It seems so long since we got our teeth into a good broadcasting consultation. They used to happen so often in the good old days. Things ain’t what they used to be.
Fuelled by some new ‘consumer research’, OFCOM today released proposals on amending the guidelines on commercial radio localness. They haven’t been touched since 2010.
Amendments are floated on:
• the ‘approved areas’ within which programmes are considered to be ‘locally-made’;
• the minimum number of locally-made hours each station should provide, and when these programmes should be scheduled.
At present, the regulator is valiantly trying to square some very old legislation with the fast-changing world of radio. Whilst many of us recall with huge affection the good old days of single stations in cities with their own jingles, logos and delicious eccentricities - sensible people in Government, at the regulator, commercial radio companies and the BBC are looking forward to a new world. A world where audio can be delivered from anywhere to anywhere with increasing ease.
Many worry that this may mean a world where British content is submerged and a new generation alight on audio offerings from elsewhere. We all need to ensure that our radio and audio industry continues to produce the very best content and delivers it in the right way. It needs not to be hampered by regulations which require us to behave as we used to in monochrome days.
Ofcom is now proposing to allow local commercial radio stations greater flexibility in “how and where they produce their programmes, while ensuring that listeners’ expectations for high quality local news and other content continue to be met”.
It also proposes to make the ‘approved areas’, within which a programme can considered to be ‘locally-made’, bigger to match, as closely as possible, the ITV regions. Even I could colour in the map now with my crayons.
Ofcom wisely says it recognises the increasing competition for both listeners and advertisers – from streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, as well as from online stations – and lesser regulated DAB stations. It observes the shift from local commercial radio stations to national commercial radio, which has grown in share in ten years by over seven percentage points to 17.5%. They note too, of course, that over half of all radio listening is now to digital services.
In the consultation, Ofcom wades though all its old research and its responses to Government consultations which concluded that it was more important that presenters were entertaining and/or well-informed (which are you?!) rather than simply living round the corner.
The Government consulted in February 2017 on proposals to replace Ofcom’s current duty “to secure a range and choice of radio services” with a new duty “to secure the provision of news and other core information such as traffic and travel information and weather, and to give all local commercial radio stations the flexibility to produce and broadcast locally-relevant content without requirements on where that local content is made or broadcast from”.
In other words, lets not try to regulate the range of programming, that's now there without question. But let's focus on news and local information given that is increasingly at threat across media, so we'll help you provide it more economically.
Last December, the Government confirmed it would bring forward legislation prior to 2022.
Of course, until this happens, we are stuck with dog-eared old laws – hence Ofcom’s consultation now to ensure that we have “an effective and appropriate set of localness guidance”, which suggests it worries what we have now is ineffective and inappropriate.
More research was commissioned by Ofcom earlier this year, amongst commercial radio listeners.
When asked the ‘main reason’ for localness, 20% cited 'news headlines', with only 5% saying ‘studios in the area’.
AMOUNT OF LOCALLY ORIGINATED PROGRAMMING
In the light of this data, Ofcom suggests that stations should be able, if they so wish, to provide a lesser amount of locally-made programming, while still being required to provide appropriate amounts of local news and other local material.
The new rules suggest just one locally-made programme each weekday for stations providing local news throughout the day (but two locally-made programmes per day for stations which chose a reduced local news service). So, from 7 hours a day it is down to 3 (or from 10 to 6).
They suggest that given the local appetite is no greater at breakfast than anywhere else, that any local programme requirement should not have to be delivered at breakfast time. This would enable, as they point out, stations to have a ‘national name’ over the Rice Krispies.
They also assert that we should stop worrying about weekends, as most listeners listen during the week anyway and addicts get their fix of localness then. Similarly, bank holidays (where most stations had been assuming some flexibility in any case!) .
What about this single, lonely locally made programme? Where must it be broadcast from?
Ofcom recognises not only that listeners don’t appear to be over-bothered, but also that technology now allows for most things to be easily done from anywhere.
At present, local programmes have to be made from within the relevant one of the 31 large approved areas. The proposal is to reduce that 31 further to just the dozen blobs of colour here.
This would suggest that a radio group can share premises and programmes more readily than at present. It is worth pointing out that several radio groups have not chosen to take advantage of all the freedoms already in place.
As before, where 'regional' stations focus on providing an extension of music choice and broadcast nationally on DAB, they are freed from the local requirements. This is what liberated LBC to lead Britain’s conversation, as it genuinely, has rather than just London’s. Kiss is on the list, as indeed is Heart (or at least the regional and London Hearts), although again, it is up to operators to determine how they wish to operate.
