Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Radio Academy Awards 2014

Congratulations to all the winners in this week's industry awards, especially BBC Tees here in North East England.

But I was saddened to see there is now no specific Radio Academy Award for smaller stations as Station of the Year. There used to be a <300,000 category. Surely this can't be a policy decision not to specifically support the smaller and community stations which are the seedbed of our industry? I know the nominations and awards meant a lot to people in those smaller operations, who the Academy is also supposed to involve.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Commercial radio licences have value after all

After a long period of stagnation the UK commercial radio market is starting to warm up. A couple of years ago you could not give away the average commercial radio licence, indeed a few closed after failing to find buyers.

This past week has seen Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O'Brien buying eight stations from Global Radio in a sale reported to be worth £35m while mobile phone company Lyca Media has acquired four radio stations from the administrators handling those parts of Sunrise Radio which went bust last month, in a deal rumoured to amount to well over £3 million..

Sunrise Radio 1, Sunrise Radio 3, Time 107.5 and Time 106.6 are now owned by the international calling card company Lyca. Separately, Irish media company Communicorp has bought Smooth Radio North West, North East and East Midlands, along with Capital South Wales, Real Radio North Wales, Capital Scotland, Real Radio Yorkshire and Real XS Manchester (Global Radio had to sell the eight radio stations following a ruling by the Competition Commission when it bought GMG Radio in 2012).

Of course the value of these radio assets to both purchasers has a lot to do with their long term strategies. They may have over-bid just to get a position in the market. In the case of the former Global stations national sales and non-peak programming will still be provided by Global Radio under a franchise agreement.

It is perhaps more surprising to see such a high value being put on the London AM stations formerly owned by Avtar Lit. The Sunrise boss has kept the ex-Buzz Radio frequencies of 963 and 972 AM for a new version of Sunrise Radio. It is less clear how Lyca will use the former Kismat frequency of 1035 kHz or the original Sunrise 1458 kHz frequency. There has been speculation that the Time FM licences for 107.5 MHz (based in Romford) and 106.6 (based in Slough) may be transferred to other operators.

Whatever the outcome it is good to see that at least some companies are willing to put money behind conventional AM and FM licences – even if they are just stepping-stones to future developments.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Heart of the issue

Much debate this week after Ofcom showed some teeth and found Heart Cornwall wasn’t operating within its required Format.

Apparently Ofcom was responding to a complaint that the station was not broadcasting enough local news or since changing from Atlantic FM to Heart.

What is especially significant is that, for the first time in recent memory, Ofcom had to consider not only the formal news, weather and traffic bulletins on the station but also the content of presenter links. I’ve always found it ridiculous to suggest that a local radio station could adequately reflect the interests, mood and culture of its area simply in news bulletins – with the other 57 minutes of the hour being generic region- or nation-wide music radio. The most successful local stations have always had presenters who could talk about and be involved in their local communities.

At Heart Cornwall Ofcom found the Cornwall-specific material within presenter links typically accounted for less than five minutes per day!

In this case Global Radio asked in 2012 to change the Format of the station to remove the requirement for “full service speech” but had been rejected by Ofcom.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this position, the simple fact is that it was the station itself which (stupidly) promised up to 50% speech when applying for the licence. I think it is quite proper for the regulator to say that if a station – even if it has changed hands and rebranded – can’t do what it said in its licence application then the licence should be taken back and re-advertised.

In the past I’ve been in a situation where I’ve helped with an FM licence application only to be beaten by another group who made extravagant promises to Ofcom. For that group to come on-air then crawl to Ofcom for permission to ignore their commitments is not only unfair but makes a mockery of the whole licence application process.

If it’s true (and I don’t believe it always is) that truly local radio can’t be made to generate a profit in some areas then lets re-run the licence contest in those areas with Ofcom taking a more realistic view of the financial issues. Simply letting the biggest radio group in the country re-write the rules cannot be the best answer.

Sunrise charity question

Since my last post someone has reminded me of another Sunrise Radio story.

