Thursday, 9 May 2013

Who decided UK local radio wouldn't work any more?

Among radio people in north east England there has been a big fuss recently over Bauer’s decision, nodded through by Ofcom, to combine the programming of Teesside-based TFM with its larger sibling Metro Radio on Tyneside. However this is an inevitable consequence of a number of policy decisions made by the regulator over several years. Essentially, encouraged by the big players in the industry, Ofcom has come to the conclusion that truly local radio is not a viable commercial proposition.

Worse still, Ofcom has decided that local programming, other than in formal news bulletins, is of little consequence or importance. In response to the Digital Economy Act 2010, announcing measures “to protect and promote what listeners want most from local radio” Ofcom cited research which said news is valued more than other content on local commercial radio. As a result the licensing authority decided that stations could request to reduce the number of locally made programme hours if they committed to providing local news bulletins throughout weekday daytime. In other words the local relevance of the other 58 minutes per hour, and ALL programmes outside weekday daytime, were of little importance provided you could insert some recorded local news material at the top of some peak hours. Ofcom announced “The measures will still ensure that local stations stay local – providing the locally focused content listeners want and which is protected by the legislation governing radio – but in a more flexible way.”

At the same time Ofcom said it would permit local FM stations to co-locate and share all of their programming within “approved areas”. It said this would allow local services to merge to form larger, more financially viable stations. These approved areas were more like regions – the whole of Northern Ireland for example – and in the north east of England reflected the entire former Tyne-Tees TV region. As a result, in approving the changes to the TFM licence, Ofcom was able to say: “The proposed changes to co-location and programme sharing are consistent with Ofcom’s statement on commercial radio localness regulation since the licences concerned are all within the same Ofcom approved area.”

In agreeing the format changes for TFM Ofcom went on to make the incredible assertion that: “The request has been agreed under Section106(1A)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1990 – that the departure would not substantially alter the character of the service.”  Nobody who has ever lived and worked in Teesside or North Yorkshire would ever believe that the character of a radio programme presented from Newcastle would be the same as one presented from Stockton. Ofcom believes that the social, cultural, economic and historic differences between these two large communities can be adequately reflected in a few minutes of local news items in every 24 hours.

Unfortunately the BBC has always held an equally ambivalent attitude towards the value of its own local radio programming. It is only a couple of years since BBC Local Radio appeared to be under threat in the last round of cost-cutting by the Corporation. And while hundreds of community radio services have opened in the past decade or so these are limited in coverage area and funding and have, correctly, a focus different to that of a broadly-based, entertainment-led, commercial operation. As a result, over much of the UK, a large gap is opening in our radio landscape. The originally local services have been allowed to become region-wide while the regional stations have become essentially national brands.

This migration upwards in size happens in most areas of business and human endeavour and is generally seen as a good thing. However as a local bakers shop, car dealership or carpet warehouse grows, goes regional and then national (when a healthy economy permits) other people can launch new local enterprises to fill the space and introduce fresh new ideas, products and services. In radio this is not the case. Ofcom has complete control over who may use the radio spectrum for broadcasting and they have decided that, firstly, there are no more available suitable frequencies in the FM band in most built-up areas and, secondly, that, even when they become available, they should be allocated to either low-power community services or for region-wide stations.

Still the vast majority of listening is on FM and this remains the most efficient and effective way of delivering high-quality local radio. For a local service transmitting via DAB digital radio is like using a very expensive sledgehammer to crack a small nut. While anyone can set up a new audio service via the internet this is an ideal method of delivery for a nation-wide or even worldwide community of interest but lacks the flexibility and efficiency of FM local radio, where millions of radio sets already exist in homes, cars and workplaces.

We are left with an very inefficient use of the VHF broadcast spectrum, with a large number of separate medium-power transmitters now carrying identical programmes nationwide while newcomers are told there is no room in the band for their new ideas.

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