Where Next for ILR?

When LBC launched in 1973, it was the first Independent Local Radio (ILR) station in the UK. Capital Radio was the second station, launching just a eight days after LBC. In due course, there would be more than 200 such stations across the country.

Today, we must wonder whether we are beginning to see the endgame in that phase of UK radio. As has been widely expected since Ofcom relaxed its Localness Guidelines in October last year, Global Radio has announced the cessation of all its local and regional breakfast shows across Capital, Heart and Smooth. In essence, these will become fully networked services, with just a single show on weekdays not coming from London.

It will also merge a number of services as allowed for by Ofcom, resulting in the closure of a number of offices. (I would anticipate that the current transmission splits will remain, since that will continue to allow them to have highly localised advertising – a Brighton car dealer won’t want to advertise in Portsmouth and vice versa.)

There’s a lot to take in here, and first and foremost, you must think of the staff who will be losing their jobs in the coming weeks and months. There are going to be a lot of people losing their livelihoods.

Consolidation has invariably led to a diminished workforce in radio. While perhaps some of those people will be able to find other audio jobs – there is a burgeoning podcast world for example – there will certainly be people who end up leaving radio and the industry altogether.

Only a very small handful of people ever get rich from radio. Most people who entered the industry did so because they were passionate about it. And it’s many of these people that we’ll be losing.

And with those people will go much of the development structure for bringing new talent into the industry. Down the road, that might hit the industry.

I’m not simply thinking of on-air talent either – there are a lot of production staff, engineers and sales people who are likely to be affected by this too. My Twitter feed has been a stream of commiserations and sadness today – from right across the industry. Even if you aren’t directly affected, there’s an understanding that it could have been you.

It’d be glib to say that the writing had been on the wall for a while. I think most have known that. But it doesn’t make it any more comfortable. That said, the structure of our wider society, and its media consumption is constantly evolving, and there are no certainties about how things will look tomorrow.

Truly, the times they are a-changin’.

What Next?

Changing a breakfast show is never something a station does lightly, and changing so many at the same time will probably cause some listener backlash. How strong that resistance will be may vary within different stations’ areas.

Global has a level of experience of this, having re-branded many heritage stations over the years. It’s a big job to do all in one go, but there’ll be marketing support behind it.

Capital v Radio 1; Heart and Smooth v Radio 2

As reported by Radio Today, Global wants to take on Radio 1 and Radio 2 directly. If you consider the reported figures for the various Networks (excluding sister stations like Capital Xtra), you can see that in reach terms, Capital is within the same ballpark as Radio 1, while Heart and Smooth cumulatively are close to Radio 2.

However, Radio 2 has an enormous hours advantage over its commercial competitors. My suspicion would be that losing Chris Evans and Simon Mayo isn’t going to make a great deal of difference to those hours when we get the next RAJARs.

What I would now anticipate is that Global will go out and heavily market Capital once it has made changes to the breakfast shows on 8 April – just over a month away. Global has never really stinted on marketing spend, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a major TV campaign to support bus sides and, of course, a substantial outdoor campaign (cumulatively, they have a 35% market share of the UK outdoor advertising industry). Similarly, expect campaigns for Heart and Smooth later in the year.

While I wouldn’t expect Global to do anything like Wireless Group is doing with Virgin, in going ad-free, I would expect them to sign a big name headline sponsor for the new national Capital breakfast show. And we might also see the return of some stunts. Plenty have noticed that only Radio 1 has really done properly interesting and elaborate stunts on air recently. Only last week they ran an engaging Escape Room game with Greg James.

Perhaps we’ll see the return of really big breakfast promotions – big cash prizes, and truly imaginative output. Time will tell.

In a world that is become increasingly self-curated, FOMO is a powerful beast. If you were listening to the Spotify playlist on your way to work, but didn’t hear the amazing thing that was happening on the radio that everyone else is talking about, then you missed out!

Radio 1 v Capital will be interesting to observe.

I think Heart and Smooth v Radio 2 is more complex and nuanced. While Radio 2 has subtly shifted its music younger recently, the success of the station is in no small part due to what they’re doing when they’re not playing music. The talk, the interaction, the guests and so on. I’m not truly convinced that Heart and Smooth are in a position to take that on.

And of course the BBC always has the advantage of not having to get away 10-12 minutes of advertising an hour.

Giving Up Market a Market Leading Advantage

But make no mistake, there’s a big risk here as well. Global is shrinking 42 breakfast shows down to 3, and the number of drivetime shows is falling from 23 to just 10. Some of those shows will be market leaders – or at least commercial market leaders.

