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16 February 2012

IR: Why We Need a New Map

I reckon it's time to give the commercial radio groups in the UK what they want.

But let's do it properly.

No-one designing commercial radio in a logical fashion would create what we have now. We're stuck with the results of four decades of tinkering.

From the first beginnings, the 19 heritage stations with strong local names and identities simulcasting on AM and FM, often stuck in regional 'second cities' to avoid duplicating the BBC map too closely, through the subsequent phases of local network development, the setting up of full national and patchy-quasi-national stations on FM and AM, the establishment of supposedly 'niche' regional stations to the filling in of the gaps with TSAs which seldom match any real communities on the ground ... it's a mess.

The regulator doesn't care, given that OFCOM has far shinier and sexier toys than wireless to play with in the digital box of delights. Politicians of all parties are indifferent; they roused themselves briefly last year to oppose big cuts in BBC Local Radio, but given that just about all commercial newsrooms in 2012 are councillor-free zones with little time even for backbench MPs, the elected members in turn have little interest in what local commercial stations put out.

Like a couple in a doomed relationship, both commercial radio and the establishment pretended for a while during the later Blair/Brown years that they actually still cared about and respected each other. In the harsher world since 2010 even that pretence has gone. So, with a few legislative tweaks to ease the process, the partners are now going their own way.

What the commercial radio groups really, really want are national brands. Lots of them. They want listeners from Land's End to John O'Groats to get the same music with the same presenters at the same time. They want to build that audience, and then sell it. That's the vital essence of commercial radio.

The heritage and the evolution gets in the way of that, so they organise a bonfire of the brands, bulldozing an arguably failed history and creating the nearest thing they can to a national station by naming dozens of geographically disparate stations the same; Heart, Smooth, Magic, Free, Signal - all the big groups are at it, and the process will accelerate over time. Niggling franchise requirements impose some constraints but the industry has confidence, and is getting its way one TSA at a time.

However, it still feels like a compromise. A coat of emulsion to hide an unsightly fixture in the front room. Maybe something more radical is required.

Like re-drawing the transmission map from scratch.

If we can accept as a starting point that all listeners across the UK should be able to access as many of the brands as possible what's then required is a re-allocation of existing transmitter sites and frequencies to allow a rollout of half a dozen proper, national stations based on the existing brands but without the faff of either simulcasting or putting out near-identical product from a dog's breakfast of studio and transmission centres. Simplify, amplify, consolidate - give the groups what they want.

I'd also want the BBC involved. I'm not technically qualified (it takes me a while to change a plug, and I don't think I'm allowed to do that any more under EU law) but I don't see the justification, with modern technology, to reserve such big chunks of scarce FM spectrum for just four services - BBC Radios 1-4.

The above may seem callous, disregarding the livelihoods of dozens, probably hundreds of people currently working in what used to be called ILR (Independent Local Radio) by sweeping away the base of local services in local communities. But in a world of brands they risk becoming at best zombie operations, and at worst they could suffer death by a thousand cuts as the groups force a quasi-network through one small step at a time.

I'd argue there's a flipside to my proposal that's a lot more positive.

A consolidation and rationalisation of transmission facilities with fewer, more powerful transmitters delivering a consistent national service to a national (and commercially attractive) audience would create a market in which the quarterly RAJAR 'battle for London' breathlessly reported in Media Guardian becomes the much more relevant battle for Britain.

The next Moyles or the next Evans has the chance of building a career that culminates in a true national gig, and the chance to give Moyles and Evans (or whoever occupies their chairs by then) a run for the telly-tax payers' money.

Improved quality and listener choice; what's not to like?

I've also saved the best for last. A rationalisation of capacity, giving the big groups a genuine national station apiece, would also free up local and regional spectrum for new entrants to the market (or, in an echo of the 'use it or lose it' diktat of the eighties, a chance for existing franchisees to offer new and distinctive services).

