Under the somewhat misleading title of ‘Delivering Quality First’ the BBC, led by Director General Mark Thompson, is currently considering a blend of severe and wide-ranging cuts to both local and national services.
Leafing through the proposals reveals that the cuts to BBC Radio Merseyside are poised to be particularly heavy, with the axe looming over ‘specialist programming’. This potentially means that any programme that doesn’t fall within primetime hours will face big changes, ranging from sharing airtime with other regions to being taken off the air altogether.
In a move that seems to echo the sentiment of the coalition government, Thompson has decided to spread the savings thinly across many departments rather than focusing on the highest spenders. Many have doubted the effectiveness of this ‘salami slicing’ method of cost efficiency as it will clearly hit the lower budget regional services hardest and as such the BBC will lose their personal, grass-roots touch gained over the years through offering region-specific programming.
One show currently hanging in the balance is Folkscene, presented by Stan Ambrose and Geoff Speed. As the longest running folk programme on the radio, Folkscene has quite a pedigree and the focus on local artists over the years has allowed the presenters to share their love of traditional local music with the community. Stan describes the cuts as “one size fits all” and as such “disproportionate in their consequences”, meaning that, despite Radio Merseyside being the most listened-to BBC station outside of London, their small budget will soon be even smaller. As we pass the time in Bold Street Coffee, he effuses over the rich heritage of music in Merseyside and its importance to those in difficult times: “During periods of economic downturn, to the Scouser, music is pure sustenance.” He believes the city is currently taking on a “cultural upsurge” made possible by the collaboration of creative minds and that this simply has to be promoted and celebrated by local radio.
Also being targeted is Pure Musical Sensations, BBC Radio Merseyside’s weekly alternative music show. Presented by Roger Hill, the programme brings a wide range of fresh and eclectic music to the ears of many across the region. As the longest-running alternative music show on UK local radio (spotting the theme here?), PMS allows Roger to indulge and digress in any way he sees fit. As he wanders down paths taking in world music, reggae, electronica and anything experimental, he leads the listener on an evocative and unregimented aural journey. Roger attributes the successful three-decade tenure of the show to it being “built with love, listened to with love, supported with love”, which is an idea that perfectly encapsulates the essence of local radio. It is something that people can rely on and, more importantly, feel a part of. He continues, “Wiping out little patches of love here and there is kind of a daft thing to do.” He understands, of course, that cuts have to be made but questions the motives behind the proposals: “there is a point where management takes over from imagination. We all like to be decisive and cuts have to be made, but local radio will feel more decimated than other areas.”
One music show that will be spared is Merseyside’s wing of the national BBC Introducing network, presented locally by Dave Monks. Although not directly affected by the proposals, Dave is certainly still wary of the detrimental effect they could have on the station: “If the proposed plans are implemented it would severely damage the unique relationship Radio Merseyside has with its loyal and devoted listenership.” He continues: “I think people expect and believe that the BBC, within its public charter as a public service broadcaster, should place more emphasis on specialisms and niche audiences.” One sentiment echoed by Stan, Roger and Dave is that the problem with making major cuts is that they are not easily repaired. As Dave puts it: “Once it’s gone…it’s gone!”
One is left with the feeling that the decision is being made in haste and with a disregard for logical thought. The money saved by the cuts to Radio Merseyside will be minimal compared to the potential for savings in other higher budget areas. Conversely, the effect the cuts will have on the service provided could be huge. Folkscene and PMS are not in any conceivable way a drain on financial resources; presenters don’t make a living out of it, rather they do it for enjoyment (theirs and ours). The term ‘Delivering Quality’ would suggest providing content that is interesting and diverse, and presented by experienced people within their field, something for which the BBC is currently respected. The cuts clearly indicate even more of a focus on primetime slots, which undoubtedly means the more mainstream and generic forms of entertainment, something that is catered for perfectly well both within the BBC and elsewhere (with all the bells and whistles afforded through substantial sponsorship backing).
It must be stressed that no decisions have been finalised and there is still hope. If, however, the axe does fall on specialist programming then the chance for BBC Radio Merseyside to fulfil its potential will be lost, quite possibly forever.