The changing landscape of local radio

I was in a restaurant lately, a smaller group had been taken over by a larger one. The whole place had a refurbishment. The menu’s changed; old signature dishes have been removed in favour of other ones. The produce isn’t local – the meat doesn’t come from local farms and the ice cream is produced miles away, rather than in the dairy down the road. The staff have changed too, I’ve no idea where the managers have gone but some of the bar and serving staff have stayed.

This analogy also describes what’s happening to independent local radio (ILR) with big changes announced in recent weeks. Many smaller groups, including a lot of stations I worked for previously, have been bought by either Global or Bauer. This is because rules that restricted networking, by having a requirement that certain hours and news content must be produced in the area that the radio station broadcasts have been relaxed by the industry regulator, Ofcom.

It’s been a process of osmosis to get to this point which has been on the cards for years. At least there are two big players in the commercial world. It’s actually good to have competitors – to keep everyone on their toes and the bar raised. The stations that will remain will sound very slick, even if the links are voice tracked ‘crunch and rolls’ from the latest reality TV star turned radio presenter. That seems to be the trend these days…

Commercial radio has always been about making money and you can’t fault the companies concerned for doing that; it makes business sense to increase productivity in this way. If the rules are relaxed to allow networking then it’s only going to be a matter of time before it happens. Of course, behind every station rebrand or new celebrity slot comes with it job losses, families impacted and an industry with shrinking chances for established talent and newbies alike.

Others who’ve blogged on this subject have mentioned that the gap in the market gives an opportunity for both BBC local radio and community stations. In my experience, community radio sounds at its best when a station is well run by people with industry experience at the helm, usually in paid positions, to steer a cohort of enthusiastic volunteers. Even though community stations can provide a valuable hyper-local service, if the sound is poor people aren’t going to listen for long. What comes out of the speakers is everything, especially when other stations along the dial are going to be on form all the time. Ofcom rules state that community stations must be run not-for-profit and, in this current climate, I would argue this needs a rethink to allow the sector to flourish fully.

As far as BBC Local Radio is concerned, a lot of people’s perceptions are based on old-fashioned stereotypes. I produce the drive time programme on BBC Radio Lancashire and, since I took over this role around six months ago, we’ve reformatted the programme so local news is the focus but you’re never far from a song. If you haven’t listened in a while give it a go – the playlist is closer to many of the stations that will soon be shutting down to become transmitter sites for the bigger conglomerates than you may expect.

The reality is there’s only a finite amount of jobs available in the industry at any one time or, in the case of community radio, most do it for the love of the medium. Due to the recent changes, 250 positions in commercial radio could be lost, according to an estimate by the industry news service Radio Today. This affects many, from presenting, producing to news – not forgetting freelancers. Media and journalism courses up and down the country have optimistic students enrol each year with a dream of working in radio. If the jobs aren’t there for those already established then what’s the knock on effect going to be for those trying to get a foot in the door or develop?

It’s stark, it’s scary and it’s not what anyone who works on the front line in this industry wants to see happening to friends and colleagues who’re affected. The landscape is changing but I’d like to think it’s not all as bleak as it seems. Fewer stations are on the dial but there’s an online presence now that can’t be ignored. Social media, podcasts and listen again services mean there will be need for content producers, just maybe not in a linear format like radio is.

There’s stations like Imagine Radio in Stockport and Cheshire. Despite all the networking announced recently, the station’s new owners announced an expansion. Revolution 96.2 that broadcasts to Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside, is a commercial station super-serving those areas with local content. You might think a market like Greater Manchester may be saturated but there’s a lot of listener choice in these areas and that’s promising for ILR. In time, a hyper-local commercial model may spread to other areas as well.

I believe the trend for networking will buck but it could take a while. There’ll be a shift and demand for localness from listeners and smaller commercial radio stations will rise like a Phoenix from the ashes with a sound that will be different and refreshing. Like what Century did in the mid-90s, with a higher speech to music ratio, football rights and a well staffed newsroom. Something like this would need to be bold, have financial backing and launch when the time is right. Sadly, that time isn’t now and who knows what the local landscape will look like when it is? However, radio will adapt to survive; it always has and it always will.

About Katy Booth

Broadcaster and journalist who has worked extensively in the newsrooms of BBC local radio, regional television and commercial radio. BJTC accredited.

Posted on March 24, 2019, in Radio and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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