My radio listening is generally confined to BBC Radio Five Live, BBC 6 Music and, to a far lesser extent BBC Radio Two. For special occasions, like a particular edition of Desert Island Discs or I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, I’ll tune the dial to Radio Four. What I never do these days, not even for one second a week, is listen to BBC local radio, in my case Radio Bristol. Which is odd because in many ways, I fit their demographic. I’m old, I don’t work full time anymore, I like speech radio interspersed with music. But it’s the last station I’d ever want to listen to.
I am not alone in my aversion to BBC local radio in general and BBC Radio Bristol in general. In the latest industry (RAJAR) figures, the station’s reach is a mere 13%. In effect, this means that hardly anyone is listening. Worse still for local radio, many of its over 55 demographic are deserting to Radio Two. And why wouldn’t they? Radio Two is the classic BBC institution. It offers a wide variety of music, it doesn’t mess with the formula and it is very professionally run.
Radio Bristol lost its way when Tim Pemberton took over as “managing editor”. Pemberton initiated a major change in the way the station worked, gradually allowing its better talent to leave and replace them with fading former TV personalities. Dave Barrett, Sam Mason, Richard Wyatt, Peter Rowell were among the new breed and took the radio to places it had never been, the main place being a station which less and less people bothered to listen to. Radio Bristol turned into Radio Anywhere, with no obvious relationship to the area in which it was broadcast and soon morphed into Radio Nowhere. From having strong personalities like John Turner and Keith Warmington, who knew Bristol like the back of their hands, Pemberton recruited presenters who had never even been to the place. It was doomed to fail and so it did.
But it is not just Radio Bristol that has sleepwalked to near oblivion. To varying degrees, this is what has happened pretty well everywhere else in the land. BBC local radio is now near to irrelevance and it’s time to get rid of it altogether.
Listen to my local station and I hear generic presenters who could be from anywhere playing drab music on playlists put together by computers, a world where ELO represents the cutting edge. For me, in the over 55 listening demographic, it was unlistenable.
Before I address what should be put in its place, I’d like to know just why Radio Bristol has a particular age group in mind anyway? I suspect that someone, somewhere has decided that the only people who would listen would be pensioners. The way things are, that’s true. Before I took the station off my saved list, the phone-ins seemed to include only calls from people who appeared to be in their eighties. But if the BBC is supposed to provide a public service, why does it ignore everyone else? If Radio Bristol is anything to go by, local radio is not even trying to engage anyone apart from their core pensioner audience. In which case, what’s the point?
There is nothing, except perhaps the sport – the one redeeming feature of excellence at Radio Bristol – that commercial radio couldn’t do, probably even better. And if the BBC needs to cut spending, then why not get shot of local radio altogether?
In it’s place, why not use the money on genuinely local services, like community stations, pirates, campus radio? In Bristol, we already have the excellent BCFM. They have in Patrick Hart the best breakfast presenter in the city. The Midweek Sports Bar, featuring Neil Maggs and Nick Day, is slightly dangerous, often cutting edge and very funny in turn and has the scope to attract a vast audience that BBC local radio has not even tried to embrace. And a spectacular mix of specialist and mainstream local shows. Why not develop stations like BCFM and Bradley Stoke radio, genuine local radio produced by local people for local people? The scope for minority interest stations, full or part time, is infinite.
Perhaps the solution might be a hybrid, a mix of BBC radio and community stations, provided that overall control is held locally and not administered from London, always the main stumbling block to any progress.
If public service broadcasting is to have any genuine meaning, it has a duty to inform, educate and entertain. In its current form, I struggle to see how BBC local radio does any of these things and even if it does, in the case of Radio Bristol, it only informs, educates and entertains old people.
Who knows that if BBC local radio is scrapped, commercial providers might be brave enough to move away from the turgid output they currently provide and perhaps embrace talk radio and sport? If the BBC is not prepared to run local radio properly, maybe it shouldn’t run it at all?