Report by Dave Campbell, branch vice-chair
BBC Radio Oxford have enjoyed their biggest audience boost for years with the disclosure of the latest independent audience research figures. They are now making a big deal on-air of the fact that the last quarter of last year showed they picked up 19,000 new listeners over the period. At 81,000 listeners it was also 10,000 up on the corresponding last quarter of 2011.
Audiences for BBC Radio Oxford have fluctuated widely over the years, particularly when there was a disastrous merger with Berkshire in the 1990s. The other significant statistic is the share of the radio audience in the county. Three years ago that dropped to 5.6% in the face of competition from national BBC radio networks and a varying number of commercial radio stations. But the latest figures give an audience share of 9.5%, putting the station fourth in Oxfordshire behind Radio 4, Radio 2 and Heart Thames Valley. It is ahead of neighbouring BBC stations in Berkshire, Wiltshire and Three Counties (which includes Buckinghamshire) and Coventry and Warwickshire; although still behind Gloucestershire and Northampton. Radio Oxford Assistant Editor Will Banks is delighted and admits: “It was unexpected that there would be such a big jump in such a short space of time.”
This puts Radio Oxford in a strong position. The only other media focussing solely on Oxfordshire are the Oxford Mail and Oxford Times. The latest audited daily sales for the Oxford Mail are 17,556 and for the Oxford Times 14,210. Weeklies from the same stable such as the Herald series (Abingdon, Didcot, Wallingford and Wantage) weigh in at 10,733, the Witney Gazette at 6,483 and the Bicester Advertiser 3,851. Other paid-for papers in the county include the Banbury Guardian, selling more than 13,000 a week, and the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard at 10,000-plus.
Even bearing in mind that most newspaper copies are read by more than one person, this gives Radio Oxford a major stake in news coverage for Oxfordshire and means the station has a responsibility to set an agenda in coverage of health, education, local politics, business, travel, weather, sport, social and community issues.
Will Banks points to a newsroom shift which is dedicated to original journalism. “I don’t think we are embarrassed that there are stories in the Oxford Mail that we pick up. It goes in both directions. We love it when the Oxford Mail puts out a story that was on our radio station a day or two before. But I think it is a symbiotic relationship and I don’t see us in competition with the Oxford Mail. I celebrate local media and I think we can work together in a very difficult marketplace. If we are just repeating stories you can get elsewhere then there is no reason to tune in. However, what we can do with a story that might not be original is that we can do something original with it. Nowhere else can listeners have a direct conversation with the people behind a story.”
Ever since it was established in 1970, BBC Radio Oxford has kept the Oxford tag, rather than its editorial area Oxfordshire. In terms of population Oxford makes up less than a third of the county and most BBC stations covering counties adopt the county name. “As long as we are regularly getting to different parts of the county then it doesn’t matter that we are called Radio Oxford,” says Will Banks. Currently there is a project to tour Oxfordshire communities week by week and flood selected locations with staff to bring a flavour of local news and issues. “It’s a big undertaking but it will reflect life across Oxfordshire.” That started with Chipping Norton and Blackbird Leys. In particular they would like to build up a bigger following in the Banbury area.
Countywide media has the problem of reconciling Banbury in the north, where Birmingham can be a focal point, with Henley on- Thames in the south, irredeemably part of the Home Counties. “The biggest tension in delivering a news service is maintaining a balance in getting a range of stories from across Oxfordshire. On any given day we want stories which resonate with other people in the county,” he says.
The majority of the Radio Oxford audience, as much as three-quarters, is aged 45 and over. “I think there are certain parts of the BBC that want a younger audience, such as Radio 1, but I wouldn’t say that is the overall position of the BBC. The BBC belongs to everybody and it has to serve everybody. The fact we are such a popular choice for that age range is a plus point.”
Like other areas of the BBC, Radio Oxford had to make budget cuts. Will Banks says most were achieved through voluntary redundancies. Are there more to come? “Not that I am aware of. We have a licence fee settlement until 2016. We were reminded out there how much listeners valued us because there was such a vociferous campaign against cuts to local radio.”