A leading figure at the BBC departs in a blaze of controversy. The change signals not just the loss of a job for one man but a fundamental shift in the direction of a public service broadcaster. Shock and outrage follows and there is general agreement that the BBC is an over-managed entity and fundamental change is necessary.
Maybe, this is overstating it a bit. Actually things seem to have settled down somewhat at the Beeb since Danny Baker left and all those predicting that his departure would prove to be the beginning of the end have been proved wrong. What did you say? George who?
One problem I face in trying to reach profound conclusions about the BBC in local media is that I rarely listen to any of their output. On the rare occasions that I was accidentally tuned in to shows like Vanessa Feltz’s it would take me less than ten minutes to reach the most gloomy conclusions about the human condition. Can it really be the case that there are callers to the show who are screened out because they are of lower quality than the ones that get through? During times of previous unemployment I did have the opportunity to listen to Danny Baker’s Treehouse which was a polar opposite to most of the rest of the station’s output. Danny is the master of filling airtime and I do get the point that he has been recycling similar material for decades now but given that his broadcasting remains funny and entertaining that hardly seems to matter. I know I would be a better citizen if I listened to phone in about the Mayor’s social housing policy but I simply find people ringing in about unusual clothes horses they have owned much more enjoyable.
The Treehouse has been felled reportedly because BBC management wanted more community based radio with an increased proportion of content generated by ‘you the listener’. This agenda is to be brought forward by BBC buses going out into the community and asking Londoners what they think. In other words it is like a phone in but staff actually have to meet the crazies that ring in with opinions uninfluenced by facts.
Management at BBC London have clearly bought in to the increasingly fashionable view that content should primarily be created and shaped by the listeners themselves. The belief is that in a digital age media can move away from all powerful professionals deciding the news agenda and ‘you the listener’ will drive content. This thinking is being pushed hard by some academics and ‘social media consultants’ and it is getting an enthusiastic response from middle management whose primary task is cost-cutting. Danny Baker was paid surprisingly little for his Treehouse show as he told us in his final broadcast but he is a lot more expensive than Ron from Ilford who will fill at least five minutes of air time with his views about parking on the High Street.
Disciples of this view have almost universally never worked in the production side of the industry. Anybody who has would be able to point out that the very essence of news broadcasting is listening to the listeners. Your audience being able to tell you what they think is not a new thing with both e-mail and the telephone dating back to the last century. Any media with a significant audience will have been getting significant audience feedback for decades. Twitter may have increased the level but it hasn’t changed the nature of the media. As any journalist will tell you, the problem with what your audience tell you is that most of it is unusable. 90% is either from the mentally ill, the politically over-engaged, the grudge holders or the local business hoping for a plug. One thing you quickly learn is that readers and listeners who get in touch are not broadly representative of readers and listeners and if you let them determine content you will lose your audience very quickly. The art of good journalism at a local level is distinguishing the nuggets of great story ideas or information that your audience send you from the dross that forms most of their output.
Although the road that BBC London is going down is clearly going to be a wrong turn, I am a loss to suggest what they should do. There is still some high quality stuff on the station. People have raved to me about Robert Elms and everytime I have listened to it, I have been impressed. However, everytime I have listened to it, it has also been about an area of London I have no knowledge or interest in. Local history is fascinating if it is about the place where you live but ultimately tedious if it is not. This highlights the fundamental problem for BBC London. Londoners are generally uninterested in anything outside a two mile radius of where they live. This means that there is probably a less than 10% chance of an item being relevant and interesting for them. The only thing that really binds Londoners together is transport which is why there are so many items on Boris Johnson and Bob Crow. It has to be remembered that London is bigger and more diverse than the majority of countries so the concept of local isn’t a great fit.
It is hard not to link the sacking of Danny Baker and the station’s change of direction to the advent of Local TV in London. One thing that should be taken into account is the sheer rage that this has generated amongst staff there. They argue that public money is being spent to set up a station which will an inferior copy of their existing offering. They are probably not wrong. I’ve chatted to some of the people involved in the bids and they admit that even if they were to win they don’t see a long term future for their station. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a degree of panic at the Beeb in London and are trying to meet the challenge head on. Unfortunately, the local TV bidders have all basically said they are going to base their station’s output on ‘you the listener.’ This is an approach that is probably forced upon them by cost constraints but has the added benefit of sounding great to people who know nothing about media. It would take vision, energy, imagination and a bigger budget for the BBC not to follow the same strategy.
One outcome that is reasonably certain is that BBC London’s output will become more hyperlocal. It is hard to see if this will be an opportunity or a threat to the existing players in this sector and having chatted to some they don’t really know themselves. At this stage there is a great deal of scepticism that the mindset at the BBC will change in any meaningful way. Although hyperlocal sites in London have some influential advocates in the BBC, such as Jeremy Vine, at lower level they appear to alternate between being patronising and suspicious. There is some optimism that the departure of Helen Boaden as head of news at the BBC will lead to a more constructive approach but it is not clear what practical steps could be taken for BBC to work more closely with independent hyperlocals in London other than to rethink their linking policy for news items. Despite being more developed than other areas of the country there is only effective hyperlocal coverage of about a quarter of the population of London. It is interesting to note that the Local TV bidders don’t seem to have even bothered trying to incorporate them into their pitches. This is probably down to the patchy nature of geographic coverage.
It is hard to see this playing out in any other way than a slightly depressing one. The BBC’s local output in London will decline in quality as will its audience. The winner of the Local TV franchise in London will take their handout and half-heartedly fulfill the terms of their franchise until their station is quietly put to sleep and London Hyperlocals will be seen as more of a threat than an opportunity by the public sector broadcaster. There is only one thing I can suggest to improve this gloomy scenario – Bring Back Danny Baker!