Saturday, 29 August 2009

Predicting the radio present, twenty years ago

Whilst looking for some information about the changes wrought by the Broadcasting Act 1990, I happened to find some old press cuttings from that time. What follows are some predictions for the 1990s UK radio industry that I had written in the February 1990 edition of “For The Record” magazine:

RADIO ONE continues to feel the winds of change instituted by the new Head of Music Roger Lewis and a team of younger presenters. It promotes and programmes itself more aggressively now and will continue to lead the way where commercial stations only follow. In the 1990s, it will sever entirely the relationship between its playlist and the current Top 75, thus sounding the death knell for the single as a commercial proposition.

NEEDLETIME RESTRICTIONS, which have held back developments in music radio for so long, will be legislated away, though not without a spirited fight by the record companies. As a result, all-music stations will become the norm in the commercial sector, leaving the BBC as the only producer of serious speech programmes.

MORE STATIONS will fracture the radio market into lots of small pieces, losing forever the kind of huge audiences attracted by the Sunday chart show or “Our Tune”. Record retailers will have to react by stocking a wider range of album releases and developing their specialist sections (a reversal of the 80s trend towards narrower stock). The album chart will increasingly reflect the sum of different sets of fans’ interests, rather than a common pop denominator.

OWNERSHIP of radio will narrow to a handful of large companies, despite the increased number of stations. The 80s saw radio shares treated as profitable propositions for the first time. The existing big boys (Capital Radio, Crown Communications, Trans World Communications) will continue to buy up anything and everything. Publishers (Associated Press, EMAP) will enter the fray, and TV companies will seek lateral integration with radio as a hedge against loss of their franchises. For the first time, radio shares will become an essential part of a media portfolio and change hands rapidly at inflated prices.

FM RADIO will reign supreme. Listeners will remember “medium wave” with the quaint fondness our grandparents reserve for “cats’ whiskers”. Push-button, auto-locate receivers become standard, timeshift recorders are introduced, knob-twiddling disappears, and listeners channel hop endlessly in search of the perfect beat.

SYNDICATED PROGRAMMES already enable David Hamilton to sound as if he works for your very own local station when he is really sat in a London studio. The development of whole syndicated networks in the 1990s means that your favourite rock station in Leeds is actually originated in New York and plays exactly the same records as WLUP Philadelphia.

DISC JOCKEYS will lose their aura as media stars and lose lucrative careers opening supermarkets, hosting TV shows or making their own hit records. Being a radio presenter will carry as much kudos as being a tax inspector.

SHOCK RADIO develops a huge cult following amongst young people, whilst deplored by their parents. The Radio Authority is belatedly forced to curb the phenomenon by introducing a largely ignored “Code of Presentation Conduct”. James Whale makes a film of his life story.

In the December 1989 edition of “For The Record”, I had written:

Asked whether the public service obligations in commercial radio would be abandoned completely, Lord Chalfont [newly appointed chairman of the newly created Radio Authority] has expressed hope that the Broadcasting Act would allow stations to continue with such commitments if they so wished. He added that, in his recent discussions with various MDs of local stations, they had expressed their avowed intent to maintain public service elements. This is a little like a headmaster hearing his class of fourth-formers promise never to drop litter, to always help old ladies across busy roads, and to keep their school uniforms on until they get home.

The issue of public service commitments in radio is important not just from a theoretical point of view, but because it directly affects the listener’s choice. We’re talking about the very things that should differentiate stations from each other.

At the bottom line, commercial radio does not exist to “satisfy” its listeners. It exists to deliver the largest targeted audience possible to the advertisers who pay money to do so. Listeners’ broadcasting needs are irrelevant to the stations’ profitability.

The cheapest form of radio programming is the continual play of well-known pop records linked by young local DJs who aspire to be Tony Blackburn – anything more fanciful than that costs more money and reduces the profit margin. So, in the brave new world where commercial radio is regulated by a “lighter touch”, the cheapest programming appealing to the lowest denominator audience wins hands down. Out go the rock shows, the folk shows, the local band slots and the ethnic language programmes that were necessary to comply with the IBA’s policy of serving all sections of the audience. Out goes anything but a token commitment to local news coverage, information services, off-air activities and social action broadcasting.

