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30 December 2017

A Dish Best Eaten Cold

Imagine the scene. You're in Brompton Road, London, above a branch of Boots in the late 70s.

"Good morning, and congratulations ... you're the new ILR licence holder for Bigtown!

"Thank you so much, we're looking forward to a great relationship ..."

"Hmm. Now about your business plan. Making money - from advertising."

"Yes .. well, after all, it is commercial radio and ..."

"Independent. Local. Radio. We had words with your trade body about that. The only c-word we'll have in here is 'contractor'".

"So, we think we can make a working profit with a mix of sponsorship and ...."


"For example, if Louis Vuitton sponsored the breakfast show ...."

"A handbag??? We'll have none of that. At least, not for a few years, and then we'll call it .. ooh ... co-funding"

"OK then, with 12 minutes of spot advertising an hour...."



"Nine minutes. Not a second more. We'll be listening. In an hotel room. With a stopwatch".

"We have some lovely charity ads planned ..."

"No charities. No politics. No religion. No dentists. Oh, and no condoms. Obviously"

"And with our friendly DJs voicing them for local clients ..."

"Ha ha ha ha .. no. No station voices in commercials. Oh, and how were you intending to properly distance the commercial messages from the programme content?"

"Pardon? It's seamless, y'know, radio ..."

"Our preferred buffering would be along the lines of 'programmes on Radio Metropolis, the Independent Local Radio Contractor for Bigtown, will resume in two minutes and seven seconds here on 235 metres medium wave and 96 VHF in stereo' ..."


"...but we'll settle for some ghastly Americanism like 'we'll be back after these ..."

"We've not gone anywhere! Frankly it's going to be difficult to thrive as a business ...."

"One other thing"


"If you do make ...a profit ... we'll take some more transmitter fees off you to pay for .. ooh, I don't know .. an arts festival in the north. We'll call it secondary rental. Good luck!"

They were very different times.

If you were starting commercial radio from scratch you would never choose the model we now have in Britain. Conceived under Edward Heath's Conservatives, Independent Local Radio (or "ILR") was born in the Labour Callaghan years with masses of public service obligation.

As senior producer at Pennine in about 1983 I had to find the evidence to satisfy "inspections" from the Yorkshire-based regional officer of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. "What programming have you produced for disabled listeners this week?" The answer, on at least one occasion, was recommending kneeling mats on a gardening phone-in.

Commercial radio has always craved big, national brands. From London. Direct competition for Radio 1 and Radio 2. Services which reach the whole of the UK, and make money. Classic FM and (originally) Talk Radio were the only national "INR" services, deliberately chosen for their not-very-commercial formats of classical music and speech.

Since the broadcast ownership regulation reforms of the late Thatcher years, which were the death knell for the strong regional TV companies like Granada in Manchester and Yorkshire in Leeds, radio has instead created what it always wanted by brute force.

Local stations have been bought, sold, resold and assimilated Borg-style into quasi-national brands.

The furious ownership wars sapped creativity and limited innovation for more than a decade as management time and effort was focussed on survival and/or empire building (OK, to be fair there was also a massive distraction over the introduction of DAB).

These battles have now just about ended, with three or four remaining players at the table. But it's been messy.

The victorious owners have been left with a tangled web of supposedly local stations, with regulatory requirements to produce programming within the individual transmission areas.  They've been chipping away at these last regulations.

So now OfCom, which has never really seen radio as anything other than a minor distraction from its role of building a digital future, is doing away with the last regulations constraining the industry big beasts.

In future, the rule is simple. Play what you like, from where you like.

Switch overnight from hiphop to classical if you feel so inclined. If twenty stations are all playing Mariah simultaneously on 23 December, so be it - the market will decide who comes out victorious. The sales manager whose ulcers grew from the stress of running a regulated media business is smiling. They've got what they wanted forty years ago.

OfCom has made the pragmatic decision.

It's become increasingly pointless trying to impose rules devised in the ILR era on contemporary commercial radio. There's no denying the industry is more successful, commercially, than it has ever been. We should celebrate that, and in doing so it's probably the right time to sweep away the last remnants of local regulation.

If it sounds like a London station, it says "Capital" over the door and as much of the output as permissible originates from Leicester Square it's probably futile to imagine it really is local radio for local people in Grimetown. 

The exception to all this is local news ... too many MPs made a fuss, probably, as they can't all be on Question Time and local radio news provides one of their few between-election profile-building opportunities.

The owners will still be required to deliver local news and information. How they do so, in practical, day to day, hourly bulletin or Twitter feed, hubs, networks, stringers or otherwise is still a matter to be decided.

An important matter, and the subject of my next piece in which I will introduce "The Horsman Test".

We'll be back after the break (for New Year).

May we all have a happy, healthy and peaceful 2018.

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