BBC local radio stations face big cuts to content made for their area

BBC local radio stations could be left with just a handful of programmes specific to their area under proposals set to be announced this week.

Bad news – Owl

Jim Waterson 

A fresh round of BBC cuts is due to be announced on Monday, with sources telling the Guardian it will herald the end of most local radio stations as truly distinctive standalone outlets.

Plans under consideration include cutting the number of weekday shows on each BBC local radio station to two, leaving just a breakfast show and a lunchtime programme. Output during the afternoons and evenings would consist of shows broadcast on multiple local stations across large swathes of the UK or nationally.

Weekend output, with the exception of sport coverage, would also be largely run on a regional basis – spelling the end for many of the unique shows now airing on local stations.

Although the BBC has trumpeted the success of its 39 English local radio stations as being at the heart of their communities – especially during the pandemic, and in a recent round of interviews with Liz Truss – they are facing two key challenges.

One is the enormous financial impact of the real-terms freeze to the licence fee and the challenge of rampant cost inflation. The other is the shift in audiences, with BBC bosses wanting to redeploy staff from radio stations with ageing, declining audiences to make content for younger, growing audiences online.

The plans would be confined to stations in England, as the devolved nations have their own teams and management structure.

Any such changes are likely to result in dozens of job losses, rounds of voluntary redundancies and presenters having to reapply for their jobs. Some well-known local hosts are likely to lose their jobs in the process or have to take up joint producer-presenter roles.

BBC bosses will set out their plans in detail this week, with staff invited to calls from Monday onwards to hear “proposals to reshape BBC England into a full multimedia service”.

A BBC spokesperson told the Guardian: “We announced back in May that we would be introducing greater programme sharing between our 39 BBC local radio stations in England. This will enable us to increase investment in local digitised services.

“We will be sharing more information on these plans very shortly – and our own staff will of course hear about any proposed changes first. Our local services are trusted by millions of people and our plans are designed to ensure we keep pace with audiences in a fast-changing world.”

The latest cuts follow previously announced plans to end regional TV news bulletins for Oxford and Cambridge.

Last month, the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, warned MPs that the corporation was being forced to cut costs because of the decision to freeze the licence fee. Speaking to the digital, culture, media and sport committee he said: “We are under very significant pressure, due to the decision to keep the licence fee flat, which we didn’t want.”

But, he added: “We need to continue to invest and grow our local offer. I think it is an absolute key strength of the BBC.”

The BBC told the government it will face a £285m gap in its income by 2027 because of the licence fee freeze. Last month the BBC announced deep cuts to its World Service output involving the loss of about 382 jobs in an attempt to save £28.5m.

As part of the plans the corporation will stop producing radio output in 10 languages, including Chinese, Hindi and Arabic. BBC Persian will also end its audio broadcasts aimed at Iran.

There will also be a change in focus for the World Service’s English-language radio output, with more time dedicated to live news and sport programming at the expense of standalone programmes.

The latest listening figures, released last week, showed BBC radio now accounts for 46.7% of all radio listening in the UK, compared with commercial radio on 50.9%.

While the BBC continues to maintain dozens of distinct local stations at substantial cost, the big commercial groups have gone for a different strategy.

They have combined dozens of once-distinct local radio stations under national brands such as Heart and Capital, providing the bare minimum of local output to meet requirements set out by media regulator Ofcom. Despite complaints about the loss of local identities, the new outlets perform well with audiences and tend to boost listening figures.

The BBC’s existing licence fee agreement runs out at the end of 2027 and discussions are under way about what could replace it.