Monday, 6 April 2015

And the winner is...

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The regulator used to call you cheerily if you’d won a radio licence. The phone would ring at precisely the designated time and you’d duly jump and down with joy, and hug puzzled colleagues, if the news was good. 

If the phone didn’t ring for a few moments, you anticipated the result was unlikely to be good.  Your number was self-evidently second or third on the regulator’s scribbled list.  As the minutes ticked by, gloom would descend as you realised you’d wasted a whole slice of your life.  No matter how well wrapped up in regulatory pleasantries, nothing can make the failure to win a licence feel any better.

There are no runner-up prizes, not even a licence in Macclesfield. On losing, disappointment is total. It’s a little like losing your seat in an election.  

There is the indignant surprise of failure. If you did not passionately believe that you had the very best chance of winning, you simply would not have entered the arduous race.  Blood, sweat, tears and significant expense form part of every decent licence application. Every word is caressed.

Even in the best-planned projects, there are moments of drama along the way.  I recall losing the chance of a Leicester FM licence in a pitch battle. We’d had the rival changing management at the last minute; potential board members getting strange things through their letterboxes; supporters changing side; and all manner of colourful happenings.  The licence, though, was safely returned to the incumbent.

What adds to the annoyance is you cannot really let off steam by portraying the opponent as the bad guy. Typically, every infuriating rival bid features some good friends, and involves some people you might wish to work for one day.

Despite the passion, anger and, on some occasions, legitimate concerns, few have challenged the radio regulator's vote in court and no-one has yet been successful in so doing. Those busy bodies have, it seems, been a little better at their jobs than the rail regulators. 

The day after that Ratae defeat, I simply grasped a spontaneous day's holiday and wandered around Abbey Park morosely in the sunshine, kicking the leaves, considering what might have been.  Licence wins and losses change the course of radio history and they surely change careers.

There are the occasional spurious licence applications where even those submitting them did not feel they had a cat in hell’s chance of carrying off victory, yet they did.  I shall let those lucky individuals tell their own story. There are also the winners who truly did not deserve to win and history tells its own story of those.

The current FM (and AM) local licensing regime is a ‘beauty parade’, that is to say we are invited to stroll up and down the catwalk with only the text of our licence applications to preserve our modesty.  Decisions on our relative attractiveness are based on the infamous Section 105 of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which bears a handful of dull statutory criteria.  Which applicant can best: broaden listener choice; appeal to local tastes and interests; attract local support; and be sure to sustain itself for the licence term? 

I am privileged to have served as a suited regulator for a short period in the 90s, when the
job of licensing fell to the Radio Authority, housed in its grey partitioned building close to Holborn Tube.  My department was called upon, inter alia, to feed what was then an enormously lengthy licensing process.  It even featured live applicant interviews to build up the tension in true X Factor style, although no-one was invited to Tony Stoller's house.

The Authority’s executives, most equipped with brains the size of Emley Moor, would diligently evaluate the applicants’ proposals with a huge degree of skill and, contrary to the beliefs of some, utter fairness. Then we would all march in to the meeting room, jackets on, ready to help inform the decision of the Authority Members.  These Members, always with a capital M, were an interesting crowd; and, as is the case with every Board, some took their responsibilities more seriously than others. And, again, just like in any Board meeting, discussion could sometimes leap off into wholly legitimate yet unexpected territory with surprising licensing results.

Is there an alternative route which would avoid this painful process? Not least because the winner can often buy the loser anyway. 

Independent National Radio, of course, was decided by the size of a cash bid in an envelope, just like the TV licence auctions in the early 90s, where some bidders overpaid whilst lucky Central sumbitted the minimum £2,000.  Had the highest FM radio bidder, Showtime Radio, got its backing together more successfully in 1991, then the gifted Anne-Marie Minhall would have been playing High Society rather than Handel by now.

I guess that the art of assembling good old-fashioned competitive licence applications will soon go the same way as roof thatching; as FM licences are routinely renewed whilst DAB gears up -  and the DAB system itself licenses the landlords not the tenants.  That’s going to save a lot of us a great deal of time, effort, worry and expense; and we'll probably live longer.


Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio' - published by Biteback


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