Independent Local Radio will increasingly have little that is either “independent” or “local” about it. If a bomb drops on your town at two in the morning, the one place you won’t hear about it is on your local station (unless the story makes the national news). They’ll simply carry on soothing you through the night – probably with a service beamed by satellite from London. ….

We’ll all get to hear more radio in the 1990s. But there are no guarantees to be seen so far that it will be any better for the consumer in its content.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Paying for DAB radio carriage: god only knows

Premier Christian Radio, the London AM station, is planning to broadcast on the national DAB platform from 21 September 2009. In an e-mail to listeners, its chief executive Peter Kerridge explained:

“Beginning in September, we will start to incur the cost to transmit on this digital platform - £650,000 per annum - which is an expense that is over and above our current operating costs. The only way the £650,000 in transmission costs will be covered is through the generosity of friends like you. It is fantastic that God has moved in such an amazing way to provide Premier this national digital licence! Now may you and I be found faithful as we steward this new resource for His glory and for the advancement of His Kingdom!"

DAB carriage remains a costly business. Digital One, the owner of the sole national commercial DAB multiplex, fixes the carriage costs for content providers such as Premier Christian Radio. If £650,000 seems like a lot of money for broadcast on a platform that reaches 33% of adults in the UK and accounts for only 13.1% of radio listening [RAJAR Q1 2009], understand that this is a bargain compared to the expensive contracts some content providers had signed previously. In January 2009, Digital One responded to the government’s Digital Britain initiative by cutting its prices. Acting chief executive Glyn Jones

“We’re turning the ideas set out in the Digital Radio Working Group’s report into actions. That includes looking hard at how Digital One can offer lower carriage costs. In turn we’re expecting that stakeholders involved in the Working Group, and other companies with the ambition to launch new national radio stations in 2009, will step up and engage with a view to adding compelling new choice for consumers. We’re expecting that prices will initially be set below Digital One’s 2008 rate card. One reason for that is to help provide an incentive for people to invest in high quality services. But, over time, companies providing new services will be expected to contribute to the costs of a transmitter roll-out plan which was something also identified by the DRWG as important.”

Digital One’s January 2009 press release was ambitiously headlined ‘New National Radio Stations To Launch In 2009’. Seven months later, what stations have stepped forward to take advantage of the Digital One offer? Government-funded BFBS Radio started DAB simulcasting on 20 April 2009, following a three-month trial in 2008. Amazing Radio launched on DAB in June 2009 for a six-month trial period, playing unsigned artists from its music web site. Also in June 2009, Fun Kids, which is normally on DAB only in London, launched a fourteen-week trial simulcast on national DAB. Neither BFBS nor Amazing Radio are participating in RAJAR radio audience research, so it is impossible to know how much listening these services are attracting on the DAB platform.

Have we seen any major media players step forward and put a new mass market radio service on the national DAB platform? Not yet. Why? Because, even at the knockdown rate of £650,000 per annum, it still proves impossible to make a profit from offering radio content on DAB. The table below offers very rough estimates of what digital stations measured in RAJAR (and carried on a mix of broadcast platforms including DAB and digital TV) should and might be earning in revenues. The second column lists the total hours presently listened to each digital station. The third column uses the average commercial radio sector yield (how much revenue was generated from how much radio listening in 2008) to estimate, in theory, what these stations’ revenues should be.

However, the ‘Commercial Radio: The Drive To Digital’ report commissioned from Ingenious Consulting by RadioCentre in January 2009 told us that:

“Incremental revenue from DAB-only stations is negligible at ~£130k per ‘bespoke’ station …”

The list above comprises the 14 digital radio stations that subscribe to RAJAR. Not all of these stations broadcast on DAB (Smash Hits Radio is only on digital TV), not all of them are national (Yorkshire Radio is only on the Yorkshire DAB multiplex, for example), but let us be generous and assume that each station earns revenues of £130,000 per annum. In total, these stations combined would generate £1.82m per annum of revenue. This is substantially less than the £29.7m revenues that would be expected to be generated from them attracting 22.7m hours per week of listening.

The final column in the table estimates how much revenue each station might be earning from the £1.82m total, if revenues were proportionate to hours listened. I must stress again that this only a rough estimate – none of these stations, nor Ofcom, publishes the actual revenues of digital radio stations. What these estimates demonstrate is that, if Planet Rock were (like Premier Christian Radio) paying £650,000 per annum for its carriage on the national DAB multiplex (the financial
details of its “long-term” deal with Digital One were not made public), the station is still nowhere near breaking even, not even after ten years on-air.

