Commercial radio on way – 60 stations to be opened 

28 September 2020 tbs.pm/71108

 

Birmingham Post masthead

From the Birmingham Post for 30 March 1971

Sixty local commercial radio stations will be set up in Britain. A Government White Paper published yesterday discloses that among the first to be opened will be one in Birmingham and probably a second in Wolverhampton.

Mr. Christopher Chataway, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications said he hoped that the first stations would be on the air in two years. The BBC local radio stations, including the one in Birmingham, would be retained unchanged except that, like the commercial stations they would be allocated both medium wave and VHF facilities.

 

 

The stations will be controlled by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

This will be the Independent Television Authority – extended and renamed.

Income for the new stations will be from spot advertising. No sponsored programmes or other forms of advertising will be allowed.

Mr. Chataway said he thought that the Birmingham and Wolverhampton stations would cover a smaller area than the BBC radio stations and not necessarily compete with each other except on the fringes of their areas.

 

 

The programmes would have to appeal to a mass audience to be viable, but there must be a strong local news and local interest content.

There would be no national organisation networking programmes for long periods. The stations must identify with, and serve, their local areas.

The White Paper does envisage a central news company to supply a service of national and international news which will in time stand comparison with the BBC’s and set a standard for the local companies in their treatment of local news.

 

A map of the UK with the first tranche of ILR stations marked on it

Official IBA map of ILR coverage in 1976

 

Three-year contracts

This news service might be an extension of Independent Television News, a separate radio news, or a service from an all-news station that would broadcast on its own account from London and network its bulletins to local stations.

Mr. Chataway said that the Government would test public reaction before coming to a final decision.

In order to exercise strict control over the local stations, Mr. Chataway said that the contracts would be given on a three-year rolling basis.

 

 

“If the IBA is not satisfied with the companies’ performance, it can refuse to renew the contract at the end of the first year.

“This still leaves the company time to pull up its socks and get a renewal before the contract runs out. It provides continuity, but strict control.”

Press interests protected

When all the local commercial stations are set up — which would take “a few years” — they would have a coverage approaching 70 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom.

The BBC local stations, which are confined to England, would cover 75 per cent of the country.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the national versions of Radio 4 will continue.

 

 

Mr. Chataway said that the total number of stations was limited to 80 commercial and BBC because of the allocation of medium-wave bands, though the number would be increased in future if more could be made available.

The Government has been careful to protect the interests of the Press in the introduction of the commercial system, the White Paper says, but will not allow newspapers or television to gain a monopoly.

Local newspapers would have the right to acquire an interest in commercial radio in their areas, but it could not be a controlling interest, if a newspaper had a monopoly in the area.

 


 

Chataway’s brainwave leaves time for tuning

 

Birmingham and Wolverhampton could have strictly local commercial radio stations on the air in just over two years, and BBC Radio Birmingham will continue unmolested.

The region may have other smaller stations at a later date when wavelengths and the prospects for commercial success have been studied.

These were the main implications for the West Midlands of the Government White Paper published yesterday under the title An Alternative Service of Radio Broadcasting.

In spite of many rumours and fears, this title appears to be apt. The BBC loses nothing but gets competition.

Mr. Christopher Chataway, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, proposed 60 commercial stations as well as the existing 20 BBC local stations broadcasting on both VHF and Medium Wave. There could not be any more of either at present because there are not enough wavebands available.

 

 

Cheaper

He proposes tight control of the commercial stations under the Independent Television Authority, which will have its powers widened to cover radio and be called the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

While there are objections to this at the prospect of a conflict between radio and television interests, Mr. Chataway said he felt it would be quicker, cheaper and easier than inventing a new organisation.

At a Press conference in London he placed great emphasis on the fact that he sees the commercial stations as purely local.

“No doubt they will have a good deal of pop music because they have got to aim at a mass audience, but apart from that and other light entertainment programmes there will be a good local news coverage and local information service,” he said.

They will have smaller areas than the existing BBC stations with a radius as little as five to 10 miles in some cases.

The commercial stations will be financed from spot advertising. Sponsored programmes or other forms of revenue will not be allowed.

 

 

Mr. Chataway said there were obvious difficulties in that some areas like the West Midlands conurbation were particularly attractive commercial propositions, while others might not be so viable.

The new broadcasting authority would have to take this into account when awarding contracts so that excess profits were not made. Revenue from these more profitable stations could be used to pay for services like transmitters which were common to all.

The White Paper says it will inevitably take some years to establish the full network and there will be great variations in the population covered.

Stations serving the big conurbations will be the first to be provided. But the IBA will be encouraged to experiment at an early stage with the establishment of relatively small stations in order to determine the minimum size of community capable of sustaining a worthwhile local radio station.

