Community Media Discussion - Is BBC Local Radio Obsolete?

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In this week’s community media discussion, we are going to discuss the changes that are being made to BBC Local Radio in England, and ask if they should be welcomed as our media is being shaken-up by new ways of producing and sharing content? What do we need to do to prepare for this ‘decentralised’ world of media, where people create and share meaningful content that resonates with their local community and is trusted by them? What are the skills and expectations we need to foster to ensure that we can thrive in this post-institutional and decentralised world? What can we learn from community media makers who have been doing these things for many years?

Join us to discuss how community communications and community sensemaking can change society for the better by opening up our media to greater diversity, inclusivity, participation and civic engagement.

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As many are aware, the BBC has announced a major reshaping of its local radio services across England, with a focus on enhancing online impact and delivering more original journalism. The changes represent the BBC’s response to the digital transformation and the reshaping of the media landscape based on network driven online media. By shifting its focus towards online and multimedia production, the BBC claims that it will stay relevant and provide value to audiences in the digital age.

The changes include:

Boosting daily online news provision for forty-three local areas and delivering a wider range of local audio programming through BBC Sounds. The company will create eleven investigative reporting teams across the country to provide, what the BBC calls, more in-depth analysis of key local issues across TV, radio, and online platforms.

The creation of multimedia news operations across the country, which is aimed at bringing the BBC’s local news teams together across radio, TV, and online for the first time, which is part of a larger strategy to transform the BBC into a more modern, digital-led organisation.

The BBC will then re-prioritise around £19m from broadcast services towards online and multimedia production. This shift is necessary, the BBC claims, so the corporation can keep pace with changing audience expectations. However, the closure of local television news programs in Oxford and Cambridge that have been announced, along with increased program sharing between neighbouring Local Radio stations in periods where they have lower audience figures, means that the place-based model of news and programming is no longer feasible given the BBC limited resources.

In all, these changes will mean a reduction in BBC local staffing in England by around forty-eight posts, a 2% total reduction). However, approximately one hundred and thirty-one additional roles will be created across local news services, and around one hundred and thirty-nine fewer roles will be present in audio teams due to increased program sharing.

The BBC is aiming to increase investment in local current affairs by about forty per-cent, which will enable the creation of eleven investigative reporting teams across England, with the creation of seventy-one new journalism roles and the production of over twenty television documentary programmes each year.

The BBC hopes that by boosting online news services in every local base and launching new dedicated local online services for Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland, and Peterborough, that local stories will be more accessible, especially when tied in with changes planned for the BBC’s online service.

The BBC is also committed to a new fund for the commissioning of original local programmes and podcasts, with dedicated BBC Sounds producer roles being established at all local bases, who will be responsible for the development of new audio programmes and formats for the online world.

Overall, the BBC is committed to a greater level of program sharing on Local Radio during times when listening is typically lower. For example, all thirty-nine BBC Local Radio stations will continue with their own dedicated local programming from 6am to 2pm on weekdays, but after 2pm, the BBC will produce eighteen afternoon programmes across England, with many local stations sharing programming.

The question that many people are asking, and we have discussed many times here at Decentered Media, is: should these changes have been allowed to happen, and what do we do next now they have been put into place by the BBC? Many long-serving presenters have now departed, or are about to leave their roles across England, this can’t be put back together as it was. There is a legitimate complaint that the BBC imposed these changes without prior discussion with the public, but as to the changes themselves, perhaps these are legitimate and would need to happen anyway.

Dr Liam McCarthy, former editor of BBC Radio Leicester, has written that he intends to “keep fighting for a BBC local radio that is targeted at the growing over 50s demographic,” and who “represents diversity in all its facets and can embrace change while remaining authentically local.” Dr McCarthy contends that “rather than cutting local output and building regional journalism hubs, the BBC should be asking how it can share the best… not cutting the local radio output by half.”

The question, however, is not what sort of things we should hold on to that helped to build BBC Local Radio, but what sort of media world do we need to prepare for in the future, as new technologies change the way we access media content and come together as communities. In the decentralised media age, where networks allow people to associate and connect in uniquely different ways, should we be putting our faith in maintaining legacy forms of broadcast and linear media and the institutions that support them?

Traditional centralized media structures are clearly giving way to a decentralised media landscape, where local media systems can independently serve the needs of their communities, and don’t need to be organised centrally with a command-and-control management system telling us what to do locally. The age of the monolithic trusted institutional media provider is coming to an end, and data and network-driven communications systems are changing the way we connect within our communities.

As we navigate this post-institutional communications environment, then, it becomes increasingly important for individuals and communities to understand the significance and potential of decentralization. Here at Decentered Media we have been trying to articulate a set of values and expectations that can help guide people who are supportive of community-focussed communications to explore and learn about the need to comprehend how the decentralised media landscape and economy are changing, and how these changes potentially empower more local control and not less. How it potentially fosters more diverse voices and not less, and how it promotes more effective democratic participation and a sense of belonging.

The advent of the internet and advancements in technology have catalysed the rise of decentralised media systems. In contrast to the traditional broadcast media model, where a few centralized institutions held the power to disseminate information, decentralised media empowers individuals, communities, and local organisations to establish and manage media platforms independently for themselves. This shift offers numerous benefits, including increased accessibility, diverse perspectives, and enhanced local relevance.

Decentralised media therefore puts the power of content creation and distribution in the hands of local communities. This paradigm recognises that different regions, cultures, and communities have unique needs and interests. So, by allowing local management control, decentralised and devolved media platforms can cater to meet these specific requirements.

