essential service sound dull and boring, which probably goes some way to explain why the BBC is making the cuts that it is. There is no passion or commitment to local representation, just generic management phrases that smooth over the rough edges and deny that any alternatives to their proposals are possible.

Few of the MPs, unfortunately, demonstrated significant critical insight about the need for self-determination in our media, and the principle that communities and people in different places across the country should be democratically deciding what kind of media services they want.

Horton and Davies described the long-term decline of BBC local radio, faced with the introduction of both the BBC’s online web presence, the iPlayer and now BBC Sounds. Their expectation is that as more digitally enabled routes to content become viable, more people will switch from listening from broadcast radio to on-demand audio content. The BBC, as one of the MPs questioned, seem obsessed with the Digital First policy at the expense of all other forms of contact, even if they are tried and tested.

My concern is that the BBC isn’t being transparent about the data that they are basing their decisions on. They use market research rather than public engagement approaches to finding out how and in what way listeners value content. The BBC doesn’t host public forums locally. They don’t engage with organisations from civic society, unless they specifically write to the BBC. It’s an ‘open-door’ policy of consultation that, in my experience, is simply a way of massaging opinion before implementing decisions that have already been taken.

The BBC has no civic and social purpose, it seems, other than to serve its own institutional needs. A purpose-driven BBC would focus on the levelling up agenda. There would be no need for Ofcom to remind the BBC of the need to better serve people in social-economic groups D and E, which is frankly embarrassing. According to Ofcom people at the lower end of the economic scale watch television, then listen to radio, and seldom use online services or watch iPlayer. So why cut local radio?

The BBC could be much more radical in their approach. Radio is relatively cheap to produce, which doesn’t need to be staked with managers and editors to develop engaging content. The BBC is often more obsessed with its own organisational structures and processes, rather than what opportunities it opens up for local discussion, self-representation and participation.

This is radio made for people, not by people themselves. Centralised executive managers press and pull the levers of power, and local people in each of the thirty-nine station areas have no say or input as to what they end up listening to. There is a sense that many people are getting tired of the BBC for multiple reasons, despite the self-congratulation that has accompanied the centenary celebrations of the founding of the BBC.

This does, however, present an opportunity for community radio to step in and fill the gap that is being left by the BBC’s self-imposed decline. If the BBC stopped chasing international programming markets, and used the money that is raised through the Television Licence tax to build from the bottom-up, then perhaps it would last another one hundred years, but at this rate, that doesn’t seem likely.

I’ve paid my licence fee all my adult life. I am a co-investor in the BBC, though I find it increasingly difficult to justify why I should continue to contribute towards services that I have no affinity with, that are run by people who are intent on condescending us, and having no possibility of contributing to the future services that the BBC might provide. 

The changes that the BBC wants to make to local radio in England will no doubt go through, but I can’t say many will notice because we’ll just switch off and find something else to listen to. Hopefully community radio can be that alternative.

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