Football commentary on local radio – who’s listening ?

There was a time say, 10 years ago- when the news that Radio City had decided to end live football commentaries would have been greeted by mass weeping and gnashing of teeth among many local footy fans.

In 2015 things are quite a bit different.

Radio audiences for local live footy commentary have been plummeting for the past few years as fans discovered new ways to follow their team.

Access to visual live commentary, either by fair means, via Sky, BT etc….or foul….accessing some of the dodgy websites available at the click of a mouse, and possibly a virus to go with it..have all contributed the its demise.

Nowadays local radio live commentary simply does not bring in the numbers it used to, and so it was no surprise that Radio City’s owners Bauer Radio decided to pull the plug on live commentaries in Liverpool, which was one of the last independent bastions of commentary anyway. It’s become too expensive for the amount of people it has been attracting.

It’s one area where radio simply can’t compete with tv/internet and the truth is that this has been the case for some time.

If such a decision would have been made 10 years ago, as a BBC local radio manager I would have jumped for joy at the prospect of all those lovely listeners potentially switching allegiance to BBC Radio Merseyside.

But if I was manager now my joy would be something less than unbridled because I doubt very much whether the number of switchers will justify the investment – however the RAJAR figures will in time show this will be the case.

As a radio station manager competitiveness is in your DNA ….and although Radio City’s target audience was younger than that of BBC Radio Merseyside, football commentaries were always considered to be a little bit different. Such was the importance of football to the stations’ performance that Saturday afternoons became a battleground between the two. We were both competing for audiences of all ages – it was a no-holds barred battle and, I would argue, the quality of coverage on both stations, was driven up by this fact.

BBC audience research indicated that during football coverage the demographic was slightly younger so as a programmer you would try to encourage this audience to tune to your other football coverage during the rest of the week ; and this worked. We regularly achieved good figures for our evening local sports shows and breakfast sports bulletins.

Would starting the Saturday programme earlier help us? I recall taking the decision to start our Saturday afternoon show at 1pm and introducing a football quiz along with pre-match preview to gain a step over City. Audiences went down.

We then introduced the first post-match phone-in with our presenter. Audiences went up. City then introduced ex-footballers to take calls from punters on the way to the game.

I then persuaded ex-Liverpool star Tommy Smith and ex-Evertonian Duncan McKenzie to host the football phone-in…until Tommy took his ball home and refused to share the glory with Duncan (that’s another story) !

Then Radio City split frequencies and put say Liverpool commentary on am and Everton on fm..and we followed suit.

We both awaited RAJAR figures with eager anticipation with a particular eye on Saturday afternoons… and usually one RAJAR quarter Radio City beat us and then the next or the following quarter Radio Merseyside would take over.

In time with fewer games taking place on Saturdays the audiences became spread more across the week but there was a still a healthy competition between the two stations.

And a few squeaky-bum moments.

 

Behind the scenes

 

I recall one particularly awkward season when the former Everton secretary Michael Dunford froze BBC Radio Merseyside out of a full commentary deal ( with no prior notice, much to my chagrin) by giving Radio City exclusive commentary rights to a dozen or so games in return for a better commercial deal.

That meant that for the first time in many years listeners could no longer hear Everton games on their BBC station.

I then decided to stage a football phone-in with live reports(not commentary) on Saturday afternoons and Everton fans rang up in their numbers to complain about a) the fact that Radio Merseyside had been frozen out of commentary and b)that Everton’s on the field progress left something to be desired. It became a classic football moan-in and the Everton directors were furious at the negative publicity.

The ‘exclusive’ agreement was never attempted again.

I remember sitting white-faced and shaken at Anfield when Rick Parry the former Liverpool chief executive informed me that the football commentary fees were to be trebled for the forthcoming season. I had to go cap in hand to beg BBC centrally to fund the deal which they eventually did.

Where independent radio could offer a commercial package including a fee with commercial ‘add-ons’ (lower-rate advertisements and other deals), the BBC could only offer a flat-fee payment which the premier league used to drive up the cost ; they believed that we’d had it ‘cheap’ for too long so we either had to pay the market rate out or shut up. We chose the former option but it was touch and go for a time.

How long the BBC will continue to offer football commentary on local radio is a matter of some conjecture. It’s now, certainly on Merseyside and most of the other big urban centres in England, a unique public service but if audience numbers continue to diminish on Saturday afternoons the BBC may reconsider whether it can be justified in the long-term.

If BBC local commentary does go the way of all flesh I think that would be a shame. BBC local radio should be unique and distinctive and should offer a service for licence-fee payers who don’t have access to the internet or who choose to listen to radio commentary rather than go to pay TV.

This may involve renegotiation of commentary fees but it’s certainly an argument that is likely to be happening in the BBC particularly as negotiations continue over the Charter renewal and, more specifically, the place of local radio in the world of global media.

Radio City has produced some cracking commentators over the years (Clive Tyldesley, Gary Bloom, Graham Beecroft, to name just a few ) and BBC Radio Merseyside has its own illustrious Hall of Fame. It’s a great shame for the industry that the avenue via the independent sector will now be closed, probably forever.

Other avenues will open and there is no shortage of talented, ambitious young sports journalists to fill the gap on newer platforms.

Whatever the future holds for local independent and public service radio I think we should doff our caps to those who have served and continue to serve the dwindling radio audiences for football commentary.

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