The BBC Trust publishes its report today, Wednesday, 16 May 2012, about the future of local broadcasting. Their main emphasis is for radio locally to have a mainly “speech-based approach,” with local programming from only 6 am up to 7 pm, except for the odd sports feature. Music of a local nature is given a passing nod.
After 7 pm and at weekends in my area, which is served by Radio Merseyside, there is currently a wealth of locally produced specialist music and BME community programmes. All of this is potentially threatened by this report. These programmes are amongst the most popular ones for people to listen to. The report doesn’t recognise this, partly because those audiences are discrete entities and may not track other broadcasts from the local station. So, for example, a listener listening for one hour to “Folkscene” does not show up as conspicuously as another listener having the station on for 4 hours each day. The report research has a view, therefore, of frequent rather than focussed listeners. “Folkscene” after 44 years of broadcasting has recorded listener figures that show as very significantly high amongst all the BBC output on line, both live and on “listen-again.” It’s not alone in that, but it doesn’t fit the pattern of other local output and neither does “PMS” which I’d grossly oversimplify by comparing to the much loved approach of the late John Peel’s programmes, with a very wide age range of listeners in addition to the over 50s which this report sees as main local radio targets.
The report doesn’t capture this wealth of local programme making. It refers to some local music, but doesn’t spell out what’s involved – it could be seeing the service provided to music as slight as the odd “what’s on,” or a name check for local “new bands.” The “BBC Introducing in Merseyside” has Dave Monks providing a two-hour programme each Sunday that plays new local music and introduces many new bands to the world, but as he himself says, what about re-introducing the older bands as well to newer audiences? What, too about the wider ranges of music making in the area? The description “popular” applied to music doesn’t help, as there’s a huge amount of interesting music being made by orchestras, choirs, big bands, jazzers, community bands though to bedroom electrogeeks that doesn’t get much airplay. Local radio should be about contributing to the cultural quality of life, making bridges and introducing wider material alongside local content. The BBC’s targets include that of “Bringing the UK to the World and the World to the UK.” The report fails to reflect on how much local radio can meet this target in the context of its local music programming
On Merseyside, “Folkscene” and “PMS,” as prime examples, but not the only ones, which have international internet audiences for local music, that goes beyond what the report terms “popular music” – both traditional, indie and bits that don’t fit inside any rigid category. They also provide a local window onto world music and local music that extends their audience’s experience. As well as which, the emphasis on serving in future an audience “mostly aged over 50” fails to recognise how “specialist” and BME community programmes serve audiences that cross age profiles. There is excellence in local programme making which could be fed both into national networks and into other local radio provision. Yet the report has little realisation of this, touting the re-broadcasting locally of what’s on Radio 5 live and a new “all-England programme” in the evenings. This all-England programme sounds as if it’s a pot-pouri of repeats selected from daytime local radio stations across the country and its music content is described: “Music will be based on the current Local Radio core playlist, with an increased bias towards music from past decades and reduced amounts of current music. It will be speech-led (a minimum of 60 per cent).” Does this mean the “middle of the road” music output about which the report is elsewhere quite sniffy? When would the huge range of BME-focussed programmes, jazz, country, classical, folk, blues, ‘60’s programming be fitted in?
What we are left with is (as in the report below,) a mediocre recommendation which fails to recognise or promote excellence in local music broadcasting and simply defers the demise of all that’s good in local broadcasting if local editors allow local music programming to wither, especially after 7 pm at night.
the BBC Trust report has the recommendation:
“Action 10 – BBC management should develop a music policy that ensures Local Radio’s distinctiveness within the BBC radio portfolio. We are asking BBC management to draw on the BBC’s popular music expertise to develop a music policy that complements other BBC radio stations and seeks to offer something distinct, whilst acknowledging the likely musical tastes of its audience. This policy may allow variation to reflect local tastes, heritage, traditions and topicality, and so be more distinctive to Local Radio. We will ask BBC management to report back on progress in this area later this year.”
I recognise that the report is good at realising the quality of the relationship between audience and broadcasters in so much of the topical output. I’ve commented elsewhere how even the most bigoted and grumpy listeners can air their views on phone-ins and get respectful treatment, good humoured conversations and some very well considered and humane responses. An under-recognised art, but one in which local presenters excel. The report also recognises that audiences are encouraged to engage in the life of their community by the work of local radio. However, the BBC has lost programmes which promote local heritage such as most of the local traditional music output. BBC Scotland has axed Global Gathering, a flagship world music presentation for a national audience So there’s much cause for concern.
I hope that the BBC management can show leadership in building on the excellence of local radio, making full use of what local broadcasters offer: their expertise, passion, knowledge and friendships with their listeners. I hope they can use the unique scope for local radio’s low-cost base to produce commissioned programmes for a local, regional and national audience. I hope they can grasp how for many, local broadcasting with its ability to establish a close relationship with its audience, acts as a conversation not a lecture.