BBC Local Radio insider: 'There is no-one left to cut'

I was going to say BBC Local Radio is unique, but unique is an over-used word. However, it is unique. In fact it’s unique times 40.

There are 40 totally different stations serving totally different communities.

What people in Cornwall care about is often different to those living on Teesside.

What listeners in Liverpool want to hear will differ from those in Kent.

That’s why BBC Local Radio works – each station is different and has its own characteristics and character.

It’s a friend, it’s a companion, it’s informative, it’s warm, it’s loyal, it’s rooted in its community – it’s local.

I’ve worked in Hull for over 16 years now.

I go out into town on a Friday night and I’m with listeners.

People come up to me and chat – they tell me stories, they have a laugh, they have a moan – they’re good at that in Hull.

This is the closest the BBC gets to its audience and it does it every day through a unique bunch of people who’re prepared to go the extra mile – because they have to, because unless they did, the BBC couldn’t provide its vital local services, loved and cherished by so many.

Local Radio is where the BBC is most adhering to its Charter, to its public service commitments. ]

Every day in BBC Local Radio, we’re ticking boxes on that Charter checklist.

Recent listening figures show that overall weekly reach for BBC Local Radio in England is 7.4 million listeners, an increase of around 700,000 listeners on the previous year. In percentage terms, this equates to a reach of 17.8 per cent.

The figure includes 2.5 million people who consume no other BBC Radio service.

They don’t listen to Radio 4, they don’t watch the Proms or EastEnders. They don’t watch documentaries on BBC4 or use the website.

For these 2.5 million people, Local Radio is the BBC.

While the BBC is managing to avoid closing a national network, they are planning to close 4 opt-out local radio Breakfast Shows, as well as making more local radio stations share programmes.

It certainly feels to staff here at BBC Radio Humberside that we’re not all in this together and that local radio and local audiences are being disproportionately affected.

What’s it like on the ground in BBC local radio?

When I joined BBC Radio Humberside in 1995, we had more staff on our flagship Breakfast Show, the programme that’s supposed to see the most resourced.

There was an editor, two presenters, two broadcast assistants, a desk driver, a newsreader, an out and about reporter, a sports journalist and a travel reporter: 10 staff.

Now: the editor’s role has been downgraded to a producer on a basic journalist salary; there’s only one presenter; there’s no desk driver & just one broadcast assistant; the sport is compiled and read by a journalist in Leeds, who also does the sports news for Radio York, Radio Leeds and Radio Sheffield.

The travel news comes from Altrincham from a company which provides travel news for the whole BBC; our travel presenter also does the bulletins for four other radio stations at breakfast.

So, if you walk into the BBC in Hull now there are five people – a 50 per cent staff reduction for an all speech programme now half an hour longer. We’re no strangers to cuts in local radio – we’ve suffered cuts pretty much every year I can remember since I started.

What we do is carry on, fill in the gaps, work harder and provide the listeners with the great radio they love.

This time is different. We can’t do what we do after the DQF cuts. It would affect the quality to lose any more staff.

The BBC will tell you they’re not cutting breakfast radio – they’re cutting areas where fewer people listen.

So what are these amazing savings they’re looking at making?

We have 41 staff at BBC Radio Humberside to run the radio station’s local output from 5am to 10pm weekdays, 17 hours every day; from 6am on weekends.

We have to lose 8.5 EFT (Equivalent Full Time) – but the figure’s actually a cash saving, so given the lower salaries in local radio we could lose 10 staff, maybe even 12 – possibly a quarter of our staff.

At BBC Radio Humberside we already share an early show (5-6am); a lunchtime show from 12-2 and an evening show (7-10pm) with BBC Lincolnshire.

The BBC wants to cut further: they want to get rid of the early show. Staffing: 0.25 EFT.

The early show presenter produces and presents the show and then works in production for the mid-morning show.

On the evening show there is one EFT post, a presenter who also schedules the station’s music, often going well over his paid hours.

So, that’s a grand saving of 1.25 EFT posts there – that would still leave 7.25 fewer people for the same output.

Given the numbers I’ve shown you on our main show, our most listened to show, Breakfast, I hope you’re wondering as I am, where on earth these cuts can be made without severely affecting the quality of the programmes.

‘We’re like the Olympic Torch in our journalism – we never go out’

Perhaps we can cut back on our afternoon show? How many staff work on that? Two.

One presents, one does all the support: answering phones, arranging the guests and items and keeping the show on air. I guess not, then.

Perhaps we can save in the newsroom? To keep our news going out every hour, we have to ask our drive time presenter to read a bulletin in the morning so the main newsreader, who starts at 5.15am, can take a break.

Apparently that’s still allowed although some work through their breaks to keep their heads above water.

Our producer, who works an 11-7 shift on production for the Breakfast Show has to read two afternoon bulletins; our news editor has to compile and read another couple of bulletins.

We’re like the Olympic Torch in our journalism – we never go out.

We haven’t got anyone left to go out and bring in original news stories. They’re too busy putting together three hours of all speech content at Breakfast; three hours of mainly speech content at mid-morning; two hours at lunch and a news hour at teatime, as well as the hourly, sometimes half-hourly, bulletins.

