For some, the idea of juggling two big jobs might be a daunting prospect. Not so for Heidi Dawson who, earlier this year, was appointed BBC Head of Salford. The post is in addition to her existing role as Controller of BBC Radio 5 Live.  

It’s clear that Dawson’s enthusiasm for the work and location drives her forward. “I’m incredibly proud to be leading the BBC’s Salford site,” she says. “I’ve worked at MediaCityUK since it opened in 2011 and it’s just as exciting to me today.

“As a student in Salford, I learned as much about people and local pride as I did about TV and radio. I passionately believe this site is the best place to work at the BBC. There’s a special North West energy, creativity and authenticity that drives the teams here and I’m determined to harness that further through collaboration across different departments and projects.”  

Dawson began her BBC career on Radio Solent before moving to Radio 4. Then, in 2013, she joined Radio 5 Live’s management team and became Managing Editor before progressing to station Controller in 2019. Dawson’s love for 5 Live is particularly evident 

“I genuinely feel there isn’t a station out there that does news, sport and discussion as well as we do,” she says. “My new role and my 5 Live job really complement each other and offer more opportunities to bring the authenticity and passion I felt as a local student to the North West BBC community. I want to ensure we continue to be a creative hub for both existing and new talent to develop.”

Over the years, increasing numbers of productions have left London and moved to Salford. I wonder if the average listener or viewer who lives in, say, Aberdeen, Norwich or Wrexham is particularly concerned where their media outlets are based? For Dawson, it’s clear what the benefits are for audiences.  

“As a public service organisation it’s important we are representative and reflective of all those who fund it. Since opening its doors in 2011, BBC Salford has been a centre of excellence for content and digital platforms that represent and give value to local audiences. We’re so proud that on weekdays from 6am to 10am, all content on BBC One is broadcast from the North West from BBC Breakfast through to Morning Live.” 

She continues: “When a programme is based in a region, we see an uplift in audience viewing figures in that location. Groundbreaking drama The Responder, filmed in Liverpool, saw a 26 per cent audience share in the North West, 5 per cent more than the share in all the UK. The BBC does more than any other broadcaster to reflect the different communities, experiences and backgrounds of all the regions that make up the UK.  

“There is also a positive economic impact. Creative hubs, like Salford, have seen considerable growth as a result of BBC investment, creating more jobs through collaborations, apprenticeships and partnerships. An independent report showed BBC presence and investment played a role in cultivating Salford as a creative and digital cluster. Between 2010 and 2019, employment in the sector saw growth of 142 per cent. Digital or creative businesses grew by 70 per cent.”

One of the organisation’s initiatives, Across the UK, is particularly focused on investing in regional creative talent, as Dawson explains.  

“At its heart, Across the UK is about getting closer to our audiences to better reflect, represent and serve all parts of the UK. Two years after its inception, we are already ahead of our target to meet and exceed 60 per cent of Network TV commissioning spend outside of London by the next Charter in 2027. This will dramatically increase opportunities for jobs and training and improve representation on and off screen.”

She adds: “It is right that the economic benefits of the licence fee are spread more equitably across the UK, but it’s also a critical opportunity for the BBC to draw on the creative strength of every part of the country and back the stories and storytellers that matter to local communities.  

“We had great success with the Waterloo Road production trainee scheme. Twenty new industry entrants from Greater Manchester have gone onto working in their honed craft across drama, comedy and children’s TV. We’ve also expanded our Writer’s Room in Salford and shifted more content activity here, including Morning Live and 6 Music. Radio 1 now broadcasts shows from Salford seven days a week including the first weekday programme outside of London. By the end of next year, at least half of Radio 3 production hours will also be from Salford which is really exciting.” 

BBC vs the internet

I’m old enough to remember when there were only three TV channels. Now there are thousands (many a harsh lesson in the value of quality over quantity). Younger friends and colleagues are likely to obtain their media from online sources, none requiring a TV licence. Finding ways to attract and hold onto younger audiences must be the biggest challenge the BBC faces? 

Heidi Dawson

“It is definitely a challenge for broadcasters,” says Dawson. “But we aim to continue developing world-class content for younger audiences. Fantastic 5 Live podcasts such as Bugzy Malone’s Grandest Games on BBC Sounds while building on the trusted role played by Newsround and Newsbeat and offering high quality and educational content on CBBC and CBeebies.

“The return of BBC Three and the increased offering on Radio 1, Radio 1Xtra, Asian Network, iPlayer and Sounds have also played a role in attracting young people to our platforms. This is something we will continue to develop to best suit the needs of that audience. Through bolstering creative hubs outside of London, the BBC has created many career opportunities for young people across the UK through jobs and apprenticeships schemes, which is fantastic.”  

I am a particular fan of radio. It’s more intimate (that friend in the corner of the room), has so much scope for imagination, and offers direct contact with the listener. Does Dawson have any thoughts on why one of the oldest forms of communication still remains one of the most effective? 

“There is something comforting about having that friend in the corner of the room,” she agrees. “It is also the fact that all the different platforms continue to evolve. That is what makes it last. The content is always immensely important, otherwise people wouldn’t tune in, but being able to listen on the move, in the gym, in the car or later if you’ve missed your favourite show, also contributes to audio and radio’s legacy.”

I’ve had dozens of jobs (don’t ask) and I’m always fascinated by what qualities make for a good manager. Personally, some of the more demanding people I’ve worked with were the ones I learned the most from (even if it wasn’t a conscious plan on their part). Dawson oversees the work of numerous teams, so I am curious as to what she believes makes a good leader.

“It’s hard to answer without sounding clichéd, but, as a leader, you want to ensure that you’re still always learning. No matter who you are or how high up you get, you can never know everything. You need to listen to those around you. You can’t do it all on your own and I am very lucky to have a great team to trust and rely on at 5 Live. With a diverse and unique organisation like the BBC, you must ensure you know what the big picture aims are and then effectively communicate them with your wider team. It is important to have their buy-in too as the BBC wouldn’t survive without the people who work here day in, day out. Not forgetting our audience of course – we, as leaders, also work for them and it’s important to remember that.” 

In a busy, successful career at the BBC, what are Dawson’s stand-out moments? 

“They’re mostly tied to the events and travel that I have been lucky to experience. Working as a journalist and radio producer in Basra amidst the conflict in Iraq, my placement in the BBC Jerusalem bureau and travelling across Germany for the World Cup are definitely a top three.’ 

“I also get a huge buzz when content really connects with listeners such as when Nicky Campbell’s phone-in lights up with callers keen to share their experiences, or when The Monday Night Club football debate makes us laugh out loud or our I’m Not A Monster podcast shines a light on a hugely important UK story. Making programmes that reflect our audiences’ lives and help them make sense of the world gives me such a sense of pride.” 

By Drew Tosh


Images courtesy of the BBC