 In November 2011 the Guardian reported that Ofcom was to investigate Sunrise Radio after it was accused of withholding tens of thousands of pounds of  listeners' charity donations:

The paper reported: "A separate investigation by the Charity Commission last month concluded that the London-based Sunrise Radio, which has a listenership of 2 million and a sister station, Kismat Radio, had inappropriately left £160,000 of disaster relief money to sit dormant in a bank account for seven years. The money had been raised after station appeals during the Pakistan earthquake in 2005 and the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004.

"Before the commission confiscated the money and handed it to two British charities working the area, the fund had grown to more than £180,000 with interest. In its report, the Charity Commission criticised the commercial radio stations for failing to "provide a sufficient satisfactory explanation or provide evidence to give reason for their delay". The cash was held in an account called Sunrise Radio South-east Asia Disaster Appeal."

The report made it clear that there was no suggestion the money had been used for any other purpose.

An Ofcom spokesperson was quoted as saying: "Ofcom is currently investigating this case relating to Sunrise Radio. We will publish our findings in due course." But, more than two years later, I can't find any trace of Ofcom's findings. What did they conclude?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Sunrise saga

Earlier this week most of the Sunrise Radio Group was put into administration. On Monday 20th January 2014 Grant Thornton UK was been appointed administrators of Sunrise Radio Limited, Kismat Radio Limited, Time FM 107.5 Limited, Tristar Broadcasting Limited and London Media Company Limited.

Sunrise Radio Limited operates Sunrise Radio 1, Kismat Radio Limited runs the station recently renamed Sunrise Radio 3, Time FM 107.5 Limited owns and operates Time FM in East London and West Essex, Tristar Broadcasting Limited is the owner of Time 106.6 broadcasting to Slough, Maidenhead and Windsor.

In May 2013 Sunrise Radio appealed on-air for donations to keep the station afloat. See my post of 29 May 2103:

Time 106.6 won its licence back last year after Ofcom re-advertised it. Awarding the licence to Time rather than a station based around Slough’s existing Asian community station, Ofcom said “The ability of Litt Corporation to provide Time with funding as and when necessary, which it has consistently done in the past, also provided reassurance of the applicant’s ability to maintain the service.”

Then, in August, it emerged that Sunrise Radio Group owed HMRC a tax bill of £400,000. Sunrise Radio went off digital radio in Scotland on digital radio due to spiralling costs as did Punjabi Radio in London and Kismat Radio in Bradford.

Nobody in the radio business should be happy to see any other station fail. These situations serve only to damage the image and reputation of our whole industry with advertisers, investors and listener. We can only hope that the administrators can find good new owners for these services who will be acceptable to Ofcom. The alternative is that the stations go off the air and Ofcom would have to be persuaded to re-advertise the licences, something it does not generally seem keen to do.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Ofcom to pursue DAB-lite for smaller stations....

I've been accused of being part of an "anti-DAB" campaign. Lets be clear, I think DAB was a brilliant development, in the 1980's it was an ingenious technically advanced solution. The trouble is that it was a solution to the wrong problem. It was devised largely with big European state broadcasters and national or regional commercial services in mind.

Before the days of the world wide web the specifications did not even consider the need for interactivity and access by a range of originators, large and small.

So I'm pleased to see that the Arts and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey today told the Go digital conference that the government will be providing funds over the next two years for Ofcom to build on the work of its Brighton pilot to develop small-scale DAB solutions, to allow smaller radio stations to go digital.

Vaizey told the conference: "We all know how much people love their small local commercial and community radio stations. That is why we have always said that we will reserve a part of the FM spectrum for as long as it is needed for those stations that are too small to make the switch to digital. This remains the case.

"We will also be consulting shortly on how we can improve the viability of the community radio sector by removing some of the complex and restrictive financing regulations currently in place.

"But wouldn’t it also be great if people could also get this local content on digital? I have for some time wanted to see progress on new solutions for small stations to have a route to DAB which meets their needs."