This local control ensures, if handled properly and in a way that engenders trust, can ensure that the content that local media makers produce reflects the values, concerns, and aspirations of the community it serves, and thereby fostering a stronger sense of ownership and engagement. We’ve made this point many times, but why has media not been included in the Levelling Up discussions and policies?

Rightly, the complaint is that centralised media structures and institutional systems, often result in a limited range of perspectives dominating the discussions that are shared in society. In a decentralised media landscape, however, diverse voices should be able to flourish, offering a more comprehensive understanding of the world.

By breaking down barriers to entry and providing guaranteed access to platforms for marginalized communities, decentralised media empowers individuals to share their stories and perspectives. This inclusivity promotes greater empathy, cross-cultural understanding, and appreciation for the rich tapestry of human experiences.

I suppose the point is, why are we waiting for the BBC to do things for us, when we should be taking control of our media and doing this stuff for ourselves. We have the technology and the network systems now, which raises the question, why do we need the BBC at all?

This isn’t an argument about trashing the BBC, as a universal and accessible media provision is essential to a democracy, this is a question of the BBC’s purpose going into this decentralised future and who it is there to serve? As an institution, the BBC can come across as being self-serving and justifying, and needs to change its focus from competing with Netflix, as Colin Browne, char of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer argued recently, the BBC has to reflect the interests of those who fund it, and not those who compete with it.

Decentralised media systems, then, can play a vital role in strengthening democracy and civic engagement. By reducing dependence on a few gatekeepers, decentralised media empowers citizens to engage in participatory journalism, citizen reporting, and community-based discussions. It facilitates the exchange of ideas, fosters informed debate, and holds institutions accountable. In a decentralised media landscape, individuals become active participants rather than passive consumers, leading to a more vibrant and democratic public sphere.

However, there are a number of pressing challenges and considerations that we need to look at, plan for and decide how we will invest in getting people ready for this decentralised world. While the decentralised media landscape offers tremendous opportunities, it also presents challenges that require careful consideration:

  • Information Credibility: With the democratisation of media, verifying the accuracy and credibility of information becomes crucial. As we consume content from diverse sources, it is essential to promote media literacy, critical thinking, and fact-checking to navigate the decentralised landscape responsibly.
  • Platform Sustainability: Decentralised media systems rely on active participation and community support. Ensuring the sustainability of these platforms requires community engagement, financial support, and the development of viable business models that align with local needs and values.
  • Balancing Localism and Global Connectivity: While decentralised media serves local needs, it is essential to strike a balance between local relevance and global connectivity. The interconnected nature of the world necessitates the exchange of information, ideas, and experiences across borders, ensuring a broader understanding of global challenges and fostering collaborative solutions.

As we transition into a post-institutional communications environment, then, understanding the decentralised media landscape and economy becomes imperative. Embracing this shift empowers individuals and communities to reclaim control over their sense of identity, it fosters diverse voices, and it strengthens democratic communication. But it requires a concerted effort to promote media literacy, ensure information credibility, and strike a balance between localism and global connectivity. By embracing the decentralised media landscape, we can shape a more inclusive, participatory, and informed society.

To fully harness the potential of the decentralised media landscape, individuals and communities can take several steps:

  • Embrace Media Literacy: As media consumers, it is crucial to develop media literacy skills. We should critically evaluate information, fact-check sources, and understand the biases that may be present in different media platforms. By being discerning media makers, we can navigate the decentralised media landscape with greater confidence and make informed decisions about the content we engage with because we have learnt how to make it for ourselves.
  • Support Independent Local Initiatives: Local media initiatives play a vital role in fostering community engagement and meeting local needs. By supporting these independent ventures, either through financial contributions, active participation, or amplifying their content, we can help sustain and strengthen the decentralised media ecosystem. This support can range from subscribing to local newsletters and podcasts to attending community-led events and workshops.
  • Promote Collaboration and Connectivity: While decentralised media emphasises localism, it is essential to foster connections and collaborations between different decentralised platforms. By sharing best practices, experiences, and resources, we can build a robust network that facilitates knowledge exchange and amplifies voices across different communities. Collaboration can take various forms, such as cross-platform partnerships, content sharing, or joint advocacy efforts.
  • Advocate for Policy and Regulatory Frameworks: Governments and regulatory bodies play a crucial role in shaping the media landscape. As decentralised media gains prominence, it is essential to advocate for policies and regulations that support its growth while safeguarding against misinformation, privacy breaches, and undue concentration of power. A balanced regulatory framework should foster innovation, protect individual rights, and ensure fair competition.
  • Engage in Civic Discourse: Decentralised media allows individuals to actively participate in civic discourse. Take advantage of platforms that encourage public debates, discussions, and engagement with policymakers. By voicing your opinions, concerns, and suggestions, you can contribute to shaping media policies and practices that reflect the needs and aspirations of your community.

In conclusion, understanding the decentralised media landscape and economy is crucial as we navigate a post-institutional communications environment. Embracing this shift empowers communities to exercise local control, promotes diverse voices, and strengthens democratic communication. By embracing media literacy, supporting independent local initiatives, fostering collaboration, advocating for appropriate policies, and engaging in civic discourse, we can shape a decentralized media ecosystem that serves the needs of communities and promotes a more inclusive and informed society.

Do we think the BBC is the right platform to foster this, or do we need to build new local institutions that can do this with the direct participation of all citizens because they recognise the benefits that come from having a voice among voices. If we embrace this transformative era of media and communication, we also need to check where the power lies, and ensure that it serves the many rather than the few.