AIRWAVES RADIO, STATIONS & MEMORABILIA
The IBA's Ideas For Expanding Independent Local Radio
Whatever Happened To Independent Local Radio - Where Did It All Go Wrong ?
Looking back at the last fifteen to twenty years of events in the commercial radio industry, from the year 2009, it is fair to say that the massive expansion in the number of radio stations has not produced the quality and range that was envisaged by the government in 1987. In fact, even though there are hundreds more stations, there is actually far less creative local programming being produced.
This explosion in the number of radio stations was driven simply by the fact that there were spare radio frequencies were available and every one of these frequencies could, and would be used for new radio stations. With the lighter touch regulation there was less of a requirement to ensure financial sustainability of all these new stations and a relaxation in the range, quality and diversity of programming that should be made by independednt radio.
As deregulation progressed throughout the 1990's with the Radio Authority in charge and more so when Ofcom took over, the rules on ownership and the amount of local programming that should be produced were continually relaxed. Radio has almost become a free for all!
So called local radio stations can now broadcast as little as four hours of locally produced programmes per day! The rest can either be networked from other remote studios hundreds of miles away, or 'voice tracked' - that is music, announcements and commercials played out from a computer with no presenter or other human invlovement. This is not how local radio, ILR, started out and is almost certainly not what those who wished for the expansion of independent radio in the 1980's would have wanted.
Of course there were two avenues to increasing the nnumber of independent radio stations:
1/ Something like the USA where all the available frequencies are made available, in an orderly manner so as not to cause mutual interference, but where the free market, i.e the radio companies themselves, decide what sort of programming is broadcast - non-stop pop; rock; country; talk etc etc
2/ Development of radio by close regulation. The regulator determines what frequencies are available to use and also how many and what type of stations are financially sustainable, ultimately determining the nature and range of programming that is produced. Very similar to theIBA's model for the inital ILR stations of the 1970's and 1980's.
The UK, while starting with the regulated model, has gradually adopted the non-regulated model. This has produced a situation where there are too many stations fighting to gain an audience and, more importantly for commercial radio, a sufficiently large advertising revenue. This has produced a situation where most stations fight for the easy low cost pop music audience - all fighting for the lowest common denominator.
So commercial radio expansion, as envisaged by the great and the good in the late 1980's, has produced (with the help of de-regulation) less real choice rather than more. Sure there are more stations, but the range of output that could be heard across ILR in the 1970's has withered. The typical (so called "local") station has less news - no news magazine programmes, no documentaries, no drama, no diversity of music such as country, jazz and classical; no social programming, few phone-ins and other challenging programmes. So pretty much all the wasachieved by ILT in the 1970's and 1980's has been lost.
There are one or two exceptions. Classic FM provides 24 hour classical music - somthing that may have ben heard for only two or three hours per week on ILR in the 1970's. But Classic FM really only exists due to a requirement to be a non pop station - a little regulation. If the station's owners could get away with it, they'd pobably much prefer a pop music station on 100 to 102 FM ! [MDS975]
On19th January, in a written parliamentary answer, you unveiled the government's proposals for the biggest radio revolution in the history of British broadcasting. As Chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority I applaud your aims but denounce your means.
PUTTING RADIO AT RISK - An open letter to Douglas Hurd, Home Secretary from Lord Thomson, Chairman Of The IBA. 1987
Your proposals for changing the face of commercial radio in this country are radical and imaginative in their objects, but ill thought out and potentially damaging in their effect not only on those engaged in Independent Broadcasting but on the audiences who listen to it. You want greater choice in both local and national radio. You are responding to the fact that new frequencies are available. Your plans include, at the national level, three new radio channels, all for the first time funded by advertising, and at the grass roots several hundred new community stations. Your plans will also incorporate the 50 local commercial stations which reach listeners over some 85% of the country and which have been successfully set up and supervised for 14 years by the IBA.
