Not So Local Any More
When I was at school in my teens, a bunch of us used to listen to Late Night with Graham Robb on Radio Tees¹. Weeknights from 10pm were blocked out for listening to mad Teesside phone callers, and a strange mid 80s proto zoo radio format with characters like Cecil the Hairdresser, and Ginger Johnson (ex RAF)². There were certainly hints of the then-new Steve Wright show over on Radio 1, but night-times on radio felt just that little more exciting, what with shows like this, and Peel on Radio1³. One feature on the 10–11 bit of proceedings, before the full post-pub phone-in madness kicked on was a feature called “My Top Three”, where Graham would read some (often) syrupy letter and play three songs, usually dedicated to the love of their life, or someone they met in a pub once. Except my mates didn’t do that. They wrote in pretending to be me and frankly took the piss. So, what the listeners got was:
- The Laughing Gnome – David Bowie
- I’m Not In Love – 10cc
- Three Times A Lady – The Commodores
Thanks, lads. But next day at school, we’d all heard it, and it was pretty funny. In the end, that show didn’t last long, only a couple of years. While it was on though, there was a pretty clear tribe of people who tuned in. The weirdos mostly, which is exactly as it should be.
Years later, I came across a show on BBC Tees that did exactly the same kind of thing, only in a different kind of way. That’s how I started listening to Bob Fischer’s shows, first on weekday evenings, with the occasional dose of Uncle Harry, particularly on the wondrous Theme Nights, then during the day (with headphones on at the desk at work) when he did the afternoon show for a while, then again in the evenings until, at the start of the pandemic, he decided to leave and pursue other avenues⁴.
Like Graham Robb’s show years before, Bob had a tribe. A bunch of freaks, geeks and weirdos who loved the discursions, the arguments about crumpets (amongst many other bits of cultural ephemera), breaking the BBC’s not very bright naughty word SMS filters, the weird and wonderful records, and perhaps most of all, a sense that there were other people who liked all this slightly strange stuff, and just got it. That gave us a sense of community.
In that sense it was slightly (and sadly) ironic that his show finished in the very early part of the pandemic, when local radio showed its value in helping to make literally millions of people across the nation feel just that little bit less isolated, and just that little closer together at a time they really needed it. Part of that was about local news, for sure. But not all of it. Part of the value of local radio is hearing familiar voices, speaking in the same ways you do, laughing at the same jokes, and bemoaning the same local football team’s shortcomings. It’s nice knowing that those voices understand your life, because their lives aren’t that different. Their kids go to the same schools, they shop in the same shops, live in the same houses, and live the same kinds of life. There’s an immediacy to local presenters you know you could see easily standing at the bar in your local that you just don’t get with the more distant national stations.
So when I saw the BBC were gutting their local radio output I wasn’t shocked, but I was angry and sad about it in equal measure. Of course, it was dressed up in all the usual buzzword bingo bullshit that these things usually are. All of those things that make local radio the unique environment it is are being ripped up. The proposals, which national management have been itching to put into place for a while (as some of this was proposed a couple of years ago), mean that a lot of distinctive local programming will disappear. Local programming will run 0600–1400. Then super-regional programming 1400–1800 (presumably to aggregate drive-time coverage), and national programmes from 2200 on weekdays, and on Sunday afternoons. Lots of this is predicated on the idea that the principal function of local radio is news. Except it’s not, at least not in the way the news-obsessed centre think it is. There’s the sop of “local sports programming”, but apart from actual match commentaries (and the inevitable post-match phone-ins), I can’t imagine lots of the other parts of local sport coverage will survive in its current form.
Just thinking about all of this for my local station (BBC Tees), it’s pretty terrible, because there’s a lot of distinctive programming that will totally disappear. Goodbye Steffen Peddie, Goodbye Goffy. Goodbye Colin Bunyan. And goodbye to their audience, because what will replace them won’t be what their audiences want, and they will find something else to do, or something else to listen to in many cases. The communities around those shows will disperse. Almost every local station will have similar tales to tell. It always means cutting local staff, local stories and local colour, which is exactly the kind of thing that people listen for. It’s pretty likely that, instead of a local reporter going out and talking to, just for example, someone running a local food bank or a cancer charity, what will replace it is another dull, but remarkably cheap, “speak your brains” phone-in about a larger regional, or national issue, or some anonymous “personality” sitting in a geographically hard to pin down studio, playing out a bland, algorithmically generated playlist of the same songs you could get on any commercial station. The people who know their beat, and know the real stories⁵, drift away to put food on the table, and pay the bills some other way. And we will lose something good.
