Written by Media, Radio

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

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.]