The Ingenious Consulting report found that DAB-only stations are spending £25m per annum on operating expenses. The above table shows that, if these stations were attracting revenues proportionate to the listening they presently enjoy, collectively they would then be profitable (£29m revenues minus £25m operating expenses). But, in fact, their revenues are presently less than £2m. The Ingenious Consulting report concluded that, as a result, the “annual negative cash flow impact of DAB” on the commercial radio sector is around £27m per annum.

This £27m annual loss attributable to digital radio stations represents around 5% of commercial radio’s revenues, a significant impact on an industry which is only marginally profitable overall at present. The nub of the problem is this: digital radio stations presently account for 5.3% of listening to commercial radio, but digital radio stations attract only 0.3% of commercial radio revenues. Here is a massive economic disconnect that requires much more than a mere increase in productivity or some kind of performance improvement. Doubling or even tripling these stations’ revenues would barely dent the problem.

Maybe DAB is simply not a platform where the traditional commercial radio model can be made to work – the old model of ‘give away free content, pay for it by attracting advertisers to buy on-air spots’. Maybe DAB is not a medium from which traditional UK commercial broadcasters can generate profits from offering content, as they had anticipated in the 1990s. Commercial broadcasters are pushing no commercial product other than their on-air brand (and some music downloads, concert tickets and click-through purchases). Instead, perhaps DAB can only be made to work as a marketing tool to assist companies selling (non-radio) products. So, for example, it would make sense for Universal Music to have a DAB radio station to expose directly to the public the CDs/videos/movies they are currently selling. It would make sense for Amazon to have a DAB radio station to promote all the consumer products it is selling. Then, the £650,000 carriage cost could be considered an additional ‘marketing expense’ for these companies’ core business, rather than a direct operating expense that had to be recouped ON-AIR.

The other possibility is for DAB to be used predominantly by organisations whose objective is something other than breaking even financially. In January 2008, I had

“Worryingly, this sudden flowering of ethnic, religious and publicly-funded radio stations on the DAB platform echoes the fate of the ‘AM’ waveband in the 1990s, at a time when the radio industry and the regulator had become convinced that audiences were deserting that platform for the improved audio quality offered by the ‘FM’ waveband. By 2002, declining audiences of ‘AM’ stations had persuaded the regulator to suggest that the platform be used in future “for better serving minority, disadvantaged or currently excluded audience groups, whether defined by their interests, demographics or ethnicity”. The ‘DAB’ platform of 2008, particularly in London, is already starting to resemble the ‘AM’ platform of 1998, suggesting that ‘DAB’ might have already been written off by the sector as a means to reach the ‘mass market’ audiences that national advertisers desire from the medium.”

This trend towards non-commercial content has developed further since then. The national DAB platform has added BFBS Radio (government-funded) and now Premier Christian Radio (religious), but no new permanent digital radio stations operating on a commercial model. Local DAB multiplexes have added Traffic Radio (government-funded), Colourful Radio (ethnic) and UCB (religious). Interestingly, UCB has taken two channels on each of the regional MXR DAB multiplexes, giving it a substantial amount of DAB spectrum. But there have also been ethnic DAB radio casualties since my earlier report – Islam Radio in Bradford closed its DAB service in December 2008, and India’s Zee Radio closed its London DAB service in April 2009. Even for ethnic broadcasters locked out of analogue radio, DAB can prove a struggle.

Premier Christian Radio’s Peter Kerridge hit the DAB nail on the head when Media Week

“Kerridge said Premier Media’s funding meant it was in a better position than other media organisations, as the ‘ad-funded model is smashed’ …..”

The available financial data confirms that, certainly for the DAB platform, an ad-funded model simply is not viable at present. To make DAB work for your content, you need government funding, direct listener financial support, a sugar daddy, or some kind of god smiling benevolently down upon you.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Digital Britain: the Implementation Plan

The government has published the Implementation Plan for Digital Britain, setting out its action plans for the proposals made in June 2009's Final Report. These are the sections that directly concern the radio sector:

LEAD: Colin Perry

- Bill Project Board oversees the delivery of the Bill. Members are David Hendon (BIS)/Jon Zeff (DCMS) - joint SROs, Carola Geist-Divver (DCMS legal), Eve Race and Jose Martinez-Soto (BIS legal), Colin Perry (Bill Team Leader), Laura Williams (secretariat)
- Bill Management Group tracks progress and drives delivery of the Bill. Members are Colin Perry (Bill Team Leader) chair, Deputy Directors BIS/DCMS, Carola Geist-Divver (DCMS legal), Eve Race and Jose Martinez-Soto (BIS legal), Laura Williams (secretariat). Other policy leads attend as appropriate.

