Friday, 10 May 2013

What price local radio?

In the north east of England Star Radio has been very critical of TFM merging its programmes with its sister station on Tyneside. The UKRD station has particularly highlighted Bauer’s decision to retain the station name TFM on the southern transmitter – suggesting that this is just an attempt to pull the wool over local listeners eyes (or ears). 

It does seem short-sighted not to have adopted the name Metro Radio for the whole service, getting all the bad publicity on Teesside over and done with in one go. While the playout system easily copes with split identification for the two areas, it would surely be better for the Tyneside-based presenters to be able to actually mention the name of their station in live links. They must now be constantly having to avoid plugging Metro this, or Metro that – hardly the recipe for great local radio and building station relationships with listeners! In the long term this may even prove damaging to Metro’s high profile in its own region.

Of course, if the whole thing from the borders down to North Yorkshire became known as Metro the truth would be plain for all to see. Apart from a few local news items the service would be indistinguishable from the regional licences originally granted to Century (now Real Radio), Galaxy (now Capital FM) which cover exactly the same territory from the same main transmitters. These regionals have always been able to split ad breaks and other recorded items north and south so there is really very little difference. As Real, Capital and Smooth become more like national stations, so Metro has become a regional service.

Critics of the robust Star Radio position have not been slow to point out that Star North East is itself the result of merging smaller licences for THREE different local areas, Darlington, Durham and Northallerton. There is, however, a significant difference in scale and financial viability here. The Northallerton licence has one of the smallest Measured Coverage Areas in England, with a population of just 35,231 adults (15+), while Darlington has just 108,262 and the former Durham FM MCA is 295,628. Allowing for some overlap the three Star Radio north-east licences together total only some 430,000 adults. This compares to 788,467 adults in the TFM MCA alone, a large coverage area served from a single10kW transmitter at the excellent Bilsdale mast in North Yorkshire.  Given their small catchment areas, which did not include any of the north east’s main centres of economic activity, the Star Radio stations were previously losing money and would apparently have been closed after their purchase by UKRD unless this cost saving had gone ahead. There can be no such economic case for closing TFM as a stand-alone operation.

There is a strong argument – advanced credibly by John Myers and others – that the Radio Authority, and then Ofcom, licensed too many commercial stations in small areas that were never going to prove financially viable. On the other hand there are a number of great local commercial stations with populations in the 100,000 to 400,000 range which are providing a valued bespoke service and returning a profit to their owners even in the existing economic climate. It’s all a question of how well the stations are managed and programmed.

I’ve long argued that the only way to run a successful and financially viable radio station in a small market is to take every opportunity to exploit the station’s unique relationship with listeners, organisations and businesses in its own area. It must be skilfully tailored to suit the tastes, interests, history and present-day concerns of its area. The arrival of group-wide programming and identikit features nearly killed the TLRC group of stations in the early 2000s. Without quality programmes and a real relationship with its area a local station has no right to expect listeners to choose it over a national or digital alternative.

No comments:

Post a Comment