Proposed Changes to Local Radio
News that there is to be a Parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall tomorrow (Wednesday 26 Oct) on the proposed cuts in BBC Local Radio should come as no surprise to those who understand the passion radio engenders in the mildest of audiences. It's worth remembering that not so many years ago, Radio 4 listeners with banners of protest marched on Broadcasting House demanding that Radio 4 Long Wave transmission be protected. It was.
Today some of the seven million weekly listeners to Local Radio feel just as anxious and outraged by what they fear that the BBC may do to their beloved station of choice. Some even suspect the BBC of class warfare. I have lost count of the number of people who have complained to me about Radio 4 being protected from the cuts at the alleged expense of Local Radio. Or as one rugby league fan in Sheffield asked me fiercely: "Why are you molly coddling that network for the toffs?"
As someone who began her BBC life as a reporter at Radio Leeds and later became the Controller of Radio 4, I know and cherish both sorts of radio and am very proud of how well they serve their different audiences.
It's undeniable however that like BBC One and Children's programmes, Radio 4 is being protected against the full force of the latest round of BBC cuts. I think that's the right decision. All three embody and deliver our public service ethos in a unique way, balancing high quality popular output with programmes which the commercial market couldn't or wouldn't supply.
No service is being exactly mollycoddled. Even in Radio 4, where programme budgets are largely protected, significant behind-the-scenes savings will need to be made by finding new ways of working more efficiently. This includes a 13% reduction in network management and presentation costs and the proposed reorganisation of teams which supply Radio 4 - such as Audio & Music Production - resulting in significantly fewer posts.
In the News and Current Affairs programmes for which I am now responsible as Director of News, (Today, the World at One and File on 4, for example) we will be reducing the number of reporters and taking out 9% in further efficiencies.
Nor is it true to say that Local Radio is being picked on, though its particular circumstances may make it feel like that on the ground.
Local Radio is being asked to make savings of 12%. That's actually lower than the average savings across the rest of the BBC. However - and here's the rub - if you take out of the equation the cost of buildings and technology which are required to broadcast in 40 different local towns around England, then the cuts inevitably fall on the people who make the programmes. That's why in some stations we will be reducing teams by over 20% which no one pretends will be easy.
We are also trying to preserve what really matters to our audiences. We are focussing our resources on Breakfast and mid-morning as well as Drive, weekend mornings and Saturday sport - some 86% of the audience listens to these programmes. To enable us to protect those periods of the day, we are proposing that most of our stations share a mid-afternoon programme with their neighbours - becoming less local and more regional - for our low audience periods. We're also planning to create a shared programme across England for the evenings. Of course if a big breaking news story happens during these shared programmes, the station involved can opt out and broadcast locally again.
And we have plans to reduce our spending on local sports rights, on specialist music programmes and on some ethnic minority programmes. We will not be losing them all but from now on we will be focussing on those which have strong news and local interest.
But it is important to remember that these are still only proposals. The BBC Trust has opened a public consultation on various aspects of the BBC's plans and it will respond in due course.
Are the plans for Local Radio ideal? Not at all. In an ideal world we'd prefer to stay as local across the day as we are now. We'd like to have more, not fewer, staff. But we don't live in an ideal world, we live in this one. And in this one, despite the cuts, I believe that BBC Local Radio can survive and even thrive because it will always have its unique connection to its audiences.
By 2016 we will still have 40 BBC Local Radio stations delivering quality output to audiences who rely on us and often love us.
We have no intention of letting them down.
Helen Boaden is the BBC Director of News