Why Merging BBC Radio Five Live and BBC Local Radio Would Be A Bad Idea

Transmitters-6
If a tweet from BBC Radio Nottingham editor Mike Bettison is to be taken at face value, the BBC is considering some kind of merger between BBC Local Radio and BBC Radio Five Live.
This idea mirrors something that James Cridland pondered in a blog posting on his site last year. Except he talked about merging Radio 4 and BBC Local Radio.
At the time I said in a comment, that was a bad idea. Mostly because Radio 4 and BBC Local Radio’s audience were completely different, but also because this would reduce local radio choice.
Switching the idea over to Five Live is initially intriguing. BBC Local Radio already carries Five Live as a sustaining service overnight. And occassionally BBC Manchester and Five Live share commentaries of Man Utd matches. A reformatted service could mean that the BBC was able to switch off AM. The new service could potentially exist on FM alone, saving the BBC some of those expensive AM transmission costs. AM can’t be localised on 909/693 to the extent FM can, so unless an AM version continued with different programming at certain times of the day, using AM would be an unnecessary use of spectrum.
But overall it’d be a bad idea. And here’s why:

  • Sport wouldn’t work. Currently BBC local radio covers a lot of local sport. Sometimes it competes with commercial services, and that’s not necessary in those areas (Manchester and Liverpool spring to mind). But in London, for example, no commercial radio service pays for any football rights of London clubs. Smaller clubs – particularly non-Premier League coverage – would certainly be diminished. On a Saturday afternoon, would the new service broadcast the big Premier League game that Five Live had the rights to, or the local game relevant to a local audience?
  • If AM was switched off, some parts of the country would lose any kind of coverage. In a DAB world a local version of Five Live doesn’t work. BBC Local Radio is carried on commercially owned local multiplexes while the BBC’s own multiplex is national. Again, unless there were two services running, the new service would either have to leave the local multiplex or join the national multiplex. The BBC national multiplex has much better coverage than local DAB mulitplexes. And local DAB coverage is certainly inferior to local FM coverage (a bone of contention I’ll leave for another day!).
  • It would seem odd at a time that Five Live has a record audience, and speech radio is generally doing well, to “dilute” a popular speech service.
  • BBC Local music services would be all but completely gone. This is already a massive issue with local country and folk services disappearing as regional groupings of BBC local stations use the evening hours. This is precisely the kind of specialist music that is not served by commercial radio due in large part to its niche appeal.
  • BBC Local radio is just about the only place for new talent to emerge these days. And by that I mean everyone from on-air to behind the scenes. There are other local radio groups who run newsrooms (The INR Radio Awards took place earlier this week recognising that very fact), but the BBC is vitally important. While I’m sure this local coverage would continue, they’d undoubtedly be thinned out as they wouldn’t need to produce as many hours of radio a day. At a time when ITV has tried to minimise local news coverage, and local papers continue to close down at frightening place, that’s a scary thought.
  • At a time when local commercial radio is in large part trying to “get out” of as many local committments as it can for cost saving purposes, with quasi national networks like Heart, Capital and Kiss being formed, and services being co-located, many major towns and cities only have significant local coverage from their BBC local service. It’s certainly true that this is not the case everywhere, and I’m well aware of some significant exceptions. But at a time when a faintly ludicrous local TV plan is coming to fruition, with seemingly many interested parties (although few are radio groups), it would seem bizarre that the much cheaper radio is getting out of localness at the same time.
  • And finally, audiences for Five Live and BBC Local Radio are very different, making a merger something that isn’t a natural fit. Five Live has an audience of around 7m, while BBC Local Radio cumulatively has an audience of around 10m. Yet only 2.0m – 20.1% of BBC Local’s audience – listen to both services.
  • overlap
    Five Live is much more male than BBC Local Radio (72.0% v 54.1%), and more ABC1 (67.4% v 53.2%). Most importantly, BBC Local Radio seriously serves BBC radio’s older audiences. 54.3% of BBC Local’s audience is over 55 compared with just 35.5% of Five Live’s. As I never tire of banging on about, the elderly are very underserved, particularly the less upmarket elderly. And this is a growing audience. With discussions suggesting that BBC2 TV should shut down during the daytime, the disenfranchisement of an elderly non-upmarket listener is concerning. All told, these services serve very different groups of people.

This may prove to be nothing to be worried about, but it’s clear that with some significant cuts to made across the BBC, lots of ideas are being thrown around to meet these new lower budgets. TV is surely the area to be going after rather than radio. And BBC Three has to be service that really needs pruning back with commercial competitors already in place, and much of the remaining PSB programming quite capable of finding a place on one of the other networks.
BBC Local Radio does feel unloved from my external point of view. I find it odd that it doesn’t fall under the remit of Tim Davie who is in charge of all of the rest of the BBC’s radio services. But cutting costs in this way is not the answer. Radio audiences would be left very under-served.
[UPDATE] Here’s The Guardian’s take on the story.
[As ever, these are my own views, and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer. You know the drill.]

