BBC radio faces substantial cuts at the very moment it celebrates its centenary. In September 2022 it was announced that the range and scope of World Service radio would be reduced.
The following month, it was the turn of local radio: the BBC’s stations around the UK will now carry more shared content as programme production is scaled back. In both cases, a shift away from radio content towards online has been suggested.
Is this the beginning of the end for BBC radio? The history of the medium provides some answers about the role radio still plays today.
When BBC radio was first established, it was entirely local. On November 14 1922 the BBC transmitted its first radio programmes, two evening news bulletins from its London station 2LO. Only listeners in London and its environs could reliably pick up 2LO’s weak signal.
Soon afterwards the BBC also began broadcasting from stations in several other UK cities, all reaching out to their own local audiences. However, some major cities had no service at all and, as audiences grew, listeners clamoured for better access in their area.
The BBC responded by replacing the old transmitters with a small number of powerful regional stations, each serving a large area of the country. The new stations were linked together into a network, so that everyone across the UK could simultaneously hear the same programmes. This allowed local programme production to be scaled back during the 1930s.
The BBC maintained that London could provide all listeners with the best spoken-word content, classical music, and entertainment. Creating a single national audience was prioritised over serving the particular needs of local communities. This fuelled accusations that the BBC was too metropolitan, out of touch with the needs of people outside the capital.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many worried that the new medium of television would kill off radio. If the US experience was any guide to the future, as listeners became viewers, radio would cease to be the all-round informer, educator, and entertainer of the British public.
However, because the BBC still held a monopoly over radio in Britain in the 1960s – no commercial radio was allowed until 1972 – it was able to resist change for some time. Listeners also organised to save what they loved. In the 1950s they established a Third Programme Defence Society to protect the BBC’s radio network covering “serious” music and the arts (the audience for “the Third” was tiny, but very vocal).
Later, listeners famously rallied behind the preservation of the shipping forecast, a regular announcement of weather for those at sea that was also well-loved by many on land. The radio soundscape only really began to change in the later 1960s, as the threat of “pirate radio” finally obliged the BBC to reshape its radio networks and give popular music more airtime (introducing Radio 1 and gradually rebranding other services as Radios 2, 3 and 4).
This period also saw the creation of a new BBC system of local stations: BBC Radio Leicester was the first to begin broadcasting, in 1967. This was another way to show the continuing relevance of radio and win over a new generation of listeners. The idea of using radio to connect with local communities and support local democracy was presented as a crucial part of the BBC’s public service remit.
News of the imminent demise of radio has often been exaggerated. To remain relevant, the medium has been constantly reinvented. The rise of podcasting and the launch of BBC Sounds (the BBC podcast player) are only the latest examples of this. In 2022, BBC managers want to move expenditure from local radio to online platforms, arguing that this is how to reach the audience of the future.
Is this yet another timely reinvention? Possibly, but at the moment listening figures for BBC local radio remain buoyant, and there are good reasons to value its continuing contribution.
Local newspapers and commercial radio stations have lost significant journalistic capacity in recent years, as titles and stations have folded or been absorbed into cost-cutting chains and conglomerates. BBC local radio has filled a significant gap in the market and in UK civil society.
The BBC currently faces an enormous real-terms funding cut. The TV licence fee has been frozen and limits have been placed on the ability of the BBC to generate commercial revenues. High inflation is eroding the purchasing power of the BBC’s fixed income.
But why target the World Service and local radio for cuts? If it was all about numbers, then Radio 5 Live with its declining audience, Radio 3 (which attracts only about a fifth of the combined audience of BBC local radio stations), or the BBC Three digital terrestrial television service (which in the months after its relaunch struggled to generate audiences in excess of 100,000 for its programmes), would be more obvious candidates. The decision to cut local and international radio services may reflect judgements about the relative risk of provoking public or political protests.
However, responses to the local radio cuts, even on the BBC’s own networks, has made it clear that many listeners see them as a direct affront to their communities, another example of an out-of-touch, London-focused BBC ignoring their interests. As the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee has acknowledged, local broadcasting continues to play a significant role in British public life and remains highly valued by many listeners.
History shows that the BBC has always had to adapt to reflect wider changes in society and stay relevant. Offering online content is clearly crucial for the BBC’s future. Yet with more rivals for the attention of audiences than ever before, the BBC cannot afford to alienate its loyal radio listeners. If it does, they might switch off the BBC for good.