Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

Will big names survive the cull at BBC Radio Ulster?

BBC Radio Ulster chiefs are facing hard decisions over cuts to programmes, senior sources have told the Belfast Telegraph.

Beeb budgets are being slashed by around a fifth and bosses have to come up with money-saving proposals by next month.

At worst the drive to cut costs could mean the axe for popular presenters like Alan Simpson and Ralph McLean, and cutbacks for top-rated shows like Wendy Austin’s Talkback.

Insiders say the entire evening schedule — which includes Cherrie McIlwaine and Donna Legge — might be ditched in favour of a switchover to national Radio Two or Five Live.

A senior source said even a major overnight ‘opt out’ would not meet the 20% savings requirement, with weekend favourites such as John Toal’s Saturday Magazine, Gerry Kelly and veteran broadcasters Eamon Friel and John Bennett also potential targets.

The BBC dismissed the claims as “speculation”, but said no final decisions had been made.

A statement said the corporation was not prepared to provide a “running commentary” and any verdicts would have to be approved by the BBC Trust — the body set up to represent public opinion.

Some favourites, including Stephen Nolan’s phone-in, Gerry Anderson and ‘Uncle’ Hugo Duncan, appear likely to survive the overhaul.

But a senior source expressed concern that Nolan’s self-styled ‘biggest show in the country’ has become too similar to Talkback, which the experienced Ms Austin took over from David Dunseith more than 18 months ago.

“Some days the same political stories and the same politicians, are on both Nolan and Talkback and we should use this review to look at that,” the source added.

One suggestion, it is understood, would see the present 90-minute Talkback programme cut back to an hour. Mr Simpson’s show, which replaced the long-running George Jones slot in November 2006, appears to attract the lowest ratings during the daytime schedule.

Another source said Mr McLean’s four-nights-a-week appearances, which concentrate on various music genres including soul and country, are “first-class production-wise but remarkably cheap... there is not much money to be saved there”.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We have made it clear that local, regional and national services will continue to be at the heart of what we do. We are not going to get drawn into a running commentary — no decisions have been taken and therefore these claims remain speculation.

“Any decisions coming out of the process would be subject to approval by the BBC Trust.”

Background

BBC Radio Ulster and Foyle remains Northern Ireland’s most listened-to radio station. The quarterly RAJAR (Radio Joint Audio Research) statistics show an average weekly audience of 565,000 — up by 46,000 year on year. BBC Radio Foyle has an average weekly audience of 31,000 listeners — a 3,000 increase over 12 months. Radio Ulster’s listening share is 24% compared to nearest rival Cool FM on 16.4%. Talk Back runs from Monday to Friday, from just after the 12 o’clock news until 1.30pm. The Nolan Show, presented by Stephen Nolan, was launched in 2003.

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