After Gary Lineker fiasco comes a BBC radio strike: Which side are you on?

John Nicholson
BBC Broadcasting House

As the BBC continues to try to dig itself out of a massive hole of its own making over what we now have to officially call ‘The Gary Lineker Affair’, or ‘GaryGate’ perhaps, more trouble for the corporation arrives this week in the shape of a strike on Wednesday by BBC local staff over cuts to local radio. The National Union of Journalists members have backed industrial action over the proposals with 83% voting in favour of strikes on a 69% turnout.

This isn’t a strike about pay; it’s about how much money is spent and on what.

The BBC has plans to introduce greater programme-sharing on local radio in England. This would mean on weekdays after 2pm the BBC would produce 20 afternoon programmes across England and 10 programmes between 6pm to 10pm with a number of local stations sharing programming. The changes would result in the loss of about 48 staff posts.

Basically, this massively reduces the amount of local content, but local content is what local radio is really all about, especially when it comes to football. Since at least the early 1970s, local BBC radio has broadcast commentaries on night games and weekend matches, often on lower-league local teams. To this day, the most listened-to programmes on most BBC local radio stations are the football commentaries, phone-ins and discussions. This is really important for local communities, especially for smaller clubs who will rarely get a mention in national media. While they say the cuts will not impact these broadcasts on Saturdays, are they right and more pertinently, can they be trusted? Many think not.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that pretty much every national broadcaster started on local radio. Our national football and sports commentators likewise all cut their teeth on local stations. Cutting these outlets back will have a long-term impact on the quality of all broadcasting.

While the BBC claims that listening figures after 2pm are low, that surely isn’t the point about BBC local radio. It’s not there to garner big audiences, it’s there to provide a service to the community. It supports local community activities, It is often the only local voice that the isolated and lonely in society have. It keeps people up to date with local events, traffic, incidents and general news that affects people’s lives directly. And that’s what the people who work in local radio are really passionate about.

READ: The BBC has trashed its football coverage and more over the Gary Lineker tweets

They are normally a very loyal bunch of people doing an unglamorous but important job in an ever-more-homogenised media. They have not proposed to strike on Wednesday lightly. They’ve done so because they fear the very thing that makes local radio so important is basically being phased out.

I talked to someone who works for BBC local radio. Read this and you can feel their passion.

“I love working in radio. It’s something I always dreamt of doing. The day I stepped foot inside a local BBC station I was blown away by the passion and drive people had to serve their audience.

“I have always been proud to work for the BBC, especially in a local capacity. Even though more often than not, it feels like local radio is treated as the dumb, ugly, bastard child of the BBC (it certainly feels that way at present). That being said, I can honestly say I’ve never felt more disillusioned to work here and that saddens me to my very soul.

“No one ever wants to go on strike, but this is a must. We’re fighting for the future of local radio. A future which has been chipped away at for a long time now.

“Management keeps telling us that this is for the better of local radio, and they’re future-proofing by making us ‘digital-first’, as if we haven’t been producing digital content as a priority already (spoiler, we have).

“The cuts would see us share programming with other stations throughout afternoons, with regionalised and in some cases, nationalised programming throughout weekends and evenings. In terms of numbers that would see the amount of presenters at some stations reduced by half, not to mention the loss of specialist programmes and freelancers. Fewer presenters and shows, means fewer producers. Not to mention regionalised news bulletins which means, you guessed it, fewer newsreaders.

“Most staff members would concede that we do need to adapt and change how we do some things. Yes, the way people are listening is changing, no one disputes that, but there is still a huge majority of our audience that rely on ‘lineal’ radio as they call it. Sharing/reducing output across afternoons and regionalising other shows will only alienate our audience further. There are countless examples of how it just doesn’t work.

“The whole process has been a complete mess. A few examples? We first learned of our potential fate after it was leaked to national newspapers the day before we were officially told we’d all be placed at risk of redundancy with almost everyone having to reapply for their jobs.

“During an all staff meeting we had the chance to ask questions of management. Someone asked “if people want to complain about these cuts, where should we point them to”… the genuine response was along the lines of “we don’t think people will complain” which probably tells you all you need to know about how management views local radio and the connection with its listeners. It also tells you how much management has underestimated the strength of feeling about this, not only by staff, but by those same listeners we speak to and interact with every single day.

“Plans have changed and changed again, with staff left completely in the dark about their futures. There have been countless meetings which raised more questions than answers while management dance around giving any clarity or detail.

“There is a real feeling amongst staff that this is the beginning of the end of local radio and morale is on the floor – the worst I’ve ever known it. Yet staff consistently step into work everyday and continue to produce under such difficult circumstances.

“Management have tried to push forward with these plans in the face of backlash from unions, listeners, staff and some MPs. They aren’t willing to listen. Therefore it leaves us with no option but to strike. We’re doing everything we possibly can to make them listen, backed by our incredible audience who are very much making their feelings heard also and we can’t thank them enough for their support.”

The parallels with ‘GaryGate’ are noticeable. It shows us the disconnect between BBC management and its workers.

In both cases, they clearly didn’t anticipate that so many of the people who work for them would down tools. Perhaps to the D-G Tim Davie and Chairman Richard Sharp, as Conservative supporters, the idea of collective action just isn’t in their DNA so they can’t imagine or understand it in others. They have shown themselves to be hypocritical, foolish and even stupid. The old fish rotting from the head downwards analogy works here. Get a couple of wrongs ‘uns at the top and their poison infects the whole body.

The BBC control room for Match of the Day

But both disputes have left BBC sports staff (as opposed to freelancers) in an invidious position. If they withhold their labour in solidarity, they risk being dismissed for breach of contract from a job that they are passionate about and love. They also feel a duty to their listeners. Everyone has to pay the mortgage and these are rarely highly paid people in the first place. Is this the hill they want to die on? It’s okay if you’re wealthy and in demand, like Lineker, but a more difficult choice if you’re not and you love your job. And when you know management is looking to cut staff, you don’t want to give them an excuse to axe you too. This is doubtless why we’ve seen some radio commentaries happen over the weekend. These are workers stuck between a rock and a hard place.

So the fact that local radio staffers are striking on Wednesday shows just how desperate they are. They are already likely to be made redundant and made to reapply for their jobs, a weasly way to lay some people off and to better control those who get rehired, almost certainly on less favourable terms and conditions. It’s a classic modern management bullying tactic, which will certainly make right-wing Tories purr with pleasure, but which has appalled many workers and unions before now.

The irony is that radio is the cheapest thing the BBC does. The entire output, national and local, costs just £304million. That works out as just £2.17 per month for every licence payer. A tiny fraction of that is spent on local radio. I’ve long advocated a separate licence fee to properly fund radio because those who value it (approx 89% listen to live radio every week) would happily pay significantly more for it.

Local radio is already run on a shoestring and doesn’t pay its staff lavishly, so the new proposals will not save significant money but will reduce the sense of community many get from it. If the local radio staff say these proposals are a bad thing, you can be certain they absolutely are a bad thing. This dwindling army of broadcasters care far more about their listeners than the current management, who do a good job of looking like they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

‘GaryGate’ and the local radio cuts are both part of a bigger cultural and political war we have to fight and we have to win. Push is coming to shove.

So, as the old protest song asks, ‘which side are you on, boys (and girls!), which side are you on?’