Locally great, globally useless 

27 February 2019 tbs.pm/68440

Oh, I GET it now, Ofcom! “Independent Local Radio” was a play on words, a joke… When you said “Independent”, you meant “Corporate”. When you said “Local”, you meant “National”. And when you said “Radio”, you meant – well, “Radio”, I’ll grant you that.

It’s taken all these years for me to realise you were being ironic.

Well, dumb old us!

So when we set up our first Restricted Service Licence in our home town – “Wonderful Hucknall AM”, or “WHAM” (see, we had a sense of humour too) – you must have been falling about. We set it up in the cellar of someone’s house, we earthed the transmitter to the local railway line, and our “facilities” were a chemical toilet in the corner of the studio (the first job of the work experience kid was to empty the toilet!)

I was Head of News; I had a Mobile Reporting Unit, which looked remarkably like my bike, with a shopping basket on the front for a microphone, recorder and headphones. Did I have a microwave dish for beaming reports back live to the studio? Don’t be silly, the town was so small, I was only ever 5 minutes’ ride away from the “station headquarters”!

High Peak Radio presenter Barry Jarvis struts his carnival stuff (Photo credit: High Peak Radio)

We were SO local that people would sing the advertising jingles back at us when we went shopping. If Mrs Miggins lost her dog, she’d phone the WHAMline and we’d broadcast an appeal within minutes. And we’d broadcast an update when the dog was found, safe and sound.

At the end of 28 days, to the second, we went off air, and the silence – actually, white noise – was heartbreaking. The town missed us. When were we coming back? We returned, several times; each time with bigger, more ambitious plans.

But we had ideas above our (radio) station, and eventually we secured a full-time, commercial radio licence. Sadly, not in Hucknall – it was too close to Radio Trent, beamed out of Nottingham. No, this station was in the Peak District: High Peak Radio.

And STILL it was local. The studios (we actually had two!) were in a converted garage just off the High Street in Chapel-en-le-Frith. We served Buxton, just a quick drive down the A6 in one direction, and Whaley Bridge and Glossop, up the A6 in the other. Listeners called in to the offices for a chat (not a great idea when I had a news deadline to meet!), there was no security (except a locked door late at night), and the receptionist was whoever the visitor approached first. We had our share of lonely people, we had our share of “nutters” (technical term, that!), but we were local, a part of the community.

We continued to broadcast appeals for lost dogs and cats, we even got sponsorship for the spot from a local advertiser. And everyone shared in the joy when a pet was found!

Then when the community let its hair down, so did the radio station staff: we had our own float in the local carnival. Listeners were delighted to see the faces behind the voices (Though few listeners expected such over-the-top fluorescent costumes, such big hair, or such ridiculous make-up. And the female staff were almost as bad.)

On one such “personal appearance” occasion, two listeners told me – to my embarrassment – that I’d made them cry! Our family dog had died, and I broadcast a tribute to him, Teddy, the corgi. Why? Because I felt an affinity with my listeners, and wanted them to share my grief. But I didn’t think I would move anyone as much as I did. Local radio, eh?

High Peak Radio is probably the smallest Independent Local Radio station in the country. Surprisingly, it’s still going strong. But all around, stations have been snapped up by one or other huge conglomerate. That’s OK, we thought. You can have a big company still with local ideas. Then the mergers began. Local became mini-regional, then regional.

High Peak Radio news journalist David Heathcote interviews a local resident (Photo credit: David Heathcote)

Now, Ofcom, you have sanctioned national. Yes, with local traffic and travel, and local adverts, and ONE local news story minimum per bulletin. Or as Global Media put it – local news and travel information “will continue to air on a local licence level as per legislation requirements”. Fine and dandy. But I bet there isn’t a single national presenter with the knowledge for true local programming. Take Hucknall, for example (it’s a small Nottinghamshire mining town) – how do you pronounce “Belvoir”, as in Belvoir Street, Hucknall? Did you smirk and say “Beever”? WRONG! Whatever the nearby castle may call itself, in Hucknall, when talking about the street, it’s “Bel-voyer”. Now, that’s local knowledge.