So we often depend on taking the audio from Look North TV reports for our daytime bulletins and our news hour.

Perhaps we can save on sport? After all, we’re told Alan Hansen gets £40,000 per Match of the Day.

That’s a lot more than our sports editor gets in a year.

We could very nearly employ two sports journalists for a year on that.

Alan Hansen and the equally handsomely-paid Gary Lineker sit in a studio with a feed of the games to watch and comment on.

What about our sports team? There are three full-time staff with help from freelance contributors who earn sometimes, wait for it, a three figure sum per game!

That’s not a lot when we drag them to the likes of Hartlepool on a cold, wet, windy Tuesday night to watch Scunthorpe United. Hardly rock and roll.

Often they don’t book a hotel, if they have to be back at work the next morning. If they do it’s hardly Paris Hilton, more Accrington Travelodge really.

We take a team of one staff member to games, with our freelance summariser, often an ex player.

That member of staff produces the programme, does the research on the game, drives there and back, installs and de-rigs the kit and does the commentary on the game. They also write and file post-match reports.

But the BBC pays well

The starting salary for a journalist on BBC local radio is not much more than £20,000.

I was told the other day that a bin man in Hull can earn £19,000 with overtime.

Nothing wrong with binmen, unless you read the Daily Mail, of course, but it puts BBC Local Radio salaries into perspective.

The starting Broadcast Assistant salary on local radio is around £15,000.

The BBC is chipping away at the bottom here and you know what happens when you chip away at the bottom? It all comes crashing down on top of you.

Local Radio is arguably the most cost-effective, most efficient part of the BBC.

The total budget for the whole Local Radio network of 40 stations is £120 million per year.

BBC Radio 4 alone costs the licence-fee payer £90m a year, yet the national station will have its budget protected, although there are some cuts there.

The national television channel, BBC One, will only have to find savings of 3 per cent, national Radio 1 will have a 2.5 per cent cut, while BBC Radio Humberside faces a 20 per cent staff budget cut – and there’s much less to cut in local radio – it’s only the staff.

BBC Radio Humberside is one of the most listened to local stations in the country.

Our Breakfast Show is the market leader, beating Radio 2, 5 Live, Radio 1, Radio 4 and the commercial opposition.

We were the station people turned to in the floods of June 2007, which hit places like Hull, East Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire very hard; we were the station which provided non-stop information when bad weather closed hundreds of schools and brought transport to a standstill; we were first on the scene of the Great Heck train crash in February 2001, feeding information to the rest of the BBC.

We also provide unrivalled sports coverage of our local football and rugby league teams, but will be unable to provide the same level of service if these cuts are implemented.

The suggestion that we should share sports commentaries will be very unpopular with the fans.

They want the coverage to be partisan – that’s why they tune in.

They want to hear our sports team talking about how Hull City’s manager has gone back to Leicester and they want to vent their spleen about it with their local presenters and pundits.

Who else can do it?

Who else does local news like we do? This morning we ran a story about a Scunthorpe firm, cutting workers’ pay by half and giving them an enforced extended Christmas break to save the company from going bust.

Who else would tell stories like that? The Scunthorpe Telegraph does, but recently it went down from a daily to a weekly paper – another cut in local journalism.

Who else provides a service for Grimsby Town fans away at Salisbury? Commercial radio doesn’t. Compass FM will be playing music and adverts.

Who else puts the local decision makers on the spot, local MPs, council leaders, councillors, local NHS managers, headteachers? Nobody.

Who else keeps in touch with some of the most vulnerable people in our society with the oft-forgotten C2/D/E groups?

When I started my career at BBC Radio Scotland, I was told this little tale of some research done of people living in Glasgow – where do they like to hear about on the news?

The results: 1. Glasgow; 2. Scotland; 3: The UK; 4. Europe; 5 The rest of the world….. and 6. Edinburgh.

It’s the same for us. People in Hull don’t want to know about Leeds, and vice versa.

They want news and views from their own communities.

We working in BBC Local Radio would urge the BBC Trust and the BBC management to listen to what people in communities up and down the country are saying: leave local radio alone, don’t pick on the part of the BBC most loved by local audiences

To finish, a quick story about what local radio is all about.

When the cuts were announced, we had a staff meeting and a member of staff from the tv operation was visibly upset.

Why? They don’t have the same cuts local radio does – no staff cuts – only a couple of short off peak bulletins being cut, so why was she so sad?

Because her elderly mother who lives alone could lose her companion, her friend, her BBC local radio station – the friend she wakes up with every morning, the friend who talks to her during the day, tells her what’s going on in her community and in the world outside; who tells her what weather to expect in her neighbourhood; who makes her laugh, makes her think, sometimes makes her upset; the friend who reassures her every day that the world is still turning. Wow, that’s some friend.

I think they call it The Big Society. But it’s The Big Society with the Little Budget. Don’t let them take her friend away, will you? Please help us in our fight – please help us save BBC Local Radio.

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