Fears that the BBC is to severely cut back on local radio programmes have receded a little further today: a report commissioned by the Corporation says local radio should slash its senior management wage bill rather than axe afternoon and evening shows.
The planned £15m cuts, announced by BBC director-general Mark Thompson last October as part of the money-saving Delivering Quality First initiative, were to involve 40 English radio stations losing between a quarter and a third of their staff, with plans to merge afternoon and evening programming across neighbouring stations.
The BBC Trust has already called the plans “disproportionate” – in January, BBC chairman Chris Patten ordered Mark Thompson to re-think the proposals.
Now a new independent study, conducted by the former chief of GMG Radio, John Myers, has agreed.
Myers’ report concluded that “the maximum total value of savings that can be made without affecting quality is approximately £9m” – but that another £2m can be found if managing editors are cut by at least 50%, running two or three stations each instead of one.
“What is absolutely clear is that there are too many people with management responsibilities and that a slimmer structure is required,” Myers said.
The report found that local radio audiences have been on the rise since 2009 after a long period of decline, but that any fall in ratings caused by cutbacks would lead to questions over local radio’s future. “In cutting as deeply as anticipated in DQF, there is a significant risk of reducing the level of audience even further and damaging the range and quality of programmes that sets these stations apart from other networks and competitors,” Myers wrote.
The report specifically warned against Thompson’s planned syndicating of some local radio programming. “I have not agreed with the removal of the afternoon show,” Myers wrote, “as the risk of audience decline is too great… I am also unconvinced by the scale of ambition to share programmes on Saturday and Sundays.”
“Local output in daytime and weekends is paramount to the future of the local radio network,” he added.
Myers recommended that savings be found “less through scope and more through productivity”, naming employment costs as a major potential source of savings, along with sports rights, which could be negotiated nationally, and infrastructure.
Myers noted that the local radio programmes he had observed were using out-of-date equipment and were housed in outmoded buildings, both of which were leading to unnecessary costs – and making local radio journalists feel like “second class citizens within the Corporation”.
The standard of journalism in BBC local radio is good, Myers said, concluding that he was “impressed” with output overall. He warned, however, that local stations need to work harder to attract older listeners, who he said were “less well served than ever”.
“The growth of the 50-plus demographic is only going to increase and the opportunity is enormous for those who make this their home,” Myers said.
The BBC’s controller of English regions, David Holdsworth, said: “We are grateful to John Myers for his report which will inform our thinking as we consider the BBC Trust recommendations on savings to be made in BBC Local Radio. We value his endorsement of BBC Local Radio as an excellent service, staffed by dedicated professionals, passionate about delivering much-valued output.”
But Myers himself was sceptical that his apparently simple plan to cut management costs will be followed. “I fear there is a deep reluctance to move away from having individual managing editors for each station,” he wrote, “although I have not heard any convincing argument why they could not successfully manage a larger portfolio… the risk of losing quality of oversight and their contribution within a community is small and indeed the reverse is true in that the reporting line and the workflow becomes easier for all concerned.”