Prominent black and Asian Britons warn against BBC local radio cuts plan

<span>Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images

Prominent black and Asian Britons have warned that the BBC’s local radio cuts could result in the loss of airtime for shows aimed at BAME audiences.

David Harewood, Adrian Lester, Diane Abbott, and Doreen Lawrence are among those who have signed the open letter in the Voice. They said that the BBC’s current plans to axe weekend and evening shows on English local radio would “disproportionately impact Black media professionals and journalism across the UK”.

Rhodri Talfan Davies, who runs the BBC’s regional output, told MPs on Thursday he was committed to ensuring diverse local radio, including extra online programmes and promoting staff to prominent positions on mainstream programmes.

Several local radio stations have shows aimed at specific minority audiences, which largely go out in the weekend and evening time slots that are being axed as part of plans to save £7m a year.

However, BBC bosses categorically denied a claim in the Voice that the plan was to replace all the shows with a single podcast on BBC Sounds.

Talfan Davies said he was committed to pressing ahead with the plans to regionalise most of the 39 existing BBC local radio stations in England, despite strong pushback from politicians. “About 85% of the population aren’t local radio users,” he said. “If we lock our money into the existing model we will slowly decline.”

Under the plan each station would retain its own breakfast and mid-morning show, along with sport and news coverage. Other shows would be regionalised across wider parts of the country.

He said the BBC still spent most of its local budget on radio and television broadcasts, despite audiences being increasingly online. “Unless we get that rebalancing right we will drift to edge of our community life … When we launched online news in mid-90s there were howls of anger from radio and television audiences that we were putting money into online. In 2008 when we launched iPlayer there were howls because we were moving from BBC One to online.”

As part of the plans, audiences will hear regionalised shows covering large parts of England from 2pm onwards on weekdays and throughout the weekends. One example, where a large swathe of south-east England would be covered by one show, prompted the Conservative MP Simon Jupp to ask: “How is it relevant to someone in Bognor Regis that the District line [on the London underground] is down?”

BBC Introducing shows, which offer a route for local musicians to get on the radio, will be kept but will cover a wider geographic area.

Talfan Davies said he was committed to the plans and shifting the budget into making material for BBC Sounds and the BBC website. “Do I think that we need 39 afternoon local radio programmes? We don’t. This is a shift to driving high-quality delivery.”