Trouble on the airwaves
Streamlined playlists, four hour slots and shared shows with Lancashire killed the radio star
By Jack Walton
Kathy Keig’s is a life lived through radio. Warts’n’all. BBC Radio Merseyside, that is. She first got involved in ‘87 after calling up a sports phone-in and impressing the host so much he invited her on to work for him. No need for a Media Studies degree or to meet an A-Level quota.
35 years on she’s still there, volunteering, and best defines her current role as “activist-supporter”; a rallier of troops and a fighter against the de-localisation of local radio, that creeping bastardisation that poses an existential threat to the station she loves.
“If it loses its localness, it loses everything,” she says.
In all her years, nothing stands out as much as Hillsborough. She’d been reporting on the other semi-final, Everton vs Norwich City, when news first broke that “hooliganism” had caused some kind of delay between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. On the way back from Goodison Park she turned on Radio Merseyside. Alan Jackson was on the airwaves. They soon found out what had really happened, about the fatal opening of Gate C and the tragedy that unfolded. It took 26 years from the information about the gate opening to come out in the Hillsborough inquests. Listeners of Radio Merseyside had it within a few hours.
“A picture of what had really happened developed so quickly,” Keig says. They sat there listening to it in shock. She believes it was the best reporting of any story she’s ever seen in local radio. Not just on the day, but over the subsequent years, following those who fought for justice and becoming part of that fight. It worked because of one thing: “the relationship to the listeners”. A kind of symbiotic bond between a radio station —- with its bricks and glass and twiddly knobs and transmitters — and its community, those who listen every day to find out about the lives of the people they walk among.
Last month a story broke that caused Keig concern. Another round of cuts to local radio at the BBC would put an end to most stations as “standalone outlets”. The licence fee freeze and rampant inflation had shone a harsh light on the costings, and the BBC bean-counters were seeking savings in a familiar place.
The plan was to regionalise: for Radio Merseyside that would mean sharing some shows with Lancashire and Manchester, including at the weekends. Provisional redundancy notices were served to large numbers of staff on the day after the announcement.
It was a strange moment for local radio. Weeks after it was widely lauded for delivering Liz Truss an eight-pronged skewering in a series of mini-interviews about her mini-budget (“Underestimate local radio at your peril,” wrote the New Statesman) it seemed to have been served its death notice. To many, the Truss debacle was an amusing kind of spectacle. How regional could the Prime Minister go before she might claim a rhetorical victory? Would she take a schooling on macroeconomics from the presenters of BBC Didcot? Could the team behind Radio Nether Wallop pick the flaws in her fiscal plans?
But in truth it was probably that kind of thinking that proved her undoing. Because, contrary to popular belief, local radio doesn’t just mean Alan Partridge-types asking backwater-dwellers how hot they run their bath in the morning.
When BBC radio was established, it was entirely local. Its first radio programmes were transmitted in November 1922, “two evening news bulletins from its London station 2LO” according to The Conversation. “Only listeners in London and its environs could reliably pick up 2LO’s weak signal.”
That soon changed, but in the 60s along came BBC local radio. The vision was simple, to create a network of radio stations in cities and counties to connect people to their local area. Michael Barton, one of the architects of the system, described it best: "A tribal feeling of comfort through an association of place. The best definition is: in an area where the buses run… beyond the final bus stop in that route is someone else’s land, somebody else’s community. Where the buses run — I belong… That’s local radio.”
“Good BBC Local Radio has ‘character’. It has ‘individuality’. It reeks of the area it serves,” wrote Nigel Dyson, the former Radio Cumbria manager, not long ago. But does it now? Indeed, does any of our local news reek of Merseyside anymore?
