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Nations and Regions Media Conference 2017 review: Long live local radio

lowry

This week I went to the Nations and Regions Media Conference at The Lowry in Salford. Since the Radio Festival changed venue and moved down south, I was looking forward to a conference of a similar vein in the old stomping ground.

I should have known from the ticket price (£90 early-bird rate) that this was aimed more at executive level, rather than for those of us who work in production. It would take a journalist working at some commercial stations around two days salary to pay to go to all events, adding travel and parking costs etc. The redeeming feature was the price did include lunch though – bonus!

One of the early sessions about investigative journalism was insightful; there was a lot of wistful reminiscing to the past about the likes of ITV’s long-gone ‘World in Action’. It was a treat to hear from director Paul Greengrass, who used to work on the programme before heading off to Hollywood. What I took from this session was journalists are more than ever required to “show their workings” in this era of “Fake News”, as President Trump coined it. It means, due to this vigour, the quality of work broadcasters are producing is actually more reliable. Maybe not all of Trump’s media criticisms are so damming for the industry, after all?

The second day got underway and I was enjoying debates on various issues. MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy, shared her view that – because MediaCity now exists – that doesn’t automatically mean northern views are catered for. “The North” doesn’t stop at Salford and start again in Scotland. There’s a whole wealth of audience members, stories and talent that’ll be missed, if that’s a widely-held belief.

I hope it isn’t, but have taken calls from people in the past who have made humorous misconceptions. While I can forgive statements like: “Is Bolton in Lancashire?”, because it’s on the border. It only takes a quick glance at a map to know the answer to: “Is Blackburn in Manchester?”

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, announced there will be a consultation to move some of Channel 4’s staff out of London to “wherever it can be found” in the UK. As someone who grew up in Greater Manchester, I know how amazing the opportunities at MediaCityUK are: the area’s been completely regenerated and is buzzing. However, if every major media outlet sets up there, Salford will become as much of an isolated bubble as London is perceived to be.

As a regional staple, I was disappointed with the lack of mentions local radio got at the conference. People who work in that area make a limited amount of resources spread far and wide in order to create content. Talented staff are serving parts of the audience that other platforms may not reach. At times, providing vital information –  the recent Lancashire floods are a prime example. I would urge any sceptic to spend a day in a local radio newsroom – either commercial or BBC – and see for themselves. Yet newsrooms in local stations are constantly under threat from cuts.

BBC local radio as an example; there are stations all across the country. Audience reach of all of them combined must be enough to match a national network station. Surely that makes it eligible to warrant a discussion? The audience is more concentrated in each TSA and the issues differ from place to place, but that makes what’s on offer so unique.

It was infectious hearing Head of BBC Radio, Bob Shennan’s, positivity for the medium and his enthusiasm that another golden age of radio is “still to come”, even if it may be different from what has gone before. Due to the way the discussion went though, ill-fated Channel 4 Radio got more of a mention than local radio, which is still very much thriving on the dials.

At the end of a thought-provoking conference, I was driving home listening to a network station when the news came on. There was a Lancashire story in the bulletin and my ears pricked up, because that’s where I live and work. The reader made the easy mistake of pronouncing Barrowford, in Pendle, as: “BARROW-F’D”. You need local knowledge to know it’s actually pronounced: ‘BARROW-FORD’. There’s no way of knowing this by reading off a script alone. I carried on my journey explicitly aware that local radio is still as important as ever.

The commercial radio ‘vampire’ takes a bite…

It seems that “vampire” has become a new buzz word; around this time last year at the Radio Festival, The Who’s Pete Townshend described iTunes as the ‘vampire’ of the music industry. Now journalism lecturer at Leeds Trinity, Richard Horsman, has labelled commercial radio news as the bloodsucker of its own industry:

UK commercial radio news has become a vampire industry, sucking in talent whilst putting next to nothing back.

The notion of local radio hardly exists any more.  If you scan up the dial in a highly populated city you might think that because there’s so many stations around this must mean that lots of jobs are available for new blood. The reality is that an oligopoly has been created by networks owning a portfolio of stations, each targeting a specific listener demographic.

This is great for advertisers, who can approach a network and have commercials pigeon-holed on a station depending on the audience they want to reach. The outlook is not so good for journalists, especially those trying to enter the industry. Networking means fewer job opportunities because it saves money when news can be syndicated across many stations instead of having a different output at each one.

Like anything, cutting costs and corners can reduce quality. You’ll hear an example of this if you station hop in the evenings, at a non-peak time the same IRN news will be read by the same bulletin reader from the “Sky News Centre”. The only differences being that it might be jazzed up with a bed and top and tailed with a station jingle. This saves money, but it’s not locally targeted and not presented in-line with a station’s house-style.

on airHowever, now the licence fee is frozen, the BBC has made cuts of their own too. The ‘Delivering Quality First’ (DQF) report may not have been as destructive to local radio as first thought, but a 10% reduction in staff can be quite substantial to smaller stations that are affected. If the BBC begin to syndicate more local programming across their stations then this fits in with what’s becoming something of an industry standard, but this sacrifices the very essence of what ‘local’ radio should be about.

I am trying to be realistic, rather than pessimistic, because this is the reality of what’s happening to the industry. The only people who have any real power to change this landscape are the listeners. As long as they’re listening, the RAJARs are up and the advertisers are kept happy because they know there are people out there hearing their commercials. While advertisers keep funding the stations nothing will change the cycle will continue. Obviously, advertising does not affect what happens at the BBC but RAJAR figures do matter.

When I initially wanted to turn my radio hobby into a career the response I often got was “Can’t you do something else?” I could – but my heart wouldn’t be in it. I’m well aware that I might not get my dream job or even any job in broadcast journalism at the end of my masters course at UCLan. Maybe I’m a gluten for punishment, but the reason I’m determined to be part of it is simply because I love the industry and, regardless of whether it’s commercial or the BBC, I want to make good radio. Vampire or not, I’ve been bitten by the radio bug and it’s not letting go.