BBC tunes in to trend for local news

Despite increased competition, some BBC local radio stations are on a roll. Caitlin Pike listens to their success stories

AT A time when iPods, websites, radio stations and television channels
are vying for attention, the success of a small group of BBC local
radio stations proves local news can still hold its own.

The latest
Rajar figures for BBC stations in Kent, Cumbria and Leeds show that,
far from being drowned out by all that’s on offer, stations that have
held on to and strengthened news-led agenda are drawing in bigger
audiences.

Managing editors of these stations all agree the key
is delivering tailor-made, creative output to listeners who want to
know what is happening throughout the day.

The January floods in
Carlisle proved the importance of local news and information, says
Nigel Dyson, managing editor at Radio Cumbria.

The station broadcast emergency information for 48 hours when other sources of up-to-date information were very scarce.

The emails from listeners expressing appreciation for the service it provides run to more than 100 A4 pages, he says.

Last
month’s Rajar figures show Radio Cumbria is the most listened-to
station in the area, ahead of Radio 1 and Radio 2. Its 21.8 per cent
share is the highest of any local station in England.

Dyson
thinks the station’s success is down to the fact that he and his team
have worked hard to understand its listeners so that they can serve
them better.

“All our journalists have had training on
understanding the audience: it affects the choice of story and how we
tell it,” he says.

“Our audience is mostly over 55 but they are young people – their attitudes are young.

“It’s been quite hard getting younger members of staff to understand that older people are not old in their minds.

“We’re not addressing them as if they are all geriatrics – they are the rock and roll generation.”

Paul
Leaper, managing editor at Radio Kent, says operating in an
increasingly competitive environment has helped local radio stations
focus more clearly on what they offer.

“In the past, much of BBC
local radio has tried to be all things to all people – and with a less
competitive environment this has been OK,” he says.

“However, as
competition has increased, BBC local radio has raised its game to
ensure the audience now has a clear idea of what it has to offer.”

Jeff
Zycinski, head of Radio Scotland, says the station is thriving because
it is offering a distinct package, which people can’t get elsewhere.

The
national station has moved ahead of Radio 2 as the most listened-to
station in Scotland – with just over 1 million listeners now tuning in.

“As
commercial radio has competed for the music audience there has been
less news and current affairs on those stations,” says Zycinski.

“When I worked at Radio Clyde 11 years ago there was a lot more news, phone-ins and documentaries.

As commercial radio has moved away from that, we have invested in it.”

Zycinski
has built up the station’s news teams and strengthened the way they
cover stories. With use of a satellite truck, journalists are able to
get stories from more areas of the country.

An investigative strand has also been added on the first Monday of every month.

“There
is a real culture of news in Scotland,” says Zycinski, who says
investigative stories and scoops are a vital part of the BBC’s public
service remit.

According to Kent’s Leaper, public service radio still provides the widest range of content.

“It’s the companionship, breaking news and investigations,” he says.

“It’s the way that we tie up with television and the online service – these are the ways that we connect with the audience.”

The
local news formula is also working at Radio Kent, says Leaper. The
station is now listened to more than Radio 4 in its survey area and has
a steadily increasing reach and share.

“We’ve said: ‘If you live and work in Kent you should listen to us so you know what’s going on’,” says Leaper.

These
stations still have a long way to go in achieving the kind of listening
figures that local commercial stations get – 25.3 million people
country-wide compared to the 10.24 million listening to BBC
local/regional radio.

But Leaper says that “with a clear remit –
accessible, modern, entertaining programmes offering information to
help listeners get the most out of their local area – our programmes
now offer a distinctive choice alongside commercial stations.”

Also
blazing a trail for BBC local radio is John Ryan at Radio Leeds. In the
year he has been at the station he has ripped the traditional way of
making radio programmes apart.

Instead of producers working on separate programmes there is now a live team and a futures team at the station.

The live team works on daily and breaking news while the futures team lines up the output for the days ahead.

“Radio is fun, exciting and happening,” says Ryan.

“I’ve tried to let people be more creative. 

“I
don’t just mean they can be wacky, zany DJ types all day long but if
someone has an idea with journalistic merit that will make good radio
and it takes a bit more effort and needs a bit more money thrown at it
then hey, let’s do it.

“If it makes the station sound brilliant
on a day in the future then it is worth doing. If it falls down
completely then we are still the better for having tried it.”

Ryan
has also fiercely branded the station and thinks that more people are
now tuning into it (45,000 in the last three months) simply because
they now know what they are listening to.

Dyson says the Rajar
figures show local radio is now ‘grown-up’. “We are talking to people
who are interested in the community and the fabric of local life, what
makes the place tick.

“We’re not just playing tunes – its intelligent speech for an intelligent audience,” he says.

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