If you replace a local show, with someone who knows the area and is popular amongst local listeners, with a show that comes from London, is that local audience certain to stay around? That’s particularly the question you have to ask if there’s a local rival that is still coming from the area.

It’s possible that in some instances, the really big stars will have been persuaded to shift to one of the remaining local drivetime shows. But there’s also an opportunity there for some rival local stations to pick up those leading presenter locally and get them over to a rival station toute suite.

At the very least, if I was a Global rival I would consider making localness a big part of my next marketing campaign, pointing out that my presenter is broadcasting live from the city they’re broadcasting to. Make sure those sweepers tell listeners that you’re live from the locality.

Localness

Do audiences even need their radio stations to be local any longer? They have mobile phones that give them the news, weather and traffic information. Don’t audiences just want to be entertained by the biggest and best shows?

The strange thing is that, yes, sometimes people do like localness. It can’t be repeated often enough that the biggest TV news programme of the day, and cumulatively, often the biggest overall TV programme of the day, is the 6.30pm local BBC news bulletin.

Who do people turn to when there are freak weather conditions? Or when the local car plant is announced as closing down? Or when there’s a search for a missing person locally? Or just a discussion about the closure of local libraries?

Is this territory all being ceded to the BBC?

BBC Local Radio is making a concerted effort to represent local communities more. And with the decline in local newspapers, and the abject failure of local TV, the BBC almost certainly maintains the biggest local news organisation in the country. However much of a supporter of the BBC I might be, it can’t be healthy for there not to be any significant competition.

There is also Community Radio of course – there are approaching 300 community stations across the UK.

But they have some significant limitations placed upon them. They are materially limited in how much advertising revenue they can make, and unless they’ve got onto one of the experimental DAB multiplexes, their broadcast footprint is usually very small.

All of that means that they usually run on a bit of a shoestring and rely heavily on volunteers. And even though there are more community stations than local commercial stations, their cumulative coverage is much smaller. Large metropolitan areas are often un-served by community stations, or they’re targeting very narrow (but nonetheless underserved) audiences. These stations are too small to be measured by RAJAR, so they struggle to provide audience figures to their funders. Community Radio isn’t easy.

But it must be said that every time Ofcom advertises a licence for a community service, there is usually a stream of applicants who want to have a go.

What Happens Next?

I don’t know.

We’re only really talking about Bauer here. The other remaining groups are so small that they can probably network themselves as much as they wish. Or they’ve just sold their local assets to Bauer anyway.

I would expect that Bauer will observe carefully what happens and make their own decisions from there. It’s not inevitable that they’ll plough the same furrow as Global. As I’ve said here, there are opportunities in some areas for them to fight for local audiences. But at the same time, it would be naive not to think that ultimately there are potential cost savings that come with networking.

Today, the opportunities in radio certainly seem to be happening at a national rather than local scale. But consider too that the industry is facing a rearguard fight against the onslaught of multi-billion dollar streaming companies who are targeting those billion or so listening hours a week that UK consumers spend with the radio.

Not that any of this salves the wounds if you’ve been affected by today’s news.

3 Comments

  1. In the Radio 2 versus whoever debate, not only has R2 got the non-advertising advantage, but also the specialist music programmes and documentaries. Oh for those earlier days of Capital with “Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It”, Gerald Harper Brian Rust’s “Mardi Gras” and the needletime requirements that also meant classical music programming. Now That’s a programme spectrum that will truly rival R2, advertising or none.

  2. Nothing subtle about the shift in music on 2, quite a poor selection of new songs. It seems like the only new artists are dance ones that copy existing dance artists..

  3. Adam, a really interesting insight into the industry changes. I personally don’t work in the radio industry, but as to the future I think the initial ILR infrastructure has now finished and the industry is about to start the next chapter.

    We will most certainly start to see the end of dual transmission of FM and DAB in the next 5-10 years of not the end of the FM band completely. The likes of Global, Bauer and Wireless will concentrate on producing national radio, with via D1, SDL or utilising the local DAB network to deliver local ads/news. But this local DAB network post FM is a huge opportunity for new entrants who want to create a Wave 105 style service… ironically the market leader on the south coast! And unlike analog licencing the platform is there, you just need the money for your capacity and the nod from Ofcom… I think. Small scale DAB is about to explode with new areas and opportunities for community stations and small networks of specialist services. As far as I can see the industry needs to embrace DAB and online/smart speaker as the game has really only just begun. If you were Global, I’d be terrified of Apple/Spotify et al who are after the music market… just think what would happen if they started investing heavily in radio content! With their very deep pockets. Or that could be The Tabor family’s exit plan..!

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