“In the longer term, if more frequencies become available it may be possible in the conurbations to provide radio stations specIalising in particular types of programmes. For London, and perhaps a few other conurbations, medium frequency channels for more than one independent station can be found earlier.”

 

 

So the prospect of a national commercial station and a national network providing the lion’s share of a local station’s output has been hit on the head.

Mr. Chataway said advertising revenue to a national commercial station could hit the London-based papers hard and cream off the advertising for local stations.

The only form of national networking Mr. Chataway did see was for news. He suggested three alternatives: Independent Television News might extend its operations, a separate independent radio news, on similar lines to ITN and working closely with it, and third a solely news station supplying the whole country.

This could be set up as one of two competing independent stations in London from the outset, one specialising in music and the other in news. This news station could then also act as a supplier of national and international news to the local stations.

No final decision has been made on the three choices. Mr. Chataway said he would wait for public reaction.

BBC role

The role of the BBC local stations is hardly changed by the White Paper. Mr. Chataway did say, however, that the BBC would be expected to cater for minority interests, even at peak times, to provide a service to the community.

Who will own and run the stations will of course be decided by the IBA, but the White Paper makes it clear that commercial radio will be competing with other news organisations.

The evidence did not show that local radio would necessarily be damaging to local newspapers.

The Government has decided that local newspapers with a circulation “which is significant in relation to the population of a local station’s transmission area will have the right to acquire an interest in it.”

 

 

But where a local newspaper has a monopoly in an area it will not be allowed to acquire a controlling interest, and a television company will not be allowed a controlling interest in its area of franchise.

Mr. Chataway was not prepared to be drawn on how this would work out in practice and said the IBA would have to take each case on its merits.

On the whole, the uncertainties remaining in the White Paper resulted in lack of practical knowledge of whether commercial radio will work. Mr. Chataway made it clear that apart from a small loan to stations through the IBA the stations would be entirely self-supporting.

 


 

❛❛Russ J Graham writes: Sixty stations was a very ambitious target that was immediately missed. By April 1976, there were 19 stations on air. And then progress stopped.

The main reason for the delay was a government policy to pause capital expenditure whilst the UK dug itself out of terrible economic situation (ie, we ran out of money). Additionally, the return to power of Labour in 1974 marked a change in policy: the Labour party was not so much anti-commercial broadcasting by this point, but was certainly still only lukewarm on the idea.

The second tranche of ILR stations would have to wait until the return of the Tories in 1979, with CBC in Cardiff in April 1980 being the first station on air. By 1984, all the areas where ILR seemed likely to draw a profit had been covered. A few fill-in stations launched later in the decade, although they were mainly branches of existing stations – Radio Trent being given frequencies in Derby and GWR getting a station in Bath, for instance.

 

 

The privatisation of independent broadcasting in 1990 would allow a lot of smaller stations to try their luck, and then bring community stations designed not to make a profit at all on their heels, at the price of removing ownership controls. As of 2020, things have reversed precisely because of this. The big fear of Chataway and his Ministry was that a default national commercial radio station would be created by one company owning a number of ILR franchises and networking between them. This is now pretty well the norm, with many of the names seen in the illustrations to this article having only recently disappeared into a couple of generic-sounding and generically named superstations with limited local opt-outs.

Would the late Christopher Chataway approve? Now people are likely to say “yes, because he was a Tory”. But politics of the pre-Thatcher era didn’t work that way. Both the Conservatives and the Labour party agreed on a broad range of goals, differing only in how to get there (and often not even that). That the state would regulate and control capitalism to enforce localism and prevent abusive monopolies was a given on both sides of the House. Imagine the consequences for society if it didn’t!

Building a whole system designed to enforce quality – with some carrots but mostly the big stick of franchise loss to ensure it – was part of this. It may not have produced radio (or television, or bus travel or… so much else) that everybody wanted, but it certainly went a way towards providing services that people needed. Now the market decides and the state stands back, and parties on both sides of the house largely agree on that, too.

You Say

1 response to this article

Paul Mason 30 September 2020 at 5:18 pm

The idea of local commercial radio is dying in the UK.The situation is simply this – what is the point of multiple stations playing the same 50 tunes being Separate? Might as well be national or regional with local adverts, news, traffic and travel etc.
Distinctive music is left to the BBC, or DAB stations in London , as well as some Asian stations. 194 Radio City is no more (the FM channel still exists) its now part of Greatest Hits radio, a regional or national station. Liverpool other ILR Station, originally Crash, later Juice is now part of Capital. How long before that loses its Liverpool Identity?
Sadly ILR is now INR, or IRR, local largely no more.

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