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23 January 2012

IR News; Time To Relax Regulation?

Independent Local Radio in the 1970s had higher technical standards than BBC Radio 3.

I well remember Studio A at Pennine being taken off air for an hour each week so that the engineers could check the precise rotation speed of the record decks.

Technical perfection was just one of the stipulations of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Terrified by any prospect of commercial radio being accused of peddling 'pop and prattle' the regulator also limited each station's needle time to encourage 'meaningful speech' and commercials were strictly differentiated from programmes; hence 'we'll be back after this' when the presenter didn't actually go anywhere.

Now most of the stuffier rules have gone; no longer can a snap IBA inspection result in harassed producers looking for evidence at a moment's notice of 'programming in the last seven days aimed at listeners with disabilities', or whatever.

Just one area remains tightly regulated. Commercial radio news is in a time warp. With jobs under threat I believe it could be time for that to change.

I was saddened earlier today to hear that GMG Radio, owner of the Real and Smooth brands, is to cut its news team by about a third.

If carried out in full that could mean a dozen talented journos made redundant. GMG has a proud history, bringing the first 24-hour commercial radio news bulletins to Yorkshire a decade ago and picking up factual and documentary awards with almost embarrassing regularity. Fifteen-minute extended bulletins at lunch and drive and hard-hitting documentaries had the BBC, at times, huffing and puffing to reclaim the high ground of 'community service'. And Real still pulled in listeners.

I was especially saddened - or angered - to read today that GMG Radio chief executive Stuart Taylor "doesn't anticipate that the planned staffing changes will impact materially on the overall listener experience".

In other words, Mr Taylor thinks the punters won't notice if offpeak bulls come from Leeds, Manchester, IRN or Timbuktu - which is a real slap in the face (or even a Real slap) for those journos who won the awards that grace the corporate boardroom.

But then I thought again. He has a point.

Rules on commercial radio news were drafted in an era where each local market would have one ILR station to complement local and national BBC services.

In that environment it's entirely appropriate that strict Reithian rules of balance and impartiality should apply.

However, when such rules are applied rigidly to all the stations in a mature commercial radio market (in Leeds I can easily choose from a dozen legal commercial and community FM stations) such 'Life On Mars' era regulations stifle any prospect of distinctiveness.

With all due respect to the journos producing them (and I trained a good proportion of the individuals involved) the bulletins on Radio Aire, Magic 828, The Pulse, Pulse 2, Real Yorkshire and even Capital FM (Yorkshire) sound remarkably similar.

Editors and PDs will be greatly affronted by this observation, and will indicate dozens of editorial and stylistic points of difference.

But if we put aside industry nit-picking standards and listen on a cheap tranny in a noisy workplace whilst earning an honest crust making, selling or servicing stuff ... is the news we hear really all that different? More to the point, if there was a fire, or if the reader had a choking fit and the jock opted to IRN, would the listener even be aware of the switch?

Perhaps the time has come, subject of course to suitable safeguards, to liberalise news in UK commercial radio.

So long as stations are overt about where they stand, and so long as a regulator is still there to encourage diversity of provision, what would be so wrong with letting commercial radio adopt distinct editorial positions, as newspapers have done for years?

Stations could then compete for news audiences through differing editorial positions in the same way they compete with different music formats.

The editorial position would have to be made clear in a strapline adjacent to the bulletin; 'White Rose Radio - Yorkshire's Home of Family Values' or 'Progressive FM - New Music, New Thinking for a New Generation'.

The possibilities are endless.

Yes it's radical. It could be the biggest shakeup in the radio infrastructure for a generation.

There would have to be safeguards in remote areas with only one or two available stations. But in mature metropolitan markets it could reinvigorate radio by providing greater choice for the listener. It could help differentiate stations by creating clear brand values.

It could turn the newsroom into an engine for audience growth, promoted with the sort of campaign that normally launches a new boy-girl breakfast duo. It could turn news from an expensive obligation into a station revenue generator.

Greater choice for the listener AND bigger profits. Sounds like another win-win to me.

I'd like to hear reaction to the idea before I develop these thoughts further.

Tweet me @leedsjourno or post a comment below. Commercial radio managers tend to be former jocks or accountants. News does not cross their minds as a way of building audience. But it can be, even within the existing regulatory regime.

With liberalisation the possibilities are enormous.

Transparency statement: I worked as a consultant for GMG Radio for 2 years from 2003-5


  1. Actually, this did happen once.....

    Back in the 80's when Thatcher got rid of the GLC, Capital Radio took a very pro-GLC stance. They had backed this up with a survey taken across London and all-but campaigned to keep "Red Ken" in office.

    It gave the station a voice and character of it's own. But whatever your opinion on the matter, you could see where they were coming from and make your own judgement.

    However, we have to be very careful if commercial radio were to adopt a press model. Generally speaking, people trust the news they get from TV and Radio and can take press opinions with a pinch of salt.

    Radio would need to be very transparent when giving an opinion. We only have to look at the Leveson enquiry to see how the power of a free press can be exploited.

  2. Hi Darren,

    The Capital 'campaigning' style is very much what I have in mind; local newspapers frequently lead campaigns to save much-loved amenities or to push for improvements in public services.

    I'll be fleshing out these initial thoughts over the weekend. The blog has generated a fair bit of interest and I want to respond to some misconceptions that I'm advocating Fox News UK or Hello! FM. There's a limit to the detail in a single post.

    Thanks for your response - much appreciated

    1. Richard/Darren

      Apologies for jumping in, but you each seem to be ignoring the simple fact that it is *illegal* for a UK raido station to engage in such campaigning on local issues. Not just contrary to Broadcasting Code, but directly illegal under primary legislation.

      Unlike the situation for newspapers, it is illegal for a radio station to seek on air to influence or encourage others to influence*, the decisions of statutory bodies, including in paid-for advertisments. The only exception to this very strict rule is when it concerns a matter of direct material concern to the station itself - eg campaigning against a tax on radio stations, or somesuch issue.

      It can of course report (in a "balanced" manner!) the activities of others in these regards as matters of local news and opinion, but the station itself is totally forbidden from taking a stance on air.


      *And this is interpreted very broadly in practice. For example, we were refused RACC clearance for an advert that was simply advertising a public meeting being held for discussion of certain local policies of the National Trust for Scotland. Although the advert itself purely promoted the meeting, not a specific point of view, it was booked by a campaigning group and the RACC decided it was therefore implicitly partisan and could not be run.

    2. Alex - I absolutely appreciate my ideas would require a revision to the Broadcasting Act, and that any such change is bound to be controversial.

      On re-reading my post I could and should have stated that fact more explicitly; it's not just a matter of OFCOM interpretation of regulations.

      That said, my argument remains the same; if IR news is to be repositioned as a driver of audience and to provide listeners with a real gutsy alternative to, rather than a pale imitation of, the BBC then we need to change that primary legislation.

      Britain is now a much more mature media marketplace than it was in the 70s. People are used to accepting and interpreting partisan messages (including audio and video messages) online.

      I intend to return to this topic soon with a follow-up post. In the meantime, thanks very much for your contribution.