There is, in Bristol, a radio station that has rediscovered the art of local broadcasting. Whilst BBC Radio Bristol, under the dead hand of former managing editor Tim Pemberton, has drifted off to provide to bland and generic broadcasting with largely personality-free broadcasters, the very principle of local radio has been saved by BCfm.
I have never met the station’s boss Pat Hart but I have heard his excellent One Love Breakfast show and it has surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have, how many people I meet who listen to the show. Hart is not just the breakfast show presenter, he is the best breakfast show presenter in the local area by, I would suggest, a country mile. And he has put together an eclectic but formidable schedule throughout the week. I defy anyone to spend some time picking, choosing and then listening to the station and not find something they really like. And unlike BBC Radio Bristol, you don’t have to be in receipt of the state pension in order to qualify as a listener.
The key words are “community radio” but they don’t tell the full story. It is community radio presented by a range of highly talented broadcasters and it makes great listening.
A prime example of how community radio works can be found on the station’s Midweek Sports Bar between 7.00 and 9.00 pm on a Tuesday night. Presented by sports development consultant Neil Maggs and Bristol Rovers’ PA man Nick Day, here is a show that somehow manages to combine a strong local identity, with a strong emphasis of community activities, but it also has a wider remit to cover sport at a higher, professional level. This is not an easy thing to do. The show, by its very nature, is grounded in the community but Maggs and Day ensure the broad spectrum of sport, right up to elite level, is covered and that’s what makes it so good to listen to.
And the Midweek Sports Bar provides an illustration of what has been missing from local BBC radio. Not with sports coverage in itself because in Geoff Twentyman, Radio Bristol has a top notch presenter at the very top of his game, but in the overall scheme of things it has lost its way and could be Radio Anywhere.
Allow me to provide an illustration of what BCfm and the Midweek Sports Bar has done in recent weeks that local radio hasn’t. A huge, and utterly tragic, story unfolded in my village in Stoke Gifford when footballer Ben Hiscox tragically died after a freak accident in a match. Whilst the media undoubtedly covered the story with great care and respect, BCfm, has gone deeper, to examine the effects on the community and the team for which Ben played. They earned and established trust with the community and as a result told a very human story that has gripped the listenership and been of huge support to our village. That, surely, is what all local radio should be about. Not simple, here today, gone tomorrow, telephone interviews but learning about and understanding the beating heart of a real community.
I provide this merely as an illustration because Maggs and Day provide the same in depth coverage of most aspects of their show, covering a very full range of sports, not just football, rugby and cricket.
But this is not some dry churning out of statistics and results: this is a fast-moving and often very funny show too, occasionally irreverent and cutting edge. A sort of ‘Soccer AM’ but grounded in Bristol.
Don’t just take my word for it, check through the schedules and I can guarantee you will find something of interest. My prediction is that many of these presenters, especially the ones I mention, are destined for greater things in radio. In many ways, community radio is the apprenticeship for learning a trade. Not just the technical aspects of “driving the desk”, but also the complex art of presenting. To an extent, some people are born to talk – Maggs and Day can talk for England (and probably for the entire world too) – but it’s what you say too, as much as it how you say it.
When I listen to local network radio, whether that is public service or network radio, I do not feel like I am a stakeholder. I feel I am being talked to and talked at, rather than being part of a conversation. Local radio used to be part of that conversation and stations like BCfm are once again showing the way. With the BBC license fee about to come under serious government scrutiny, the powers that be would do well to dwell on what they are currently offering and whether it fulfils the right role. I don’t believe it does but we have on our doorsteps a template that offers something different and I think there is a huge, younger audience out there just waiting to hear it.