Losing the signal 

16 April 2009 tbs.pm/1041

‘More than 50 local radio stations could close without regulatory shakeup’

There’s no denying that local radio in general is in a spot of bother, to put it mildly, and some hard decisions will have to be made as a matter of urgency in order to find the best way of preserving local radio in some form.

In recent years UK local radio licences were dished out like the proverbial confetti to anyone who had the money for them and was willing to stick to a set of rules. However the end result has been lots of competing radio stations that now have to scrap among themselves for any remaining advertisers – no wonder local radio is now in crisis.

I still find it strange that hardly anyone is openly prepared to question and confront how these local radio licences were issued in the first place with few questions asked about their potential long term viability, although some of the risk is jointly shared with those who were prepared to take on those licences.

So should local radio as it stands be allowed to dissolve into a pool of quasi-national identikit soundalikes? Unfortunately there may not be much choice for many stations from an economic perspective unless they started off small in the first place and are very tightly organised, notably those community ratio stations that have successfully entrenched themselves.

Certainly there are numerous so-called local stations that are just poor copies of national stations; their loss will be mourned by few listeners unless there were not that many commercial stations serving a particular region. What is more worrying relates to the potential loss of radio industry talent that will result from some of those closures.

Because even if a service is maintained via those quasi-national brands such as Galaxy, Gold, Heart and Real, this will be increasingly done via networking as opposed to the employment of radio DJ’s at each and every station. Lose a DJ and you also lose the services of a producer along with their associated staff.

Some of these losses may be frankly unavoidable whatever happens, but the trick will be to maintain enough regulation so that large radio groups don’t cut back on services above and beyond what needs to be done to preserve financial viability.

It will be up to Ofcom and government ministers to prevent this from happening, but the risk is that some of these cuts will be strictly speaking unnecessary and will be done purely for profit – whether any regulatory changes will be able to cope with this possibility remains to be seen.

Any ‘local service provision’ test will also need to be carefully drafted, since there is a distinction between just providing a music jukebox that satisfies some listeners in a particular area which one of the quasi-national brands (Galaxy/Heart/etc.) can easily provide, or a really distinctive local service that someone else can provide instead.

Since if it can be economically viable to provide the latter for a particular region, why bother with the former if it results in less public service value, although there’s no doubt that the large radio groups would prefer to have things their own way.