My Sacking, and a Plausible Plan for BBC Local Radio
By Martin "write if you find work" Kelner on Mar 20, 2016 - 9:50:27 PM
Radio listeners, here's something. You very rarely get to hear exact details of your favourite presenters' departures, certainly not on air. We suddenly become non-people, like dissidents in former East Germany, disappeared in the middle of the night.
What usually happens is, an instruction goes round the radio station: "If anybody texts or 'phones asking why or where Martin/Tony/Danny/whoever has gone, direct all calls to whichever poor bastard we've deputed to fob off the listeners," and the much-loved voice is never again mentioned on air.
It has always seemed a little unfair to me, given so much effort is put in to make a connection between voice and audience, and in view of the BBC's loudly proclaimed attention to honesty and accountability.
So here, in response to the many hundreds (really!) of messages asking why I did my last show at BBC Radio Leeds on March 18, 2016, is what happened.
The Managing Editor Sanjiv Buttoo asked if he could have a word with me after my programme, I told him I was catching the 4.15 to London, and he said, "Don't worry, it won't take long." In this at least he was honest.
I had no inkling at all I was about to be defenestrated (I've had some experience in this area, so usually I can tell). "We're not renewing your contract," said Sanjiv, "The station's moving in a different direction, and you're Martin Kelner, it wouldn't be fair to ask you to do something different."
The meeting lasted less than five minutes. My contract runs out mid-May. I was told I would be given my money for April and half of May, and not required to appear on the station again.
As a side issue, Sanjiv had, in a pincer movement, assembled all the staff upstairs for an "important meeting" so that no-one was around when I left after my show, and I had no chance for farewells with any of my colleagues, his problem being my show is quite popular around the station, especially with the news people who listen on the way back from assignments for breakfast and mid-morning, and they might have wanted to know why I was leaving. So I had the delightful experience of slinking out of the building alone and unseen.
By "You're Martin Kelner" I assume he meant I am a vastly experienced radio presenter and journalist with a modicum of wit, a distinctive style and voice (recently nominated in a Radio Times poll as one of the 20 favourite radio voices in Britain - bullshit, I know, but still..), a love for and knowledge of popular music (dangerous in local radio), around the same age as the target audience, well known in the area, with a big stake in the community, having four children, all born in St James's Hospital, Leeds, and schooled in Leeds and Wakefield, one of whom is prominent in the theatre industry locally, one still going to a Catholic high school in Wakefield.
Quite clearly, not the sort of person you want working for a local radio station. Broadcasting to, er, Leeds and Wakefield.
My view is that it is a cost-cutting measure. So why not be honest and say it? As licence payers, you have a right to know. Because I am a freelance, I am easy to get rid of. As I understand it, two of the other three main daytime presenters are Senior Broadcast Journalists on the staff, and therefore impossible to be dispensed with cheaply. With me out of the door, that's 40 grand off the annual budget in a stroke.
Some of you will be interested to know what freelance radio presenters earn in BBC local radio. I don't know. I suspect it can be as low as about £100 a show, and as high as £350, but that's a guess. When I did breakfast at BBC Radio Leeds, I got £210 a show, and did four shows a week.
When they moved me to lunchtimes I voluntarily took a pay cut to £190 a show and began to do five shows a week. For a radio presenter of my vintage, experience etc., working as a freelance, looking after his own tax, national insurance, and so on, with no holidays, staff benefits, sick pay (more on that shortly), etc., that's probably on the low side.
I don't want to get too Partridge about this, but it was never about the money for me. I was genuinely having fun (I think you could hear that, on air), I really enjoyed broadcasting (another danger in local radio), and got a kick from the fact that the audience seemed to be having fun too.
As for the sick pay. Some of you may be aware that I spent some time in hospital in 2013 and 2014 - wow, I have experience of the health service locally as well, I'm rapidly becoming unemployable - for excision of an abdominal tumour, and various other treatments too grisly to revisit. Because of the unique way the BBC chose to pay me at the time - not my choice - they paid me for some shows while I was in hospital.
When I started work again - initially I was only able to do one day a week, owing to being, er, nearly dead - I had to pay back money I owed. I didn't have the cash at the time, so I agreed to pay back £20 off every show fee. The really sweet thing is they didn't sack me until I had paid back every penny I owed from when I was busy dying. I finished paying them back about a month ago, just in time for the heave-ho.
This, of course, is probably only right and proper on behalf of the licence payers. But contrast it with the way management is treated.
I can never quite work out which bit of the BBC is responsible for local radio. Sometimes it's BBC News, but there is another arm of BBC management called Nations and Regions, who as the name implies are also involved.
When I was at BBC Leeds in the early 2000s, this was run by a jolly man called Pat Loughrey, who occasionally used to come on a royal visit to Leeds, smile benignly, shake hands, and kiss a few babies. For this he was paid £300,000 a year. He was "let go" in 2009, when the press started a hue and cry about overpaid managers at the BBC. This from the Sunday Times:
"A former BBC manager who received an £866,000 payoff is under pressure to return a substantial proportion after the deal was criticised by the public spending watchdog.
Pat Loughrey, now Warden of Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London, earned £300,000 as the BBC’s Director of Nations and Regions until leaving in December 2009. He received a redundancy payment of a year’s salary and the same amount again in lieu of notice even though he had worked and been paid throughout his notice period."
