Breeding The BBC Up North
As plans to relocate some of the Corporation’s biggest and most popular departments took shape in 2010, it became clear that 1,500 staff would need to move to Salford, joining 750 BBC employees from the old Manchester base in the purpose-built MediaCity complex.
Some London-based staff refused to switch and opponents of the BBC North project slated it as a colossal waste of money, accusing it of being a political, rather than an economical, decision. As Director of BBC North, the buck stopped with Peter Salmon.
“I care more about our actual achievements and our new ambitions rather than critics,” he says.
“We’ve already delivered big things here – on time and under budget. The Winter Olympics, the London 2012 Olympics; we’re about to tackle the World Cup and Commonwealth Games this summer. Radio 5 Live is Sony’s Station of the Year; CBeebies is the Bafta Kids Station of the Year. We’ve launched the CBeebies app with two million downloads, the BBC Sport app with three million downloads, and the first 6Music festival was a resounding success next door in Trafford. That tells you a lot.”
It’s an impressive list and the metrics back it up. Audience consumption and approval levels are higher in the north of the country than they were before the move – a region which has historically felt somewhat disenfranchised from the Corporation.
The BBC has also benefitted financially from the move, with the BBC’s Sports Department achieving £2million worth of production and cost savings since moving to Salford.
“The most important thing is that we measure ourselves against what the audiences feel about us,” says Salmon.
“People are watching and listening to our programmes more and becoming even more engaged with the BBC. They are the clear and quantifiable results that show we are getting things right.”
He’s sitting on the fifth floor of Quay House, looking out over MediaCity and reflecting on the content that has come out of BBC North to high acclaim, with pride, but also a feeling of unfinished business – with further aims of delivering more benefits to the region, increasing the quality and services for all audiences across the country and squeezing more financial benef ts, all high on his agenda.
But the journey to the BBC North of today – an awe-inspiring building where almost 3,000 staff now mingle between thriving news desks, space-age style meeting pods and live studios – hasn’t been plain sailing.
Asked about the biggest challenge of the move, Salmon’s response is automatic: “The recruitment of 1,000 people, together with making sure that our staff moving up from London, was given the best care and attention.”
Looking at the ratios, it’s obvious why. For an initial 700 jobs the BBC received 70,000 applications.
“It was scary,” he says. “But we just had to be very clear on the culture we wanted to create, the values we have and the attitudes we wanted here with us.
“We can be leaders of the digital age in the north of England but we need the right people that are going to thrive in our business and get the message out there that this is a wonderful region with huge opportunities.”
While Salmon could be described as an old boy of the BBC – he worked for the Corporation in 1981 as a trainee but left and returned, first in 1997 and again in 2006 – he’s determined in his mission to create a fresh attitude to jobs at the BBC.
“It’s about not getting too self-important, not forgetting your roots and not losing touch with how people live their lives every day in all sorts of occupations and places,” he says.
“Doing this job is like being an explorer; you should be fascinated by different towns, cities, professions and ways of life. Hopefully you can bring that back and plug it into the BBC. After all, the BBC is meant to be here for everybody, so the more experience of that you can get, the better.”
The headache for most of Britain’s bosses, staff churn, is a positive for the BBC North chief.
“I think it’s great that people come and go in the BBC,” he says.
“If someone comes to me and says they have been offered an opportunity elsewhere, on the most part I will say go for it. I think it’s really important to stay dynamic.
“I know there are a lot of talented people looking to join us here. I think the BBC should be about growing the next generation of talent all the time. We should be confident enough to do that.
“That’s part of what public service broadcasting is all about. It’s not just about looking after the same people for 25 or 30 years, though that is important too.”
Everything about BBC North, including recruitment and the design of the building, is focused on openness, fluidity and putting “digital” at the heart of output.
“I wanted it to feel more collaborative, more fluid and more accessible to audiences because I think that’s what the modern media should be like and I think that’s what the north needed,” he says.
“In the north you can’t be too grand. I like being on an open site; it’s great that licence-fee payers can stick their noses up against the window and spot Stuart Maconie, Louise Minchin or Nicky Campbell.
“I like that; there’s something more democratic, open and levelling about that and I think that suits the north. You can’t get ideas above your station in the north and I think that’s good for the BBC because the BBC can get a bit up itself. The north helps us put the BBC in a better place.”