If you tolerate this, then BBC Wiltshire will be next…

BBC Wiltshire seemingly ‘understands’ quite a lot about Swindon Town. Ron Smith asks why has Lee Power remained faithful with the Beeb?

Following the club formally announcing their ‘new media arrangements’ back in July, the direct access for the Swindon Advertiser and local online publications has largely ceased to reporting on the match itself and a brief post-match press conference.

Conversely, the BBC – under both BBC Wiltshire and the Points West – have been awarded wider access. The Beeb are able to conduct regular interviews with a full-range of club personnel for both radio and TV, including now monthly cosy phone-ins between Lee Power and a compliant Shaun Hodgetts who never asks the second more probing question.

The club’s relationship with BBC Wiltshire has blossomed to such an extent that the outlet has become the primary tool for Lee Power to communicate with supporters. This has led to Town fans experiencing BBC Wiltshire regularly, no… consistently, quickly and accurately, reporting breaking news from the County Ground throughout the summer.

For those following social media, the reporting of BBC Wiltshire of any news is always presented that they “…understand…”. These statements highlight a reluctance in masking the fact they’re always being told this information directly from the club’s hierarchy and encouraged to report the information.

The leaking of information serves a purpose and clearly isn’t something new to journalism, or unique to the parties here. However, what this episode highlights is that despite Lee Power’s intentions to bring more of the media operations in-house and communicating through official channels, he still craves and needs friends in the wider media to get across his messages. Also, importantly, this enables him to portray the club and himself in an entirely positive light.

There are also two sound reasons for the stance of BBC Wiltshire to effectively become the media mouthpiece of Swindon Town Footbal Club.

Firstly, the radio station has recently gone through a period of audience decline, following a general trend in local radio. Quarterly listening figures declined over a 12-month period from March 2014, with their weekly reach (expressed as a percentage of the population within the transition area) reducing from a recent high of 19% to a new low of just 11% (December 2014) according to RAJAR official figures.

Secondly, it is in BBC Wiltshire’s interests to substantially strengthen their value and position within the community at the current time ahead of a worrying strategic review of local radio by the BBC Trust – who are currently undertaking a public consultation.

“Whilst not formally assessing market impact, the review will consider the BBC’s position in the local media environment and how its local news provision currently fits with that provided by others. The review will also look at whether local radio and local news is equipped for changes to listening and viewing habits, including responding to technological shifts.”  BBC Trust (June 2015)

BBC Wiltshire’s schmoozing strategy with Lee Power seems to be working. Judging by the latest RAJAR data, this shows the station’s weekly reach percentage has increased throughout 2015 to 17% in June. This is coincidentally in a period when Town supporters have most likely started tuning into the station more regularly for breaking news – as this hasn’t been available elsewhere.

However, it isn’t all rosy for BBC Wiltshire. The statement of the BBC Trust’s reasons for the local radio review highlights that the public service role of BBC Wiltshire – to provide live match commentary – could be threatened as part of the implementation of further cuts. Equally, there also remains a threat to commentary broadcasts from the club. Lee Power has regularly hinted the importance to the club that delivering news and content to supporters through the media must be seen as a commercial decision for the club. This leaves the possibility that live radio commentary could be sold to a rival station.

“With media in general, the world changes and the Fanzai situation was something that we looked at and one day I think will get commercialised.” Lee Power (August 2015)

The disaster of Brunel FM’s commentary in 2007/2008 resulted from the club seeking to monetise the club’s preferred radio partner. The whole episode demonstrated the importance and ability of BBC Wiltshire in giving airtime to provide professional and in-depth matchday coverage as part of a dedicated sports programme. Without typical commercial pressures, the Beeb can provide coverage a local radio rival can’t replicate, including vital exposure for local non-league sides.

“Radio commentary for a great many football fans is very important, often it can be their prime link with the club, particularly for those supporters unable to get to the ground or who live in outlying areas.” 

Nick Watkins speaking in 2008 following the return of live commentaries to BBC Wiltshire

The other main threat to BBC Wiltshire is now the chance that commentaries could soon be brought in-house, therefore exclusive to, and only available via STFC Player HD. Should Power really decide to ‘get commercial’ with live commentaries, this possibility could generate a significant boost to the club’s finances through their premium new channel. However, to take this action, perhaps hinted by the club’s hierarchy this summer, forgets all that was learned during the Brunel FM debacle; including Nick Watkins’ statement of the value of radio commentary to reaching out to supporters.

With the BBC’s live matchday commentary contract with the club likely to be on a rolling yearly deal and Power sounding out a preferred media partner, the pressure remains on BBC Wiltshire. In the short to medium term, so long as the station remains on good and positive terms with the club, their future of reporting from the County Ground still remains brighter than their colleagues in the local media.

Header image from @BBCWiltsSports

One comment

  • Well it looks like ‘understands’ means the club have just sent BBC Wiltshire an email. I like BBC Wiltshire’s matchday coverage and hope it continues for a long time but I’m a little uneasy about so much information being given to just one outlet.

    The way the BBC is funded complicates matters further. Is it local BBC radio’s ‘job’ to have a news monopoly on the local football team? I’m sure other local media outlets who don’t have the luxury of public funding and whose access to the club has been reduced this season would disagree.


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