Localness

Ofcom has published an update today on what it considers localness in commercial radio.

The tl;dr is that it’s not very local any more.

Your mileage may vary on whether this is a good thing or not. But for now, stations that provide local news regularly throughout the day, must only broadcast three hours between 6am and 7pm on weekdays within their local area (more on those shortly).

If you only provide local news at breakfast and drive, then you have to make six hours of programming locally between 6am and 7pm.

The really big news is that breakfast no longer has to be local.

In other words, the big groups – Capital and Heart instantly spring to mind – can start networking a single breakfast show across the country. Previously, I hypothesised that News UK might simulcast Chris Evans on their FM stations once he’s started on Virgin Radio. They’ve since said that they’ve no plans to do this, but then, until today, they wouldn’t have been allowed to (It’s also worth saying, simulcasting Evans wouldn’t necessarily mean rebranding all those station as Virgin).

Any stations that want to make changes will have to request a format change from Ofcom to do this, but that should be eminently achievable.

Will some do this? Yes. Of course they will!

Breakfast is a key show on any station, and you tend to put the biggest and best names you can on the show. So there will be some careful consideration before anyone throws out their market-leading local breakfast presenter and just networks someone in from London (or Manchester).

And they still have to do three hours locally somewhere. The cynic in me suspects that this might not be drive, but either mid-mornings or afternoons.

Networking breakfast means a few things that could see bigger and stronger breakfast shows:

  • Bigger guests on breakfast – getting on a networked Capital or Heart breakfast will be more appealing to PRs wanting to reach larger audiences.
  • Better and more creative promotions – at the moment, it’s quite complicated for a national promotion to run on a station like Capital. You need to keep mechanics simple and replicable across the country. You can do smarter, cleverer and more impressive things if you do it once everywhere.
  • Global and Bauer can take on the BBC at breakfast – with Radio 2 changing shortly and Greg James still fresh at Radio 1, they can begin to get the BBC in their sites. In my RAJAR summary the other day, I mentioned that Global was likely to have a certain amount of house inventory as a result of its shopping spree of outdoor companies. They could go hard to take on the BBC at breakfast.
  • Local stations that aren’t part of a big group can trumpet their localness on air. That goes for BBC Local Radio too.

So good news all round? 

Well, if you’re a commercial radio group, then probably. You can save some money – perhaps lose a few more local presenters, but at the same time build some bigger and stronger shows that could become more profitable at the same time.

It’s not great news if you work on breakfast. You may well be kept on – they need someone for that three hour block after all. But will it be the whole breakfast crew that you have currently? Will you even have a producer when you’re doing mid-morning or afternoons?

And there’s a larger philosophical question. What does Independent Local Commercial radio mean any more?

Some of the ads are still local, yes. There’s some local news. A bit anyway. There are station trails and junctions that mention local towns and cities. Perhaps. But “Local”? Really?

It’s not even as though you can easily go through some kind of beauty parade and win a licence against an incumbent. It happens very occasionally, but when was the last time a London licence even came up?

Commercial radio has always complained that it’s vastly more regulated compared with other media.  That’s definitely true. But analogue spectrum in particular is scarce, and the reality is that new entrants find it very hard to get a leg up. DAB sorts a lot of that out, and digital continues its upwards march. But FM spectrum remains valuable. How much would an FM station go for if it had a London frequency?

Over the years we have ended up with national brands broadcasting nationally. In many respects that’s fine. That’s market forces at work. And yet licence rollovers tied to DAB simulcasting have meant that new entrants who might want to offer a more local service are never even given a opportunity to compete for a licence.

To be clear, grabbing 95.8 FM in London, would be vastly more powerful than securing a London DAB slot.

Ofcom has also defined some ‘Approved Areas’:

In essence, if you make your programme within an approved area then it counts as locally made. These have been around for a while, and have been used to create production hubs around the country. There’s a lot of sense in that – having regional clusters of stations coming from one building.

These new areas are a lot bigger – Southampton is a 220 mile drive from Penzance, but they’re both in the same area. Canterbury and Northampton would seem to be very different places, but they’re in the same area (circling, but excluding, London).

We’re approaching winter, and last winter the ‘beast from the east’ meant a lot of snow and a lot of disruption around the country. Local TV bulletins had their biggest audiences during this period. RAJAR doesn’t measure radio on a day by day basis, but it’s fair to assume that some stations will have had their biggest audiences on those snow days.

Next time around what happens? BBC Local Radio is becoming more local, dropping the networked evening show.

Yes, some commercial stations in bigger groups will no doubt drop networked programming to stay local, but they won’t truly have the staff or resources to really do a great deal. In truth, that’s already the case. Should we just drop the word ‘local’ altogether?

1 Comment

  1. National commercial radio through the back door, via the ‘cellnet’ network of transmitters that were once ILR stations has been fact for some years now.

    These Ofcom changes were inevitable and I find it amazing they have taken this long to implement given the influence the corporates must have over such decisions.

    Therefore, whether truly local radio has legs or not, why can’t community stations be allowed larger areas (where at all possible) and most importantly allow truly local advertising in order that community stations can fund themselves?

    At least that would offer a level playing field, help community stations survive and offer the chance to discover whether local radio really has an audience.

    Or is this resistance to empower community stations also coming from the corporates?

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