Radio City, for instance, for years the Radio Merseyside's upstart sibling, has been swallowed whole by Bauer Media Audio UK, who also run the likes of KISS, Magic and Kerrang! They might as well have built that zipline. The Liverpool Echo is owned by the massive stock exchange-listed Reach PLC, who run over a hundred titles across the country on the same business model, which means actual local stories on their website are drowning in a sea of not-so-local-ones about Holly Willoughby’s new frock or how Home Bargains sent shoppers “into a frenzy” with their new range of laundry detergent. If it reeks of anything, it’s Mrs Hinch.
Which is to say, Keig’s lament to “localness” goes beyond radio. Roy Corlett, who joined Radio Merseyside soon after it started in the 60s and later served as news editor, thinks the BBC are missing a huge trick by regionalising stations. “Local newspapers are going, City isn’t what it was,” he says. “This was the perfect opportunity for the BBC to fill that gap and do something for people locally, but they won’t.”
Corlett remembers the early days, as they built from the ground up. The frantic mood, long hours, reporters who lived and breathed their communities and staff working into the early hours to make sure the breakfast show would be perfect. “When I returned in 2000 to produce Billy Butler I saw a very different operation in some ways,” he says.
Not that it’s the fault of those working there, it should be said. Speaking to staff past and present, a number of already-implemented changes from above have caused dissatisfaction about the station’s direction. Four hour shows are one of the biggest gripes. They came in under COVID to limit the number of people going in and out of the studios. Staff were promised it was a temporary measure. But still they remain. Mick Ord, the longest serving manager at the station ever, explains that the long slots, despite being hard work for presenters and producers, will make it easier to roll out the shared shows. That’s the end game.
“It’s a case of the people who make the decisions about what we do having absolutely no idea how we do what we do,” says one current staff member.
Then there’s the centralised playlists, where presenters lose control of what music they play. Forcing Ed Sheeran down someone’s throat might be just shy of a war crime in its own right, but it’s emblematic of that loss of independence. “They just make decisions that don’t work then they say ‘we’re losing listeners’” Keig says. I think she thinks those things might be related.
Those things, however, pale in comparison to the plans to regionalise some of the output, including weekend shows. Corlett believes the weekend plans will “decimate” the local audience. “People might be sitting home at the weekend and fancy listening to a bit of local radio. They’ll switch it on and what will they get? Something from Blackburn? No thanks.”
This isn’t about some kind of local elitism, my town’s better than your town, it’s about relevance, and giving people a true sense of their communities. No one in a Toxteth terrace wants to know about cattle rearing troubles on a Lancashire farm. Just as Lancashire’s cattle rearing community are less inclined to tune and listen about the latest Liverpulian councillor to be caught up in a stalled off-plan development scandal.
Corlett worked as a reporter for the Echo before moving to broadcasting, but before he did so he bumped into a senior BBC reporter at Liverpool Airport. “With an accent like that you’ll never join the BBC,” the reporter said. Local radio changed that. “Suddenly there was no requirement to speak Home Counties' English,” Corlett says. “It allowed people like me in”.
In doing so, they gave a community a voice. There were moments, often ones of crisis or uncertainty, where no one quite knew what to do or where to turn and the only solution seemed to be to sit around the radio.
Roger Phillips — one of the station’s legendary broadcasters who was on air from the 70s until two years ago — remembers the IRA bomb scare at the Aintree racecourse in 1997, where the area had to be evacuated and those visiting had nowhere to go. People who had been at the races rang in to Radio Merseyside not knowing where to turn. Others rang in offering their houses or bedrooms. The station linked them together and 20 years on, many of them remain friends. “That’s something national radio can’t do,” Phillips says.
The concept of a station “rooted in its area” as Keig frames it, wasn’t only a nebulous one. Presenters were actually frequent faces in the community, hosts of charity dos or listener events, variety shows at the Empire where they could meet the audience and chat. Radio Merseyside had a car that would go to these events. They had a presence in the real world.
