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27 March 2012

A Response To 'Defining Times'

In a recent eRadio bulletin, emailed out to industry types, anoraks and the occasional semi-detached journalism trainer, Stuart Clarkson of Radio Today posted a hard-hitting editorial.

Under the headline 'These are defining times in radio' he questioned 'whether full-service local radio has had its day, and whether it's time to quit the moaning and move on'.

In a forthright piece he takes issue with nostalgics who greet every announcement of a station merger or rebrand by sticking pins in a voodoo doll of Global Radio's Ashley Tabor.

Stuart especially caught my eye with this passage: 
I've heard comments before along the lines of "Ofcom should just give Heart and Capital a national frequency and let local groups have the local frequencies back to do proper local radio." If that thought has entered your head then you need to sell your house and move into the real world - and fast.
Global don't want a national licence for Heart or Capital. They might want to share all programming 24/7 on the stations one day, but they don't want to give up the ability to sell local ads in local markets. That's their business model and it seems to be doing pretty well for them right now.
Well, as I'm one of the people who has blogged about the possibility of redrawing the commercial radio transmission map I think before I 'sell [my] house and move into the real world - fast'  I should make clear that I would never expect any radio owner to hand over frequencies to a any rival, nor to seriously reduce their capacity to target significant local markets.

I'm no technical expert but I'd also be willing to bet that allocating national 'Lands End to John O'Groats' single frequencies or narrow bands on FM would be near-impossible anyway.

All I've suggested, in what was initially intended as a 'what if ..' think piece rather than a concrete proposal, is that some rationalisation should take place so that fewer transmitters serve more listeners; I'm delighted that some folk on the CMA message boards and elsewhere have been discussing it as an actual possibility.

I have to say I don't honestly believe that the Little-Piddling-in-the-Marsh TSA on its own is of much value to any current big group as a specific local sell.

The only localisation that matters to the big advertising agencies and their multinational clients is that which mirror ITV regions (or sub regions for the larger franchises). And don't forget that maintenance of an over-complex transmission infrastructure brings its own substantial costs for radio groups.

Crucially I'm not proposing that any frequencies or transmitters freed up by rationalisation should be available to commercial rivals - at least not in the first instance.

Rationalisation should instead allow the existing owners to use any spare frequencies, transmitter sites or (just possibly) studio centres to launch additional niche services within the same group ownership, creating a bigger overall audience for the group to sell by bringing in new listeners for group services; people currently listening to the BBC, to Spotify, or to no audio service at all, rather than those who enjoy the group's existing mass-market service.

In any ongoing debate on the future of FM comnmercial radio I think it's important to differentiate between the radio nostalgics, who yearn for a return to the ILR of an analogue world (or beefed-up community radio as its proxy), and those of us who would like to see improved listener choice through more efficient use of existing resources; stripping out wasteful duplication and creating more revenue potential for the industry as a whole by growing the listener base.

Of course my argument assumes at least a medium-term future for analogue FM transmissions in the UK. A wholesale move to DAB and a firm date for FM switchoff would undermine the entire argument. But that's a can of worms I have no intention of opening here. Yet.

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