Stop the deregulation of local commercial radio

By Media Reform Coalition / Monday April 1, 2019 Read More

MRC has invited the Local Radio Group to offer its own thoughts on some worrying developments in local commercial radio. A further comment piece is forthcoming on the impact of community radio.

by The Local Radio Group

We need to talk about deregulation.

Unnecessary and extreme deregulation of the commercial radio industry has recently caused hundreds of job losses. It has also resulted in the closure of many sites across the UK and the virtual loss of local radio up and down the country, including where you live.

These are radio stations that are broadcasting on local FM licences, but will now be essentially broadcasting as a national service 24/7. These licences were never awarded to broadcast in this way. We already have a wide choice of national radio stations to choose from, so why should we be forced into having our local ones now also becoming national? We are losing shows and radio stations that we have been listening to for years and, in some cases, our entire lives. There have been online petitions signed by people in their thousands, who listen to local radio and who are disenfranchised that their favourite shows and stations are being taken away from them. 

Ofcom are the regulatory body for radio, and they have deregulated the industry to the point where there are now barely any local commercial radio stations left. According to John Myers, ‘you have to hand it to The Radiocentre [the industry body for commercial radio] for their brilliance in lobbying. It’s funded mostly by Bauer and Global.’ He goes on to say of Ofcom that ‘the regulator is there to think long and hard before agreeing to something major like this and be seen to be doing so. Sadly, it all seems so easy.’ 

Global and Bauer are the two corporate giants that have been buying local radio stations for fun over the last few years and Radiocentre is supposed to be impartially representing commercial radio stations across the UK who have bought membership to the group. One must ask how it can be impartial if, as suggested, it is mainly funded by the two corporate giants sitting at the table? It doesn’t feel like a level playing field and as a result we are seeing a culture where many of the smaller, local radio stations and groups have sold up their businesses to these two corporations.

This is made all the worse by the fact that commercial radio in the UK is thriving right now so this deregulation absolutely didn’t need to happen. Success is breeding greed for just a few people heading up big corporate companies and who appear to have no real interest in the medium, other than making as much money as they can at the expense of all others. And the supposed regulator of the industry is allowing them to get away with it!

Ofcom has questions to answer with regards to the impartiality and fairness of the commercial radio industry and how it has been deregulated to such an extent. Global and Bauer (who are expected to follow Global’s lead with national networking) have seemingly been buying up independent local radio stations and groups with the sole intention of sacking staff, closing sites and networking their national brands across the country. It is basically a monopolisation of the industry without scrutiny or any questions being asked. 

Because of these changes, there is now a massive void in local communities across the UK, where there is no longer a local radio station. There is going to be a knock-on effect for local economies as a result of this. For many local advertisers, independent local radio provides them with a chance to advertise at a reasonable cost, whilst at the same time targeting their advertising campaign to reach their local customers. The cost of advertising with these bigger, national brands is far greater in comparison and far less able to be targeted to specific, local markets. Not only this, but advertising availability on these stations, combined with the costs, will see mainly national (and international) companies being able to win the space for airtime at the expense of small to medium sized businesses. This surely can’t be right or fair and in fact, flies in the face of the government stance on supporting these types of businesses within the UK economy. 

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that these local radio advertisers see a £1.6bn return on investment, via advertising on local radio stations. Why are we fixing something that isn’t even broken? In fact, far from being broken, local commercial radio in the UK is thriving. Why is that being put at risk? 

With local commercial radio stations being sold to big corporations at an alarming rate (there’s literally only a handful left), there is now a huge gap in the market for local consumers and businesses that have had their local stations taken away from them. These remaining stations and any future local broadcasting need to be protected from this point on and Ofcom need to get a grip on this, before a beleaguered industry is entirely decimated. 

It should also be pointed out that Radiocentre published a reportin November last year, calling for Ofcom to regulate community radio stations more heavily. In this report, author David Lloyd claims that the real threat to local commercial radio stations is community radio. This is an outrageous claim. Firstly, it was published by Radiocentre and used to (again) lobby Ofcom when they clearly have vested interests. Secondly, the swift decline of local commercial radio has absolutely nothing to do with community radio, and everything to do with the big corporations who are ‘land grabbing’ by buying local radio stations and groups with the sole intention of rebranding and networking their newly acquired FM services on a national level. 

It would appear that Radiocentre/Global/Bauer are purely trying to protect their interests further down the road as they know there is still a demand for local commercial radio from both listeners and businesses alike. It surely cannot be right that this kind of practice is being allowed in any UK industry. It is unfair on every level and needs addressing.

The Scottish Parliament has recently given cross-party support in Holyrood for a debateinto a review of the loss of local radio services. The issue has also been raised in Westminster when Lilian Greenwood MPrecently stood up to decry the “unnecessary” deregulation of local radio across the UK. She was instructed by the Leader of the House to seek an adjournment debate and hopefully she will go on to do just that. I can certainly see there being a similar amount of support for it, as in Scotland. 

This is an issue that isn’t over yet. There are still many questions to be asked and many people are owed the answers. 

Please follow us on Twitter @localradiogroup for all the latest news on this issue going forward and feel free to join us in our campaign against local radio deregulation. We are open to everybody, from industry workers to listeners and anyone with a passing interest.