Once, naively, I went to a meeting of BBC Local Radio editors and suggested that they cut their output in half and pool resources to create a night-time service called BBC Radio England. Well, I wouldn’t have provoked so much shock and disgust if I had stripped off and danced naked on the conference room table. To be fair, my suggestion was made with the best of intentions and after I had heaped much praise on the various BBC local stations I had heard on my various trips through England’s green and pleasant lands. I remember singling out BBC Radio Newcastle which had an excellent morning news show and an equally good afternoon arts programme. I’d also heard the output of stations in Devon and Cornwall and on Jersey. All good at what they were doing and I had a quiet chuckle when I heard the local presenters diverting from the centrally-dictated music playlist and responding to what their local listeners were actually asking them to play.
That, it seemed to me, has always been the core contradiction about BBC Local Radio. The stations are set up to respond to particular local communities but, every now and again, a diktat comes down from on high which betrays an absurd one-size-fits-all approach to local broadcasting. Over the years they have been instructed to forget music and focus on news. Then that was reversed and there was the universal focus on mythical listeners called Dave and Sue. Producers and presenters were told to get to know these fictional listeners and do all they could to grab their attention. There was also a brief period when the stations went all-out to attract the World War 2 generation until those same listeners reacted by telling the BBC they had already fought the war and didn’t need to be reminded of it every day. These centralised commands ignore the fact that each of the 39 BBC local stations work in different market environments, with different demographics and different competitors. It also neglects the appeal of local presenters who have spent years building a relationship with their listeners.
In the latest round of cuts, BBC Local Radio is again being subjected to some shoe-horn thinking from on high. One cost-saving measure will mean an end to all twin presentation formats. This is the kind of thinking that comes from executives who have lost their ear for good radio. Sure, some solo presenters are brilliant, but others need an on-air companion to bounce ideas back and forth and to take different sides on an issue. The best twin-presentation formats understand how each of the two presenters can represent the different views and experiences of the listeners. That can be as simple and man/woman, but it can also be young/old, urban/rural, serious/funny…and so on. Where the presenters don’t understand that and both do the same thing then, yes, bring down the axe.
And BBC Radio England? Well, the reason I made such a blasphemous suggestion all those years ago was because, in my listening travels, I heard many BBC Local stations sharing evening content in a patch-work style that was difficult to understand. So, sometimes BBC Jersey would take programmes from Cornwall, some other BBC station would take network content. I thought one single sustaining service might be clearer and cheaper and allow the station managers to invest funds back into their daytime shows.
Now it seems, BBC Radio England might be becoming a reality by default and for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. Just when local radio can and is providing up-to-the minute coverage of the coronavirus – and offering multi-lingual health advice in virus hotspots – the BBC is talking about pulling back from localness. And, as you have heard me blether on this before, this is also a time when commercial radio is also reducing local content and thus leaving a gap in the market for the BBC.
But there is one good reason to go ahead and create something called BBC Radio England. It might remind the bosses and producers at BBC Radio 4 that’s not the name of the service they’re working for.