Tony Hall on the future of BBC local radio
Speech by Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC about the future of BBC local radio on Wednesday 8 November 2017 at Coventry Cathedral.
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It’s great to be back in Coventry - and especially to be here on your birthday.
Tonight’s a celebration of everything you do. I’ve seen the difference you make countless times. Over the last 12 months, Radio Humberside’s been magnificent for Hull. The team’s proved that arts and culture really can transform a city. They’ve been at the heart of Hull’s story - all year - with hundreds of shows out and about in the community. I’ve seen what they’ve achieved - and I can tell you they’ve made people smile wherever they’ve been.
That’s special. But all of you have also been there to help; a constant presence that people can rely on.
After the terrible atrocity in Manchester, people turned to their local radio for comfort; support; and information they can trust. It’s a reminder, if ever one were needed, that local radio is in the DNA of our communities. It’s part of what defines them.
And that’s something you should all be really proud of. You’re not simply broadcasting to audiences, but broadcasting with them. You’re there before anyone else when a story breaks - and long after everyone else has gone. You give a voice to those who might otherwise not be heard. You celebrate what unites us - and what sets us apart. And you’ve been doing it for 50 years.
So this evening’s a chance to look back with pride - but it’s also an opportunity to look to the future.
I want to talk about localness - and why I believe it matters more than ever. I want to talk about what we’ll be doing in the next few months and, above all, about how - together - I want us to re-invent what local radio can be - and can do - for the next generation.
Local radio at 50
Let me be clear - I’m a Director-General who believes in local radio.
I don’t underestimate the challenges we’re facing, we’re in a world that’s mobile, fast-changing; where everything’s available at the touch of a screen.
But with new technologies, new ways of connecting with audiences, there are massive opportunities too. I know many of you agree. And you see those too.
It’s been really helpful to visit so many teams these last few months. I’ve not quite got round every station yet - but I’m very close to it. And our conversations have been invaluable. Thank you.
So much has changed since local radio was born. But to know where you’re going, you have to understand where you’ve come from.
50 years ago Frank Gillard had a vision. He wanted to enrich local life and, as he put it, he wanted local radio "to belong to the people" - listeners, he hoped, would "come to regard their local station as our station… not as the BBC station in our town." At the time, his ideas were bold, radical, challenging even. They were unpopular in some quarters too - but they’ve been a huge success.
Thanks to him - and the pioneers of local radio - the sound of different accents; different voices; different ways of life have become part of the everyday. Local radio has helped to make people proud of where they come from and where they live, work and play. The output has been truly local but I sense, travelling around and talking with many of you, that’s something we’ve started to drift away from. And I’m determined we put that right.
You’ve shown we can rely on you when news happens - and your listeners depend on you, like nothing else. I’ll never forget visiting the team in Cumbria after the floods, and talking to staff who continued to cover the story even as their own homes were flooding.
And I’ve seen so many times what we can do when we work in partnership - to make a difference. The knitters of Nottingham exceeded everyone’s expectations - producing 11,000 hand-knitted poppies. It was an outstanding tribute by the team and the community - working as one. And I’ll always remember seeing Broadgate, right here in the city centre, turned into a Shakespeare street theatre by young people who had never considered Shakespeare, arts or local radio - relevant to them, up until then.
I think that matters more than ever because England’s changing. It’s always been a patchwork of communities - with quite distinct identities. But those differences are getting starker.
While Newcastle’s population is getting older; Bradford’s is getting younger - and Birmingham’s becoming one of the most diverse cities in Europe.
Decision-making’s being devolved too - there are mayors in some of the big metros. That’s undoubtedly having an impact in those cities.
And the latest IPSOS Mori research shows just how uncertain we all are about the future - and how many competing visions there are of what we want that future to be.
Yet there are fewer places for our communities to come together. That’s why it’s so important to reflect all voices in local communities.
We know it’s a tough environment for local media too. The advertising market’s changing beyond all recognition. Everyone - us included - is looking really carefully at costs.
Yet, while all this is happening - and this is the paradox - we’re seeing a growing sense of identity and place - just look at the Manchester bee, the proliferation of the Cornish flag, or the Yorkshire rose - worn with pride and a certain amount of defiance!
Expressions of our communities have never been more important - for our sense of self and our democracy. That’s what I want us to capture - I want to hear the sound of England as it changes.
So, while other media are becoming creatively less local, I want us to become even more so and to connect with our audiences in new ways. Let’s play out some of those differences - let’s reflect them ever more keenly in our content. That must be the right thing for a public service broadcaster to do.
So this is what I want local radio to be…
- First of all, I want us to reflect the community – every part of it – and that means ending the idea of targeting just the over 50s.
Local radio should be for EVERYBODY - Frank Gillard was right!
We should reach the entire community. We’re there to serve the Facebook generation every bit as much as the rest of us. We know music matters to young people - but they also tell us they want to know what’s going on where they live.
So, your local BBC must surely be a place for people of all ages - and all walks of life. It should be the world service for our local communities - somewhere to hear what’s going on - but also to talk, and listen, as a community - somewhere to express your identity; have fun; celebrate your eccentricities; and get involved.
- Secondly, I want each of our stations to establish its own sound; its own personality. And I want you to shape that character.
I know why we’ve had to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. But that’s not where the country is, so it’s not where we’re heading. That’s why I’m going to give our local editors more creative freedom to celebrate local life. To reflect local identity. And nurture local talent.
That’s my ambition for local radio.
It’s an exciting opportunity for us. Nobody else is going to be able to do that for as far into the future as any of us can see. And it’s going to change our agenda.
Let me just talk a little bit more about what I think this means.
