Thursday, 20 June 2013

Apparently local TV is good, local radio is bad

Earlier this year Ofcom found itself in a position where, in view of previous decisions on the viability of smaller commercial radio stations, it could not refuse a request by Bauer to merge the programming of TFM Radio on Teesside with that of its larger neighbour Metro Radio in Newcastle. Nobody had really thought the new rules on the location of studios and sharing of programming were meant to apply to stations as large as one serving Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Redcar, Darlington, parts of North Yorkshire and much of County Durham.  But they do.

Ofcom apparently accepted that radio stations the size of TFM Radio could not be commercially viable, nevertheless yesterday the regulator went ahead and advertised a local TV licence for Middlesbrough.  Serving a smaller population centred around just the Teesside towns of Stockton, Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough the digital TV service is expected to be receivable in just 280,000 households.

Now I’ve nothing against the offer of these local TV licences – I think people should be able to put together consortia, bid and then try to make them work. That’s how we make progress in broadcasting. But why has the government put Ofcom in a position where there is a predisposition against offering any new local commercial radio licences, where Ofcom goes out of its way to support big companies who say they can’t make the current local radio licences pay and where the favoured digital technology (DAB) mitigates against smaller-scale local radio - while at the same time they are championing commercial local television!

Why can’t the same rules apply to local radio? If a company tries to make a licence work and fails then, okay, they must hand the licence back and the opportunity should be offered again, perhaps in a slightly different form.

Instead TFM get a licence extension to 2025 (ironically on the grounds that they commit to DAB) and then, within months, are able to claim local radio on Teesside is not commercially viable and announce that for the next twelve years they will share all their programmes with another station in a completely different city.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Are we ready to "Go Digital"?

The publication of  the Government’s  “Go Digital Trial” report this week has reignited the debate over a possible “digital switchover” date. Never mind that this is a false analogy with the digital TV switchover, where the old analogue frequencies were needed to make the new system work and had to be vacated, there is still a lot to consider to safeguard the digital future of all UK radio.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is hailing the digital radio test as a success, saying listeners who are in a good coverage area love digital radio. The project, overseen by Ipsos/MORI earlier this year, saw 237 people in the city of Bath remove analogue radios from their lives, to see what it was like living with only digital radio over a six-week period.

It is interesting that they chose the city of Bath to undertake this test. I see that one of the conclusions was that respondents welcomed the wider choice of stations. Try that in a city like Sunderland where the most popular station is not available on DAB!

The fact is that DAB, as currently established, can carry FEWER stations in many parts of the country (at decent stereo audio quality) that the analogue system it hopes to replace. And that’s even if the smaller stations could afford to go on DAB!

The current plans for reorganising DAB multiplexes will give most areas a wider choice of national and quasi-national brands but do nothing to let smaller local and community services use the platform.  Furthermore listeners now like to receive many other specialist and distant stations which equally cannot afford to be on every DAB multiplex.

Many commentators argue, correctly, that if national and regional stations all moved onto DAB, this would free most of the FM band for smaller commercial and community stations. But this raises a fundamental point – why is broadcast radio in the UK adopting a new technology which will only work for some of its stations? Why is there no plan for local stations to go digital? Are we saying that in ten years time local and community radio will be the only category of media NOT available on stanard digital radio devices?

As I’ve commented before, DAB must be the only digital media technology which offers consumers a narrower choice of content than the analogue system it purports to replace. It’s as if only established artists and labels could issue CDs while new bands and independents had to remain on vinyl. Or only the big Hollywood studios and distributors could produce DVDs, while smaller film makers should be happy to see their product distributed on VHS cassettes!!

Where is the road map for ALL radio stations to be available on some generally receivable digital broadcast platform?  And, for the national and regional services (where a switch to DAB+ would improve quality and capacity on the current multiplexes) what is the plan for that changeover?