If we can find ways to open-up DAB so that it mirrors our expectations of every other digital medium - for accessibility, flexibility, interactivity and choice - then I'm all for it.

The DAB agony continues

Today's "Go Digital Day" does not seem to have addressed any of the real issues which surround British radio broadcasting moving into the digital age.

Not only has Ed Vaizey satisfied nobody by again failing to address the "digital switchover date" question but the government continues to conflate "digital radio" with the original DAB specification.

The DAB system we are using was defined in the 1980s - before the Internet!  There are many better digital radio solutions now available but the big groups, and many listeners, have invested so heavily in DAB that they are not keen to change technology this late in the day (not even to DAB+).

Earlier in this blog I've detailed the other issues which are not being addressed, here are a few in no particular order:
  • It is not good enough to talk about all new radios sold being DAB without explaining how ALL the stations currently available on AM, FM and the web could be affordably carried on DAB.
  • Why push ahead with a technology which, as presently licensed - even with national D2, can carry fewer stations than the previous analogue system?
  • What other digital media technology offers a restricted range of content compared with the analogue system it replaced?  Small independents or big studios can equally now make their output available digitally on CD, DVD and the internet. Digital technology has enabled a huge blossoming of new media producers. In UK radio only the big operators will control access to DAB.
  • What progress does the government want to see on "DAB-lite" for smaller local and community services? Or using DRM or HD Radio on medium wave or VHF frequencies?
  • If digital is the way forward (and I very much agree it is) how can it be acceptable to say that new smaller operators should remain satisfied with traditional FM? It's like telling independent record labels or film makers that they would have to continue with vinyl discs or VHS cassettes!
  • Unlike the situation with terrestrial television, where it was necessary to clear the UHF bands of analogue signals in order to carry more and better digital services, there is no technical imperative to have a fixed switch-over date for DAB radio. DAB uses different frequencies so the FM signals do not have to stop. The pressure for a date is driven only by economic considerations.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Digital radio not for small stations says Vaizey

Ahead of his much-heralded announcement on the digital radio switchover next week, the Minister for Culture Communication and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey has already told us that he will not be pushed into a switchover date until DAB has "adequate coverage".

But the smaller stations have been pointing out that, even with 100% coverage, many of them will not have a practical route onto DAB as it is presently constituted.

Vaizey stated: “We have never said we will require small stations to go digital, and FM can work in tandem with DAB”. This sounds reasonable but, as I've said here before, misses the point. All other digital audiovisual and information technologies have had the effect of adding choice, allowing additional access and creativity, and have been accessible to all providers big or small.

Saying that small stations can stay on FM is an admission that DAB (as designed in the 1980s) is not up to the job. It is currently the only digital media technology to offer FEWER choices to consumers than the analogue system it wants to replace.

It is as if only the big multi-national record companies had been able to release music on CD. This would be okay, according to Vaizey, because independents and small studios could still issue their songs on vinyl.

Or if only the big Hollywood studios could release movies on DVD.  This would be okay, under the Vaizey principle, because independent productions, art house movies and student productions could still be distributed on VHS cassettes!

I agree digital radio is the way forward, but if its so great it should be accessible to all producers and listeners - not just the established big boys.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Music Radio - a big night for Radio Academy North East

I'm pleased to say the next evening event for the Radio Academy here in north-east England is coming together very well. It is going to be a very special night not to be missed.

John Simons, Group Programme Director (Real & Smooth Limited) will be hosting an evening of lively debate about what many consider to be the most important element of a radio station - music. How important is music to the radio station of the future? Given the number of other platforms for music promotion, how important is radio to the music business today?

Joining John on the panel will be Mark Findlay, Group Head of Live Music (Global Radio), Tony Myers, Regional Promotions (Polydor Records) and Jeff Smith, Head of Music (BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music). There will be plenty of time for questions and answers and, of course, plenty of time to meet people in the bar.

