I came into work at BBC Three Counties Radio one day to a message from the daughter of one of my regular listeners. I had struck up an unlikely off-air friendship with her mother, the warm, opinionated and razor-sharp Beryl, after we’d first met at an outside broadcast. Her daughter explained that she had fallen ill a few days previously and had sadly died, but not before writing a note to her family with strict instructions to inform me in the event of her death.
As the dust following announcement of more swingeing cuts to local radio has settled, I think it’s important to remember listeners like Beryl – and the unique connection they have with their BBC local radio station. I left the organisation in 2021 and all my former colleagues have stories like mine to tell: from the late-night show that enabled one listener, who had been adopted, to meet her 100-year-old birth mother for the first time; to the BBC Newcastle show that was contacted by the daughter of a seriously ill local man, asking them to help record a song he’d written for her 56 years previously when she was nine months old. With the help of local music students, the station turned her wish into reality. Her father died shortly afterwards.
Local radio should be the jewel in the BBC’s crown: radio shows fronted by talented presenters who are proud and knowledgable about where they live and work, offering vital news, analysis, entertainment and, most importantly, companionship to nearly 6 million listeners. It is a public service made by local people for local listeners, many of whom are elderly and lonely. Its roots in communities distinguishes BBC local radio from the commercial sector, where leading groups such as Bauer and Global have amalgamated smaller local stations into large national brands.
Now, barring a few exceptions, your local radio station will only be local from 6am to 2pm on weekdays and for sport at the weekend. Remaining shows will be mostly shared across vast regional patches or will become national shows. Under the proposals, someone living in Aylesbury will be hearing a drivetime programme featuring the Norfolk coast, 150 miles away.
Many of the weekend shows that face being cut focus specifically on underrepresented communities. According to the proposals, popular local African-Caribbean and Asian shows risk being axed, with their slot becoming a single, all-England show. If the BBC does not broadcast these kinds of shows and tell these kinds of stories, nobody else will.
During the pandemic, when local radio performed a vital public service, bosses reduced daytime output from four shows to three, while increasing show duration from three hours to four, a move that proved extremely unpopular with listeners, who swamped presenters with complaints. The latest plans are also unpopular with politicians – many of whom, across the political spectrum, have come out to denounce the cuts in parliament and in open letters to the director general. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has summoned BBC bosses to appear in front of its parliamentary committee on 1 December to justify their decisions.
The BBC says this is about saving money and increasing the organisation’s digital presence, but radio itself is fundamentally not expensive, if run properly. Your average local radio presenter is on a salary of about £35,000. The resources are there, they are just poorly used. As for the digital proposals to target local radio at a younger audience, they feel not only about 15 years too late but misguided. Young audiences are already happily settled elsewhere, at radio stations such as Radio 1 or 1Xtra, or on platforms such as TikTok. Meanwhile, local radio’s traditional 55-plus listenership is a growing and underserved market. The digital proposals also recommend widening the commissioning of local podcasts for BBC Sounds but, as brilliant as podcasts can be, they are not the same as a live, local radio show.
Is there an alternative? Former colleagues talk of the need to radically thin out layers of management, curb unnecessary spending and prune excessive salary levels elsewhere within the BBC. It can and should be doable. Because if the BBC cannot devise a way to help this most precious of public services not only to survive, but to thrive, who will?
The BBC is lucky Beryl is no longer here. She wouldn’t have let it get away with any of this, and nor should the nearly 6 million people who tune into their BBC local radio station in England every week.
Nick Coffer was a presenter on BBC Three Counties Radio from 2010 until 2021. He is now managing director of Boutique Broadcast, a podcast production company
• This article was amended on 14 November 2022 to clarify that changes to specific programmes remain at the proposal stage.