A 24-hour strike by BBC staff in Tunbridge Wells began today as journalists protested about cuts to local radio which will see BBC Radio Kent’s most popular show face the axe.
The dispute is over changes proposed by BBC bosses in November which will see Radio Kent share much of its output with neighbouring BBC local stations serving Sussex, Surrey and Greater London.
Due to the strike, the widely watched BBC half-hour evening regional TV news programme, South East Today, was replaced on Wednesday with an edition of Garden Rescue.
Under the cuts, BBC Radio Kent will be left with only two unique programmes on weekdays, while all its weekend output (apart from sport) will merge with nearby stations.
That is likely to mean the end of Radio Kent’s most listened to programme, Sunday Gardening, which runs from 10am to 2pm and is presented in Tunbridge Wells by long term staff member, Andy Garland. Almost all existing staff including Andy Garland (pictured below) have been placed “at risk of redundancy”.
Southborough News spoke to staff on the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) picket line outside the BBC Tunbridge Wells studios this afternoon who all feel the planned changes will mean that BBC local radio will be less effective at covering local news and issues.
The NUJ representative for Radio Kent and Online at BBC South East Bob Dale told us: “We think the audience of Kent deserves a proper local service. That’s what they pay their licence fee for. Something like Netflix is good for drama but its not going to tell you how much your council tax is going up by.”
Bob Dale continued: “We’ve had protracted negotiations with management on this. There’s been no movement. The programme sharing ideas are still on the table, so that’s why we’ve had to take this unfortunately drastic step of coming out on strike for 24 hours.”
Bob Dale said there was no sign of compromise with management. He told us: “There were talks on Monday but there was no movement on the plans to share local programming. That’s the red line. That is what’s caused this dispute. “
Local radio is still going out on Wednesday evening but without many of the usual presenters. The 6.30pm local television local news programmes came off air across England. The strike ends at 11am on Thursday.
Under the management plans, many radio roles will be repurposed as jobs writing online stories.
A BBC spokesperson said on Wednesday: “We are obviously disappointed that the strike has gone ahead. We have a plan to modernise local services across England – including more news journalists and a stronger local online service – which will see no overall reduction in staffing levels or local funding.”
“Our goal is a local service across TV, radio and online that delivers even greater value to communities. We will continue to engage with the trade union and do everything possible to minimise the impact on staff.”
Outside the BBC Tunbridge Wells office, Bob Dale of the NUJ indicated that people passing the picket line had been supportive. He said: “There have been a few people honking horns. A lot of people don’t realise what’s been proposed and we’ve been able to tell them. Most people have said we want to keep our local services.”