Monday 13 February 2017

A New Dawn for Commercial Radio

It’s been a long time coming, but many in the commercial radio sector, but not all, will be delighted to see today’s announcement from DCMS on the future regulation of commercial radio.

The pass was sold some time ago.  Those who seek detailed regulation of what is broadcast by commercial companies were disappointed many years ago.  We are where we are; and the remaining rules seemed to achieve little, apart from costing companies money and giving the regulator a muscle to flex when politically needed.

The consultation document today is significant and, for the first time, breaks the link between the present and the inherited regulations dating back to the industry’s earliest years.  The past is over.

No longer will Ofcom have an over-arching duty  ‘to secure a range and choice of radio services’.  It will simply have to secure the provision of news and other core information such as traffic and travel information and weather. This would apply to all national and local FM or AM stations, whether simulcast or not, and also to DAB stations upon FM switchover.  Stations will still need to continue to source local news from within the existing editorial areas.

The signals for this move have been around some time.  There is a worry that with declining local press, there is a threat to the scrutiny of local democracy.  This change will mean that solid journalism from commercial radio is preserved.  And don’t tell me commercial radio news is generally poor.  I have heard true, true excellence, sometimes outdoing the BBC in some markets.  

Be warned, however.  If regulation goes the way it usually does, one can expect Ofcom rightly to monitor this remaining news strand with huge, huge enthusiasm.  Ofcom will have more focused powers to set news/core information for digital stations too.

All other format requirements which apply to local or regional FM AM licensees other than news/key information will also disappear. So, stations can at last play the music they want to.

In practice, we are not too far from that now.  The industry is in very few hands; and, as we have seen with the panorama of Global services, they are more than happy to cover the waterfront.  They don’t need regulatory intervention.  They have little interest in cannibalising their own audiences – and are already playing everything that mainstream 15-55 audiences require and is commercially sustainable.

National and local multiplex operators will no longer need to ensure there is a range and choice of services carried on their networks. Few could argue that the existing DAB services fail to offer variety; and if services (provided as they are sometimes by third party contractors) are not sustainable economically, then what was the multiplex operator supposed to do if they failed anyway?

There is a hint that the small-scale DAB experiments will be rolled out – and let’s congratulate Ofcom on doing the running, in a very unregulatory sort of way, on that development.

Local commercial stations won’t be told where their studios can be. What will matter is whether their news and info is relevant.  Companies hitherto have been obliged to build separate studio complexes just to keep the regulator happy.  It was madness, particularly in a case I was familiar with where the matter boiled down to a matter of yards.  The only reason the rule was retained was because it could be enforced with ease. A political and convenient face-saver which suited a time and place in regulatory history.

DCMS don’t seek to make any changes to change the format requirements placed on the three national analogue licences (Classic FM, Absolute Radio and talkSport). All three have the option of renewing these licenses until 2023 and they have indicated willingness to do that.  DCMS is even asking if the licences should be extended further.

Content regulation will not change; the 'fit and properness' of licence holders will be examined in the same old way; but the current restriction on overseas-based radio services  on UK DAB multiplexes might be removed.  That was a nonsense, prohibiting, for example, the Irish service RTE from being broadcast here should a provider wish to propose it.

DCMS notes that if all the above is accepted, there will be little to distinguish between potential operators in any future analogue licence award processes, so views are sought on whether Ofcom should continue to offer up any new or renewed licences at all.  Just like in most right minded communities, the beauty parade is dead.

Overall, DCMS are satisfying themselves that these proposals strengthen the protection of the core public service purposes, ensuring that the sector remains dynamic and relevant, characterised by strong brands, offering increased choice of national and local services which are enjoyed and valued by listeners.

It notes that not all operators will wish to take advantage of all the freedoms.  As now, I can point to areas where just about all radio groups do things that they are not obliged to, because they think it’s better for listeners and for the business.

The consultation concludes with the final philosophical question about whether radio should continue to be regulated in the old-fashioned way when the World has changed beyond recognition.

They are right. It is time for those of my generation and older who grew up loving the old approach to realise that it can never be the same again.

As I sit here at 8.00 at night, I can access more radio entertainment than I have ever been able to.  I can tweet a presenter if I feel like it, even when they are not on the air, and probably get a response.  I can go online for efficient accurate school closure information. And if I want to swap an old telly for something, I go on ebay and swap it for cash.  I can also go and set up a community radio station if I really want.

Most of all, I can find a radio station here or somewhere else which is playing exactly the sort of music I love, all the time.   But I can still turn on the radio and hear news bulletins. They may be shorter than they used to be, but they are certainly more tailored to the needs of the audience.

Years ago, at this time of night, we’d be into the Country show by now, and there’d be nothing else on FM to choose from instead apart from Radio 2,3 and 4.

Life has moved on. A sensible regulator has moved with it. In the 50s, as TV grew, the BBC was not obliged to carry on broadcasting all its drama, quiz shows and light entertainment.  We need to ascertain where radio fits into a new world and do it brilliantly.

And then we can rest in the knowledge that radio can survive.  Make no mistake, some familiar radio stations need to make more profit, or indeed some profit if they are to remain on air.  We should congratulate the investment into the sector from all the major radio groups, and many others, and admire the enviable glitz Global have brought.  Without that passion and investment across the Board, this industry would be in a sorry state.

One final note. Market forces can sort out most things where there is enough supply and demand.  Audiences over 55 will not be well-served by commercial music radio; nor are they.  The BBC must address that huge gap proudly.

In my experience of these processes, flags are flown and a point or two is edged back by concession as proposals are tuned and implemented. But, by the scale and nature of these proposals, what is almost certain is the future will be a very different place.  Well done, DCMS, for producing, at least, some sweet treats which are not fudge. Let’s see how the consultation is responded to.

On World Radio Day, let’s celebrate another chapter for this great thing called radio – as it enters its third age.

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