BBC England is set to reduce its staffing levels by 2% – or 48 roles – as it redistributes £19m from broadcast to online and multimedia news production.
The BBC said on Monday that about 139 jobs would be cut in local radio as more programmes are shared between stations.
The National Union of Journalists described it as the “biggest threat facing local radio since it launched in 1967”.
At the same time, BBC England is planning to create 131 jobs across local news including new dedicated services for Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough and 11 new investigative reporting teams.
The BBC said that with the 40 jobs to be lost with the cancellation of regional current affairs TV programme We Are England, which launched this year to replace the previously cancelled investigative strand Inside Out but was soon stopped itself, this would result in a total reduction of 48 posts or 2%.
The BBC claimed the plan, which will see it create “multi-media news operations” across England that bring together its online, TV and radio teams more closely, will “deliver greater online impact and more original journalism”.
Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s director of nations, said: “These are ambitious and far-reaching proposals to grow the value we deliver to local audiences everywhere.
“The plans will help us connect with more people in more communities right across England, striking a better balance between our broadcast and online services and ensuring we remain a cornerstone of local life for generations to come.”
BBC local radio cuts plan
The BBC has 39 local radio stations in England and they will keep their own dedicated local programming between 6am and 2pm on weekdays, as well as all their own live sports coverage.
But they will share 18 afternoon programmes between them after 2pm on weekdays, with ten programmes shared between 6pm and 10pm on weekdays, all day Saturday, and on Sunday mornings. The BBC said the radio stations would share in a way that is broadly aligned with its regional TV areas.
After 10pm on weekdays and on Sunday afternoons and evenings the stations will air a national “all-England” programme. The BBC said the times chosen for the programme sharing were when listenership tends to be lower.
In total 139 jobs will go from local radio at BBC England after it was decided a reduced schedule that began at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic would continue. This meant all local stations were broadcasting three daytime programmes between 6am to 6pm on weekdays. This is now being reduced to two on many smaller stations.
The plans were announced less than a week after RAJAR figures showed the BBC’s local radio network had grown its weekly reach by 2% quarter-on-quarter to 7.8 million in July to September.
Ten years ago, in the same quarter of 2012, BBC local and regional radio reached nine million people each week.
Paul Siegert, NUJ national broadcasting officer, said: “This is the biggest threat facing local radio since it launched in 1967. The key to its success over the past 50 years has been its localness. When it stops being less local it loses its USP. People in Kent don’t care about what is going on in Sussex. If these proposals are allowed to go ahead it will be the beginning of the end for local radio.
“The NUJ is not opposed to the BBC investing in digital services, but it should not be at the expense of local radio. Over five million people listen to it and many of them pay their licence fee largely because of local radio. Tonight, they have every right to be angry.”
BBC local news expansion plans
The BBC said it simultaneously plans to increase its investment in local current affairs by 40%, creating 71 new journalism roles in 11 investigative reporting teams for England.
Their remit would include producing original journalism for TV, radio and online, as well as more than 20 TV documentary programmes per year.
The BBC’s online local news is also to be made easier to find and new dedicated local online services are to be created for Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough.
And a new fund is being created for BBC Sounds to commission original local programming and podcasts, with producer roles for the service created at its local bases.
Commercial news publishers’ BBC backlash
Some figures in local news criticised the expansion of BBC’s online local news services because of the competition it poses to commercial titles.
Henry Faure Walker, chief executive of the UK’s second largest regional publisher Newsquest, accused BBC regulator Ofcom of being “asleep at the wheel” as the BBC expansion “undermines local news brands”.
Ian Carter, editorial director of Iliffe Media, said: “There is absolutely no need for the BBC to invest further in local digital journalism, a market already very well served by commercial publishers. Local BBC radio, however, does serve a different audience to commercial stations. A strange move.”
Their views were echoed by News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith, who said the BBC’s plans were “totally misguided, unwelcome, and unwarranted” because they “move resources from respected local radio output to directly compete with local news publishers in the online space”.
“The BBC is already dominant in online news, which adds to the well documented challenges for publishers to build truly sustainable business models for digital news. This move overreaches the BBC’s remit, as set out in the Charter, and threatens rather than complements commercial news publishers’ local offer. If the BBC will not withdraw these plans of their own accord, Ofcom should step in and force them to go back to the drawing board.”
The BBC has seen several rounds of job cutting in various news areas over the past few years. In 2020 plans were announced for 450 job losses within BBC England, including the local radio cuts and the loss of Inside Out.
Earlier this year it was also announced local TV news programmes BBC South Today in Oxford and Look East Cambridge would be shuttered, with coverage of the regions moved to other counties.
Plans to merge the UK-focused BBC News Channel and internationally-focused BBC World News channel remain ongoing, with 70 jobs potentially being cut in London and 20 created in Washington DC.
Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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