After last week’s collective sigh of relief over the BBC Trust’s decision to significantly scale back on cuts to Local Radio, plenty of dust has settled. One Managing Editor recently told me “we’ll look back on DQF in a few years and wonder what all the fuss was about.”
But there’s little sense of complacency among most front line staff. At the same time as the DQF detail, the BBC Trust published a separate review into BBC Local Radio’s Service Licence. This is a crucial document, examining the character of the stations and how their output is delivered. And if you examine some of the external submissions to this consultation, there’s more than a little food for thought.
Take the document submitted by RadioCentre, the commercial sector’s trade body. The BBC Trust chose only to publish its summary document but one of the appendices contained a significant analysis into potential efficiencies in Local Radio. It’s written by David Lloyd – one of commercial radio’s most experienced figures and – briefly – a Head of Region for the BBC in Hull.
David has a way with words. In a podcast earlier this year, up against the BBC’s Controller of English Regions, David summed up his frustration with the layers of management within some parts of Local Radio. He was only half joking when he said : “I looked across the room one day to see someone knitting. They had nothing to do!” And another quip was rather closer to the mark : “There was one station where a senior manager took Fridays off, and guess what, nobody noticed. If the can do without him on Fridays they can do without him on Monday to Thursday too!”
As far as banter goes, it’s entertaining stuff. But David’s document drills down much more deeply into the engrained culture in some parts of that BBC. Not least on the layers of management in some stations:
The number of staff involved in the management chain, or in ‘senior’ posts, in some stations appears to me to be excessive. This should wisely be the first focus for any reductions in overheads; and such structural changes need cause no detriment to the quality of output. It may even free creativity. Given the relative salaries of these posts to the ‘programme production/presentation’ roles, such changes would also produce the greatest cost savings.
There are other recommendations too; station managers should be given more autonomy so they can manage their own budgets. And It’s not just managers who come under scrutiny. David observes that most BBC Local presenters are staff, rather than freelance, making it much more difficult to remove them – especially for poor performance or during times of structural change. He suggests all presenters should be on freelance contracts.
But other parts of the report seem to smack of commercial radio wanting to keep the BBC “in its place”. For example, a recommendation that BBC Local Radio removes all popular music from its daytime schedules. And whilst there may be something in the argument against duplicating what commercial radio already provides, such a move – in my opinion – would turn Local Radio into ghetto stations with minority audiences. The consequence would be a higher cost per listener for providing the service – and a greater argument for closing them down altogether.
There’s also a call for BBC Local Radio to exclusively focus on the older audience. Preferably away from commercial radio’s core territory. Yet there’s also an acknowledgement that BBC Local stations should continue to provide distinctive news, sport and speech programming.
The BBC Trust appears to have taken on board some of RadioCentre’s suggestions. The Controller has confirmed plans to close around 40 management posts by April 2013, although the detail of how many jobs are lost and where may also be swayed by the current trawl of all staff for voluntary redundancies.
Ultimately the long term staffing of Local Radio won’t be decided by the BBC Trust or David Lloyd. Or even the controller, David Holdsworth. The next Director General will be under intense scrutiny to prove that the BBC as a whole is a leaner, more efficient machine.
Yet thankfully, Local Radio’s place in society seems secure. At least for now. The past year or so isn’t the first time that the network has been under threat and under attack, ultimately for political reasons. But it’s been a brave fight back by hundreds of staff and thousands of listeners.