13 Comments

  1. And that’s betting without the political fall-out that would surely follow if Radios Wales, Scotland and Ulster were folded into the plan.

  2. Yep, totally agree with these points. As the grandson of two dedicated Radio Kent listeners, the supporter of a non-league football club that gets regular coverage (and often live commentaries) from the station, and as someone that lives in an area utterly bereft of music stations playing anything other than the top 10… difficult to see where BBC Local Radio’s remit would be met in any other way.
    No idea if such figures are available, but I would imagine that a fair percentage of Five Live listening is done “in-car” — any switch from AM to DAB could disenfranchise a lot of people.

  3. Tim Davie isn’t in charge of the BBC World Service: that’s “owned” by BBC Global News.
    He’s also not in charge of much of BBC Radio Five Live, which is “owned” by BBC News – the same people who “own” BBC Local Radio right now. Ohhhh. All of a sudden, it begins to make sense.
    Canada’s CBC Radio 1 operates as a kind of Radio 4 Meets Local Radio, and it works well. ABC Local Radio also operates as a quasi-national service, with some local and some national programming. And, naturally, some-local-some-national works for NPR in the US as well.
    I see no issue with BBC Local Radio taking swathes of BBC Five Live content, and concentrating on doing fewer things better. Some of BBC Local Radio is amateur-hour at its best. Some is excellent. Let’s have more of the latter, and less of the former.
    (When listening to BBC Radio Devon about ten years ago, I distinctly remember them pre-promoting the lost dog slot. No, honestly.

  4. You’ve worked for the BBC James, I haven’t. However, while BBC News “owns” chunks of Five Live, I suspect it’s Tim Davie who has ulitmate say regarding the channel.
    CBC Radio 1 is terrific, but I’d argue it’s not as good as BBC Radio 4. Indeed, if there’s a station that’s as well resourced and produces such a variety of programming anywhere in the world, I’m not aware of them. Canada pretty much *has* to have local elements to its programming. Canada covers six time zones for starters. Canada is the second largest country in the world yet has a population roughly half that of the UK.
    Is all of BBC Local radio the most “professional” in the world, or even the UK? No. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not serving an audience that simply isn’t served by any other radio station in the country – be it commercial or BBC.
    Indeed, what’s actually wrong with a “lost dog” slot? Yes, it’s quaint and incredibly local. But then, this is on a station aimed at precisely that audience.
    BBC Radio Devon was also the station that stayed on air around the clock when drivers were stuck in their cars in massive snowdrifts a year or two ago. Local commercial radio was in network mode.

  5. I believe Five Live now sits with BBC North, under Peter Salmon. To find an executive with direct authority over both BBC Local and 5 Live you have to go right to the top – to Mark Thompson.

  6. It’s an interesting idea, and one that I think ‘might’ work if it was done properly – is this too controversial? Doesn’t France Bleu work on a similar basis?
    My thoughts are:
    – Some of Five Live’s programming needs looking at, especially the constant phone-ins. As a radio listener I really couldn’t care less about other people’s views, and I do think Five Live does depend too much on listener participation rather than quality original content. If this was strengthened, made more interesting and reflected what was happening in England* as a whole, then I would prefer this instead of some of the babble that Local Radio produces.
    – Would prefer local output to remain at breakfast, drive and on Saturday afternoons for local sport programming. Perhaps also a three-hour show on weekday mornings and at Sunday breakfast as well?
    – Hopefully some of the savings made would then re-establish quality journalism-led local programming where it has been lacking for sometime – Sussex and Surrey immediately spring to mind – and in places that have never received it, e.g. Cheshire? I would listen to Radio Kent Drive more if I didn’t have to put up with what was happening on the A3 at Hindhead like we do with the current trial that is taking place.
    * – Would this make Five Live ‘BBC Radio England’??

  7. Merging BBC local and 5 live would be disastrious in my view. The beeb has to look at its public service remit, its being watered down somewhat. My advise (knowing it would not happen) would be to sell off radio 2 as its not far away from being a comercial radio station with over paid hosts, Then allowing some money being ploughed into local radio for the public service.
    We also have to look at our dear rulers, Making the lience fee payers pay for the World Service not the forgein office may of created this idea.

  8. an excellent idea driver would get a clear fm signal bbc local radio has very low rajar ratings .the only problem would be scotland /wales/n ireland perhaps the am transmitters could be kept for those countries there would still be savings if the high power am transmitters are closed

  9. an excellent idea driver would get a clear fm signal bbc local radio has very low rajar ratings .the only problem would be scotland /wales/n ireland perhaps the am transmitters could be kept for those countries there would still be savings if the high power am transmitters are closed

  10. It,s time to switch off the expensive AM transmiters????
    Do we need radio4 on long wave ????? as well as FM DAB FREESAT & ON LINE????.
    Even the likes of ABSOLUTE radio are thinking of giving up on AM.

  11. If the UK government were to start the Digital Radio Switchover now the BBC would save a lot of money used for AM/FM broadcasting costs. Perhaps all of the BBC radio stations need changing to make the service more streamlined.

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