Just over a week ago, the BBC made an announcement, to its staff and to the press. It was a big’un. Over the next few years, trumpeted the Beeb, it will move various parts of its huge operation to different locations across the UK, so that by 2027, more than 50% of BBC spending will be outside London.
That is, of course, completely right. Even the most kombucha-sozzled media elitist will agree that our national broadcaster should represent everyone who pays its licence fee. The BBC, which employs thousands of people, needs to spread not only its spending across the country, but also its focus and culture. The move out of London is the right one.
For the big radio stations, it won’t happen super-quickly.Alan Davey, head of Radio 3, told me that he expected his station’s move to start in 2023. Radio 3’s aim is to have more than 50% of its programmes made at BBC Salford by 2026 (several are already produced there, including Sound of Cinema and The Early Music Show). The Radio 3 team will spend 2022 working out how best to do this – “seeing the creative possibilities,” said Davey. “This isn’t a token gesture, it’s a meaningful thing.” Davey, who’s from the north-east, insists that though Radio 3 will retain a London base, it should “reflect the rich musical life outside of London, create new roots”.. He mentions Exposure, Radio 3’s experimental showcase broadcast from alternative music venues around the country – he wants to “rediscover a similar spirit”.
Other stations will be doing something similar: 6 Music will strengthen its already established relationship with Salford; Asian Network is moving lock-stock to Birmingham. The problem comes, as it always does, with big-name presenters, who are often loath to relocate from where they live. The general feeling within management is that talent will move house or jump ship, and that this will happen naturally before 2027; plus younger, non-London presenters can be nurtured. Breakfast-show hosts have been spared the push for the moment (“our breakfast shows aren’t part of the change we are announcing today”), but not other programme hosts. If I were Steve Wright or Scott Mills, and I didn’t fancy upping sticks to an as-yet unspecified new location, I might be considering a hop to another station.
Though some employees have been given ages to ease themselves into new locations, others have not. Many BBC employees work for small, specialist departments, and it’s these units that have been blindsided, suddenly chucked hundreds of miles away from home. I spoke to BBC staffers with very specific remits who’ve been told to move to a city that does not specialise in that remit. Science is going to Cardiff – why? Tech to Glasgow – again, why? It’s like an olde factory owner suddenly announcing that all cotton production will move from Manchester to Stoke. Stoke has lots of factories, and lots of workers, but Stoke makes pottery, not cotton. (I was told that one boss admitted that some of these specialist teams were forgotten until the last minute, and then allocated a spot in an out-of-London BBC building that happened to still have some room.) It looks as though many members of these small teams will take voluntary redundancy, and all that hard-earned, detailed expertise will be gone, pouf, just like that. A real loss, especially for Radio 4.
Incidentally, another of the central ideas – that Today and PM should be presented from different places across the UK – seems fine to me. Though, of course, internationally known celebrities are unlikely to want to travel any further than London, and live interviews, no matter the station, will be almost all phoners and Zoomers. That is ok – we’re used to these now – but it does mean we’ll lose the special atmosphere that arises when people are in the room together. More festivals may well be the solution – onstage appearances, whether talks or performances, are more likely to attract stars.
Overall, these are encouraging moves, though I really feel for those BBC staffers suddenly told they have to report for work in another city, just as they’d got used to home-working. The BBC has long been rubbish at communicating difficult news to its employees, and this time was no exception. “We keep having Zoom calls where the bigwigs explain what’s going to happen,” I was told by a lowly staffer. “And the chat board goes mad with hundreds of angry questions!” There’s some work to be done. The BBC is only as great as all its talent, not just those that chat on the mic.
Three ‘new normal’ shows
Common Ground with Nimco Ali
The redoubtable Ali, outspoken campaigner against female genital mutilation, kicks off her new interview LBC podcast with the home secretary, Priti Patel. The idea is for Ali to have conversations with prominent people about the difficult stuff: race, religion, gender. The problem is that Patel is a word fountain, sentence after sentence pouring out of her with little change in tone or emotion and no pause for thought. She’s uninterruptable. Ali could do with sharpening her questions, losing her “yes” prompting and cutting Patel short. (Also, you can hear her sighing around 20 minutes in.) A promising show with room for improvement.
BBC Trending: The Anti-Vax Files
This new World Service series explores how anti-vaccine propaganda has been spreading around the world. In episode one, we learn how social media has been used to spread conspiracy theories, while in episode two, we meet the French. Bonjour to Giles, who doesn’t believe that it’s sensible to take a vaccine that hasn’t been properly tested (of course, it HAS been tested, but he’s not bothered about that). Marianna Spring, the BBC’s disinformation specialist, unpicks why, in 2005, just 20% of French people were sceptical about vaccines, whereas today it’s 66%. (Clue: it’s the badly managed 2009 swine flu vaccination scheme.) Interesting and more than a little scary.
A new national radio drama, broadcast every Sunday on various community radio stations, Greenborne has more than a little in common with (whisper it) The Archers. It’s not quite an everyday story of country folk, but there are lots of intertwined characters and the story is structured, essentially, around a village pub. Ex-EastEnders actor John Altman plays Alan Godwin, landlord of The Fox and Dragon, and everything is set a few months into the future, in the post-lockdown summer of 2021. The first episode includes excitement such as a car crash and the return of someone called Evie (think Alexis from Dynasty): “I’m back,” says Evie. “And by the look of things, just in time… ”