From time to time we read that major radio operators have asked for changes in the formats of their individual stations. Often this has been with a view to turning stations they operate from individual local services and moving towards either actual national networks or hybrid networks.
Unlike many, I don’t have any real problem with this. The newly networked brands tend to do well and offer listeners a polished and professional product. The large operators invest in content and enjoy a good relationship with the regulator.
To my eyes, Community Radio has been emerging as the new local radio over the past decade. Often running on volunteers and strictly limited resources, the sector has produced engaging local content with passionate presenters with constantly surprising music and speech.
A new tier has now appeared alongside these stations. Local operators distributing their content online via websites, apps and smart speakers. Often run by radio presenters with a good degree of expertise and funding, they aim to recapture the commitment of the local radio stations that once operated in their markets. Technology and many of the new tricks we’ve all learned during the last year play their part in keeping costs under control.
The large operators enjoy a good relationship with the regulator. Ofcom enforces a ‘light touch’ and is minded to allow them to make their moves as they see fit.
The new online stations don’t have content regulation and can do whatever they see fit! Their output is regulated by the general laws of the land – not the Office of Communications.
Meanwhile the Community FM stations labour under a regime where there are limits on their fundraising and the concept of ‘key commitments’. Rather than have a format like the larger operators community stations, community stations submit to agreed things like live hours, types of content and so on. To miss these targets attracts fines or possible licence revocation.
Surely this is an anomaly?
The biggest stations can generally run heir businesses largely unmolested. The online-only ones avoid the these hoops altogether. But the little stations with their low power FM signals and largely volunteer teams struggle under the full weight of regulations that they don’t have the power to easily alter.
Surely it’s time for Ofcom to abandon the regulation of formats and output. Instead they should concentrate on taste & decency while regulating the use of broadcast spectrum.
No sector of the thriving industry needs protecting from any other. Those with the creativity and fleetness of foot to grow and excel will. The people that will benefit most will be the listeners.
As always, of course, in the trenches of radio there will be the usual challenges. I can’t remember when programmers didn’t cordially distrust the “bean counters” and senior programmers didn’t have to make occasional compromise in the cause of revenue.
But removing content controls will allow the whole sector to plot it’s own future course. As we emerge from the most unpredictable time in many years that can only be a good thing.