Taking Back Control of Independent Local Radio

Is there space for truly independent Independent Local Radio in the UK?

Contrary to popular belief, radio is a more popular medium than ever. Today, the listener has more ways of tuning in to their favourite station than ever before. Not only on LW, MW or FM wavelengths and DAB channels. Other mediums include Internet radio, digital satellite and cable channels, and dedicated apps.

Whether you choose to listen to your favourite station online or on a proper radio set, there are two things which matter to the listener: personality and content. Without identifiable jingles and charismatic presenters, the radio station lacks personality. It could fade into the distance as aural wallpaper. An anonymous jukebox interrupted by news bulletins and advertisements.

Having listened to various radio stations in my near 40-year existence on Earth, there are two things that enable me to listen to a station for longer. Engaging presenters and distinctive playlists. Playlists where the station plays more than the same 20 tunes per hour. Presenters that offer a fresh look at everyday issues, or have a good rapport with their listeners.

In the playlist department, BBC Radio 2 continues to spring some surprises (though a proper brass banding programme would be a great addition). For me, no coach trip is complete without the dulcet tones of Ken Bruce (Popmaster doesn’t half make the minutes fly on the M62 or M6 motorways). On the odd Sunday, Johnnie Walker’s show is required listening.

I listen to very little radio from the legacy ILR stations. A quick listen to Greatest Hits Radio is a dreary experience for me due to its stale playlist. I haven’t listened to The Hits Radio enough to pass comment.

My most listened to legacy ILR station is LBC. Britain’s oldest Independent Local Radio station, formerly known as the London Broadcasting Company. Since going nationwide on DAB and internet radio, Leading Britain’s Conversation became a real competitor to the BBC’s radio stations. Though I do not approve of giving some of its presenters airtime, it does set the agenda. James O’Brien, Shelagh Fogarty, and Eddie Mair are my usual reasons for tuning. I don’t agree with everything that Nick Ferrari says, but he does come across well with his callers and interviewees.

LBC is a fantastic example of how a legacy ILR station could frame the national conversation. Capital, the UK’s second oldest ILR station, is a classic case in point of a local station becoming a national brand. Today, you can listen to Capital Radio from Peterhead to Penzance. As you head down the A9, the same Justin Timberlake track you heard at 8.20am in Perth could be heard in Padstow. Today, thanks to recent cuts throughout Capital’s parent company Global, the same breakfast show presenters.

Therefore, with several Independent Local Radio stations sharing the same presenters and playlists, they cease to be local radio stations. They are mere constituents of a national radio station. In some cases, community radio stations maintain local links abandoned by the likes of Global. If you have read any of my bus related blog posts, this paragraph and the next few lines of this post sound eerily familiar.

Piccadilly Plaza Parallels

In the transport industry, all you need to do is substitute Global or Bauer Media with FirstGroup or Stagecoach. Like Global, the two leading bus owning groups share one thing in common: growth by acquisition. Also by stamping their brands across the UK by means of a standard livery. Instead of local car showroom adverts, local bus routes.

In Greater Manchester, most of the combined authority boundaries’ bus routes are in the hands of major bus owning groups. Most of its independent local radio stations are owned by Global and Bauer Media. The BBC maintains a strong presence thanks to Radio Manchester’s astute hiring of former Piccadilly Radio presenters.

With Radio Manchester attracting older listeners than Heart, Capital or The Hits radio stations, the former Piccadilly faces not only have cosy memories for its listeners. They have grown up with Mike Sweeney and Becky Want in their formative years, who have become local legends in their own right. They have seen them mature as broadcasters, as well as seeing them on Piccadilly Radio’s roadshows in their formative years.

With Global and Bauer Media banking on well-known celebrities, where will tomorrow’s Steve Penks and Mike Sweeneys come from? Is appearing on a reality TV show the most effective way of climbing the radio broadcasting ladder?

Taking back control of ILR?

For local radio, the traditional route to being a radio presenter included experience on a hospital radio station or being a runner to (say) Timmy Mallett. Then, the aspirant Chris Evans wannabe would have their own show at stupid o’clock or stand in for a major presenter (as Louise Croombs from Tameside Radio has done in place of Becky Want).

Piccadilly Radio’s success was due to local talent. Many of its presenters lived in the same area as its listeners. Some of its workforce may have caught an orange and white bus to Piccadilly Gardens. There was one exception: Roger ‘Twiggy’ Day who did the breakfast show and played Piccadilly Radio’s first record on the 02 April 1974.

Roger Day was already well known from Radio Caroline and Radio North Sea International. From Radio London (reputed to be Britain’s most profitable and professional offshore pirate station) came Philip Birch, the first Managing Director of Greater Manchester Independent Radio Limited. Whereas many of the legacy ILRs lost money in their formative years, Piccadilly Radio had local support and healthy profit margins to boot.

From Piccadilly Radio, many of its presenters moved onto national stations. You can still hear Gary Davies on Radio 2; ex-Piccadilly hack Nick Robinson is gainfully employed on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Early Piccadilly Radio didn’t only have the likes of Roger Day, Mike Shaft, Phil Sayer and Susie Mathis. It also had original programmes for children (Tripe and Onions), local government news, folk music, classical music (Square One and Performance) and religion (Bryce Cooke’s Thank God It’s Monday). How could we forget the magic of Tom Tyrrell’s or Brian Clarke’s commentary, or Magic Music with Steve Penk?

