The BBC’s director of nations has defended cuts to local radio services as necessary to “keep pace with the way audiences are changing”.
Rhodri Talfan Davies told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that plans for stations to share more content and broadcast less programming unique to their areas are “fundamentally not about a reduction in services”.
He said the total amount of money being moved out of local radio amounted to about £11 million with about £4 million of that being reinvested in the BBC Sounds service and podcasting.
Challenged whether the plans amounted to “ripping the heart out” of the BBC’s local radio offering in a media landscape with fewer commercial local stations, he replied: “I don’t accept that premise.
“I think we are keeping 39 local stations across England. We are keeping local bases of at least 25 staff in each of our local bases.
“We are strengthening the size of our local news teams. We are investing in investigative journalism across 22 of our local bases.
“This is fundamentally not about a reduction in services. It is about making sure our portfolio of local services that we deliver across radio, television and online keep pace with the way audiences are changing.”
Mr Talfan Davies said that due to the licence fee freeze and inflation, the BBC faces by 2026/2027 a £400 million funding gap, and that was one driving factor in the proposals.
The plans have provoked criticism from figures including culture minister Julia Lopez and 90 Labour leaders from England, who wrote to BBC director general Tim Davie asking him to rethink the changes.
Proposals confirmed by the broadcaster include the loss of 48 jobs across local staffing in England, amounting to a total reduction of 2%.
Mr Talfan Davies said the aim of the cuts was to “strengthen our online news service” and “focus our spend” where it makes “the biggest difference to audiences”.
Jason Horton, director of England for the BBC, told the DCMS Committee that the broadcaster faced “tough” decisions as it decided which new areas to share local radio content across following the cuts.
He said: “These are tough choices for us and some of those regions are big.
“But we are looking at both the historical element and in terms of the regional television news programmes where we continue to serve an audience across all of those areas.
“But, equally, we will ensure that when we are looking at the sharing, if there is a community of interest that straddles the boundaries which we have set out in our proposals, then we will look to share in a different way.”
The plans will see local programming restricted to weekdays before 2pm and the BBC will produce 18 afternoon programmes across England that will be shared between its 39 stations.
Ten local programmes will then be shared between 6pm and 10pm on weekdays, all day on Saturday and on Sunday mornings, serving areas broadly mirroring existing local TV areas.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We have outlined proposals for all of our weekend and afternoon schedules and are currently consulting with staff about this. We have a broad range of black and Asian community programmes and we plan to safeguard this commitment as part of these proposals.
“We hold ourselves to the highest standards when it comes to representation of all backgrounds and diversity is a priority for us.”
The proposals come as part of the BBC’s new strategy, announced in May, to create a “modern, digital-led” broadcaster.
It come after a group of more than 40 prominent black and Asian celebrities, MPs and campaigners signed an open letter to Mr Davie and BBC chairman Richard Sharp calling for shows servicing those audiences to be protected.
The letter, organised by the Black Equity Organisation and published in the Voice, warns any cuts “would disproportionately impact black media professionals and journalism across the UK” even if “applied equally” across the broadcaster.
Among the signees were Labour MP Diane Abbott, actors David Harewood and Adrian Lester, and Baroness Doreen Lawrence.