Your proposals to exploit the new frequencies, to provide new national radio choice, and let hundreds of grass roots radio stations flower are exciting and in the spirit of the times. But they are remarkably vague about how the new system will live up to this exciting prospectus. Many important questions are left unanswered perhaps deliberately.
For instance, all our experience of radio supports the case for streamed rather than mixed national channels. Does the government favour mixed channels because it wants to try out a system of competitive tendering for the allocation of frequencies and thinks that mixed channels would make this easier? Or has it some knowledge not shared by the rest of us?
What is the timing of introduction of the new national channels and - this is crucial - what frequencies will be released for them by the BBC? Will allocation by competitive tendering really widen listeners' choices? Or is it simply a means to take money out of the industry and of programme services into the Exchequer?
What will the effect of three national channels be on the present ILR services? Can the system of regulation be as 'light' as government claims it will be and still achieve government objectives regarding the maintenance of standards regarding impartiality, balance and decency?
We believe that there will be need for a professional and knowledgeable input into government plans which must come from those who know radio. This means from all who work in the industry and above all from audiences: the answer should not simply be imposed from on high. There should be full consultation about what the public want and how the new opportunities may be added without creating financial disaster or chaos. We believe in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary approach.
Duplication of Effort [the formation of the new Radio Authority to take over from the IBA]
This is an anti-quango government, so why create a new additional quango to do a job which you conceded has been very well done by the IBA? It will mean all the expense of a new infrastructure, with a new set of officials and a new board of members, duplicating what the IBA already provides. Many of the officials will no doubt be drawn from the highly professional team forming the radio branch of the IBA, who will be paid redundancy money by the IBA to go on to work for the new Radio Authority.
The political irony is that the IBA, historically, is one of the ingenious creations of British Conservative governments. It was created by the Conservative government of 1954 to break the BBC television monopoly, and this it did brilliantly, setting up the country's first truly regional television system and enriching greatly the choice of British television viewers.
It was chosen by the Conservative government of 1972 to break the BBC radio monopoly and Independent Local Radio was successfully formed and developed. The ILR stations are the first choice for listening in most of the areas they serve.
Then again the IBA was the chosen instrument of a Conservative government for the establishment of Channel 4, commercially funded but charged by parliament with being innovative and catering for minority tastes not previously covered by ITV.
And in 1986 the IBA was asked by the government to choose a contractor for Britain's first venture into the world of direct broadcasting by satellite which will provide viewers with three additional national channels of choice by the autumn of next year.
The IBA is one of those British achievements the rest of the world admires and Britain takes for granted. Britain is the only country in the world to have created a public broadcasting system of quality that is wholly commercially funded, receiving not a penny from the broadcast licence. Today, when technology is widening the range of choice for viewers, people come from all over the world to the IBA to find out how Britain does it.
The IBA contains the most experienced corps of commercial broadcasting regulators in the world. They have shown the professional skill to run different and appropriate regimes for terrestrial television, for local commercial radio and now for direct broadcasting by satellite. In the detailed, practical proposals we have put to the Home Office on its Green Paper on radio, we have shown we have the experience to make separate and distinctive arrangements not only for the new national commercial radio channels but for new community stations, and to run them with a light touch once the new legislation is in place.
The IBA is uniquely placed to organise the difficult and delicate transition for the present ILR stations into the new licensing regime proposed by the government. You s hould not underestimate the risks of financial disaster and chaos if the process is not handled well. Your plans seem to me to be a recipe for uncertainty, delay and dislocation, with an outgoing authority on one hand, and a new authority still to be born and find its feet.
If government and parliament persist in the course currently proposed the IBA will, of course, do everything in its power to ensure that the transition is completed with as little damage as possible. But-is it right to take these risks?
It is perhaps odd that I as an ex-Labour minister should have to remind you that the Conservative philosophy has always claimed to seek change with continuity. The IBA could provide both that change and that continuity.
[Source: IBA. 1987]
History will quite possibly judge that untamed expansion of commercial radio was not the way to increase real choice and diversity in radio listening. [MDS975]
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