Monday, 18 July 2011

When is a consultation not a consultation? When Ofcom consults about radio

Each of us has dozens of ‘consultations’ every day. You know the sort of thing. 'I’m going to the corner shop – anything you want? A Kit-Kat? OK.' However, if I came back with a cat rather than a chocolate bar, you would understandably be unhappy. That had not really been a consultation at all.

Ofcom’s consultations on radio are increasingly like that. Ofcom pretends it is going to listen. It doesn’t listen. And then it does whatever it wanted to do in the first place. Mmmm. Surely that is not really a consultation at all.


In June 2011, an Ofcom consultation asked six questions about a proposal by Now Digital (owned by radio transmission provider Arqiva) to extend the coverage of its Exeter and Torbay DAB multiplex to North Devon. One of those questions was:

“Q6. Do you consider that there any other grounds on which Ofcom should approve, or not approve, the request from Now Digital? Please explain the reasons for your view.”

However, Ofcom had apparently already decided that its ‘consultation’ was not a genuine consultation at all, when it explained:

“Before deciding whether to agree to Now Digital’s request, Ofcom is legally required to seek representations on the request from any interested parties. … Provided that the request meets the terms of the statute, the decision whether or not to agree to the request is at Ofcom’s discretion.”

So, Ofcom’s 21-page consultation document was really a complete waste of time and money. The decision was already made. And it would be even more of a waste of time and money for anyone to respond. But respond they did.

In July 2011, Ofcom admitted that, out of 234 responses submitted to its consultation, “the vast majority … were opposed to Now Digital’s request.”

Most objected on the grounds that:
• “agreement to the extension of the multiplex would enable the holder of an existing FM local commercial radio licence for Barnstaple to secure the renewal of that licence, precluding the advertisement of a new such licence (which otherwise would have been due to take place forthwith); and;
• the level of coverage of North Devon proposed by Now Digital was unsatisfactory as it would leave 30% of households in the area with no access to radio services in the event of a digital radio switchover.”


Did Ofcom care about this volume of public opposition? Not at all. Did it investigate why the share of listening to the merged Heart FM Devon had fallen dramatically to an all-time low last quarter (behind BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio Devon) [RAJAR, 2011 Q1]? Apparently not. Ofcom explained:

“The [Ofcom Radio Licensing] Committee [RLC] noted the strong opposition to the fact that approval of Now Digital's request would allow Lantern Radio Limited, the holder of the local [Heart] FM commercial radio licence for Barnstaple, to apply for a renewal of the licence and thereby preclude advertisement of a new licence. However, the RLC did not consider that this fact should preclude the granting of Now Digital's request.”

And why not? Because Ofcom’s wholly unrealistic policy objective, for DAB to replace AM/FM radio, is still being doggedly pursued to the exclusion of any wider regulatory issues – consumer choice, market competition or the removal of barriers to sector entry. As well as to the exclusion of the majority of the 234 respondents to this consultation.

To put the same thing in Ofcom’s own weasel words: “What Now Digital Limited sought in its request is provided for in section 54A of the 1996 Act. Agreeing to the request would be consistent with the broad policy aims of that section. Namely, the extension and promotion of local DAB broadcasting with the consumer benefits of greater choice of services.” [emphasis added]

Now Digital promised to launch the first of three new DAB transmitters in North Devon within six months of Ofcom’s approval. And what about the remaining two? Now Digital promised these will be installed “six months after a positive decision in 2013 by Government regarding digital switchover”. Oh, so you mean ‘never.’

The ulterior objective of this proposal was that the promise to build a single new DAB transmitter in North Devon would enable Global Radio to automatically renew its existing FM licence in Barnstaple for a further eight years without a public contest, thus denying any potential new entrants. Ofcom simply rolled over and complied. And what did Ofcom suggest to the complainants who might not have felt that London-based Global Radio was offering them a genuinely local radio station in Heart FM? It stated:

“The RLC recognised the strength of feeling among many respondents to the consultation for there to be an opportunity for an alternative provider of a local radio service in North Devon to apply for a licence … Ofcom is always keen to facilitate new local radio services for listeners where such services are viable and therefore able to offer consumer benefits over the long term. To this end, the RLC noted that, in its response to the consultation, Arqiva stated that there is presently capacity for at least one further new station to be accommodated on the Exeter & Torbay local [DAB] radio multiplex.”

This is patronising rubbish. "Viable"? "Consumer benefits"? Can Ofcom please name any DAB-only radio station that is making an operating profit as a standalone business? No? Because there isn’t one. DAB radio has proven to be one massive financial black hole that has wasted approaching £1bn. Suggesting to consultation respondents that they start their own new local radio station on DAB is akin to Ofcom recommending these correspondents burn down their own houses.

All Ofcom has done is raise two fingers to the people of North Devon in this consultation. If I were Ofcom’s director of radio, Peter Davies, I would not consider booking a holiday in North Devon any time soon.

Unless Global were to return the favour by picking up the tab for his bodyguards?

6 comments:

Lonesome Twin said...

Another good piece Grant, you do seem to be a lone voice in the babel of ministerial double-speak and spin. These issues affect vast swathes of the population who sadly know nothing of the issues since the national debate is conducted by the BBC, and I think we know where it stands!

I'd appreciate a few words on why you think the current gov. has so whole-heartly picked up this expensive white elephant which was dropped on their laps by a previous set of imcompetants?

Lucio Buffone said...

Well Grant, there is a big media ownership review that Mr Cameron is talking about right now. You should write a submission.

Radio listener in no mans land said...

Living in North Devon I can honestly say that I am NOT covered by a local radio FM station! I can, however tune in to one in Cornwall which is far more local to me than Heart will ever be!
I would dearly love to listen to programming from Barnstaple on FM but alas it seems that the Powers That Be have no interest in anyone living rurally.
There is a group of local folk trying to fight this and get a local station off the ground but I think where we are we will still be "out of the loop" as it is doubtful they will be allowed to broadcast over the distance that HEart North Devon once covered. We were told that DAB will give more choice, it looks like we will have NO choice. We can have Heart, Heart, Heart or Heart! The biggest joke is "Lantern Radio Limited" It hasn't been called Lantern for a while now and it isn't even Heart North Devon anymore.
It is a huge farce!

Paul Chantler said...

Excellent piece, Grant. I 100% agree with you.

Anonymous said...

In the real world the regulator have already decided there actions *beforehand*.

They must do as they have to comply with national/international rules etc.

So more fool the general public for ever believing they actually had any input in OFCOM decision making ...

Anonymous said...

My understanding of this is that Now Digital's application fully complied with the relevant section of the Digital Economy Act 2010 relating to DAB area licence extensions.

Therefore Ofcom had no choice but to grant the extension in order to comply with the Act.

As a result of the strong feelings expressed they have extended the deadline for community radio licence applications in North Devon to September.