􀂃 Amending the Communications Act 2003 to make the promotion of investment in communications infrastructure and content one of Ofcom’s principal duties.

􀂃 Ensure the Board of Ofcom has a statutory obligation to write to the Government alerting Secretaries of State to any matters of high concern regarding developments affecting the communications infrastructure and in any event to write every two years giving an assessment of the UK’s communications infrastructure.

􀂃 Encouraging, where appropriate, adjoining radio multiplexes to merge and extending existing multiplexes into currently un-served areas rather than awarding new licences. Grant Ofcom powers to alter multiplex licences which agree to merge.

􀂃 We will make an amendment to the existing legislation to support a change in the localness regulatory regime to allow location in mini regions defined by Ofcom.

􀂃 Grant a further renewal for up to seven years of analogue radio licences for broadcasters which are also providing a service on Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).

􀂃 Grant Ofcom new powers to insert a two year termination clause into all radio licences awarded or further renewed before the Digital Radio Upgrade date.

LEAD: John Mottram

􀂃 Develop Action Plan for Digital Radio Upgrade, including a Cost/Benefit Analysis.

􀂃 Invite Consumer Expert Group to extend its current scope to inform the development of the Digital Radio Upgrade.

􀂃 Facilitate the roll-out of the BBC’s national multiplex to ensure it achieves coverage comparable to FM by the end of 2014.

􀂃 Encourage, where appropriate, adjoining local multiplexes to merge and extend coverage into currently un-served areas. Grant Ofcom powers to alter multiplex licences which agree to merge.

􀂃 Allow for the extension of multiplex operators’ licences until 2030, if part of an agreed plan towards Digital Radio Upgrade.

􀂃 Consider with Ofcom the case for delaying the implementation of AIP on DAB multiplexes until after the Digital Radio Upgrade is completed.

􀂃 Grant Ofcom new powers to extend the licence period of all national and local licences, broadcasting on DAB, for up to a further seven years, although this decision will be kept under review. In addition, amend the rules under which Ofcom grants analogue licence renewals to ensure that regional stations which do become national DAB stations do not lose their current or future renewal.

􀂃 Grant Ofcom new powers to insert a two year termination clause into all licences awarded or further renewed before the Digital Radio Upgrade date.

􀂃 Work with broadcasters and vehicle manufacturers to implement the ‘Digital Radio in vehicles: a five point programme’.

􀂃 Agree with Ofcom a two-year pilot of a new output regulatory regime.

􀂃 Reduction in number of locally-produced hours in exchange for enhanced commitment to local news.

􀂃 Ofcom to consult on a new map of mini-regions which balances the potential economic benefits but also the needs and expectations of listeners. We will make an amendment to the existing legislation to support this change.

􀂃 Consultation seeking views on proposals for a new licence renewal regime for community radio. This consultation will include proposals to remove the 50% funding limit from anyone source and the restriction preventing a station being licensed in an area overlapping with a small commercial service and extending our commitment to promoting best practice within the community sector and encouraging self-sustainability by allocating a small portion of the Community Radio Fund to support the work of the industry body, the Community Media Association.

􀂃 Insert two year termination clause into all new licences.

􀂃 Grant Ofcom new powers to extend the licence period of all national and local licences, broadcasting on DAB, for up to a further seven years (keep this decision under review). If by the end of 2013 it is clear the Digital Radio Upgrade timetable will not be achieved we will use the powers, set out above, to terminate licences and the existing licensing regimes will apply.

􀂃 Amend the rules under which Ofcom grants analogue licence renewals to ensure that regional stations which do become national DAB stations do not lose their current or future renewal.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Destroying BBC Radio One: it's the same old song

Interviewed for an article in The Sunday Times headlined ‘We’ll sell off Radio 1, say Tories’, Tory shadow broadcasting minister Ed Vaizey said: “Radio 1 is not fulfilling its obligation to its audience. Its median age is those in their thirties when it should aim much more at teenagers and [those in] their twenties. There is then a good argument for the BBC to be rid of Radio 1 and give the commercial sector a chance to use the frequency.”

