Three years ago, the BBC published my report into local radio. What’s changed?
As I said at the time, there’s a lot to be proud about but equally, there are some deeply worrying signs.
You’d have thought that after escaping much of the proposed DQF budget cuts, they’d be marching forward and driving change, but there is little evidence of that. Instead, they’ve gone backwards, retreating to a place where good staff suffer from lacklustre leadership and a depressing pungent smell of mediocrity.
There are some star stations of course and indeed, a large number of gifted people around but topside, there appears to be little concern about audience erosion, not to mention diminishing loyalty from their hardcore fan base. They talk about the need to replenish listeners at the lower end while completely forgetting to super-serve the top end, those living longer and in need of a station to call their own.
How can this be possible?
How can stations with decent budgets, excellent transmitters, a large number of talented and dedicated staff, plus a fair amount of cross promotion from sister networks, not do better?
I’ll tell you why!
An unconvincing vision, a badly executed plan, a lack of focus, too many average managers and not enough bold leadership. I wouldn’t trust some of them to run a bath!
The problem lies not with the troops (although there’s still far too much dead wood), but in the flawed generals who lead them. Many will recall that I proposed axing 50%, not just to save around c£2m, but in an effort to clean out the dross and keep the best. The best by the way are worth keeping.
The bossman, David Holdsworth argued to keep ALL Managing Editors and remove other layers of management instead, but nothing has changed. The structure remains the same, life goes on as normal, the worst coasting along, doing just enough to get through the day.
Every single person in local radio know who these people are!
To be fair, reporting into a ‘news division’ is not helpful – it never has been because you see everything through a news lens.
Few people love news; They want it, demand it and need it but the glue that keeps local radio together comes from hiring really great communicators, those wonderful souls who are able to move us through tears, laughter, tragedy and debate. The best of them are wonderful story tellers with a knack of making us feel good, no matter what. A true gift from the radio gods.
None of this should ever suggest that news is not important – because it is – but it is no more important than anything else. Public service is not just about delivering news, it is everything that serves the interest of the public and this can differ from place to place.
Output wise, I wonder why (with one or two notable exceptions) mid-morning shows are often better than breakfast? Why are many afternoon programmes more engaging than drive-time? Why is the speech content so rigid? To be honest, I am starting to wonder if some of the staff produce programmes for their superiors or simply to tick a box rather than to maximise listener interest.
I shout WHY far more than I shout WOW
Strategy wise, and I’ve said this before, the network is sailing their boat in the wrong direction. The giant oil tanker that is BBC Radio 2 is killing any growth and it will continue to do so unless they move older. What’s more, it is where they can reign supreme. It’s not just the obvious move, it’s the smart move.
FACT: The 65+ market is the fastest growing population in the UK and no one is serving them.
Programming radio stations is an art form. You have to know your target market, how they think, what they do, what they want and how they want it served up. Companionship is still an important element. Little of this is explained to the team at the coal-face, if there is a strategy at all. Every time I ask I’m greeted by blank faces. This is because very few leadership and directional meetings ever take place.
There are hurdles to overcome in going older of course but the key to success is about the attitude you adopt on air. Have you the right staff going forward? Are they wise enough, good enough and experienced enough to communicate effectively to the older end?
Then there is the continuing issue of under-performing personnel who, at the first hint of criticism, send an email to HR direct, claiming bullying and more. It triggers a process that strangles any progress whatsoever.
While I’m on managements case, how can BBC WM win the prestigious title ‘Station of the Year’ when it is the worst performing station in the network (excluding London)? While many might be convinced about the merits of individual programmes, to suggest this is the best of the lot, is bewildering. Even their own staff were stunned. Now I hear the boss has been promoted!
As I said at the start, there is a lot to be proud about in local radio, but dark clouds are forming and big decisions are required. Since my report nothing has changed as far as I can see. This cannot go on. What is the plan for the next 3 and 5 years? When will staff hear about it?
They can’t deliver success if no one shows them what it looks like
Very soon, charter renewal will put the spotlight on local radio. Sooner still, the Trust will be asking searching questions about what they do, how they do it and what their future plans might be. I would be astonished if they reply – more of the same!
The trust will also want an explanation as to why audience levels are slipping when the older demographic is growing.
From a personal perspective, I’m interested in the rumour that local radio is running a project about how to deliver digital content to the under 30s. What’s that all about?
All of this screams about the real need for change driven by a well thought out vision. It’s the least the staff deserve.
Most important of all, those managers who are charged with delivering it, must be held accountable.
Now that’s a unique thought!
Have I got it wrong? Add your comments below