When is local radio not local?

"In many parts of the country, specialist soul, country or jazz programmes have been replaced by the one-size-fits-all, bland national playlist..."

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When is local radio not local?
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Postbags rarely bulge these days – especially electronic ones – but the RT Letter of the Week (19 January) from the Reverend Gareth Hill, bemoaning the fact that Mark Forrest’s show was replacing evening programmes on every English BBC local radio station, provoked a storm of support from across the country.

Many readers couldn’t understand why their favourite shows were being cut to save money. Instead of programmes tailor-made to fit the station or region, from 7 to 10pm every night a single national show is broadcast from Leeds to the BBC’s 40 stations in England and the Channel Islands. The Mark Forrest show, which started on 7 January, is a result of the first and deepest of the cuts aimed at saving £8m from the £115m local radio budget.

From BBC local radio’s humble beginnings in 1967 as part of the fight against pirate stations, local programmes have been provided throughout the day. Until January, a mix of regional, city-or county-specific shows offered everything from a community phone-in in Cornwall, funk and soul shows in London and Leeds, crooners in Cumbria and local singer/songwriters in Lincolnshire.

The exact savings the countrywide Mark Forrest show provides haven’t been made public, but Gerald Main, managing editor of BBC Essex and the local radio expert charged with overseeing Forrest’s show, insists the evening audience for BBC local radio is just one tenth of the daytime numbers so the changes would affect the fewest people. According to recent Rajar quarterly figures, 14.3m listen to BBC local radio.

Ross Burman, a BBC Essex listener, argued these cuts were dangerous for the community. “I think local radio should be at the creative and administrative heart of the BBC,” he wrote. “It’s at times such as these – the highly dangerous and disruptive snow – when local radio comes into its own. I don’t get home from work until around 7 and I want to check on local conditions, not listen to a national broadcast.”

Plenty of readers were worried that their music choice was withering – in many parts of the country, specialist soul, country or jazz programmes have been replaced by the one-size- fits-all, bland national playlist.

While most were generous to Forrest himself, they mourned the passing of favourite presenters without proper consultation and worried where new talent would get a chance to flourish. Many letters to RT were from listeners to Roger Day’s show across Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Berkshire, but Sue Marchant on Radio Northampton, Harry King on Radio Cumbria, Eric Hall on BBC Essex and Duncan Warren from Radio Devon and the Channel Islands were also missed.

“I’m sad for the listeners, who’ve been let down again,” Roger Day told us. The broadcaster – with experience on Radio Caroline, Manchester’s Piccadilly and Kent’s Invicta – has now been given a single show on Sunday evenings and feels the Mark Forrest show fails to deliver on local information. “Commercial radio certainly isn’t doing it any more, either,” he points out.

“In the South East, the M25 is a permanent traffic jam – they’re doing the odd bit of traffic news, but nothing to help people deal with that. I was originally told while I was on holiday in Portugal and then couldn’t talk about it for a year until I announced I was leaving. Some listeners who wrote in to complain last week were told they should have written before the end of the year – well, no one told them it was happening.”

Protest groups and petitions have sprung up across the country. There’s a Facebook campaign organised by Andrew Boddington in Shropshire. Tamsin Vincent – co-founder of the BBC Radio Forum – has collected more than 3,600 signatures protesting at the cuts, while the Save the Roger Day Show campaign, co-founded by Julia Allen, an IT support manager in Kent, has a further 2,600.

“What amazes me is how cavalier the BBC can be with spending licence-fee payers’ money in some areas – simply buying the licence to make The Voice, which wasn’t a very successful programme, cost £20m, while the salaries of the BBC’s top 98 managers come to £18m a year,” Julia Allen argues. “I don’t know how much Roger Day was paid, but it wouldn’t have been millions. He played the most imaginative blend of music to four counties and every night had a different specialist hour at the end of the show – from big band to 50s jazz to folk. He introduced me to music I wouldn’t have listened to. Mark Forrest had a woman in Humberside complaining about her wedding venue and people doing Elvis impressions.”

RT took Julia’s points to BBC Corporate Affairs, who issued the following statement: “The reason we need to make cuts is simple: we cannot spend more than we have, and we’ll have less in future, as the licence fee is fixed until 2016/17. We scaled back our proposed cuts to local radio in response to listeners’ views. But the reality is that Saturday-night entertainment TV shows cost more to make than local radio programmes. Nevertheless, we need every part of the BBC to help deliver savings, including local radio, if we’re going to hit our targets.”

Some RT readers pointed out that money was being saved just as the BBC’s short-lived director-general George Entwistle received a handsome pay-off. Speaking by phone, Rita Leyland from St Helens told us she didn’t think the BBC should cut local radio “if they’re giving enormous pay-offs to incompetents who haven’t done their jobs well. If the BBC have the money for this, then surely they have the money to make sure local radio is unaffected.”

The BBC Trust, which awarded Entwistle his pay-off, told RT: “We’re very conscious that the £450,000 paid to George Entwistle is a lot of money. But with or without that payment, the BBC needs to make significant savings, and difficult decisions were needed across the Corporation to ensure it can meet the challenge of a freeze in the level of the licence fee, and new responsibilities, including funding the World Service and S4C. We appreciate the importance of local radio to listeners, and following the public consultation last year we had already asked the BBC Executive to scale back its original plans for the savings on these services.”

The cuts originated in a 2011 consultation called Delivering Quality First, which set out the way the BBC would deal with a flat licence fee until the end of its current charter – although some readers point out cuts were being discussed by Entwistle’s predecessor, Mark Thompson, before budget restrictions were imposed by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. First set at £15m, the total was reduced to £8m and signed off by Trust chairman Chris Patten.

But Forrest’s producer Gerald Main points to the playing of unsigned acts put forward by local stations and the show’s local news bulletins as examples of the new show’s local feel: “We get good, lively phone-ins and the music selection is from the BBC local playlist put together scientifically through listener research.”

Many RT readers have also written to their local stations, even – in some cases – to the DG’s office, but feel they’ve been fobbed off. “It seems funny that they’re in the business of radio,” reflects Rita Leyland. “Whatever you try to say to them, they don’t listen – they just don’t listen...”