WHAT IS LOCALNESS?
Ofcom stresses that “listeners in the area served by an individual licensed service should still expect a locally-relevant service even if most of the programmes are not actually provided from their local area (and/or are shared with stations serving other licensed areas)".
So, a Birmingham station sharing programmes with Nottingham would still have to sound local to Birmingham even though it might be based in and shared with Nottingham. Of course, it can also choose to stay as it is.
In defining this thing called localness, Ofcom has dusted off its old Wordperfect document and suggested updates to its guidelines. It continues to recognise that localness is not a determining characteristic of some stations but where it is, the way it is defined would change a little.
This sentence: “the locally-made programmes should include local material across the stated minimum hours as a whole, although local material need not be included in each of those individual hours if this is not appropriate” would be replaced by “any station whose character of service requires it to provide a local service should include, as well as the level of local news specified in its Format, sufficient other local material consistent with these guidelines to deliver the required character of service”.
What is this local material? The definition stays the same. Ofcom loves a ‘feel for the area’, distinctiveness, relevance and a feeling of ownership. It suggests that whilst smiling promotional teams, ads, and big prize contests shared with neighbouring stations might be jolly good fun, it isn’t localness.
Similarly, the definition of local news remains the same. You can hub its provision, but you need “direct and accountable editorial responsibility” for every licensed area and “appropriate provision of professional journalistic cover, based within the licence area" (or now larger approved local area). Bulletins can be pre-recorded, but only just before transmission. Showbiz and sport isn’t often to be included at the expense of proper news, although they admit some folk quite like it.
HOW WILL IT SOUND?
This is but a consultation, and the outcomes will likely shift, if only so the regulator proves it has listened.
Some listeners will write in and say it’s appalling. Many big groups will write in and say it’s good news. Radiocentre is happy. Most people wont bother to read it. There is clearly a sense of direction though in Government and regulatory circles.
These proposals would allow more stations to move and share premises with neighbours in their ITV-ish region. That’s sensible. Ofcom says, in today’s world, why should investment go in bricks and mortar when it could go into other things. Mind you, if my station is now 60 miles away, it might as well be anywhere. Is there actually any point in rules at all? Or just maybe, at this proposed sensible level, does this continue to ensure that some media, at least, is made in places other than London – and places where we can afford to live. I go along with that.
More programme sharing can be permitted – so some local stations which have to originate distinct streams can amalgamate them, if they choose. But Ofcom suggests it’s going to be hot on the new combined stream still sounding local enough to each of the constituent areas – and the news bulletins really being ‘local’. You can feel how the importance of news is being heightened, in a world where local press is closing, sources are diminishing and ‘fake news’ is worrying.
Those dedicated presenters preparing their witty ad libs for today’s local optout show on a large radio brand will now be thinking "will I still have a job?". And the poor person who's turned up conscientiously every Sunday for five years to present a lonely local show on a networked station will hope no-one remembers she's still doing it. That’s awful and many of us have been through it more than once. Even this period of consultative uncertainty is a real headache, for you, your boss and your family. It is maybe some consolation, however, that there have never been so many opportunities in national radio ever in British history -and the audio world beyond radio has never been so exciting.
This will create more of an opportunity to create powerful commercial radio brands. Ones we should have been able to create decades ago. Our national commercial brands will, be knocking on the door of the scale of BBC national networks. More commercial radio presenters will be nationally known.
Local radio as we know it in many areas, save for news and a sprinkling of other content, will become no more in some areas. In others, for accidents of history, ownership, geography – or just pure passion – it will remain. The folk of Mansfield still have the sort of local radio that larger places don’t. Is that right or wrong? If you could launch a dedicated FM station for a City in today’s world, could it be viable? What is the role of community radio now, not least with the proposed better transmission arrangements? Or is the future online for local 'radio stations', as 5G and cheap data approaches or dedicated local podcasts?
And - as for BBC local radio - more than ever, it is critical that the new Director, English Regions ensures the stations are fit for purpose. There is much to be done.
I think I shall do a search on social media later for #nailinthecoffin as some commentators observe that commercial radio has now passed away after many attempts on its life. I’d suggest 36m people are rather enjoying it - 5m more than the end of the last century. These proposals – and the creation of ever more powerful national DAB services will likely fuel those audiences further. And it is the listeners who should lead our thinking. What do they really want? Some will miss a show they've grown to love. Let's make sure they love another.
In a global, competitive entertainment world, we have to ensure that the entertainment on British radio is the very best - provided by the best-qualified, the most creative and distributed effectively.
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