Of course, BBC local radio is - and always will be - the place where we report on local news. I recognise that for many years we’ve been reducing our investment in local radio. But, even with some really tough savings targets, we’ve kept the focus on News - and we’ve done some outstanding journalism. Thank you for that.
There’s never been a more important moment for the kind of independent journalism we stand for. The rise of digital technology has also seen the rise of fake news, not just on a global level but on a local one as well.
We all get more and more information; but find it harder to know what to trust. We follow global leaders on social media, yet often we don’t know who’s responsible for decisions that affect our daily lives. That’s why your role is actually becoming more important - not less.
It’s why our political reporters are so necessary. And why we’re investing in 150 new local democracy reporters - another sign of our commitment to partnership and the local news agenda.
So News will always be at the heart of our thinking. But you’ve also got to think about how you build communities - how you celebrate the exceptional things that people are doing; and how you reflect the conversations they’re having.
Of course, you’re right to take pride in what you do for local democracy. But local radio isn’t just about news. It’s about emotional belonging. That’s a real priority for us.
Look at the IPSOS Mori report - out last week. It identifies an urgent need for the media - and especially the BBC - to help us appreciate what we have in common and what sets us apart. And BBC local radio is right on the front line.
I want us to reflect each community to itself – to amplify the things that unite us, but also celebrate our differences at a really local level.
Look - and you’ll find new talent; new ideas; new partnerships in all corners of the country:
- I’m so impressed by BBC Introducing - let’s do more of that in other genres - just like Radio Norfolk are trying out with comedy. I’d love tomorrow’s writers; artists; and comedians to say they had their first break; their first opportunity - in their local BBC
- Let’s find new partnerships too - I’m inspired by what I’ve seen in stations like Lincolnshire - where the team actively look for partners to stage events that put the community centre stage. That’s exciting. And when I visit teams I sense many of you feel that closeness is a priority too.
- And let’s experiment. We can be more open - allowing people to produce their own programmes with us. I was struck by the enthusiasm of students in Sheffield wanting to get involved with our team - and just imagine what we can learn from them too.
I want us to make local radio the front door for the next generation of voices. That’s a service we can really build. But we need space, we need airtime - and investment.
And, as far as the money’s concerned, I’m determined we’ll get that right.
Of course, we have to make savings across the BBC to meet our commitments and fund our plans for the future. No part of the organisation is exempt.
But, if we are going to re-engage with communities, we can’t do that by cutting.
So I’ve looked again at the savings targets you were set as part of the local radio review. I know you’ve been kept waiting for news about this - that’s my fault, because a 10 million pounds savings proposal didn’t feel right to me.
I couldn’t see a future for local radio if we’d made cuts at that level. So we’re not going ahead with that plan.
Of course, we’ll still be working together to change the ways we operate - because we ALL still need to save money. Value for money matters right across the BBC. Wherever we can, we need to be more efficient. We should take those opportunities - and we should be proud to do so.
But I also recognise we need to invest in the future. I want to see a renaissance for local radio.
So we’ll be working on a detailed funding plan - because there are things I want us to do:
- Firstly, I want us to be more creative; and more local
As I said, I’m going to restore responsibility and accountability for the evening schedule - giving it back to local editors. Next summer we’ll be ending the All England show. I understand why it came about, but it’s not local enough; and it limits creativity.
We’re going to help you change the music you play too - giving you playlists which reflect the diversity of our cities and our counties. I want that to happen - and your colleagues at Radio 2 are going to work with you to do that.
- Secondly, we need to do more to celebrate the diversity of our communities
So, as and when I can, I’ll introduce a fund to help you do just that.
I’ve seen for myself what we can achieve - and I’m delighted to see Kofi Smiles here tonight. Last October, he auditioned - competing against hundreds of other local people - to be our voice of Hull. And he’s been a revelation.
We’ve just done something very similar in Bradford. It’s a really interesting approach. And I’d like to see more stations join in.
But I’m not going to stop there, I realise that our broadcast co-ordinators have made a huge difference - and I intend to keep them on. And there’s something that has always stayed with me since my first visit to Radio Merseyside - my spiritual home - and that’s the A team, a brilliant group of volunteers who make a difference to someone in their area every single day. That’s what I want for ALL our stations.
By the way, it’s just one example of what Sue Owen and the team do for Liverpool - no wonder they’ve just been given Freedom of the City. Many congratulations to them.
- And, finally, I want us to continue to invest in our digital future
It’s something David Holdsworth has felt very strongly about too. Rightly so. We need the right kit. We’ve got some brilliant journalists working in local radio - and I’ve already seen some great innovation. But you simply don’t have the best mobile equipment. That’s going to change.
And it’s going to help our local editors - every one of you - to be more ambitious.
Over the next few months, we’ll be working out how you can produce, publish and take charge of all your digital content. Because I want to put you in control.
It’s important. Because, from tonight, people in 17,000 towns, cities and villages across Britain will have access online to everything we do locally - with one click - using their postcode. And in time we’ll bring in iPlayer, music and all manner of data driven services.
I also, by the way, want local radio to be a big part of our new audio product - currently in development - giving you a more personal; a more local BBC. Imagine the opportunities that can bring...
What we do locally matters more than ever - not for us, but for our audiences; for our sense of identity and community.
That’s why I intend to keep the pressure up. I’d like to thank David for his leadership and the conversations we’ve been having and, on behalf of us both, a huge thank you to Helen Thomas - who will continue to work with us - and you - to realise the ambition.
We’ve still got a lot to do but, if we get this right, we’ll re-invent local radio - and the BBC.
That’s a really exciting prospect. And it’s going to create a new kind of engagement with audiences.
I’ve already seen what we can achieve. Trish Adudu, here in Coventry, and on stage tonight, shows what happens when we give real talent a platform.