It's at a great venue: Newcastle College - Space Bar, Rye Hill Campus, Scotswood Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 7SA on Thursday 12th September at 6pm for 7pm start.

Find out more at:   You can register there. Entrance is free for Radio Academy members.  If you are not a member - why not?  (If you turn up on the night just tell us you want to join for free entry). 

 Please encourage friends and colleagues to come along. I really think it will be a great night.

Monday, 5 August 2013

At last - a possibler digital transmission route for smaller stations?

It looks like we might get "DAB Lite" after all. I'm pleased to see that Ofcom has today reported favourably on a DAB experiment which was set up in Brighton between September last year and this January.

It specifically used low-cost low-power techniques to generate a DAB signal which could be useful and affordable for community and small commercial stations. For the trial the complex DAB multiplex signal was generated using computer software - rather than the expensive hardware used by the big boys.

The Ofcom report says: "As well as testing the viability and reliability of new wireless techniques for generating a Eureka 147 DAB compliant signal in a real world scenario and it also allowed various measurements, and comparisons with existing multiplexes to be made. The experiment successfully demonstrated that much of the infrastructure can now easily be implemented in software, and that integration with public IP networks improves accessibility while reducing the capital and operating costs quite dramatically."

The test also demonstrated that a low-cost, low power approach could deliver a reliable, high quality service using interleaved frequencies - which are left over between areas and unsuitable for use by larger networks.

Ofcom concluded:  "This work demonstrated that it is feasible to deliver DAB transmission infrastructure at much lower cost than currently required for equipment to deliver wide-area coverage. Nevertheless, significant further work is required to identify suitable spectrum for services making use of these technologies. In addition, it will be necessary to consider how they might be licensed to cover particular areas, especially in circumstances where there is a requirement to carry more than one service on the multiplex. When these issues have been resolved, these new techniques could find particular application for Community Radio or smaller scale commercial radio stations. These techniques might also assist in rolling out existing networks to serve more remote population areas where existing approaches might not prove to be cost-effective."

The full print version of the report can be found here:

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Lip Dub Lincoln - BBC Radio Lincolnshire

What a brilliant way to illustrate a local radio station's close relationship with a wide section of its community! Great fun - well done to everyone.....

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Radio can’t be left behind as an analogue island in digital world

“Radio can’t be left behind as an analogue island in digital world.”  That was the great quote from Ford Ennals which headed a report on DAB in the London Evening Standard last week.

The quote is a clear and honest statement, but it highlights a major policy failing in government and at Ofcom.  Put simply, current policies favour the big media groups (those represented by Digital Radio UK) to the detriment of small-scale or local broadcasters. There is no digital future mapped out for smaller stations. 

Ford Ennals is chief executive of Digital Radio UK, described in the article as “an alliance of all the major broadcasters”.
I’ve gone into more detail earlier on this blog but the problem is that the government believes the future of over-the-air digital radio is DAB.  But DAB was not designed for small local services, it is ideal for big radio groups and the BBC. Community radio and smaller commercial stations simply cannot afford the relatively high cost of DAB transmission.

There are other digital broadcast technologies more suited to local radio, for example in the USA they use HD Radio, in much of the world they are using DRM. Both have the advantage of using existing broadcast frequencies, AM and FM, and allow small broadcasters to operate their own transmitters, just as at present. But in Britain DAB is the only digital transmission mode available.
So we are told the future of local and community radio is in analogue on the FM band, particularly after the big boys vacate it, not on digital!

The Evening Standard article says:

“The long battle to get Britain tuning into digital radio is finally making progress but it still feels slow. Audio as a medium is booming with countless new music apps and online streaming services from Spotify and Shazam to Pandora and Apple’s forthcoming iTunes Radio. However, when it comes to listening to traditional radio stations, more than half are still on old analogue frequencies such as FM and MW — rather than the digital platform DAB and online.
....Moving from analogue to digital matters because it means a better signal, greater choice of stations, more interactivity for the listener and lower costs for the broadcasters. But unlike the TV industry, which successfully moved to digital last year when the analogue signal was turned off, radio does not even have a date for “digital switchover” after the previous Government’s target of 2015 was dropped.
.....The danger is that radio risks looking out of touch in an era when many kids’ instinct is to log onto YouTube…”

I would agree “radio can’t be left behind as an analogue island in a digital world”.  So what are the affordable plans for hundreds of local and community stations to move to digital broadcasting?  There are none.  

