One of the more pleasing aspects of modern life is the plurality of media that is presented to us. The internet has given us a plethora of options for reading, watching and listening that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago, and we should be grateful for the fact that, no matter what our particular inclinations might be, whether serious or irreverent, whether demanding fact or fantasy, we will usually be able to find it, if we look hard enough. One example of how what might have been treated as an afterthought but has instead flourished into essential weekly listening for thousands is BBC London’s Non-League Show.
In the past, the show would have been tucked away in a quiet corner of the BBC’s local schedules, available only to those that live in the London area, but this particular show has blossomed thanks to canny usage of social media, with a downloadable version available to everybody and a place on the BBC’s Iplayer service which ensures that people that wish to hear it can do at any time. Now, however, cuts at the BBC are threatening its existence, as well as a broader range of local sport, and we should, perhaps, take a moment to pause and consider whether the BBC is acting rashly in cutting a local service that simply will not be replaced by commercial alternatives.
Those that listen to the programme will be fully aware of the important position that it holds within the non-league game. Host Caroline Barker and an array of guests including the Harrow Borough manager Dave Anderson (whose withering put-down of one of the attempts to buy Wrexham Football Club earlier this year was as damning an indictment of those that were seeking to take control of the club as we could have hoped to hear) have shaped the programme into a nationwide experience which isn’t afraid to dip its toe into the frequently murky waters of the financial affairs of non-league clubs. As such it has, over the last couple of years, become something of a rallying point for the whole of the non-league game and, if there is such a thing as a “non-league community”, to lose it would leave a gaping hole at the heart of this community.
It isn’t only this show that may be facing the axe as a result of the “Public Consultation – Section 4” of the BBC’s “Delivering Quality First” report. The reason why the programme is now in danger is a radical slimming down of the corporation’s regional sports broadcasting. In the case of London the consultation papers state (and it is somewhat difficult to read this without imagining a degree of relish in the tone of it) that, “BBC London would lose a number of off-peak programmes and reduce other spend to bring the station more in line with other BBC Local Radio stations”. It isn’t only the Non-League Show that may be facing the axe, too. The BBC’s local radio stations provide an invaluable service in their coverage of matches at a lower level and it seems likely that, from the end of this season, they will also be facing substantial cuts.
Of course, there is a debate to be had on the subject of how the BBC spends its money, when we consider that it is, ultimately, largely funded by the taxpayer through the television licence. In this case, however, what is striking is that the corporation is moving towards putting commercial imperatives before anything else. If we are to retain a national broadcaster in the twenty-first century, the truth of the matter is that is that this sort of diverse coverage, which doesn’t necessarily have a high commercial value, is exactly the sort of programming that the BBC should be producing. The BBC’s policy statement on the subject mentions “our ambition to increase the distinctiveness of BBC services and serve all audiences, but it seems that those that wish to avail themselves of local sports coverage in the evening are not included in this grouping.
To argue this point isn’t to offer an opinion on the Non-League Show’s quality, or to offer a critique on the local radio coverage that BBC Local radio offers. To put it another way, the question of whether the local sports coverage that the BBC currently produces isn’t a matter of personal preference. The point is that part of the BBC’s remit should be to cover areas that commercial broadcasters won’t see any value in, but still serve a target audience. Nobody is going to step in and replace the BBC’s coverage of the non-league game, and once it has gone it will be much-missed by many. As a publicly accountable body, though, the plans are still at the consultation stage and at the bottom of this page you have the opportunity to comment on the moves that have been proposed.
The BBC still holds considerable public support, and it is this support that keeps the licence fee in place. When the corporation itself starts to make decisions that will strip away the very heart of what makes it different to commercial broadcasters, though, defending the licence fee becomes considerably more difficult. Non-league football isn’t a massive community, but is a sizeable one and it will be left considerably poorer for the loss of the coverage that the BBC offers at present. If the BBC is to continue to receive public funding, it should stick to what differentiates it from other broadcasters. Those that are opposed to the licence fee will not stop their opposition to it because of these cuts, and the BBC will be poorer for the loss of this coverage. There is, however, still time for them to reconsider and those of us should be applying pressure to ensure that they do.
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