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?