After attending St Paul’s School and Merton College, Oxford,
Vaizey (son of the late Lord Vaizey) worked for the Conservative Party’s Research Department for two years, before training and practising as a barrister. He writes a column for Tatler magazine.


Poor old Radio 1 is continually misunderstood by the big wigs who never listen to it, but who perpetually want to destroy the appeal of the UK’s only national pop channel. They fail to appreciate that the station is far more than ‘undistinguished Top 40’ radio, as The Sunday Times described it last week.

In its 1986 report on the future of the BBC, the Peacock Committee similarly felt that Radio 1 ‘did not provide a public service in the sense that Radios 3 and 4 very conspicuously do’. More cultural bigots talking rot.

Outside of London, commercial radio stations are as conservative in their choice of pop music as a local church disco. Radio 1 is the only medium to consistently expose new songs, new songwriters and new artists. Where it leads, commercial stations follow like sheep.

Despite no British artist or record company ever being awarded a Queen’s Award for Industry, pop music is undeniably one of this country’s most lucrative exports. Yet subsidies are unheard of for up-and-coming talent to write, record or perform.

Classical music, opera, dance, film, theatre and even jazz are handed untold state grants from so-called ‘arts’ bodies, yet pop music receives nothing. Radio 1 is the closest this country has to a public gallery for new musical talent that would otherwise remain completely unheard. And it manages to attract the biggest radio audience.

As Paul Gambaccini puts it, ‘Radio 1’s strongest claim to legitimacy is that it is the Radio 3 of popular music.’ Even ex-BBC boss Alisdair Milne understands that Radio 1 ‘does things the commercial sector would never do. It has a strong commitment to the creation of new pop music.’ ….. So why are the top cats so determined to destroy the BBC’s most valued asset?

Grant Goddard
City Limits magazine #571, London [excerpt]
17-24 September 1992

Sunday, 2 August 2009

"Above all else, Durham FM will be local" .... a promise is a comfort to a fool

Durham must be unique in Britain in that it once had its own local radio station and then had it taken away. BBC Radio Durham closed down in 1973 when the BBC, then limited to just twenty local radio services around the country moved the station in its entirety to Carlisle. It was reasoned that Durham could be adequately served from the north by Radio Newcastle and from the south by the then Radio Teesside. The same arguments can be heard today when, despite the proliferation of electronic media over the past thirty years, all the mass media serving the Durham area are based on Tyneside, on Teesside, in Darlington or in London. Our research and consultations confirm an almost universal desire for Durham to have its own radio station - for Durham and from Durham.

These words are taken from the winning licence
application submitted to Ofcom by The Local Radio Company in January 2005 for the new Durham FM licence. The application continued:

There is an unduly low level of contact between the City of Durham and the many towns and villages which surround it. Those representing the towns and villages in the Districts away from the City also point to a reluctance to travel between those towns and villages. Local people feel marginalised by the existing media. When most local news and information comes from media dominated by out-of-area conurbations is it surprising that local awareness and pride starts to suffer? We see this as a major opportunity for Durham FM to provide an entertaining and informative local radio service which will have wide appeal…..

Durham FM will broaden the range of local commercial radio services by offering the only programming to focus exclusively on Durham City and the surrounding districts. In addition to the full range of national services, the proposed TSA is served by local radio stations based around Tyneside and Teesside. From the BBC there are BBC Radio Newcastle and BBC Radio Cleveland, while from commercial radio Metro Radio, Magic 1152, Century FM and Galaxy 105-106 all broadcast from Tyneside with TFM and Magic 1170 having their studios in Stockton-on-Tees…..

Only 8% of total news time on Metro Radio was devoted to stories drawn
from the proposed Durham FM editorial area…. With slightly more time devoted to news bulletins than on Metro, local news [on Magic 1152] about the Durham area featured a little more frequently, but still only 10% of news bulletin time was devoted to material directly relevant to the Durham FM TSA…. [On Century FM] our independent monitoring agency failed to identify a single reference to anywhere within the proposed Durham FM TSA…. There was no locally relevant news [on Galaxy FM] for the Durham FM area….

