29 November 2022
Future of BBC Local Radio

Herefordshire has long been renowned for its extraordinary sense of local community, and a key part of that has been its vibrant local media outlets.

In my own constituency they include not just the Hereford Times and Ross Gazette, but BBC Hereford and Worcester, Sunshine Radio, Your Hereford, Herefordshire Voice and Ross Online, among others.

So I was very concerned to read in October of planned changes to local radio and news on BBC Hereford and Worcester, which has recently shown its value once again in reporting on flooding and on phosphate pollution in the Wye, and running campaigns such as the women of Rotherwas, to say nothing of putting the local MP periodically on the spot.

It is clear that under the new plans there will be less local BBC radio programming in the afternoon. But local sports programming will stay throughout the week, as well as local news bulletin services during the day.  And as part of BBC’s "Digital First" strategy there will be significant new investment in online services through iPlayer and the Sounds app.

So this is reform, not revolution. A reshaping, not a massive upheaval. And if you press the BBC top brass as to what they are doing, as I have done, they say it is about growing their local audience, not moving away from it.

At present, just 13 per cent of adults are listening to local radio -- while 66 per cent or two-thirds of them now use online services for news. As more and more people move online, the BBC wants to be able to follow them with news, sports and entertainment.

That seems like it makes sense. But will it work?  There are still real concerns in Herefordshire that more regional afternoon programming -- and more regional and  not local news? -- may lead to a decline in local listeners.  As news becomes less personal to some people, more may stop listening altogether.  Lots of less well-off people  may not have easy access to high speed broadband or smart phones.

But this is a competitive and vibrant market. There are local commercial and community media outlets that will sniff the fresh winds of opportunity here.

The BBC is a massive public player, with all the advantages and responsibilities of the licence fee.  It needs to innovate, and where it can, to supply what others cannot. It cannot afford to be complacent. And listeners will not allow it to be.

Published in the Hereford Times