Thirty-odd years ago, as a newcomer to BBC Local Radio my first station manager told me that during a dull moment in a meeting with colleagues from round the country he had tried to work out what they all had in common. In the end the only thing he could come up with was that they were all ugly!
He told me, too, of his surprise that having been appointed to run the station – BBC Radio Carlisle as was – nobody told him what he was expected to do. He was simply left to get on with it.
Those stories have come to mind in the last week following the news of cuts to local output as part of the Delivering Quality First exercise. I know friends and former colleagues at BBC stations have been hurt by the announcement but looking back to my old boss’s comments, I’m left with a feeling that the service whose loss is being lamented now had already been sold down the river.
Before I’m accused of wallowing in rose tinted nostalgia, let me be clear that I am well aware that changes had to be made and that ‘just getting on with it’ was no way to manage anything and certainly not a service paid for by licence payers’ money. I don’t want to be seen, either, as unsympathetic to those facing the cuts. The five stations in the West Midlands region, for example, will lose more than 40 staff between them. Some people will opt for voluntary redundancy but while managers grapple with the job of deciding who’ll go and who’ll stay those stations won’t be pleasant places to work.
The fact is, though, that the scrapping of locally produced and presented output at non-peak listening times is the inevitable next step in a story which has seen a steady dilution of the localness that made stations unique and won them a place in the lives of the people they served, especially in non-metropolitan England.
Once, each station had its own distinct characteristics. From the ‘Lamb Bank’ service for Cumbrian farmers to presenters whose huge followings were a mystery to listeners from forty miles away the accent (and some of those were ultra-local, too) was on what worked where the station was. As the number of stations grew with expansion through the 1980s that idea of lots of small, different versions of the BBC clearly made London-based executives uncomfortable.
The distinctive logos – Stoke’s radio wave shaped as a potteries bottle kiln, Norfolk’s wherry and Lincolnshire’s tulip – disappeared and were replaced with a corporate look for the Local Radio brand. There was Operation Bullseye to identify the target listener. Knowing who’s listening so you can give them what they want makes sense if you are creating a countrywide brand but individual stations rooted in their communities, meeting and listening to their audience do the job just as well if you want the emphasis to be on ‘Local’ rather than ‘BBC’. Stations were also obliged to play their part in campaigns and segments of programming which ran across the network. Yes, there was freedom to produce local material as part of these strands but the pass had been sold and the principle of unique local output was lost.
Through all this one strength of BBC Local Radio has remained unchanged, and it’s here that cuts to its output may yet cause the Corporation to rue its decision in the future. Over the years stations have found and nurtured people who have gone on to make their names in many areas of the BBC’s activity, including into senior management. Let’s hope that DQF hasn’t cut off an important source of talent and a route to the top for anyone aspiring to it – whether or not they’re ugly.