Sunday, May 01, 2016

BBC Local Radio: Does it have a future?

So, I'm doing my regular skimming around the various forums, looking for interesting posts, and I spot something on Digital Spy that actually got me thinking.

I know, something on Digital Spy actually got me thinking, that's a first!

The poster posed a question about BBC Local Radio as a whole.  Has it, as an idea, had its day?  Indeed, some of the commenters there raised very valid and accurate points about the state of BBC Local Radio.

BBC Local Radio as a whole has over 8.5 million listeners every week.  That's not a shabby performance, especially when you consider the nearest thing to a comparable commercial network, Heart, gets over 9.1 million listeners per week, and other than Heart, the only stations that score higher, are BBC Radios 1, 2 & 4.  By those standards of measurement, surely BBC Local Radio's future as a whole is secure.

But start digging just below the surface of those numbers, and the picture looks a lot different.

Just in the last year, BBC Local Radio as a whole, has lost over 400,000 listeners.  That's not so good.  The overall share of listening is also down slightly.

And when you start looking at individual stations, it doesn't get much better.

Let's start with BBC Guernsey.  In a market where you have two main local stations, one BBC and one commercial (Island FM), you'd think that given the way the BBC is always portrayed by commercial radio companies as being dominant that the BBC Local station would be the runaway leader here, and you'd be wrong.

In a market that has only 53,000 available listeners, BBC Guernsey scores 20,000 whilst Island FM scores 32,000.  In the last year, BBC Guernsey has lost 4,000 weekly listeners, whilst Island FM has also lost listeners, just 1,000 of them though.  Obviously national radio in Guernsey has gained listeners compared to the local stations.

But even with losing 1,000 listeners, Island FM has still seen its share of listening go up from 45.7% to 46.1% in the past year.  Not too shabby.  By comparison BBC Guernsey's share of listening has dropped, from 20.9% to 20.5%.  So how does Island FM do so much better than BBC Guernsey?

Some could put it down to the fact that Island FM is a more music service, but that's too simple an explanation.  If that was all it was, commercial radio as a whole would be outperforming the BBC and that simply isn't the case.  BBC Radio 4 outperforms every other station and network, except for BBC Radio 2, so the amount of music clearly isn't the deciding factor here.

When you listen to the output of Island FM, one thing stands out immediately.  It has a very community-based feel to it.  They talk a lot about local events and promote local causes.  Live local programming hours are greater than on most mainland local commercial stations, from 6am to 10pm on weekdays, 7am to 6pm on Saturdays, and 8am to Midday on Sundays, their Sunday afternoon show is voice tracked, according to their public file, although when listening in myself, I couldn't tell that it wasn't live.  It's also one of the few remaining local commercial stations to feature a sports show on a Saturday afternoon.

If anything, it's a mixture of having a good mix of music, familiar enough, yet with enough variation that allows you to discover tracks you might not have heard before, combined with the community feel, and a professional imaging that doesn't make the station sound small and you have what I consider to be the perfect balance of elements to make great commercial radio.

The news on the hour doesn't feel too long, at 3 minutes, and you feel briefed, rather than feeling like you've not been told enough.  Radio news itself is another whole separate issue that I could talk about in another long article, but I'll save that for another time.  Suffice to say, Island FM's news feels about right.

Okay, so I can hear the next question forming in your minds.  "That's in a one BBC versus one local commercial situation, but in my area, there are 2 or more local commercial stations up against one BBC local radio station.  Does BBC Local Radio do any better there?"

Well, let's use BBC Radio Cornwall as an example.  BBC Radio Cornwall has traditionally been one of BBC Local Radio's better performers, so if that is leading, then maybe the picture isn't quite so bad.

Well, BBC Radio Cornwall does score a decent 141,000 listeners in a market of 463,000.  That's a 30% reach, that's pretty good... but that's down 12,000 listeners in the past year.  It's scoring decently on share as well, a none too shabby 16.1% share of listening... down from 18.3% a year ago.  Oh dear, this picture ain't looking too great to be fair.  But, if it's ahead of its commercial competition, then we can still call it more successful.

Let's start with the biggest national name in local radio, Heart.  Heart do report their Cornwall service separately, so we do have a direct comparison.  And they score... 117,000.  24,000 less than BBC Radio Cornwall, so BBC Radio Cornwall is still more popular.  However, that score is up 20,000 on the same time last year.  That doesn't sound so good for BBC Radio Cornwall, who have lost 12,000 listeners in the same time.

How does share of listening compare.  Well, Heart are much further back on that count, scoring only 8.5% share, but that is up on the 6.6% of a year ago.  However, it's still nowhere near BBC Radio Cornwall's 16.1%.

But although they may be the biggest name in local commercial radio nationally, Heart are comparative newcomers to Cornwall, as Pirate FM were Cornwall's first local commercial radio service, launching in 1992.  How do they compare to BBC Radio Cornwall?

Well, on the reach side, Pirate FM scores... 165,000.  24,000 more than BBC Radio Cornwall, and that's up 5,000 in the last year.  That's not so good for BBC Local Radio.  However, on the share side, Pirate FM comes in at 11.7%, quite a way back from Radio Cornwall's 16.1%, and itself, down from 12.5% a year ago.