To make things worse, working to Government edicts, Ofcom is keeping a tight lid on analogue local radio, it says there are no more FM frequencies available over most of the country but it will not let new operators take over some of the under-used present frequencies, preferring to leave them with the existing larger groups.

There is therefore no digital roadmap for the smaller stations but, of course, Digital Radio UK, is quite happy with that situation. And the government is only listening to Digital Radio UK.

Truly local and specialist radio needs political help. I think we should start a “campaign for the future of small scale and local radio” to defend these important services, which in some cases are the most popular radio stations in their towns, from being castaway on an analogue island.


Thursday, 20 June 2013

Apparently local TV is good, local radio is bad

Earlier this year Ofcom found itself in a position where, in view of previous decisions on the viability of smaller commercial radio stations, it could not refuse a request by Bauer to merge the programming of TFM Radio on Teesside with that of its larger neighbour Metro Radio in Newcastle. Nobody had really thought the new rules on the location of studios and sharing of programming were meant to apply to stations as large as one serving Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Redcar, Darlington, parts of North Yorkshire and much of County Durham.  But they do.

Ofcom apparently accepted that radio stations the size of TFM Radio could not be commercially viable, nevertheless yesterday the regulator went ahead and advertised a local TV licence for Middlesbrough.  Serving a smaller population centred around just the Teesside towns of Stockton, Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough the digital TV service is expected to be receivable in just 280,000 households.

Now I’ve nothing against the offer of these local TV licences – I think people should be able to put together consortia, bid and then try to make them work. That’s how we make progress in broadcasting. But why has the government put Ofcom in a position where there is a predisposition against offering any new local commercial radio licences, where Ofcom goes out of its way to support big companies who say they can’t make the current local radio licences pay and where the favoured digital technology (DAB) mitigates against smaller-scale local radio - while at the same time they are championing commercial local television!

Why can’t the same rules apply to local radio? If a company tries to make a licence work and fails then, okay, they must hand the licence back and the opportunity should be offered again, perhaps in a slightly different form.

Instead TFM get a licence extension to 2025 (ironically on the grounds that they commit to DAB) and then, within months, are able to claim local radio on Teesside is not commercially viable and announce that for the next twelve years they will share all their programmes with another station in a completely different city.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Are we ready to "Go Digital"?

The publication of  the Government’s  “Go Digital Trial” report this week has reignited the debate over a possible “digital switchover” date. Never mind that this is a false analogy with the digital TV switchover, where the old analogue frequencies were needed to make the new system work and had to be vacated, there is still a lot to consider to safeguard the digital future of all UK radio.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is hailing the digital radio test as a success, saying listeners who are in a good coverage area love digital radio. The project, overseen by Ipsos/MORI earlier this year, saw 237 people in the city of Bath remove analogue radios from their lives, to see what it was like living with only digital radio over a six-week period.

It is interesting that they chose the city of Bath to undertake this test. I see that one of the conclusions was that respondents welcomed the wider choice of stations. Try that in a city like Sunderland where the most popular station is not available on DAB!

The fact is that DAB, as currently established, can carry FEWER stations in many parts of the country (at decent stereo audio quality) that the analogue system it hopes to replace. And that’s even if the smaller stations could afford to go on DAB!

The current plans for reorganising DAB multiplexes will give most areas a wider choice of national and quasi-national brands but do nothing to let smaller local and community services use the platform.  Furthermore listeners now like to receive many other specialist and distant stations which equally cannot afford to be on every DAB multiplex.