But what is the point of national Capital, national Heart and national Smooth? Global announce that its new UK-wide national breakfast shows will have 4.8m, 3.7m and 2.7m listeners respectively each week. Each, presumably, broadcast from a studio in London. How can London know what is important over the breakfast table in Brighton, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Exeter, Gloucester, Kendal, Lancaster, Norwich and Swindon? All at the same time? And those towns are precisely the ones where studio facilities will be closed. Nice one, Global.

Capital’s breakfast programme will replace 14 local shows; Heart’s breakfast programme will take the place of 22 local shows, and as for Smooth, one will replace 7. Nearly 100 local radio presenters will lose their jobs.

As Paul Coia, late of Channel 4 continuity and now at BBC Radio Berkshire, tweeted: “Sorry to hear that so many good local radio presenters, producers, etc, will lose their jobs after the Global Radio announcement this morning. Any newbie wanting in to radio now has more chance of curing the common cold and solving Brexit before tea time. Shame.”

And that’s just Global’s plans. The other big commercial broadcaster, Bauer, has yet to announce changes to Kiss, Absolute and Magic stations. But changes there will be, and Radio Today predicts, when they come, there will be even greater job losses.

It’s as if Ofcom decided to rip the essence out of Independent Local Radio, and make it everything it’s not.

Imagine if Ofcom tried the same thing with the fourteen Independent Television companies, encouraging them to lose their local identities and provide instead one national schedule. How daft that would be! Oh, wait a moment…

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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3 responses to this article

Andy Hessey 27 February 2019 at 11:33 am

A 30 second hypothetical – a big explosion in Brighton.

1983 – Southern Sound would be all over it (listen to Russ Williams in conversation with David Lloyd on the Brighton Bomb).

2019 – Big explosion in Brighton.. 3 dead… a) How much air time will it get?
b) Will the reporter on the ground have come from Southampton or London?
c) what would it take to break into networked programming??

Nigel Stapley 1 March 2019 at 7:59 pm

In the same way that (and I’m sorry for injecting a bit of politics in here) the election of Trump was not some sort of aberration, but merely the making manifest of a process which had been in train for many years, what we have seen in the last 48 hours has been merely the culmination of a tendency which has been building for a long time.

As to where the blame lies? Well, the over-expansion of the original ILR system in the late-70s and early-80s must be considered, with stations coming on stream in areas which just didn’t have the markets to support them; then the whole 80s ethos of corporate gigantism; the long-established tendency in Greater England in every field of endeavour to think that the bigger and more centralised something is, then the better it must be (for certain values of the word ‘better’); this allied to the contempt with which the word ‘provincial’ is used to describe all things non-metropolitan and not subject to the approval of the Tarquins and Arabellas who are the seldom-acknowledged cultural legislators of the land.

All of these things, but most of all to the complete chocolate-teapot uselessness of Ofcom and its immediate predecessors to do what we were told they were there to do. But then – like Ofgem and similar bodies – Ofcom isn’t there to protect the interests of citizens (sorry, I mean ‘consumers’) against the corporations, but to protect the corporations from the the public and from one another.

The result? As I said at https://www.transdiffusion.org/2012/11/30/from_a_distance, “‘Independent Local Radio’ has moved ever closer to a comparison with Voltaire’s famous description of the Holy Roman Empire, in that it isn’t independent (which in any case was always just a way of saying ‘commercial’ without being explicit about it), it certainly isn’t local any more, and there may be a time fast approaching when it could be called radio only in a strict technical sense and by force of habit.”

Paul Mason 3 March 2019 at 8:41 am

I often wondered how long it would be before local ILR stations merged and became national, given they nearly all have the same playlists, and the same gushy presenters. Outside London there are no ILR specialist music stations. Jazz FM in the north west launched in 1994 but didn’t see the new century. Classic FM is a remarkable survivor. Otherwise it’s the same din, the only difference being the time it’s played. Only those DJs with a local following tend to last. I only listen to ILR when I lack control of the off switch!

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