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01 September 2020

Generation Shift

End of an era is in overused expression, but there's no doubt that's what we have witnessed over this Bank Holiday weekend as dozens of legacy ILR stations signed off for the last time ahead of Bauer Media's launch of its new national offerings on a patchwork of local transmitters.

It's been a long time coming, this demise of the topography stations - those named after rivers, hills and  landmarks - as they make way for brands. 

Brands, we're told, have the power to cut through clutter and aid recall in the era of infinite media choice, although in an age where names like boohoo and TikTok are rooted in nursery vocabulary the cognitive effort required to recall "Greatest Hits Radio" feels almost Herculean. 

One can, at least, hope it delivers what it says on the tin.

Getting what you want in wireless has always come at a price. 

Early ILR punished profitability with the IBA's secondary rental payments. Capital Radio, therefore, was obliged to sign a cheque that paid for Ralph McTell to perform a gig in Bradford to entertain punters in Pennine's Free Festival, which I organised as a fresh-faced teenager. At least he got to play "Streets of London" on Sir Dickie's dime.

More recently, at the turn of the millennium, the late, lovely John Myers employed me for two years to run a smoke and mirrors Media School for Real Radio; it looked good, with little actual effort. The setting up of that operation was a promise made to OFCOM as part of the beauty contest to secure GMG's regional licence in Yorkshire. 

The fulfillment of that pledge paid for the conservatory where I'm writing this.

Now Bauer has secured its greatest prize, a national network to rival Global's as the two main players in mass market UK commercial radio go head to head. 

The price they agreed this time was a commitment to maintain local news, weather, traffic and community involvement in each of the individual squares which make up the now more-or-less homogeneous patchwork.

Technology certainly helps deliver such a commitment, and barring a few teething problems there's no reason why such local bulletins cannot be delivered as promised. 

But in the longer term, will the enthusiasm be there to maintain an expensive commitment? Commercial radio managers have always had a love/hate relationship with news. 

They know the listeners like it, but it costs significantly more than any other element of programming and a bit like a fire alarm, on a day when it's not front of mind because nothing much is happening it can feel like an expensive luxury. Leave it to the Beeb.

The test will come when something awful happens. The stadium fire. The bomb. The dam burst. How much autonomy will the local areas have to serve their listeners when they need it most? Over the years, commercial radio has risen magnificently to the occasion. Pennine was the focus of community grief following the Valley Parade disaster. Capital's response to the London bombs was well judged and entirely appropriate, as was Key's coverage of the Manchester Arena attack. 

It's hard to imagine the same sensitivity when almost all programming comes from London, or even from a vast regional hub. 

All the more with the smaller stuff ... the flooding, the fires ... which have huge impacts on local communities but hardly register on the Metropolitan Awareness Meter. If they don't want bad weather, dammit, why do they live in the North? Here's another Greatest Hit.

I've not heard if Bauer have contingency plans for an all-local emergency service in such circumstances. If not, getting the coverage into a minute or ninety seconds of headlines - and with an appropriate tone in the surrounding programming - will be, to put it mildly, a challenge. 

It's obvious why the radical, once unthinkable changes have been effectively nodded through, albeit with a bit of last minute scrutiny from the Competition and Mergers Authority. 

Radio is facing an existential crisis bigger than any virus as online threatens to overwhelm linear free to air services. Big tech and big telecom have a joint vested interest in forcing us into buying more and more expensive kit to receive content they control through ever more expensive broadband and data contracts. 

Audio is very much in their sights, and any sensible regulator must allow the industry a fair bit of slack to gather its strength to fight that battle. 

The little remarked upon recent decision to make the fitting of DAB radios in UK spec cars compulsory in new vehicles sold with an audio system is a welcome development, but overall the UK commercial radio industry still has a big fight on its hands to retain relevance and market share in the world of infinite choice.

So can they deliver? Where there's a will, there's a way. The changes have happened. Careers have taken new turns for dozens of creative people. The new world is here.

I promised on Twitter I wouldn't say anything overly negative in this critique, because there's been a generational change .. the second one I've lived through. 

Full service ILR of the seventies and eighties made way for something leaner and meaner in the nineties and noughties. The leading lights of that generation have just had their leaving dos. Now a new generation, once again, is in charge of commercial radio in the UK - and that's a precious gift.

I can't tell this generation what to do, it's theirs now. Just don't balls it up.

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