Many commentators argue, correctly, that if national and regional stations all moved onto DAB, this would free most of the FM band for smaller commercial and community stations. But this raises a fundamental point – why is broadcast radio in the UK adopting a new technology which will only work for some of its stations? Why is there no plan for local stations to go digital? Are we saying that in ten years time local and community radio will be the only category of media NOT available on stanard digital radio devices?

As I’ve commented before, DAB must be the only digital media technology which offers consumers a narrower choice of content than the analogue system it purports to replace. It’s as if only established artists and labels could issue CDs while new bands and independents had to remain on vinyl. Or only the big Hollywood studios and distributors could produce DVDs, while smaller film makers should be happy to see their product distributed on VHS cassettes!!

Where is the road map for ALL radio stations to be available on some generally receivable digital broadcast platform?  And, for the national and regional services (where a switch to DAB+ would improve quality and capacity on the current multiplexes) what is the plan for that changeover?

Before talking further about the digital switchover we should be clear what the future delivery mechanism will be – and count how many homes currently have DAB+ receivers!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Mark Turnbull

I’m very sad to hear of the death of Mark Turnbull.

Best known as a presenter and producer on BBC Radio Cleveland (now BBC Tees), Mark was a truly remarkable and inspiring character and a sad loss will be felt in many areas of life. Aged 50, he passed away this weekend in hospital in Middlesbrough after a short illness.

Blind from birth, Mark made his name as a journalist covering County Durham courtrooms for local newspapers and reporting on darts and snooker for the Press Association. He became a well-known and respected presenter on BBC Radio Cleveland where he was perfectly able to drive his own shows. He was President of the NUJ for 12 months and was also the first blind chairman of a magistrate’s court in England, serving at Teesside Combined Courts.

He was passionate about radio and Teesside and had a great memory for contacts, names and voices. I remember when I was managing the rival TFM radio he would be able to tell if I had arrived at a local function just from the distant sound of my voice across a crowded room and would call out “Brian Lister has arrived”.  He would repeat this with others throughout the evening.

No mere local presenter, Mark had met, interviewed and was well remembered by many top national and international politicians but he still retained a friendly human touch in his dealing with local listeners. The world of radio is poorer without him.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Do we need a Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

For the past week there has been a flurry of press speculation that the DCMS might be scrapped by a government seeking to save money and streamline Whitehall.

Some senior politicians and industry figures say we could get by very well without a separate cabinet minister overseeing culture, media and sport. They argue that other government departments could pick up Maria Miller’s responsibilities.

The DCMS is responsible for a wide range of soft and fluffy areas of government and probably served the country well in the build-up to last year’s very successful Olympics. Its remit includes, among other things: broadcasting, the Internet, telecommunications and broadband, the arts, cultural property and heritage creative industries, sports, design, fashion, film, publishing and advertising.

So would it matter to us in radio if the responsibilities of the DCMS were split among other departments? It is clear that the department’s drive towards a digital future, which in the case of radio broadcasting became equated with the aging DAB technology, has ruined many aspects of UK local radio. But would we be better off elsewhere?

I recall when, prior to the formation of the then Department of National Heritage in 1992, broadcasting policy mainly emanated from the Home Office while things like frequency allocations were with the Department for Trade and Industry.  The trouble was the people setting editorial scene did not really care about, or understand, the technical opportunities, while the frequency planners often seemed to have no concept of the creative possibilities of radio broadcasting.

By the end of the 1980’s commercial broadcasters with FM and AM frequencies had been told to use them for separate services (and many AM oldies services were launched). We were told: “use it or lose it”. However, just a few years earlier the regulators were unable to give permission for us to split transmissions even if we wanted to. The Home Office, which traditionally regards broadcasting as something to be feared and tightly controlled, did not really want to see a proliferation of new stations. If at Metro we wanted to run a Sunderland football commentary on FM while the Newcastle match was on AM we had to apply directly to the Home Office for “special permission”.

