I Love BBC Local Radio
This last week saw a strike that barely made the news. It is somewhat ironic, as that strike was by members of the National Union of Journalists. What is a little depressing is that they were striking, not just to protect their jobs, but to protect a significant local service that in bad times more than proves its worth and in good times is taken for granted like a favorite auntie.
The strike was in protest about changes to BBC local radio that will see its regional broadcasting diluted and “replaced” with a localised internet news. Note I use the words “replaced” in inverted commas because the reality is that one does not replace the other. It will see a merging of some programs, especially in the afternoons, which will be presented to cover several broadcasting areas similar to the night-time broadcasts we see.
First of all I will explain why I am vehemently against this – then I will explain what local radio means to me the the intimate relationship I feel I and many other listeners have with it.
To understand my objection is to look at the break down of regionalism on the BBC and realise that in most of the country they have not got a clue! Indeed I will focus on the areas I know well on the Eastern side of the UK. The current BBC website shows how regions are viewed:
East: - this region is made up of Beds, Herts and Bucks; Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Anyone with any knowledge of those areas will be patently aware of the regional and social differences. The differences in accents, societies and mannerisms. All the quirks, sayings, traditions and variances that make their areas unique. The local knowledge that makes journalism and broadcasting in each area is key to it being entertaining, of value and of service. Yes there are parts of Cambridgeshire that feels a closeness to Norfolk or Suffolk, but also to Lincolnshire which is not in this region. I would argue that Beds, Herts and Bucks have little in common and very little to relate them to Norfolk or Suffolk. Indeed, the larger counties like Norfolk and Suffolk have great regional variances within their borders. I certainly found a great difference dealing with farmers near Bungay compared to those near Norwich, Fakenham or Kings Lynn with each area having its own quirks and expectations. Understanding these is important and very hard to achieve for a wider geography.
Yorkshire & Lincolnshire: - comprises Humberside; Leeds & West Yorkshire; Lincolnshire; Sheffields & South Yorkshire; York & North Yorkshire. Yorkshire is perhaps the largest county to have its own identity that spreads across its whole large area and often over-rides the other regional identities that form within its borders. I would argue that Humberside is a buffer zone between Lincolnshire and Yorkshire where the two cultures over-lap but I am sure some will disagree! The thing is that it is not just about accents, it’s the way you speak, how you do things and mannerisms that are subtle. It is also understanding the different areas. Lincolnshire and Yorkshire are both huge areas with massive differences within their borders. For example, Spalding has little in common with Lincoln. I recall a local charity not understanding why its menu that was popular in its Lincoln and Louth cafés did not work in its café in Spalding. Indeed as I gained intimate knowledge of the county and its people I had to adapt how I dealt with clients in the Wolds compared to those in the Fens.
North East England: - comprises of Tees and Tyne & Wear. Football may illustrate some of the differences when you look at Sunderland and Newcastle. The differences in these areas I am only beginning to learn despite having visited these regions for over fifteen years. I very quickly learned the differences between a Geordie and a Northumbrian many years ago. It’s a bit like calling a Kiwi an Aussie – light the blue touch paper and stand well back! These regional variations are perhaps, as an outsider, the most endearing as they are largely in good nature and less aggressive than some of the differences I see in some areas. I have recently moved to this area and whilst I am regarded as an “incomer” it is without malice and in good nature in my experience.
My point behind this is that such areas are too large and cannot provide the friendly understanding services that are currently provided by locally based radio presenters that understand the differences and subtleties within their areas. The result is an intimate relationship that is diluted at great cost especially in times of need. When there is a small disaster like a local road crash or unexpected death local radio can be key in helping these being navigated by the communities they serve. When extreme weather hits local radio helps keep people safe and enables those that need help and advice to receive it. In times of need it provides a catylyst that co-ordinates listeners to help each other. In times of national disaster like Covid, or national grief like the death of the Queen it channels local people and gives a means of expression. The presenters use their local knowledge well to the benefit of both the communities they serve and individuals within those communities. This is public service broadcasting at its best. Local charities, causes are well served by BBC local radio. Add to this the arts and how local artists and performers are able to grow aided by the output of BBC local radio.
Why do I feel this so strongly. Well for me radio has always featured prominently in my life. I grew up in a house with a radio in every room. As for local radio, living in Spalding my first experience was listeneing to The Big Bopper on a slightly ropey signal from BBC Radio Leicester on a Monday night in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I then discovered Reggae on a Friday night on Radio Leicester which I think was presented by a man called Herdle White.
Late 1980 saw the emergence of BBC Radio Lincolnshire and the distinctive dulcit tones of one of my favourite broadcasters Alan Stennet. In the late 1980’s I even gave a recorded interview about Spalding Wildfowlers to Radio Lincolnshire, sitting remotely in their tiny “Heath Robinson” studio in a cupboard at Spalding swimming pool. Over time you get to know the voices, even though they change, and you regard them as friends that will tell you whats happening, what’s new and help in times of trouble. What’s even better is that over time you may meet them whether it be Melvyn Prior at Louth Market, Sean Dunderdale walking his dog Mitzee and the brilliant Harry Parkhill who seems to turn up everywhere throughout the county and has become a skilled journalist and presenter in the great BBC tradition. All these presenters feel like your friends. They are in tune with the communities in which you live. Now I live away from the area they are an essential means of me keeping in touch with whats happening in my former home.
Equally I am becoming to love BBC Radio Newcastle with Matt Bailey’s cheerful voice in the mornings, the sensitive journalistic skills of Anna Foster as she talks to people with real life experiences, problems and issues or the chatty Gilly Hope – I am only just getting to know you all, but am learning so much about the area and its wonderful people in a way that no diluted regional media will achieve.
The simple fact is that the dilution of BBC’s local presenters and journalists will not serve the areas well. Understanding and knowledge will be diluted. The empathy and warmth will be diluted by the greater region and this cannot be replaced by an online web page. Most of all we will lose friends of old and friends yet to be made in the world of BBC local radio.