Ofcom’s announcement of their new localness guidelines is the staging post for the eventual removal of the majority of local programming rules for FM radio stations. It’s a tough subject to talk about as the implications for the jobs of people working in commercial radio are potentially pretty significant.
Of course all industries are affected by market forces and the changing natures of society, just ask the 4,000 people likely to lose their jobs from Debenhams. Mostly though, changes are subtle as companies evolve and change. Local radio, though, has always had government regulation, so any changes see a rush for radio groups to align with how they want to run their businesses.
But why is radio such a regulated business? Mostly history. The first commercial licences were awarded in the early 70s based on a beauty parade rather than a cash bid (something that has continued until today). The thinking was that spectrum was a public good and limited. You would be one of few people able to broadcast to an area, but in exchange you had to promise some public good – news, current affairs, specialist music etc – alongside the bits of programming where it was easier to make money. As an applicant you were happy to do that deal because what you were getting back was a scarce resource and massive barriers to any competition as there were few licences.
Over the years the scarcity of that public spectrum has reduced. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the regulator advertised more and more licences. Secondly, radio consumption became multi-platform – with people listening on non/less regulated platforms like DAB/DTV and online. Thirdly, the rise of technology and the internet meant that becoming a new entrant into music, audio and any form of entertainment happened without any barriers to entry. The value of this scarce FM spectrum has been dropping and dropping, so the government has taken the view that the operators of this FM spectrum can reduce their local committments.
Indeed, the government has recently gone much further than what Ofcom have just announced. In their response to a radio consultation they stated that pretty much all localness requirements and music format rules would go. But to have that happen will need an Act of Parliament and Brexit has somewhat filled up available parliamentary time. They did say though:
In the meantime, the Government is open to and would support any moves by Ofcom to consider, in the light of the consultation responses received, whether there is scope for changes to its rules and guidance in lieu of longer-term reform.
In other words, the changes announced by Ofcom are them trying to achieve Government policy whilst legally fitting in with the current laws.
So, what have they come up with?
At the moment if you own any radio licences within any of the regions here then you’re allowed to treat them as a single radio station – that is, generally, you have to produce seven hours of local programming (between 6am and 7pm) and that must include the breakfast period. For example what used to be individual radio stations in Cornwall, Plymouth and Exeter could now be ‘Heart’ and share a single breakfast show, providing they provided local news reflecting each of the licences each hour in daytime.
The new rules see two changes. Firstly the regions get bigger, and now stations only have to broadcast three hours of local programming within that region. That local three hours can be at any time between 6am and 7pm, and doesn’t have to include Breakfast. So with our Heart example what was Cornwall, Plymouth and Exeter as well as Bristol, Gloucester, Bournemouth and Southampton could now share a single regional mid-morning show with the rest of the programming come from outside the region – say from Leicester Square, providing they provided local news reflecting each of the licences each hour in daytime.
The most common question I’ve been asked about this is “what do you think the big groups will do?”. I’m afraid I don’t know. These are big changes and it opens up lots of different scenarios. Firstly though it’s important to think about what prompts a change – and that’s generally money – this is commercial radio after all.
From a business perspective, the value of the local shows are that they can drive local audiences, that the teams can deliver local sponsorship and promotions as well as being a local face for the radio station. Now there’s some costs for delivering that – the local staff – but there’s the revenue you generate from it through things like local S&P and events. If the local revenue outweighs the costs then it makes sense to continue with local shows.
The other assumption is that the group’s always deliver the regulatory minimum – and that’s not always the case either. At the moment if you’re a regional radio station that also broadcasts the brand nationally on Digital One, then you can stop doing any local content on FM. Kiss has taken advantage of this, broadcasting their London programming on London FM as well as their regional FM licences in the East and West of England. Capital on the other hand, which has regional FM licences in the North East and Yorkshire, chooses to keep regional programming on those stations when broadcasting on Digital One means that they don’t need to.
When I look at the new regions, which are huge, I wouldn’t be surprised to see groups create their own combination of stations within the areas that better suit their businesses – I don’t think they’ll instantly create super regions with one daily show.
If they do decide that the local sponsorship and promotions money is not a fair exchange of the costs of delivering local programmes, then the other option is, of course, delivering up to eight local mid-morning programmes and the rest of the programmes coming from London, or the network centre.
These changes are also likely to have an affect on the attractiveness of independent groups and stations for acquisition by the bigger boys. We’ve seen some of it already with Bay and Juice Brighton being bought by Global and added to the Heart and Capital networks. They followed this up with 2BR, which is likely to become a Capital. The rule changes make it easier for them to deploy their brands onto more FM licences with minimal local commitments.
So is this the end of local radio and local breakfast shows? I thought I’d have a look at what the UK listens to at the moment and what is potentially under threat with these changes.
Within my RAJAR tool I’ve created some new combinations of stations – Nationals (Radio 1, Classic, Planet Rock etc), Networks (commercial brands like the Capitals, Hits Radio network etc that are likely to embrace the new opportunities), BBC Local Radio and Locals (stand alone commercial stations plus groups like Nation, UKRD and Lincs who are less likely than others to make significant changes). As people can of course listen to multiple types of stations in a week, I’m using the share of listening that these combinations have.
The thing that surprised me is how dominant national radio is at breakfast time. 68.3% of all breakfast listening is to the national stations. BBC Locals, something that isn’t affected by the changes, delivers an 8.4% share. The Networks account for 17.3% and the Locals accounts for 4.4%. So, collectively the local breakfast shows potentially under threat are consumed by just a fifth of available listeners.
Personally I’m a little torn by the changes. Fundamentally I’m a radio fan and I like that there’s a variety of presenters up and down the country delivering local and branded radio. I also lean to being a free-marketeer. It does seem crazy that in today’s world that when faced with unregulated competition from Facebook, digital television and digital radio, that local FM licences are forced to deliver specific output.
I think localness is an excellent way to win in a market. It’s a great difference that can serve audiences and the bottom line. There’s also a growing number of digital-only radio stations that have chosen to be local stations (without any regulatory encouragement) as they think that’s the way to build a business. But, of course, it’s not the only way to do it (as the success of national radio with listeners shows).
Like all great mediums, one size does not fit all and radio is no different. These new rules, taken on their own, are a big change for many. However, outside of FM, there have never been as many audio opportunities. I imagine there are more radio jobs now than there were in the peak of the local radio in the 90s. From the growth of new national digital radio stations to developments in podcasting, radio production skills have never been in demand by so many people (and listeners).