Meanwhile the seeds of community radio were being sown in Sunderland where the community radio association managed to get a Special Event Licence (the forerunner of a RSL licence) to cover the Sunderland seafront illuminations. I should explain that Sunderland had spectacular illuminations before Blackpool – indeed the Blackpool illuminations were based on what they saw on Wearside. The spectacle stopped in the early part of the last century but the autumn night-time display was resurrected for a few years in the late 1980s.

Every night after dark, with thousands of cars cruising the Roker seafront and thousands of families walking the promenade and the seafront gardens this was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the power and value of local radio. The Light AM was born. However the standard frequency allocation was on a busy AM channel using a maximum 50 milliwatts of power. The DTI said this could give a daytime range of a mile or two. However in the evening, with considerable interference from a co-channel lady opera singer on Radio Tirana, the signal barely reached the road passing the transmitter mast. The Albanian station was using a power of some 500,000 watts.  “Why do you need to broadcast at night?” asked the man at the DTI.


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Is Sunrise able to fund a station or not?

On 31 January this year Ofcom gave their reasons for allowing the Litt Corporation to retain the Slough licence for Time 106.6 in the face of competition from community radio service Asian Star Radio. The Litt Corporation owns Sunrise Radio and was responsible for yesterday’s decision to ask listeners to donate cash to keep the station running (see earlier post).

It is ironic therefore that Ofcom cited the Sunrise Radio group’s superior financial resources as one of the key reasons for leaving the Slough licence with that organisation. The statement said, in part:

“This combination of strong competition for listeners and a somewhat heterogeneous licence area have historically made the Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead licence an extremely challenging one to operate. In this context, therefore, the Broadcast Licensing Committee took the view that the assessment of the applications under section 105(a) was of particular significance in this award.

“The Committee considered that the overall business plan proposed by Time 106.6 ('Time') was a realistic and conservative one that was based on existing levels of listening and revenue, but nevertheless anticipated the station becoming self-supporting in the new licence period. This follows a period which has seen the station's annual losses narrow considerably, partly as a result of cost savings achieved by co-locating in Southall with other stations owned by Time's parent company Litt Corporation. The ability of Litt Corporation to provide Time with funding as and when necessary, which it has consistently done in the past, also provided reassurance of the applicant's ability to maintain the service.”

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Sunset or Sunrise?

Southall-based Sunrise Radio has today announced that it is appealing to listeners for funds to keep the station afloat.

A “news item” on the station website, and announcements on-air, say the Chairman of the Sunrise group Avtar Lit is asking listeners to financially support the radio stations:

“There has been an increasing trend among Asian broadcasters to be supported by their listeners and viewers. Many Asian TV channels are paid for by subscribers or viewers. With advertising rates failing to increase in 15 years and other costs escalating, there is no other way except a combination of advertising and listener contribution. Listeners can make a contribution by sending a cheque, or by credit card.”

It is not clear what, if anything, donors will receive in return for their contributions.

Along with many commercial radio companies the Sunrise group is thought to be cash-strapped having been badly hit by the downturn in advertising revenue. Recently, Sunrise Radio, Kismat Radio and Punjabi Radio ceased broadcasting on digital television to save costs, and Sunrise did not renew its contract on digital radio in the West Midlands. However this may be the first time an established UK commercial radio station has tried the listener subscription route.

The item does not elaborate on the scheme but Ofcom rules do permit appeals for funds for programming or services subject to certain conditions, including:
  • Broadcasters should keep accurate and detailed records of donations and how they are spent. Records should demonstrate how donations received are used to fund the service.
  • Ofcom strongly recommends that donations are kept in a separate, specific account so that information relating to donations and how they are spent is clear and easy to access. It is also recommended that audits of such accounts are conducted.
  • Broadcasters should avoid creating unrealistic expectations about what donations can achieve and appeals should not improperly exploit any susceptibilities of the audience.
  • Broadcasters should take care to ensure that the acceptance of donations does not prevent them from meeting the Code‟s requirements relating to due impartiality, no undue prominence of views and opinions, and editorial independence.

