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.


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