A national programme in the evenings was tried as part of the Delivering Quality First round of cuts from around 2012 until not long before the pandemic. It ran 1900–2200 during the week, and frankly it was awful. I’d hear it sometimes in the car on the way home, because that’s where the radio was tuned. If I’m honest, it was usually the cue to stick on a playlist or a CD instead. You’ll notice that exactly the same thing happened after the announcement of the death of The Queen; it was every bit as dull, bland, and inoffensively stolid this time round.
All of this has been packaged in way that tries not to say the word, “cuts”, but we know what’s going on. The BBC does need to consider its future a digital landscape, but quite a lot of its posturing around multimedia smells of panic at the centre. In a multi-platform, multi-channel world there’s concern that a generation of kids growing up now don’t have the same kind of cultural attachment to the BBC that their parents and grandparents once did (though CBeebies is probably a good gateway drug). The strategy appears to be to aggressively engage the younger audience, on live TV, and on other platforms. Part of that is why BBC Three was brought back to the live TV feeds, and why there’s a huge push to direct people to BBC Sounds. You can’t move for the bloody Sounds promos across channels. But to do that, they are annoying other parts of their audience. You know, the ones who are actually watching and listening. Here’s a small example. Earlier this year, the BBC’s Friday Night Comedy podcast on Radio4 got a bit of a reorganisation. They went from publishing the episodes within 24 hours of broadcast on Apple’s podcast platform to a four week gap. That gap is not a lot of use when you want to listen to this week’s News Quiz. No, instead, they told us that this content would be exclusively on Sounds for that period, and if we wanted to listen, go there. There’s only one problem: Sounds isn’t that great, really, and it’s not my preferred listing platform of choice. Actually, as far as I’m concerned it’s a mess to use. End result: one lost listener, I no longer listen to the podcast. That’s a small, small niggle. A bigger one is the proposal to take BBC Four away from the live feed and do to it what they did to BBC Three for a while. Quite a lot of these decisions seem to be intent on chasing an elusive demographic at the expense of an audience who actually do engage, which risks alienating significant parts of that audience.
So the deckchairs get re-arranged, and once again local broadcasting gets kicked when it’s down. It’s estimated that at least 6 million people a week use BBC local radio services (including me), and these plans don’t do anything much for them. National managers think that so much “content” is simply interchangeable aural wallpaper, and it really isn’t. Audiences around the country are going to lose well-loved, familiar and knowledgeable local voices and perspectives. And the defunders will get a little more ammunition when the inevitable complaints about the ongoing lack of regional and local diversity and distinctiveness are raised. It’s just another little flurry in the thousand cuts designed to kill public service, unpicking at the threads that bind us together as a society, because the one thing we’ve learned now in this benighted country is that a thing has no value unless it can be directly monetised and milked for profit. Anything that can’t be must be destroyed.
What kind of a country is that?
¹ He ended up turning pretty much to the dark side, having moved into PR and Conservative politics at one point. Graham was also responsible for my one visit to BBC Tees, or BBC Radio Cleveland as it was then. After Radio Tees, he moved to daytime, and “serious” broadcasting, doing news and current affairs. On Budget day in either 1987 or 1988, a bunch of us from sixth form, doing Economics A Level, were brought in to provide comment from da hood’s yoot on proceedings. In retrospect, we were probably there to use as easy studio fallback in case any OB stuff went south. In the end nothing did, and we didn’t go to air. Probably for the best, really.
² “No smut on the show!” was a regular cry. And song.
³ Peel was of course the go-to place for any kid who disdained the mainstream, and the root of my love of a certain band from the Birkenhead area.
⁴ And doing so very well, as it happens.
⁵ When they’re given the chance, oh boy, do they deliver.