Local radio dying a long, drawn-out death

It’s not a great time to be working in local radio at the moment. In fact, if you’re a fan of local radio, it’s probably not great to be a listener either.

After axing the distinctive Late Night Love show and DJ Graham Torrington, and rebranding virtually all of their distinctively named local stations across the UK as Heart, Global Radio (formerly GCap) have now announced further cutbacks.

Chief among these are the scrapping of local news bulletins between 11am and 3pm, to be replaced with a national news bulletin, and the outsourcing of its travel news.

Granted, this will save money. It’s also so short-sighted it’s beyond belief. By consolidating assorted operations, Global is slowly, bit-by-bit, taking away every last remnant of what makes local radio stations unique.

The rebranding of Heart was bad enough. Having worked for many different local radio stations over the years, one constant in terms of feedback was just how much listeners connected with the individual identity of each station.

It didn’t matter that the stations were owned by the same group. By having their own name and own identity, each station found its own particular niche to serve the community it broadcasted to. Take that away, and you’ve got a standardised, somewhat London centric service with a few local DJs.

But at least there was the local news to keep listeners up to date. Now that’s just limited to breakfast and drivetime. So, if there’s a breaking or ongoing story on that station’s patch, presumably listeners will be bereft of updates during the day (of course, this could be offset by fully utilising the web for breaking news, but I’m not holding my breath).

It also takes away another part of that local connection to listeners. Why should I listen to town X’s Heart when I can’t even find out, hourly, what’s going on in my area.

Given that I’ve got a vast array of internet or digital stations out there, or even alternative stations still on FM, what’s the incentive for me, as a local listener, to tune in? Less than there was before, that’s for sure.

I’m not entirely sure what the outsourcing of the traffic news will be, but this could be an even bigger mistake than cutting back on news.

Again, from my time in local radio, the traffic lines and traffic news was the one thing you’d be guaranteed to get listeners AND interaction. If we’d missed a jam or accident, you could be darn sure we’d get half a dozen calls letting us know.

Traffic news, especially for commuters, is vital. Reduce the quality of that service and you’re going to lose a significant chunk of your audience who tune in specifically to find out if they’re going to face delays on the drive home. This could be Global’s biggest mistake.

What’s more, cutting these positions (and the 25 jobs they estimate will be lost sounds like a VERY conservative estimate to me) will have an even worse effect on aspiring journalists.

There’s already more BJTC trained journalists than there are positions and cutting more news jobs will drive down wages, further depress an already demoralised workforce and make it harder for aspiring young broadcast journalists to find a position, unless they’ve already got something lined up with the BBC.

And for all the commercial stations complain about the BBC’s advantage in local radio, they hardly help their cause by greeting bland identikit stations that sound the same from Land’s End to John O’Groats and offer practically zero competition now to the Beeb.

The radio journalism industry is already haemorraging talented reporters. Of the group I trained with, I’d estimate between 1/5th and 1/3rd have already quit the profession and, speaking to others, I’d expect that percentage to rise.

I love local radio. I love the medium of radio full stop. It’s a job that I loved doing, and would have loved to continue doing. But, the more I see of the state of local commercial radio, the more I’m glad I got out when I did.

A few years ago, if anybody had asked me about getting into radio journalism, I’d have enthused and encouraged them into a wonderfully vibrant and creative industry.

Now, I’d simply tell them not to bother.


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