Alongside the chart sounds, there was room for public service broadcasting, as per their original licence application with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Each of the legacy ILR stations, and the second wave of IBA licences were mandated to offer genuinely localised content. Being as some ILR stations didn’t have the resources for a full-on news gathering operation, Independent Radio News was formed for the relaying of national stories.

Behind each successful local radio station is its ability to relate to its audience. It is also a successful medium for advertising local businesses, hence the success of Tameside Radio and Trafford Sound on a smaller scale. In many cases, they have taken listeners off the original ILR stations. With the station formerly known as Key 103 becoming The Hits Radio, could this trend continue?

With community radio stations, you might bump into your presenters in the pub or on the bus. They might be the people you see struggling on the self scan tills who mention their misfortune between songs at 2.40pm.

Community radio stations should add something extra to the listener’s choice of stations. In any part of the UK, there should be space for the BBC’s local and national stations, independent national stations, and ‘traditional’ independent local stations. Plus community stations. ILR stations and community stations should have a discernible public service broadcasting ethos.

To maintain the public service role of independent local and community stations, should also be available on ‘traditional radio’ in analogue or digital forms. An internet only station could lose listeners if the broadband connection is down or too slow for streaming. Low income families without access to the internet would lose out if, in future years, well known radio stations abandon radio frequencies in favour of web streaming.

At present, it would be unrealistic to expect Bauer Media or Global to revert to having breakfast show presenters for each local FM frequency or DAB channel. In 5 to 10 years from now, Greatest Hits Radio could be DAB or internet only. This could free up some FM and AM frequencies for a new generation of ILR stations with a degree of public service broadcasting obligations.

What is not going to go away is the plethora of internet only stations and national local stations. The ‘National Local Stations’ and internet only stations are closer to the original vision of incremental stations. Incremental radio stations further to the likes of Piccadilly Radio and BBC Radio Manchester and Radio 1.

Under our present government, there is more chance of Stalybridge Celtic lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy that the return of pre-1988 ILR stations. Freedom of choice has been the watchword since the mid-1980s, hence the splitting of FM and AM frequencies of ILR stations from 1988. Hence the arrival of smaller scale commercial radio stations like Revolution 96.2 FM. Since 1973, commercial radio stations have had predetermined licensing conditions. Last year, this changed.

26 October 2018: Another Significant Deregulation Day

On the day after Greater Manchester Transport’s formation came Piccadilly Radio. Twelve years and six months on, the orange, brown and white buses were joined by buses of various colours and makes. 32 years after bus deregulation was imposed on Piccadilly Plaza came radio’s answer to “the free market experiment”.

From this day forward, UK radio stations could change their format without contacting OFCOM. Heart FM could broadcast medical news instead of Ed Sheeran tracks. Scala Radio could turn to film music instead of classical music.

In OFCOM’s guidelines, it says:

“Where certain ‘regional’ analogue stations… provide a version of their programme service nationally on DAB, our policy is that they should not generally be required to broadcast local material and locally made programmes. This in effect, allows them to become national DAB stations with partial national coverage on FM. “

This gives Global and Bauer Media the green light to foist the same breakfast show presenter upon its listeners from Perth to Padstow. For local stations, there remains some sense of public service broadcasting obligation. Furthermore, its line on locality is as follows:

“programmes are those made within a station’s licensed area or, where OFCOM has approved an area relating to that station, that approved area. A station’s Format will formally indicate where it must make its locally-made programmes.”

For local FM stations, localised programming minimum hours have been cut from 10 hours to 6 hours, as detailed below:

  • A minimum of 6 hours of locally-made programming between 6am and 7pm if they are providing local news at least hourly at peak-times (breakfast and afternoon drivetime), or;
  • A minimum of 3 hours of locally-made programming between 6am and 7pm if they are providing local news at least hourly throughout the same period.

OFCOM’s Localness Guidelines allow for elaboration. Where local stations have been taken over by regional and national players as, say a Mancunian outpost of Capital, whole counties have lost local coverage.

In Greater Manchester, the loss of Piccadilly Radio’s frequencies to ‘National Local’ stations have diminished the listening experience. Local community stations are a brilliant addition, but a Greater Manchester wide local voice is sorely missed outside of the Beeb’s offerings.

For me, this is where it gets personal. I would like my local stations to be anything other than a jukebox interrupted by ad breaks or Sky News. They need personality and a distinctive sound, and that’s just the station’s jingle package.

I would like to listen to tomorrow’s Steve Penks on a proper Greater Manchester wide ILR station again, as well as on community stations like Tameside Radio. I would like to see orange and white buses back in Manchester city centre, but that’s another story.

I doubt as if my nephew would ever get goose pimples from hearing the Piccadilly Radio ‘Stereo Power/FM 103’ jingle in 2058.

S.V., 23 April 2019.

Sangean ATS-909 shortwave receiver image by Oona Räisänen, 2006 (Creative Commons License: Attribution-Share Alike 3.0).

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