Durham FM will focus entirely on Durham and the districts surrounding it. Our programmes will be locally produced and presented from studios in Durham by people who know and understand the area. This independent monitoring of the existing services shows that no other ILR station in the area provides anything approaching the level of relevant local news and information which are demanded by the local population and will be offered by Durham FM. During the period monitored very few local news stories were included and there were very few locally relevant programme items on any of the four ILR services. Durham FM will become established as the only dependable, independent and up-to-the-minute source of information about what’s happening in the towns and villages of the Durham area….

Local material is vitally important to the success of Durham FM. Our detailed quantitative research, detailed later in this application, confirms that a gap exists in the Durham radio market for a greater quantity of Durham city and county news and local information. Whether expressed in terms of speech items that listeners would like to hear or those that they consider 'essential' listening it is local Durham and North East regional news, along with local weather forecasts and traffic and travel news for the Durham county area, that head the list of requirements….

All programmes on Durham FM will be locally produced and presented with the exception of a nationally networked chart show during three hours on a Sunday afternoon/evening and one latenight ‘phone-in of three hours duration each week. A limited further amount of appropriate network programming may be added outside weekday daytime once our local audience is established, after the second year on-air, but a minimum of 18 hours per day will always be locally produced and presented.

Following up this written application, Ofcom
asked The Local Radio Company explicitly:
Are there any cost-saving sharing of resources planned arising from Durham FM’s close geographical proximity to both Alpha 103.2 and Sun FM?

The written answer from The Local Radio Company was:
It is our intention to operate Durham FM as a separate radio station with its own facilities, staff and objectives.

At its meeting on 7 April 2005, Ofcom’s Radio Licensing Committee [RLC] considered
three competing applications for the new Durham FM licence and decided to award it to The Local Radio Company. Ofcom explained that this decision was made because:

…the speech commitments contained in Durham FM’s Format (such as a seven-day local news service) would improve Durham-specific news and information provision in the area, and that the overall programming proposals contained in the Format were both deliverable and would cater for local tastes and interests, as demonstrated by the group’s research. The RLC considered that, in relation to Section 314 of the Communications Act 2003, Durham FM’s programming proposals contained a suitable proportion of local material and locally-made programmes. The station will offer locally-made output for 18 hours per day, and the Format includes commitments to delivering a range of local material. The Committee noted that, after two years on air, the station’s Format gives it the ability to air networked programming at off-peak times, if it so chooses. [emphasis added]

Durham FM launched on 5 December 2005. The station failed to come anywhere close to the audience forecasts made in its licence application (see table). A radio station’s revenues are closely proportionate to the total hours listened to it. On that assumption, Durham FM must have been around 74% below its revenue target for Year Three – a catastrophic performance for a business that is operated on largely fixed costs. So how come The Local Radio Company’s forecasts in its licence application were so wildly optimistic? The application had said:

We have no doubt that these audience projections are realistic and achievable in the light of our experience of comparable services throughout Britain…. We have every confidence that Durham FM’s locally focussed programming, backed by a significant launch budget, will establish a substantial audience within a relatively short period of time.

And how come Ofcom was so confident that the Local Radio Company could meet these targets? Ofcom said:

Durham FM’s audience and revenue forecasts were considered to be achievable, and in this context RLC members noted the excellent ratings performance and track record of both Sun and Alpha in nearby areas which have a line-up of competitor stations very similar to that which the new Durham service will face.

So just how “excellent” were the performances of the neighbouring Sun and Alpha stations owned by the same applicant?

When Ofcom’s Radio Licensing Committee met in April 2005 to consider the Durham licence, it was becoming evident that Sun and Alpha were losing listening at an alarming rate, both stations having peaked in 2002 under previous owner Radio Investments Ltd. Similar audience losses were experienced across most stations owned by The Local Radio Company, following its disastrous decision in 2004 to homogenise the branding and content of its portfolio under the slogan “music:fun:life”. Essentially, the group sucked the quirky ‘localness’ out of its local stations and, unsurprisingly, listeners subsequently turned off in droves.