Under his stewardship (£300,000 a year, remember), audiences for BBC Local Radio fell relentlessly, and they continue to fall under his successor, a chap called David Holdsworth (substantially less per annum, I imagine, but still comfortably into six figures, and should he be unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with what we doctors call a big fuckoff sarcoma, I'm sure the BBC won't charge him). This is a possibly irreversible trend. And there lies the problem.
Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?
In fairness to Loughrey and Holdsworth, falling audiences are not entirely their fault. The massive success of Radio Two over the past decade, heavily promoted on TV, with well-known national figures playing the biggest hits of the past 50 years alongside carefully chosen new songs, has had a not unpredictable impact on listening figures at the younger end of the local radio audience.
Alongside this, Global has nibbled into this audience too, especially among female listeners, with its successful Heart brand.
So what we are left with is an increasingly unpopular radio service, underfunded and overmanaged.
Managing Editors are brought in under pressure to increase audiences at the same time as cutting costs, an impossible circle to square, which means an over-emphasis on the wildly unreliable quarterly RAJAR figures.
A few surveys ago, RAJAR showed my lunch show as having a higher audience than the breakfast show - figures I found out from a friend at Global, BBC Leeds were keeping quiet about it - which I didn't believe for one moment.
The problem when you're working with a very small audience to start with, is that RAJAR can fluctuate wildly when a diary or two lands in the right or wrong place; but that doesn't stop under pressure managers changing schedules on the basis of just one or two surveys.
In my current circumstances I doubt figures are a factor. Even in the clueless world of local radio, you don't try and raise the station's audience figures by getting rid of the lunch guy, where radio audiences traditionally dwindle to their lowest - though that didn't always happen with my show interestingly.
So what's to be done?
I mentioned the word 'overmanaged' before. The solution is clear, a lighter touch.
Ironically, the various scandals affecting the BBC - Ross/Brand, rigged competitions etc - have impacted on local stations more than the network, with management figures spending time complying pre-recorded shows, filling in forms if anyone's foolhardy enough to propose a competition, sacking old-timers for playing The Sun Has Got Its Hat On, and a myriad other tasks that contribute absolutely nothing to what comes out of the speakers.
The BBC cannot go on salami slicing local radio, or we'll end up with one presenter playing Abba and asking the audience what sweets they remember as kids.
It would be such a shame if local radio were to go altogether. Even with the audience that has been wilfully mislaid by management, there are still millions who like it.
The commercial stations, the Hearts, Capitals, and Magics, have more or less abandoned the kind of local broadcasting I went into at Hallam, Aire, and Pennine back in the '80s, but the BBC local audience grew up with that kind of radio, and I am confident would welcome a return, obviously in a modern context.
And this is how we do it. Remember the early days of Channel 4, when ITV lent them a helping hand until they got on their own two feet. Well, I propose a similar kind of deal within the BBC. The BBC will franchise its local stations, giving a small committee of local people licence to broadcast a mix of music and speech content - probably 50-50 or 60-40 - loosely policed in the way the IBA used to handle the ILR stations of blessed memory.
But news and engineering would be run by the BBC as now - the BBC will still need regional newsrooms for national bulletins, websites etc. - with the ultimate aim of the stations being self-administering and possibly self-financing through subscriptions or carefully policed sponsorship, so as not to impinge on the current commercial radio income.
But central control would be minimal. The stations could play music at breakfast time if they perceived there was a demand for it. This would be truly local radio. In exactly the way it was designed to be when it was set up 50 years ago. Obviously, the stations would be subject to Ofcom and the laws of the land, but beyond that, layers of meddlesome, ineffectual, audience-losing management could disappear. No more £800,000 pay-offs ever.
Initially, and maybe for some years after, the stations would need finance from the licence fee, but with the lighter touch, and the minimal management, I am confident it would be a fraction of the cost of BBC local radio now, and with true local radio, the cost per listener - which must put local radio in real peril now - would plummet accordingly.
Hey, here's an idea. In the evenings instead of a retread of 'the best' of local radio, how about specialist music shows presented by local enthusiasts (young Andy Kershaw of Todmorden would definitely be up for doing one on the Leeds station), and a show for the Irish community, and the Jewish community, as Radio Leeds used to do, alongside the ethnic programmes currently running. Bollywood, reggae, ska, Northern Soul, Bob Dylan records that aren't Lay, Lady, Lay….there's a whole world of stuff out there, old folk would be prepared to give a chance to. Believe me, I am one.
Thank you sincerely, those of you who have bombarded social media with good wishes, and enquiries after my health. I'm fine. The money will be a fucker, but I shall be OK. I'm already getting cards and letters from people I don't even know, in a Glen Campbell stylee, so there will be some interesting little jobs to do.
Screen Break is back, on sportingintelligence.com, and we're hoping to get some sponsorship for that, and the Piss Poor Podcast will return, probably on a £1 a week subscription basis. We did well enough on that in the past.
Some of the people I brought to the Radio Leeds lunchtime show through personal contact, adding value to the station, fine writers like Mick Brown, Jim White, and Will Buckley, and comedians like Henning Wehn, Romesh Ranganthan, Paul Sinha, and Jake Yapp, and broadcasters like Andy Kershaw and Mark Radcliffe, I'm hoping may join us on the PPP
So no need for petitions, as someone proposed on Facebook, or trolling of Sanjiv or anyone else at Leeds, although I have to say it was the most charmless sacking I have ever suffered. As the comedian Justin Moorhouse said when he 'phoned me this morning, "Are they still doing that shit? You deserve better than that." I think I do.