Traditionally, when bad weather hit, we all turned to local radio for the latest traffic information and school closures. During the early stage of the pandemic, as we stayed at home to protect the NHS to save lives, many people switched on the radio to get the latest information and keep them company and updated.
For the BBC, this meant their national services saw a big increase in online listenership and interaction with new and established audiences. It did prove a significant challenge for BBC Local Radio, which was forced to move to a standard schedule across the network with fewer presenters and staff around to help comply with social distancing and essential travel.
Some presenters even worked from home, presenting programmes from their living rooms using modern technology provided by the BBC. It was an impressive effort and the “Make A Difference” campaign across every BBC local radio station did exactly what it said on the tin. It helped to highlight community groups providing support, charities fundraising for good causes and stories that made the audience smile, laugh and sometimes cry. It was the best example of the purpose of BBC local radio in recent years.
The new standardised schedule across the network will stay, helping managers to meet the cuts earmarked before the pandemic with many presenters and producers signing off for the final time in recent weeks. The reality for BBC local radio is troubling, with audiences continuing to fall across the network as managers grapple to nail the purpose of the service and reverse its decline.
The impact of the pandemic on commercial radio was seismic. As many businesses closed their doors, they also frantically pulled adverts from local commercial stations, resulting in huge cash flow problems for them. Whilst the bigger networks (Heart, Hits Radio, Smooth and Capital to name a few) managed to emerge relatively unscathed because of the backing of large media groups, the pandemic proved too much for some smaller stations.
Ten years ago, I was part of the launch team for a new radio station serving my home city, Radio Plymouth. It was the proudest moment of my broadcasting career and the last big event I attended before the lockdown in March was the stations tenth birthday celebrations. Sadly, the station closed a few weeks ago. It was entirely independent, owned by a selection of shareholders living in or connected with the city. It was popular, but without money coming in as a result of advertising, the shareholders took the difficult decision to sell the station to a large network and whilst local news has been retained, none of the programmes are from Plymouth.
A few miles up the road in Exeter, another independent commercial radio station is winning the battle to stay on air – but only just. Radio Exe is based in Exeter and serves the city, Mid Devon, my constituency of East Devon and a large area of Devon on DAB. They faced the same financial pressures as the now defunct Radio Plymouth and remain on air purely due to the determination of local shareholders. The situation for a small commercial station such as Radio Exe, facing at one side national brands operating on local licences and competing for local advertising but providing little or no local content – and at the other end community stations receiving public subsidies – is considerable, and may not be sustainable according to the station’s owners. The future for Radio Exe is uncertain, but they are fighting tooth and nail to continue the small business that they had built before the pandemic hit. They have kept a growing number of listeners entertained and informed with a very small team and they pay tribute to BBC Radio Devon for providing news content that has saved considerable costs financially but resulted in job losses. Such cooperation at local level is an innovating way of the public and private sectors working together for the good of listeners, and an effective use of the licence fee too – as local BBC journalism reaches a wider audience who otherwise may not listen to BBC local radio. In another pioneering move, Radio Exe has even roped in rusty former presenter turned East Devon MP to present occasional programmes – keeping my tax affairs simpler by telling me it’s best done unpaid! I really enjoyed volunteering for the station and will return at Christmas to play copious amounts of Mariah Carey.
As commercial radio largely becomes less local across the country with networks including Heart dominating the landscape, the role of community radio continues to grow. Throughout the pandemic, volunteers at stations including ExmouthAiR in Devon continued to take to the air and since then, new community stations launched including Riviera FM in Torbay and the ground-breaking Skylark, which broadcasts the beautiful sounds of Dartmoor to Devon. Phonic FM, based in Exeter and covering part of my East Devon constituency, is testament to what community radio can achieve. It provides programmes that market can’t, or won’t, and giving access to the airwaves to minority interests. They’re finalists in the community development project of the year in the community media awards. Where else but community radio would you get an 18-hour show, ‘Occupy the Airwaves’ for international women’s day that is now up for national recognition?
Overall, local radio isn’t as local as it once was and the pandemic sped up the decline of some services, just when they were needed most. Not only do they keep us company, they support local democracy. The recent impact on the radio industry, combined with the decline of local newspapers, this should concern us all. Local radio still has an important place in our society and long may it continue to be heard.