The end result? Durham FM presently has a 4.0% share of listening in its local market of 201,100 adults. By comparison, Galaxy has a 9.5% share, Magic 6.4%, Century/Real 6.5% and Smooth 4.8%. Metro FM and TFM together probably take 7.5% (Durham FM chooses not to itemise these two stations in its RAJAR report). BBC local radio takes a significant 8.8% share, even though Durham is only on the periphery of both BBC Radio Newcastle and BBC Radio Tees. [RAJAR Q1 2009]

In December 2008, The Local Radio Company submitted an
application to Ofcom to move Durham FM’s studios to Sunderland, effectively closing the Durham location, but continuing to provide ‘local’ programmes for Durham from Sun FM in Sunderland. It argued that “the losses for Durham FM are significant”, the details of which had “been provided, in confidence, to Ofcom”. It argued that “this co-location will allow the station to build its audience on a more stable and secure financial basis” because “it has a poor financial history” and that “the proposals will be imperceptible to listeners in the local market place”.

At its meeting on 23 February 2009, following a five-week public consultation, Ofcom’s Radio Licensing Committee
refused this request to move Durham FM to Sunderland because it decided that “the case for the existence of exceptional circumstances had not been made”. However, Ofcom did suggest that it could reconsider this request “later in the year” following publication of the Digital Britain final report. Interestingly, Ofcom noted that a previously approved request in March 2008 to allow the Durham station to share programming with Alpha FM in Darlington “has been scrapped by the licensee [so as] to secure all-local programming output on Durham FM”.

With an immediate move to Sunderland now off the agenda, The Local Radio Company moved on to Plan B. Next, it applied to Ofcom to effectively merge the output of Durham FM and Alpha in Darlington into one station to be called “Alpha”. So what would remain of the promised local programming for Durham? “Weekday breakfast programming and four-hour daytime shows on Saturday and Sunday will remain separately and locally produced in Durham….”, said the
application. “At all other times, local programming will originate from Darlington”. Boldly, the application argued that “the character of the [radio] services will remain substantially unchanged” and “the essentially local nature of the [radio] services will remain”.

Suddenly, Durham and Darlington were to become a single local radio market:
We believe there is considerable editorial justification in combining much of the local programming of Durham FM and Alpha, and in originating the shared programmes from Darlington. Until 1997, when it became a unitary authority, Darlington was part of County Durham and still very much leans culturally towards the county. Equally, for listeners and advertisers in the county, the attraction of a local radio service focusing on Durham is greatest for those more remote from the Tyneside conurbation, particularly those in the towns nearer to Darlington. The general public, listeners and advertisers are accustomed to the County Durham local press being substantially based in Darlington.

Am I the only one who finds this line of argument totally unbelievable? Firstly, it directly contradicts the opposite assertions made in The Local Radio Company’s application for the licence four years earlier that Durham was not well served by other media in the region. Secondly, the licence application had demonstrated there were few community links between Durham and either Tyneside or Teesside. Thirdly, my personal experience is that, having lived in Durham for seven years, I never visited Darlington (which is 19 miles away by road), though I did go to Newcastle (16 miles) and Sunderland (13 miles) regularly. However, Ofcom barely blinked at the contradictions and was so eager to go along with the story that it approved this proposal without any kind of public consultation, stating:

Durham has already regionalised four of those hours, and the request sets out clearly the affinities between the two areas [Durham and Darlington]…. This is not seen a major change to the stations’ output, and the request is granted.

So, for the second time, Durham has effectively lost its local radio station and now retains only a local breakfast show hanging by the barest thread. I am not trying to argue that Durham must have a local commercial radio station, regardless of how much money it might lose. But, once again, the outcome for radio listeners in Durham seems to raise questions about the robustness of our system of local radio licensing:
· Before advertising the Durham licence in 2004, did Ofcom properly evaluate the potential for local radio advertising revenues in the market?
· How carefully did Ofcom scrutinise the application by The Local Radio Company, before awarding it the licence, in order to separate the ‘spin’ from the reality?
· Did Ofcom monitor and assess the Durham station to ensure that the promises made in its licence application were executed on the ground?
· Why is a ‘promise’ explicitly made in a radio licence application not a contractual promise? Or are the proposals promised in an application simply disregarded by Ofcom once an applicant has been awarded the licence?

The local station in Durham must have failed because either/and:
· It was licensed to fail – no commercial radio station could survive in too small and too poor a local market – in which case Ofcom should never have advertised the Durham licence
· The Local Radio Company did not paint a truthful picture in its licence application of the economics of opening a Durham station, and Ofcom did not critique it sufficiently
· The Local Radio Company’s execution of its business plan for the Durham radio station was badly flawed

In any of these cases, somebody needs to put up their hand and simply admit ‘we got it wrong’. What galls is that both The Local Radio Company and Ofcom appear to have almost connived to come up with a ridiculous new storyline – Durham is a lot closer to Darlington than we realised – which simply contradicts everything that had been said previously, but conveniently glosses over any notion that the present predicament was the result of poor judgement.

