It boasts the Jurassic Coast, a sizeable urban population and, in just a few weeks, the attention of the world on Weymouth by way of the Olympics. Yet Dorset doesn’t have its own BBC Local Radio Station.
This anomaly is part of a historic dilemma for the BBC which has come to the fore once more with news that Dorset is to have a brand new breakfast show, courtesy of BBC Radio Solent. Whilst most stations in the network have had to bear the brunt of scaled back cuts under Delivering Quality First, Dorset is one of the few winners.
Yet the “brand new” tag I used there isn’t strictly true. BBC Radio Solent used to provide a bespoke breakfast show, and more, until around six years ago. There were even plans to launch a full time station, scrapped after lobbying from the local newspaper sector. And before that, BBC Dorset FM was launched in the early 1990s as an opt out of Radio Devon. More recently, Solent has provided a single programme specifically for Dorset on Saturday mornings.
And that’s always been the BBC’s challenge. If you must share a radio service with a neighbouring county, which one will it be? Having spent three years at Bournemouth University (which is actually closer to Poole) it was always the case that the relatively affluent, urban East Dorset would align its mindset with folk in Hampshire. Yet once you crossed the local boundary into Purbeck – and north to Blandford – you instantly hankered after a stereotypical cream tea.
This confusion has largely been good news for the main commercial player, Wessex FM. Launched in the same year as the original BBC Dorset FM, it enjoys a healthy weekly reach of 37%, against the BBC’s 14% – although the Corporation has a considerably smaller broadcast area because of transmission limitations.
And that factor is still of concern to the quaintly named Dorset Broadcasting Action Group, or DorBAG for short. Chaired by the high profile Conservative MP, Oliver Letwin, it’s been fiercely campaigning for the BBC to reinstate a local service for some time. As you might expect, though, it’s not stopping there. Founder Ken Pett told the local paper View From… that this was just a “first step” towards a full service for the county.
However, the topography of the area means that the BBC’s existing, single, FM transmitter results in a poor signal for large parts of the county. In fact, Bournemouth and Poole get better coverage from Solent’s main transmitter on the Isle of Wight. The result may mean that half of Dorset won’t tune in to the new breakfast show at all.
And the prospect of a full service any time soon is pretty slim. My suspicion is that BBC Radio Solent will produce its extra show by redeploying many existing resources. It already has a dedicated reporter for the county and a political specialist. Add a presenter and producer, along with some shared content from Southampton, and the job’s done.
It’s a shame that Dorset remains one of only two English counties without its own BBC station (the other being Cheshire). But this extra show should be seen as a big bonus at a time when the whole Local Radio network was very nearly shelved by a third in terms of output.
The aim this time will be to make it distinctive enough, so that Dorset doesn’t once again become a BBC backwater.