The challenge of Local Radio and other topics 

19 August 2022

In this interview, which appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post on 8 December 1970, Charles Curran, Director-General of the BBC, answers questions from the Daily Post London Editor, Norman Cook, principally about the challenge of Local Radio.



Cover of "In the Public Interest"

From “In the Public Interest: a six-part explanation of BBC policy” published in January 1971

Cook: I remember that when somebody wished you joy in your new job a couple of years ago, you replied that there would not be much joy in it. How right were you?

curran: Well, it has been tough going and I don’t expect it will change much. But I can’t deny that I have had a lot of fun.

cook: I don’t want to waste too much time looking back – I am sure you would much rather look ahead – but could I remind you of the situation a year ago when there was the big row over your plan for ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’. Many people, including many members of the BBC staff, were strongly opposed to what they considered to be a policy of metropolitanisation. Do you now consider those fears to have been exaggerated?

curran: We still have one or two people who are critical. But I think you can say that much of the anxiety has been allayed. Remember that we carried out an exercise involving 1,700 of our people outside London and yet the hard core of actual redundancies came down to two. As far as the programmes are concerned, I think they are good.

cook: One of the most interesting developments in radio in recent years has been local radio. Merseyside had one of the first of these stations. How successful do you think they have been?

curran: It is very hard to judge the success of a local station unless you are actually living in the area it serves. But people in these areas certainly are saying ‘Our local station is a good station’. Radio Merseyside is doing a good job. For instance, the coverage of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board situation was very good in my opinion.

cook: To what extent do you regard local radio as being in competition with local newspapers?

curran: I don’t believe our kind of local radio need be in damaging competition. Our physical means of reporting tend to be quicker, but they could never be as complete as newspaper reporting.

cook: The cost of running a station such as Radio Merseyside is about £100,000 [£1.7m today, allowing for inflation -Ed] a year. Would you like to be able to spend more?

curran: Well, of course, we would like to have more money. But it is also true to say that over-expansion can lead to triviality.

cook: Can we move on to the question of commercial radio. The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications [Christopher Chataway] first of all spoke of local radio evolving into a mixed system of BBC and commercial radio. What are your views on this?

curran: If it came we would give them a pretty good run for their money – provided we were competing on equal terms, in the same kind of areas and with the same kind of wavelength.

Let me explain why I consider local radio to be so important. We regard it as very important for the BBC to be serving communities with geographical identities as closely as we can.

The worst thing that could happen would be for radio to become too metropolitan. You know, nobody is brought up as a citizen of England. People are brought up as citizens of Liverpool, or Sheffield, or wherever it is. We could never get right down to local broadcasting in TV. In local radio we can get much closer to the communities than was the case with the old regions.

When we speak of local radio stations I prefer the phrase community station. What we set out to do was to substitute community broadcasting for regional broadcasting. That meant we had to use wavelengths in a different way.

By last June we were in a position to say that by redistributing wavelengths we could do certain things – improving reception and providing medium-wave coverage for forty stations in England. The General Election put us in a different position. The new Government had a mandate for commercial radio. So there was a new problem.

But this Government are apparently prepared to invoke certain procedures under the Copenhagen Agreement on wavelengths to bring more medium wavelengths into use in the United Kingdom for commercial radio.

If they do that, they could provide channels for the commercial stations which are proposed. This means that two reasonably complete systems of local radio could operate side by side on medium wave.

cook: What do you have to say about the reports a few days ago that local BBC radio might be sold to private commercial interests?

curran: We would regard the movement of the BBC outside local radio as a very serious loss indeed. If this were to happen we would have to stay in some kind of regional broadcasting but it would be less satisfactory. It is not a question of selling our local stations to commercial interests. You don’t sell station loyalty. You earn it.

Secondly, the premises we have developed for our kind of community service broadcasting are not necessarily going to be suitable – or even in the right places – for other users.

Thirdly, I don’t believe that our staff would to any considerable extent be prepared to be sold to commercial radio.

People who are talking about this are not talking about selling. They are talking about pushing us out and putting someone else in our places. What you have to ask is why should they push us out?

Charles Curran

cook: Do you see a danger in commercial radio run on shoestring budgets with cut-price stations producing low-quality output?

curran: Well, the most profitable way of running a local radio station would be to run it at low cost, with no newsgathering for example, and maximum advertising spots. You would make relatively high profits but I don’t believe any Government would allow that to happen.

cook: In your job you presumably accept criticism as a fact of life. How do you deal with this problem of criticism?

curran: There is a great deal of press criticism – and a certain amount of press praise. I have a fairly complete service of reports. Very little of this I decide to reply to. It is part of my function to absorb the punishment.

Then there is criticism by public correspondence. I get quite a bit of correspondence myself. For instance, I see all letters which reach me from MPs and I sign all replies myself.

From the general public we get about 10,000 letters a month on radio and about 9,000 on TV. These are summarised for me once a month. And don’t forget there is a good deal of self-criticism inside the BBC. This is very important.

cook: What about the sex and violence criticisms?

curran: There are aspects which cause me anxiety. When the aspect of sex or violence arises from an incident in which a needless offence or an offence without warning has been caused, then that bothers me. I ask: Was the audience the right audience? Or was warning given? It really amounts to bad manners. Bad manners in the display of sex and violence worries me.

cook: What about these allegations of political bias?

curran: Anyone with emotional guts has political feelings. But I insist on fairness.

cook: On this recurring theme of the permissive society, would you care to say if you have detected any variation in attitude depending on which party is in power?

curran: No, I don’t think this is something which has to do much with political parties.

cook: What action do you take at the BBC for keeping the portrayal of violence on television under close control?

curran: We remind production staff of the contents of the code on violence which has been in existence since 1960. We set up an advisory group to keep us aware of current research in the field of human behaviour, and to make suggestions as to what further research might be undertaken into the effects of television on human behaviour. And there is the criticism from inside the organisation in which people discuss programmes produced by their colleagues and discuss whether those programmes were justified.




You Say

1 response to this article

Ed Brown 22 August 2022 at 9:01 am

It’s interesting that times change, but the BBC never does.

In this 1971 article, 50 years ago, here are all the usual signs of empire building: BBC local radio is defended as ‘wonderful’ by a Director General who admits he never listens to it, and who simultaneously rubbishes Independent Local Radio, which he admits he doesn’t listen to either.

He also admits that the BBC is centralising in London, and that its viewpoint is exclusively one of the metropolitan ‘elite’.

He never reads letters of complaint, and is kept carefully insulated from any genuine taxpayer objections to his schemes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Transdiffusion performs a valuable service in shining a light on matters which would otherwise be lost forever.

1971, of course, was at the time of the BBC’s 50th Anniversary, when it was just half as old as it is now. It’s depressing to see that so little has changed in the second 50 years.

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