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?