BBC Radio is 100 – but what is the future of world and local radio?

One hundred years ago today, the now British Broadcasting Company started broadcasting radio.

But what is the future of public service radio in and from the UK? The world is going digital but at a very unequal pace. Not everywhere can access digital services at an affordable price, if at all.

The BBC has announced major changes to its local radio service. Local broadcasting will be restricted to eight hours during weekdays – 6am to 2pm. After that, stations will switch to sharing programmes across a wider area. News will be gathered over larger areas. Along with the loss of local voices, there is likely to be a reduced focus on the very local news that BBC local radio excels in.

The World Service is reducing its commissioned and syndicated programming content in favour of more news, which is already becoming like a tape on an endless loop. I fear that, driven by budget cuts, we will become a less effective nation in communicating with the world, reducing our influence and our status as a mature democracy and a world leader.

The World Service cuts come against a background of a cut in overseas aid, along with around half the aid budget being raided to pay for the costs of asylum seekers hosted in Britain. That’s part of the lurch to the right of the government and some of the electorate who are uncomfortable with our world role. We are drawing up the drawbridge and becoming an island both in geography and mentality.

The world is going digital but it is First World attitude that is leading to the shift in services away from the airwaves to the internet. Internet accessibility is growing but one man from Nigeria recently phoned the World Service to say that it took him a week to earn enough money for a gigabyte of data. That’s so different from here. Two languages in Nigeria are among those to go digital only.

The proposed reorganisation of BBC local radio is ambitious and the claim is it will create a new structure for radio journalism outside London. It could make it more powerful. It will almost certainly make it less local.

Changes in BBC local radio have been underway since its inception with BBC Radio Sheffield in 1967. Opposed at the time by the Conservatives and much of the national and local print media, but driven forward by BBC’s Director of Radio Frank Gilliard, stations began broadcasting across the country.

The relationship between local news gathering and the national news team has always been difficult in the BBC. Local Radio was initially banned from its own generating its own news but the pioneers of local public radio found ways around that. Over the years, BBC local radio stations have excelled in local news using their own reporters and presenters, as well as reports from their local communities.

Over more than six decades, BBC local radio has built a bond with local communities. But it has done much more than that. It has helped build communities by connecting people, by sharing their miseries and their celebrations, by highlighting their struggles and helping them champion their causes by giving them a voice.

With fewer local newspapers sold year on year, local radio has never been more important in keeping communities informed.

The reorganisation will see eleven area teams of “investigative” journalists across England. That will lead to the relocation, or redundancy, of local radio journalists. And even in an internet age, journalists work better when they can bounce ideas around in a single base. But a journalist in Coventry, for example, can’t understand what it’s like in rural Shropshire where I live.

The new teams of journalists will work on TV, radio and digital platforms. Which makes sense.

Local sport will still be broadcast locally. But there doubt about local music. Folk music has never been popular with BBC bosses and what is left of weekend programming could be for the axe. Download, the Radio 1 funded showcase for local talent, will probably continue but it may not be local. That could mean that our local music hopefuls could be ignored in programmes dominated by the city vibes not the rural scene.

The mistake BBC bosses always make is that they think they are broadcasting to communities. They don’t realise they are broadcasting for communities and with communities.

BBC local radio has always been seen as the cuckoo in the nest by BBC managers. Disruptive. Something that the BBC in London is uncomfortable with. It should remain that way.

But I fear that central control is about to overwhelm local innovation. Our local voice will no longer be championed by a local station but reported by someone in a city far away. I also fear that the World Service will also fade and perhaps mirror the inexorable fading of the UK from the world stage.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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