These new, specifically local and regional services would have to be real alternatives, not more of the same old, or they'd just cannibalise the 'parent' service. They'd provide employment (in every sense) for the best of the redundant buildings, kit and people whilst also offering new services for listeners.Creating a bigger cake, not snatching a ever-thinner slice.

The future might be DAB (that's a debate for another day), but with FM analogue switchoff on indeterminate hold, commercial radio finding a new confidence, and millions upon millions of FM receivers out there ... is it really beyond the wit of our engineers to create a new map that benefits the industry and the consumer?


  1. Interested to see that my possibly impractical and certainly idealistic notion above is being discussed by some serious tech guys over on the Community Media Association's discussion boards - link here http://bit.ly/Aool9B

    Appreciate your interest, and thanks for visiting.

    1. I'm afraid your proposals would have the opposite effect to what you desire. Let's imagine an FM band planned for national commercial stations. Assuming we keep BBC radio as it is, and that we can scrap the commercial stations around 95-97 MHz and shift the remaining BBC local radio down there, that means (in England only) we have 102-108 MHz available for national commercial radio. The existing national commercial station, Classic FM, occupies 2.2 MHz of bandwidth, as does each BBC network, and as would a new national commercial station. Classic FM has chosen to forgo some of the lower powered local relays which means that a few commercial stations can be squeezed into its chunk. The station at the top of the band would need all of 105-108 MHz because of its closeness to the aircraft bands. That means we can squeeze in, at best, two and a half new national commercial stations, and very little else. Hardly freeing up loads of frequencies or giving listeners loads of choice is it?

      From the point of view of listener choice, networked FM stations are inefficient because inevitably there are transmitters which overlap, meaning that some listeners can receive the same service on two different frequencies.

      "but I don't see the justification, with modern technology, to reserve such big chunks of scarce FM spectrum for just four services - BBC Radios 1-4." Which modern technology are we talking about? The physics of FM have not changed at all since it was invented. The quality of FM receivers on the whole probably hasn't improved much in the last 50 years or so, and the receivers dictate how closely adjacent transmitters can be squeezed together, hence how much band they need for a national network. Your self-professed lack of technical knowledge has probably allowed you to fall into the trap of assuming that because there are apparently empty slots on the dial, or the same station on different frequencies, that therefore the FM band is badly planned or wasteful. Where you are correct is to state that a small number of higher power transmitters is more efficient than a large number of small ones.

      As for: "The next Moyles or the next Evans has the chance of building a career...." Where would they start? All the small stations have disappeared.


      Steve Satan

  2. My thoughts:

    "four decades of tinkering"

    A great way to sum up all the financially motivated, selfish, merging of local radio stations into quasi-national stations!

    It started in the 90s with the regulators being pressurised more and more by bigger and bigger groups, and giving in. Now they 'punish' small community stations for what are minor indiscretions, but allow the 'suits' to broadcast 'local' services from 100s of miles away.

    Their excuse is that to maintain the service they need to cut back financially, and sell ads nationally BUT in the 70s ILR was successfully launched and had high ratings during a serious fanancial depression and strikes ! It also only had ‘50% needletime’ imagine the syndicated stations having to do 50% speech now!

    Worst of all, services that used to aim at 15-54 year olds are allowed to narrow-cast to under 29s, with a mindless diet of insubstantial pop, and short, poor local news services. One was recently told "there were just enough stories that would be of relevance and interest to listeners in the ********** & ***** area to satisfy the station’s format requirement to provide local news"

    The ONLY solution is to take radio from Ofcom, and set-up a new regulatory body for LOCAL commercial radio. Then, stop narrow-casting by demographic, and strip-down the 'giant sized' groups by 50%, allocating those areas to CREDIBLY run companies not rooted in their income, but their community. THAT would offer the choice and variety of style that is sorely lacking now.

    'The heritage and the evolution gets in the way'

    And therein lies the answer, unless we look back at what WAS achieved, and then destroyed, and LEARN from it, there can be no more 'evolution'.