To be fair to The Local Radio Company, its latest submission to Ofcom did reiterate:
The present proposal to simply add two further hours of daily weekday sharing is made in the light of the difficult financial situation facing all stations such as these. Relevant financial information has been supplied to Ofcom in confidence.

It might engender much more respect for the parties if, instead of these economic vagaries cloaked in confidentiality, the application to Ofcom to request deconstruction of the Durham station had simply said:
We screwed up as a station owner, you screwed up too as a regulator, and all we can do now is the two of us try and salvage the situation to ensure that the citizens of Durham can at least retain the shell of a local radio service, even if not the substance. Between us, we recognise that all we have done is add insult to injury, repeating the BBC’s unwarranted removal of a local radio service for Durham in 1973. Our sincere apologies to the people of Durham. All we can hope is that, by both of us learning from our mistakes, this travesty will not be repeated either for a third time here in Durham or elsewhere.

What Northeast England now has in the enlarged ‘Alpha’ is the makings of yet another regional radio station that could (if Sun FM were included) cover the huge area stretching from Tyneside down to Yorkshire. It would then become the fifth regional station in the area, adding to Galaxy, Smooth, Magic and Real. As for genuinely local radio serving the Durham area, The Local Radio Company’s licence application already demonstrated very clearly that neither Metro Radio nor TFM cover Durham editorially. This leaves Durham, whose population seriously lacks economic mobility, back out in the local radio wilderness once again. If that isn’t public policy failure, then what is?

Durham must be unique in Britain in that it once had its own local radio station and then had it taken away. ….

Once is an accident, twice is a ........?

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Digital radio switchover: 'you can't move faster than the British public want you to move'

Feedback, BBC Radio 4, 31 July 2009 @ 1330

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, interviewed by Roger Bolton and listeners:

[Do you think the principle of moving across to DAB is a good one?]

The BBC has been a strong supporter of digital radio, believing that it will actually offer an improved service, and …

[Improved in what way? The quality of the existing services will be made better? Or it allows you to provide a range of other services as well?]

I think both. But, of course, you only satisfy the first of those two tests when you’ve actually got the same sort of coverage [on DAB] that you’ve got on FM. And indeed, it’s important to say that the BBC has already picked up what commercial radio was going to do in terms of more investment to get to 90% of the population, and that will be achieved by 2011. But I think we’re going to go on to the question of ‘[FM] switch-off’ because actually that’s a different issue altogether ….

[Well, one of the key things of public service is universal access and, clearly, a lot of people are saying [that] until 2015 there won’t be one because, unlike a television set, perhaps we’ve got five or six radios around the house and a different radio in the car. And are you telling us we are going to have to buy five or six new radios and a new radio for the car in order to listen to something we might not want in the first place? That’s the argument.]

Well, let me underline that I’m not saying that. That’s actually in the government’s Green Paper – they propose a date of 2015. The Trust is very clear actually. Who comes first in this? Audiences and the people you pay the Licence Fee. It is an extraordinarily ambitious suggestion, as colleagues have referred to, that by 2015 we will all be ready for this. So you can’t move faster than the British public want you to move on any issue. So there’s no doubt that 2015 looks challenging.

[Chairman, are you prepared to say, on behalf of the listeners, to the government, whichever government is in power, if they are insistent in pushing this through and you believe that listeners will be significantly disadvantaged, are you prepared to say ‘no, the BBC can’t go along with this’?]

Well, as things stand at the moment, [in] the Digital Britain report, it seems that the BBC will find the money for this final stage, so there are serious discussions to be had about how it’s going to be funded, as well as whether actually 2015 is in any way a realistic timescale. Now, what I can say now, is that those have already formed part of our discussion with Ministers and will continue to form part of our discussions with Ministers.

[But, to repeat my question, are you prepared to say at some point, or countenance saying, to a Minister ‘no, we can’t go along with this because, in doing so, we will provide a disservice to our listeners’?]

Well, I think I’ve said as much I need to say today …..

[…. as a diplomatic chairman …..]

…. and also, you know, it’s very important that I don’t try and conduct any discussion I’m having with Ministers over the air.