It was reported yesterday that the BBC is considering an overhaul of its local radio network; scrapping local news packages and programming for all but the breakfast and ‘drivetime’ slots and filling the rest of the day with content from Radio 5 Live.
On the face of it, this move makes a lot of sense. It clearly makes little commercial sense for the BBC to replicate the costs of making three news programmes in areas in close proximity to one another such as Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Similarly, it is wrong that BBC licence fee payers should be expected to continue throwing good money after bad at programmes with poor listening figures.
Many – myself included – believe that the best way forward for television and radio broadcasting in the UK is the wholesale transfer of the BBC to the private sector. Politically, however, the will for this move is lacking to such an extent as to make it nothing more than a pipe-dream. Instead, solutions must be found to minimise the licence fee so as to reduce the cost of the BBC’s services place upon the general public. (Let us not forget that the licence fee is the most regressive of taxes – and a "tax" is what it is – placing a disproportionately large financial burden on the poorest in society).
While many valid criticisms of the BBC can be made, my argument with the corporation has never had anything to do with its local radio network, which is the part of the network which comes closest to fulfilling the ideal of “public service broadcasting” they are supposed to implement. Their programmes are already frugally-produced, their content directly relevant to the communities they are broadcast to and extremely effective in allowing local charities and community groups to promote their work. At risk of sounding twee, local radio is an important part of the "Big Society".
As such, I believe it would be short-sighted for the corporation to arbitrarily reduce the levels of programming it provides on its 40 local radio stations without first working with the government to find a way to make the stations financially self-sustainable as commercial enterprises.
One such way to do this – which would please neither the purists wishing for immediate BBC privatisation or the anti-reform brigade at the National Union of Journalists – would be to allow the corporation to "marketise" its assets and lift the restrictions on commercial advertising on local radio stations.
The BBC have already confirmed that they would be looking to retain locally-produced broadcasting on its breakfast and "drivetime" slots, which appears to indicate the timeslots already have listening audiences which make their continuation ‘commercially’ viable. Given this, advertising on such programmes would clearly be an attractive prospect for many businesses operating in the area they broadcast to. While programmes at other times of day may not attract the same audience share, they would no doubt also attract some level of funding in terms of branded sponsorship and other advertising.
Audience figures for BBC Radio Kent valid up until the end of February 2011, for example, suggest that the station recorded an audience share of 255,000 listeners as compared to the largest commercial network Heart Kent with 393,000. In Manchester, the BBC’s local station had 228,000 as compared to Key 103’s 493,000.
While the BBC’s market share in both of these areas is lower than their commercial competitors, it is nonetheless substantial enough to derive a viable income with which to maintain its present service levels without placing further demands upon the licence fee. Furthermore, given that the BBC’s local networks are largely focussed upon local news and features packages as opposed to playing music, they are not providing a service which is in direct competition with one which is provided by the private sector.
These local stations deserve a chance to sink or swim.
The BBC Charter does not, at present, allow any form of commercial advertising on its television and radio networks, although it is now permitted on BBC Online services outside the UK. In order for advertising to be permitted, the BBC Trust (soon to be chaired by Lord Patten) would have to make a specific request to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt.
In the interests of continuing to provide valuable local broadcasting which would not place a cost burden upon licence fee payers, I hope Lord Patten and the BBC Trust will consider making such a request. It would undoubtedly be enthusiastically approved.