Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Parliamentary debate on local radio: Minister reads from the government DAB script

“The Future Of Local Radio” [excerpts]
Private Members’ Debate
Westminster Hall, House of Commons
12 January 2010 @ 1330

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. SiƓn Simon): Local radio is, without question, important to the Government and to communities, playing an important role in binding together the social fabric. We take it very seriously.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (Liberal Democrat): On the point about the importance the Government place on local radio, it seems that local radio stations, and certainly those in my constituency, Pirate FM and Atlantic FM, do not necessarily feel that they have had the opportunity to get their points across at an early stage. That is why they are now contacting local Members to look at some of the issues when the Digital Economy Bill is debated on the Floor of the House. What sort of consultations are taking place with local radio stations?

Mr. Simon: The hon. Gentleman is quite right; there is undoubtedly some concern in the industry. There has been a bit of a campaign, led by UTV. I recently met, at RadioCentre, representatives of many local commercial local radio stations from across the country, and some of them will have been those he mentioned from his constituency. There was extensive consultation when the Bill was drafted, so we do take it seriously. During my remarks, I hope to allay some of the fears which may have emerged through misunderstanding.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Independent): There are genuine fears that the Bill will lead to a two-tier system, so would the Minister address a couple of those fears? Will Clause 34 genuinely lead to deregulation for smaller local radio? Will digital be affordable for smaller local radio, and how can we achieve that? Will smaller local radio get more access to higher-quality FM while it is still around?

Mr. Simon: I am pretty confident that I shall address all those points in my brief remarks. Let me make some progress before I take any more questions. Digital switchover provides new opportunities and increases functionality. It is an essential part of securing the long-term future. The total revenue of the commercial sector has fallen from £750 million in 2000 to £560 million now. At the same time, transmission costs have gone up, with stations now bearing the cost of carriage on FM, DAB, online and digital TV. A market facing such rising costs and falling revenue is unsustainable and puts the health of the entire sector under threat. Although the path to digital may not be easy, we are convinced that it is the only route for securing the long-term future of radio, and that is a view shared by the vast majority of the sector, notwithstanding some of the reservations raised by hon. Members. Therefore, rather than a catalyst for decline, the changes set out in the Digital Economy Bill are essential to secure the survival of local radio. For the first time, we will have three distinct tiers. First, there will be a tier of national services, both commercial and BBC, with a wide range of content. It will allow the commercial sector to compete more effectively with the BBC, employ high-profile presenters and attract high value national advertising and sponsorship. Secondly, a regional or large local tier, again comprising commercial and BBC services, will provide a wide range of programmes, including regional news, traffic and travel. The tier will increase the coverage size and potential revenue of many large local stations which, in turn, will increase the opportunity for linked advertising between regions so that regional commercial operators can benefit from quasi-national advertising. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned the issue of advertising being badly commissioned by the Scottish Government, which I understand. None the less, the benefits of linked advertising for regional radio can be very great if commissioned sensitively. Most important in the context of today’s debate, there will be a tier of local and community radio stations with the specific focus of informing and reflecting the communities they serve. They will be distinct from the national and regional tiers because of the very local nature of their content and they will benefit from less competition for local advertising funding.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Conservative): People in my constituency and elsewhere who depend on radios will not be able to get local radio if it is purely digitised.

Mr. Simon: Local radio will not be purely digitised. That tier will stay on FM for the foreseeable future, but it will not be an FM ghetto; it will be an accessible FM, as I shall explain.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Labour): Given the time constraints, will the Minister agree to meet Members who are interested in the subject?

Mr. Simon: Yes, I am happy to meet Members who are interested. I have another meeting scheduled with local radio operators from all over the country, which will be under the same auspices as my recent meeting with them. (I am not sure whether I have enough time to continue. I do.) So, let me be clear: we see a digital future for all radio eventually. However, with more than 50 BBC services, nearly 350 commercial stations, 200 licensed community stations, the current infrastructure will not support a move to digital for everybody. For small commercial and community stations, the coverage area and the cost of carriage of a digital multiplex are too great. That is one reason why, for the time being, we believe that those stations are best served by continuing to broadcast on FM.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (Liberal Democrat) rose —

Mr. Simon: I am nearly coming to my point, but I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Malcolm Bruce: Some of the small stations have already invested in being on digital. Are they not in danger of being kicked off to FM, having made that investment, and would that be a fair outcome?

Mr. Simon: No, small stations are not in such danger. Stations that are already on digital are not in danger of being kicked off digital, but they are suffering the extra cost of running on two platforms. That is one of the reasons why we need an orderly, managed and reasonably speedy transition to an affordable single platform for as many people as can afford to be on it. The idea of stations on more than one platform is not new, which moves us to a key point that has not been widely understood — it is really important. Listeners have for decades moved between FM and Medium Wave, and historically also to Long Wave. The current generation of DAB sets has tended to make that move a rather sharp distinction, which has led to the fear that FM will end up being a second-class ghetto tier. To avoid that, we are committed to ensuring the implementation of a combined station guide, which is similar to an electronic programme guide, that will allow listeners to access all sets will simply have a list of station names. The listener will not distinguish between FM and digital stations, but will simply select the station by name. We are already working with the industry on that system and encouraging its development and introduction as quickly as possible. That is a crucial difference that has not been widely promulgated or understood. It means that people can stay on FM and the new sets can service the same market. Only 5 per cent of the digital radio receivers currently on sale cannot receive FM. It is our intention that all digital receivers should be able to receive FM as well as complying with the World DMB profile, which will ensure that they can support other technologies to accommodate future changes. That crucial distinction has not been widely understood. When I explained it to people in the industry, it made a big difference. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked whether we could upgrade to DAB+ from the beginning. I understand why he says that, but we are not right at the beginning. There are 10 million DAB sets out there for which people have laid out large amounts of money. The BBC completed a study into the issue last year, and concluded that, on balance, it was not worth writing off that technology because of the impact on the 10 million people who had bought DAB sets. We have said that all new technology should be DAB+ and future compatible so that further change is future-proofed and DAB+ is not excluded. As for the switchover date of 2015, the hon. Gentleman asked whether it was the only way we would get things moving. The Government believe that 2015 is an achievable date. The actual date that switchover happens will depend on the criteria for listenership and coverage being satisfied. We think it can be done by 2015, and that it is important to set a challenging target. The issue of £20 sets was raised. There are already some £30 sets. We have five years to go until 2015, so we remain confident that we will have £20 sets by then.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Labour): I am interested to hear what my hon. Friend says about the 2015 date. Can I take it from what he said this morning that 2015 is an aspiration to encourage the industry to move towards digital — to put their house in order and get things ready? However, if the coverage is not there in places such as the constituencies of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) where there are a lot of hills, will the Government look at the date again? That date is not already fixed.

Mr. Simon: As I said, we believe it is an achievable date. If more than 50 per cent of listeners are not on digital by then, and if coverage is not similar to FM — 98.5 per cent — it will not happen on that date. If for any other unforeseen reason, we are not, as a nation, in good shape to do it by then, we will not do it. We will not switch over at an inappropriate time, but we believe that it can and should be done in 2015. As time ticks on, let me say that a relatively small and cheap piece of hardware will be available to convert in-car sets to something that works in the future as well as the present.

[Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).]

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