Listener appeals have been used widely elsewhere – for example the Public Service Broadcasters Telethons in the USA and by community radio operators worldwide. Many stations offer membership of some kind of “listeners club” in return for a minimum donation. However these are not run by profit-distributing commercial concerns like the Sunrise Group.

In the UK we are used to getting a wide range of radio free, at the time of listening, from the BBC and other stations so it will be interesting to see if this model can work here.


Thursday, 23 May 2013

Global, the Competition Commission and Ofcom

This week the Competition Commission has shown that it has some teeth where Ofcom has only been provided with gums.  The Commission told Global Radio it must dispose of some stations in seven regions following concerns over its £70m purchase of Real and Smooth services from GMG Radio.

Global must sell some of the stations it bought as part of the GMG deal, or offload its own services such as Heart and Capital, in seven areas: the East Midlands, Cardiff, North Wales, Greater Manchester and the north-west, the north-east, central Scotland, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire.
It is notable that the Competition Commission has decided that there would be “significant adverse effects”  in most regions outside London as a result of the merger. Although recognising that commercial radio operates in what it calls a two sided market – with separate competition for listeners and advertisers - the Competition Commission largely restricted its analysis to the effects on the advertising market, which is what it was essentially set-up to do.

In north-east England, where the heritage ILR services were both owned by EMAP (now Bauer Radio), the Radio Authority and Ofcom had over the years licenced three separate region-wide licences to compete with them:  Century Radio (now Real Radio); Galaxy (now Capital); and Smooth (which covers a slightly smaller region).   We now face a situation where all three region-wide alternatives are owned by Global. The only other players, apart from Bauer, are town or city-sized commercial services covering places away from the main conurbations of Tyneside and Teesside or a few community radio stations with very limited range.
Plainly it is sensible for the Competition Commission to decide that, as Bauer pointed out in their submission, this gives Global too great an influence in the region’s radio advertising market.  But why does Ofcom not see this as a potential reduction in plurality for radio LISTENERS too?

Ofcom would claim that radio listeners also have the alternative of BBC stations and digital media, but then advertisers have alternative outlets in other media as well. It is odd that, when it comes to money, the competition regulator sees this centralisation of control as a risk but, in matters of editorial policy and cultural variety, the broadcast regulator does not.
An while Ofcom argues that the regulation of “Formats” guarantees a choice and diversity of programming for listeners the Competition Commission’s report undermines this to an extent.  The report points out that, while the Capital North East Format specifies a target audience of 15-29 year olds the average age of their listeners is in fact 31.  Similarly while Smooth is supposed to aim for listeners 50+ the average age in practice is 47.  The Formats of these three originally distinctive regional stations have become so watered down that they are all effectively competing for slightly different versions of the same familiar middle ground.

Targeting radio programming is not an exact science, and I do not blame any operator for trying to occupy the high ground in terms of audience numbers, but why is Ofcom so content to acquiesce in allowing this narrowing of choice?

Monday, 20 May 2013

Growth of digital listening

The latest Rajar figures (Quarter 1 2013) show that half the UK population now listen to digital radio each week.  This includes listening online, and via television boxes and mobile phones etc. as well as, mainly, listening to DAB radios.

This is good news but does not mean that these people are ONLY using digital radio. At work, in the car or elsewhere they may still be using FM or AM radio, and some of their favourite local stations may not even be available on DAB.   While digital listening has seen a healthy 17% rise year-on-year, to 34.3% of all listening hours, this means the great majority of radio listening is still on FM or AM.
And, before we start to plan the FM switch-off again, remember that in many markets the most popular single station is not even available on DAB. And with the closure of some local and regional multiplexes, to make way for more national channels, these local services are not likely to be able to appear on DAB in the foreseeable future.

There are some good examples from the UKRD stable where stations from Wessex FM to 2BR to Yorkshire Coast Radio, and others, each now achieve a weekly reach of around 50% of their local population on FM – but cannot be efficiently moved onto DAB.