Blog: Heart attack over radio regulation

In a landmark blog from John Myers, the former GMG Radio Chief Executive sums up the current state of radio regulation.

It’s a Heart Attack on regulation

So Heart in Cornwall fell foul of the regulator over a format breach. Not enough local content is the claim and Ofcom want it sorted P.D.Q or else. To be sure of their facts, they even brought out the dreaded analogue stopwatch and calculator. If Heart FM don’t sort it they’re threatening to take action, which is tough talk considering the best they used to dish out in my day, was a nasty wrist burn in one of their secret meeting rooms!

I suspect the station has been outside of its format for some time, so why did it take the regulator so long to act if this is such a big problem? It’s because no-one had complained until now and this one person, most likely a competitor, started a chain of events. As Martin Campbell said in his excellent blog on Radio Today’s #eRadio, “Ofcom don’t want to regulate, they want to have an easy life.”

Local radio, as we once knew it, is dead and buried. Even those that are proud to be local are less local than they used to be. The listener doesn’t care anymore, certainly not in the way they used to care about it. I once raged at Ofcom at a Radio Festival event in Nottingham after they published a discussion paper on how they planned to regulate radio going forward. Pro-action was out, re-action was in. They were giving up on random keyhole monitoring and instead had decided to just wait for complaints to roll in. It was barmy then, it’s barmy now! To prove it, I urged everyone in the room to complain about something on their local radio station every single day for a month. To say the regulator was not best pleased was an understatement. They knew that if people did as I’d asked, they’d have to raise the white flag within a few weeks. They simply didn’t have the staff or the time to regulate in this way. Even if they did, the recharge for this would go back to the radio industry and nobody wanted that to happen. My point was that they had not thought this through. Waiting for complaints to arrive was asking for trouble because a station could be out of format for months before someone notices, as was the case here. By the way, they are certainly not the only station out of format, but let’s not go there right now.

What’s required is a full-scale review of what localness really means in the modern world and then decide how best to regulate it. In my view, you can only regulate stuff like news, weather, traffic and information bulletins that are aimed at the audience each local station serves. Local radio is eroding because the way we listen to radio is changing. When did anyone last dream about making it big in local radio? There is far too much noise coming from other media that is much more interesting, so they don’t care. Look at what happened to TFM when they merged with Metro. While the anorak nation was up in arms, the local community shrugged their shoulders and carried on listening to what is now the Metro FM output, 24/7. Moaning about it and harping back to the good old days just dates you and discourages the next generation to get on board. Plus, if you think we have problems now, wait until Local TV comes along.

I was at a meeting last night in Newcastle where MadeTV presented their proposals. It was a confident presentation from a good team of people and if you didn’t know any better, you would have walked away thinking it was all very positive. They confirmed a key target for their revenue generation will be clients who currently advertise on local radio. They will be out selling packages offering 150 adverts for just £2,000. They have a start up budget of £2m, will keep costs low by being housed within the buildings of Trinity Mirror and Sunderland University and they’re hiring the first generation of talent coming out of media courses. Yet they still plan to deliver 30 hours a week of local output. All very interesting but the numbers just don’t add up whatsoever. So which idiot came up with this idea? Jeremy Hunt. Who allowed it to gather momentum? The Government. Who decides who get’s a licence? Ofcom. Ah. That old phrase ‘Houston we have a problem comes to mind’.

Brace yourself! A new competitor has been licenced to come into the local market focused on the already scarce and critical local revenues. It will be a bloody fight but in the end revenue will be shared which means neither party gets enough to deliver all the things they promise to do. The quality of programmes on Local TV will, I suspect, be worse than anticipated and the content that local radio produces will be further eroded. Martin Campbell is right. You cannot have localness if you don’t regulate for it. However, neither can you demand they deliver it, if you fail to create an infrastructure that allows them enough commercial space to do so.

So what happens now? Well, Heart FM will move back into format, because they know they won’t have to do so for long. Format rules will soon change. I don’t excuse Global by the way, they knew the score when they bought it but not jumping on them the moment they moved away from their commitments is the fault of the regulator. What we have is a minor win for the suits. Future generations of radio listeners are only interested in stuff they can listen, watch, share and enthuse about with their friends. We’re up against the most aggressive, unregulated and ambitious competitors we’ve ever known and yet we still wish to regulate volume over quality. It is madness.

It must be wonderful for our competitors as they race past our window totally confident we’re not a threat to their future or focused on content. That’s because we’re far too busy crawling around on the floor looking for a bloody stopwatch!

Read more from John Myers on his blog.

Posted on Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 at 4:39 pm by RadioToday UK

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