Ord set up a social action desk when he was in charge, an idea he’d pinched from a community station during his student days in Cardiff. It allowed people to ring in and ask questions about legal issues or tax paying or utilities bills — boring admin stuff that can cause a lot of stress if you don’t know what you’re doing. The station would point callers in the right direction and help them sort their bills or whatnot. It made a measurable improvement to people’s lives. Then it was cut. Over his career, having key elements of the station’s output stripped away by people who didn’t really understand them was a running theme for Ord. “It was one of the reasons I left in the end, I was sick of fighting a rear-guard action,” he says.
Other things like local advisory councils, regional committees of listeners who would represent their local stations and had an audience with the BBC top-brass, have also been mostly scrapped too. “They were a strong voice against cuts to local radio in the corridors of power,” says Corlett. “Not anymore.”
The major gripe is that those doing the whittling away don’t even understand what they’re working with. Phillips remembers current BBC Director-General Tim Davie coming to visit Radio Merseyside a few years ago and speaking to one of the producers of a four hour show. “He was shocked,” Phillips says. “He didn’t even know we had four hour shows”.
In a sense, this is the issue. The BBC is a corporate monolith, and acts like one. An important man like Mr Davie doesn’t have time for Hold Your Plums. The things that make the BBC great, like reach and scope and star power, aren’t the things that make local radio great; the granular people’s lives and an organic connection between the presenter and the listener. Gary Lineker does his job well, but you don’t turn off Match of the Day feeling like he’s your mate.
For the BBC it’s useful to have one slick brand in one image, with all its local stations having matching logos and streamlined playlists. But if BBC Radio Merseyside looks and sounds and feels like Radio Cornwall or Radio Wherever Else then it has failed by definition. And while the BBC has to stay impartial, not least to defend its licence fee from circling government ministers, local radio is often unashamedly partial in defence of its patch. Because that’s its job.
Whether or not all the blame can be put at the BBC’s door is hard to gauge. Cuts obviously haven’t helped, but Radio Merseyside currently has a meagre reach of 204,000 according to an insider at the BBC. Barton used to call Merseyside the “Jewel in the Crown” of the local radio network. Radio West Midlands now has greater reach (214,000), Newcastle even greater (226,000) and Solent even greater than that (273,000). Not great at all.
Merseyside, as it happens, won’t be as regionalised as some other stations and won’t have to share any of its daytime output. One insider at the station says that while most employees have been put under provisional redundancy, it’s unlikely that many — if any — jobs are actually going to be lost. The greater likelihood is that people will be moved around into different roles.
Nonetheless, “we're so far in the dark about it,” says the insider. “This isn’t like a night and day consultation, we aren’t really sure what’s going to happen”. The National Union of Journalists have started a consultative ballot nationally on whether to take strike account over the proposed changes.
Of course, none of this is particularly new. Local radio has seldom been allowed reprieve from having to justify its own existence in the past four decades. It’s an easy target. If there’s a food chain at play at the BBC, it would be fair to say it isn’t the apex predator. Corlett remembers sitting next to the then-Director General Sir Ian Trethowan at lunch several decades ago. “Look Ian,” he protested, “BBC local radio has far more listeners than Radio 3 [it still does, by about five times collectively] why can’t we cut that back?” “Roy, do you want me to have another heart attack?” came the reply.
Still, when done well, local radio can have more impact than any. One of the best comments we’ve ever got on The Post was about local radio. It was sent by a woman, who, in 1987, had breast cancer and was recently divorced with two young children. Every day she’d drive to Clatterbridge Hospital from Crosby for radiotherapy, listening to Radio Merseyside, or more specifically: Billy Butler and Wally and their phone-ins. “It really kept me going and made me giggle, I felt part of the community,” she wrote.
Which is to say, these communities, and they are communities, mean something to people. Of course, local radio is expensive: it costs the BBC £117m per year before you get to the huge costs of buildings and infrastructure; webs of analogue and digital transmitters. But it has value that can’t be measured in pure terms of listening figures or on financial viability spreadsheets. As long as those buses keep running, it belongs.