'D-Day' Approaches for Local Sport Broadcasts; WITH Big Cuts Planned by the BBC, Teesside Sports Fans Are Being Warned There Will Be a Dramatic Impact on Their Listening Pleasure - Unless They Send out Strong Signals Now. ANTHONY VICKERS Reports

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Byline: ANTHONY VICKERS

TEESSIDE'S armchair sports fans are being warned that sports coverage will be slashed if radical cost-cutting plans by BBC chiefs go ahead.

And fans are being urged to speak up now if they want to keep a comprehensive service covering Boro and beyond.

The BBC is currently engaged in a national public consultation over which services will be cut and which will be preserved and listeners are being told: Make your voice heard or the full-time whistle will be blown on local sport.

If the downsizing proposals - called Delivering Quality First - go ahead, local sports services face being devastated.

Boro awayday live match coverage could be transformed with familiar Teesside accents sidelined and the microphone handed over to the opposition team's local broadcasters.

Supporting midweek evening shows featuring analysis, fans' feedback and interviews with players, managers and journalists will be squeezed.

Full live commentary of Hartlepool and Darlington away games will almost certainly be shown the red card.

Non-league and junior football, local rugby and athletics coverage face the axe.

And local sporting hopefuls including Olympic medal prospects in swimming, table tennis and cycling will find their efforts will slip off the radar.

The budget cuts will not only slash sports programming but also manning levels and leave the ability to deliver even a reduced service in danger.

"This really is D-Day for local sports radio," said Mark Drury, the National Union of Journalists rep at BBC Tees.

The BBC aims to axe pounds 700m off its budget. That will mean 2,000 job cuts and a huge impact on programme making.

And the brunt of the cuts will be borne by local radio - and by sports shows in particular.

The mooted budget scything at BBC Tees - 20% - will mean 10 jobs axed out of 34 and that locally produced programming will be reduced by 56%, say the union.

"The lion's share of that reduction will be in sports programming," warned Drury, himself a sports reporter and matchday touchline presence.

"Local sports coverage as we know it could end," he said. "It will be devastating.

"Sports programming involves a lot of people and a lot of hours so is an obvious target for cuts based on cost.

"But sports programming is also hugely popular. It has by far the biggest audiences in local radio and in the Tees area for instance, over one-third of the potential audience reach is tuned in to our sports coverage on a Saturday afternoon.

"And it is not just the Boro. We cover all our local football teams in depth and also a wide spectrum of other sports.

"Sports is a key part of this area's identity. There are legions of loyal listeners who rely totally on our coverage.

"It is of great news value, it is of great cultural value and it is a fantastic service for a vast number of people across all age-groups and in every part of our area.

"It is the very epitome of public service broadcasting. And it's under threat."

While the BBC have pledged to protect expensive services such as Radio Four, the minority classical music station Radio Three (they are actually increasing coverage of the Proms) and Radio One, local broadcasting - and especially in the provinces - is being hammered.

"Our listeners want and expect the BBC to reflect their lives and where they live," said the journalists' union man. …