The BBC Trust – DQF: Dithering Querelous Farcical

After being told in January to revisit its plans to hack the heart out of local radio, the BBC Trust finally came back today with its revised report: BBC Trust’s service review of BBC Local Radio. After threatening to hack the heart out of local radio provision, the revised proposals basically did exactly the same, only slower and in a louder voice.

It’s quite difficult to understand the Trust’s logic, if we’re being honest. It [The Trust] starts out by supposedly reasserting its commitment to local radio by saying

“While we accept that there will be some overlap in music output between BBC Local Radio and other BBC stations, we would like music on BBC Local Radio to be as distinctive as possible in order to maximise choice for listeners. We have asked BBC management to develop a music policy that will underpin Local Radio’s distinctiveness within the BBC radio portfolio.”

And how, dear reader, precisely does the Trust intend to underpin this distinctiveness and maximise listener choice? By sticking to their original proposal, and removing a whole load of regional content, including music:

“On weekday evenings (7pm–10pm) all stations will join together for a new all-England programme, with opt-outs for live sport and local news (as currently provided).”

This appears to be an almost textbook definition of the concept of weasel words. Isn’t the whole point of a local radio station that it doesn’t just act as a relay to a national programme? That’s not local radio – that’s an affiliate station. If I’d wanted that, I’d listen to national radio . It appears that, as far as the BBC Trust are concerned, the only really important times are the mass market periods of breakfast and drive time, followed by mid-morning. Strange, but I always believed the whole point of the BBC was to provide the services that the commercial sector doesn’t (or can’t). Why focus on the mass-market periods when the commercial sector actually does this too, and reasonably well sometimes?  The shows that will be cut have distinctive music, both local and otherwise that the commercial stations won’t pursue; their formats are pretty much fixed in stone.

And what to we get in its place? A national programme from 1900-2200 that is designed to please everyone. Just look at the editorial parameters for this new programming:

The new all-England programme between 7pm and 10pm on weekdays would be targeted at the same audience as current BBC Local Radio output. BBC management intends the show to have the following editorial characteristics:
•    It will be speech-led (a minimum of 60 per cent).
•    Speech will cover the best of what BBC Local Radio has broadcast on a given day. There may be debates involving listeners about how the main subjects and talking points of the day have played out in different areas. Material and strands should reflect and debate local culture and arts, and stories should be told through the perspective of listeners and local communities; programmes should include live reports from different BBC Local Radio stations and areas.
•    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.
•    News and travel bulletins will remain local. The programme will go to breaking news where appropriate.
•    Local stations will opt-out for sports coverage and for major breaking stories.

So, it will be cheap, as all it will do is repurpose existing content. There’ll be not much in the way of music, except for the usual banal back catalogue selection. There well be reduced amounts of current music, because no one over fifty wants to listen to that racket, do they?.  Oh yes, and , “There may be debates involving listeners”. We can guess why: because phone-ins are even cheaper.  The Trust  has looked at the largest audience segment (50+) and decided all they want is safe programming and a shoddy mix of Radio4/5 Live. In doing so, it has done the local radio listener base a terrible disservice.

It’s inevitable that it will satisfy no one at all. Some  stations will even have to share afternoon programming, which begs the question: when does local radio actually stop being local. I think we’re getting perilously close. But the Trust don’t seem to think so. Their Executive Summary says:

While we believe BBC Local Radio is performing well and that its future strategy will provide a good foundation for future growth and development, we have set out a number of conclusions and actions to ensure that the service continues to deliver its distinctive speech-led content which puts local issues at the centre of its output.

I’d love to know what evidence they base those beliefs upon.

Meanwhile, the BBC News website cunningly hid this news inside the headline article that basically said what we’d known for ages: Blue Peter is moving to CBBC and won’t be on BBC1 any more, especially after switchover.. Nice way to bury bad news there, chaps.

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