And those figures don't show how that compares to recent entrant NJoy Radio, who broadcast on DAB, and are not currently registered with RAJAR for ratings, nor does it show how it compares to the various community stations that broadcast on FM across Cornwall, Penwith Radio, Source FM, CHBN, The Hub and RSAB.  And even then, because of broadcast area, we don't know how many listeners in the Cornwall area listen to other stations that are available in the area, but are not predominantly targeted at Cornwall, such as Radio Plymouth, BBC Radio Devon and Smooth Plymouth.  Also, we don't have figures for two other DAB stations that Pirate FM produce.  Pirate Oldies or Escape To Cornwall.

It's not clear cut by any means, but it is fair to say that BBC Radio Cornwall is amongst the best performers in the BBC Local Radio stable.  Their next door neighbour, BBC Radio Devon, has had in recent times one of the worst collapses of audience I've ever seen.  In just one year, they've dropped from 212,000 weekly listeners, to just 169,000.  That's a massive 43,000 listeners deserting BBC Radio Devon.  The figures for share of listening are no better.  One year ago, 11.4% share.  Today, just 7.6% share.  That's a drop of a third overall.  A 33.3% fall in share of listening, just let that sink in for a second.  There's a third less listening overall to BBC Radio Devon in the past year.  That's a big problem.  A problem that is somewhat disguised by the fact that there isn't really a direct comparison available with Heart in Devon, or with Radio Plymouth, Radio Exe and The Breeze (formerly Palm FM).  Also, there are no figures for any of the community radio stations in Devon, Soundart Radio, Phonic FM, The Voice or Bay FM.  So it's difficult to know exactly where the listeners are going, and how BBC Radio Devon should respond.

But even if they did know, they are hamstrung by the dictats from London which limit what BBC local radio can actually do.  The BBC Local Radio formula which was devised back in the early 1990s might have seemed like a good idea then, but the audience profile has changed so significantly, that BBC Local Radio these days sounds ridiculously old fashioned and out of date, a museum piece that needs to be brought up to date.

Whilst it's admirable to commit to local journalism, nothing that BBC local radio does in journalism terms even comes close to being worthy local journalism.  This is a similar problem that has been facing local NPR stations across America, and they've come up with many different applications but the basic guiding principle has been the same.  Don't go for the easy stories, the ones that are important, but basically dull.  Also, don't go for the standard commercial fare, high on the interest scale, but lacking any importance at all.  Find stories that are both interesting and important, and find new, more interesting, more compelling ways to tell them.

Indeed, I found one such story that I brought onto my own show, which had so many angles that I needed to give the whole story a lot more time.  The basic story was the local food bank was having a public fundraising appeal to help pay for the bigger premises that they had to move into, because of increased demand for the food bank's help.  But the food bank wasn't the only community service that was in the new location, there were other services that were sharing that building, so it made sense to me to cover the basic story, but also to talk about each of the services that were at that location.

The story also played into the two higher tiers in the Public Radio News Director's Guide.  There are four tiers of news, according to the guide.

Tier One: Commercial
Tier Two: Staged
Tier Three: Local Impact/National
Tier Four: Local Meaning.

The story was a local impact of a national trend, the growing use of food banks since 2010, so it fitted in tier three.  But it also fitted in tier four.  It was about something that was truly making a difference in the local community.  It made perfect sense to do that story, and to give it more airtime than BBC or commercial radio would ever give it.

Unfortunately, most BBC local reporting still fits into Tier one or two on the scale.  Very little comes under tier three or tier four.  Also, a lot of the reporting can be summed up as worthy, but dull, and that does nothing for the appeal of BBC local radio.

Whilst it's understandable that commercial radio would stick pretty close to tier one and tier two, and indeed mostly does, there are occasions when even commercial radio will touch on tier three or tier four, and those are the times commercial radio genuinely surprises.  BBC local radio on the other hand, rarely does surprise.

So, what does BBC local radio need to do?

Well, its local journalism needs to be more interesting, better presented and produced, and it needs to be less commercial, and more tier three and tier four, more relevant to the local area, more local impact and local meaning.

The music needs to be generally broader, and at times, there does need to be more music than talk.  Not every hour should be more music, or more talk, or even all talk.   What it needs to be is right for the time of day.  Breakfast should always aim to be more informed, but that doesn't necessarily mean music has to be completely excluded.  By enforcing a strict 70:30 ratio of talk to music during daytime and evening, it means that far too often, BBC local radio is just talking about stuff to fill airtime, stuff that really shouldn't be taking up that airtime, and stories that deserve more time, just aren't getting it.

Let the balance of music and talk work itself out for each station.  Also, BBC local radio's reliance on phone ins to help fill the airtime doesn't help matters as often, the contributions go on way too long, and leave you begging for a producer to pull the plug on a phone call because somebody's spoken for far too long and said very little if anything of any use to the station or the listener.

What BBC local radio needs is a complete overhaul, but unfortunately, I don't see any such overhaul coming.

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