Before talking further about the digital switchover we should be clear what the future delivery mechanism will be – and count how many homes currently have DAB+ receivers!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Mark Turnbull

I’m very sad to hear of the death of Mark Turnbull.

Best known as a presenter and producer on BBC Radio Cleveland (now BBC Tees), Mark was a truly remarkable and inspiring character and a sad loss will be felt in many areas of life. Aged 50, he passed away this weekend in hospital in Middlesbrough after a short illness.

Blind from birth, Mark made his name as a journalist covering County Durham courtrooms for local newspapers and reporting on darts and snooker for the Press Association. He became a well-known and respected presenter on BBC Radio Cleveland where he was perfectly able to drive his own shows. He was President of the NUJ for 12 months and was also the first blind chairman of a magistrate’s court in England, serving at Teesside Combined Courts.

He was passionate about radio and Teesside and had a great memory for contacts, names and voices. I remember when I was managing the rival TFM radio he would be able to tell if I had arrived at a local function just from the distant sound of my voice across a crowded room and would call out “Brian Lister has arrived”.  He would repeat this with others throughout the evening.

No mere local presenter, Mark had met, interviewed and was well remembered by many top national and international politicians but he still retained a friendly human touch in his dealing with local listeners. The world of radio is poorer without him.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Do we need a Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

For the past week there has been a flurry of press speculation that the DCMS might be scrapped by a government seeking to save money and streamline Whitehall.

Some senior politicians and industry figures say we could get by very well without a separate cabinet minister overseeing culture, media and sport. They argue that other government departments could pick up Maria Miller’s responsibilities.

The DCMS is responsible for a wide range of soft and fluffy areas of government and probably served the country well in the build-up to last year’s very successful Olympics. Its remit includes, among other things: broadcasting, the Internet, telecommunications and broadband, the arts, cultural property and heritage creative industries, sports, design, fashion, film, publishing and advertising.

So would it matter to us in radio if the responsibilities of the DCMS were split among other departments? It is clear that the department’s drive towards a digital future, which in the case of radio broadcasting became equated with the aging DAB technology, has ruined many aspects of UK local radio. But would we be better off elsewhere?

I recall when, prior to the formation of the then Department of National Heritage in 1992, broadcasting policy mainly emanated from the Home Office while things like frequency allocations were with the Department for Trade and Industry.  The trouble was the people setting editorial scene did not really care about, or understand, the technical opportunities, while the frequency planners often seemed to have no concept of the creative possibilities of radio broadcasting.

By the end of the 1980’s commercial broadcasters with FM and AM frequencies had been told to use them for separate services (and many AM oldies services were launched). We were told: “use it or lose it”. However, just a few years earlier the regulators were unable to give permission for us to split transmissions even if we wanted to. The Home Office, which traditionally regards broadcasting as something to be feared and tightly controlled, did not really want to see a proliferation of new stations. If at Metro we wanted to run a Sunderland football commentary on FM while the Newcastle match was on AM we had to apply directly to the Home Office for “special permission”.

Meanwhile the seeds of community radio were being sown in Sunderland where the community radio association managed to get a Special Event Licence (the forerunner of a RSL licence) to cover the Sunderland seafront illuminations. I should explain that Sunderland had spectacular illuminations before Blackpool – indeed the Blackpool illuminations were based on what they saw on Wearside. The spectacle stopped in the early part of the last century but the autumn night-time display was resurrected for a few years in the late 1980s.

Every night after dark, with thousands of cars cruising the Roker seafront and thousands of families walking the promenade and the seafront gardens this was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the power and value of local radio. The Light AM was born. However the standard frequency allocation was on a busy AM channel using a maximum 50 milliwatts of power. The DTI said this could give a daytime range of a mile or two. However in the evening, with considerable interference from a co-channel lady opera singer on Radio Tirana, the signal barely reached the road passing the transmitter mast. The Albanian station was using a power of some 500,000 watts.  “Why do you need to broadcast at night?” asked the man at the DTI.