'KIX 96 Coventry Takes The Format Challenge' by Grant Goddard


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Analysis of the regulation of UK commercial radio formats, and the impact of an application to Ofcom by Coventry station 'KIX 96' to amend its format, written by Grant Goddard in April 2005 for The Radio Magazine.

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'KIX 96 Coventry Takes The Format Challenge' by Grant Goddard

  1. 1. KIX 96 COVENTRY TAKES THE FORMAT CHALLENGE by GRANT GODDARD www.grantgoddard.co.uk April 2005
  2. 2. Formats are the “emperor’s new clothes” of radio regulation. Both sides of the industry, the radio stations and the regulator, continue to pretend that Formats have meaning and substance because life is made a lot easier that way. In fact, many Formats are contradictory, imprecise, incomplete and often unworkable prescriptions that many stations have to find a way to work around in their day-to-day operational decisions. Formats were introduced by Paul Brown at the IBA in the late 1980s as a means to pacify objections from the commercial radio industry to the introduction of a new tier of “incremental” stations. Each new station had to promise that it would not compete directly with the heritage station in its market, and so a “Promise of Performance” was agreed between each incremental station and the IBA that set out what it would and would not be allowed to do in its programming. The Radio Authority changed the name of these Promises to “Format” but the description contained therein has developed little in sixteen years. Initially, heritage stations complained to the regulator on each individual occasion they felt a new competitor had broken its Format. But, subsequently, an unhealthy truce has broken out in most markets between most radio groups. This works along the lines of – “I won’t complain to the regulator about your station breaking its format, if you don’t complain about my station doing the same.” Stations soon realised that the Radio Authority saw its duty under the “light touch” regulatory protocol as only to react to complaints it received about Formats. There was no active Format policing programme in place. Like any savvy entrepreneur, stations adopted a policy of “if we can get away with it, we will”. In many cases, stations have successfully got away with murder with regard to their Formats. Most Formats are so full of holes that any lawyer would laugh long and loud at the regulator’s mistaken belief that these anachronistic documents are executable. The regulator’s own insouciant attitude to policing Formats has not helped. For example, when one local station applied for a renewal of its licence, it was found by the regulator to have been in breach of its Format in three major ways on a daily basis for several years. Despite these failings, the licence was still re-awarded to the incumbent rather than to a competing applicant. If the regulator itself demonstrates that it does not take Formats seriously, can we be surprised that stations adopt a similar attitude? Only the most obvious, blatant breaches of Formats that have already been brought to the attention of the Press seem to be acted upon. This background is pertinent because the Kix 96 application for a change of format is an unusual case of a station willing to “come clean”. Since CN Radio bought the station in 2000, it has had to operate Kix 96 with a wholly unworkable Format it inherited from the station’s previous owner. For the last five years, the station has not fulfilled its Format requirements because, in this instance, the Format issued by the Radio Authority was unworkable. Kix 96 has had no choice but to break the Format. It is unlikely the regulator would have been aware of this situation had not Mercia FM lodged a formal complaint about Kix 96 in January 2004. Kix 96 Coventry Takes The Format Challenge ©2005 Grant Goddard page 2
  3. 3. If not for this complaint, Kix 96 could have continued to ignore the contradictions inherent in its Format and chosen to determine its own programming priorities, as it has done since 2000. In pointing out the impossibility of implementing the existing Kix 96 Format, CN Radio is putting the cat amongst the pigeons. It is boldly asking for a “wrong” to belatedly be put right, one of many Format wrongs that have to date been conveniently ignored by both the radio industry and the regulator. Until now, both parties have found it easier to follow that particular path, leaving Formats in a half-light of vaguery and woolly words. The emperor’s new clothes have now been exposed for what they really are. CN Radio has suddenly stood up and said: our station’s Format does not make sense, is self-contradictory, and we have been unable to implement it for the last five years. This is a shocking statement for both the radio industry and the regulator, as both sides want to avoid a commotion over this issue. Both sides know that many station Formats are just as unworkable as that of Kix 96, but it is in neither side’s interest to shout about it publicly. At a stroke, CN Group has moved this issue into the public domain. Up until now, everyone had seemed perfectly happy with the cut of the emperor’s new clothes. The regulator is put in an impossible position with regard to the Kix 96 application. CN Radio has pointed out truthfully that its present Format is unworkable. If Ofcom acknowledges this fact, then the Format has to be changed in some way. But Ofcom may not necessarily accede to the specific changes that CN Radio desires. In the worst-case scenario, Kix 96 could end up with a revised Format that is made “workable” but is not at all what it had been lobbying for. While this outcome would be a regulatory improvement, it may not be what CN Radio had hoped for by “going public.” This is precisely why there has always been such stony silence from the radio industry over the issue of Formats. It realises that, under the current ceasefire, Formats may be imprecise, vague and often unworkable, but that if they were improved and made more precise, they would actually give radio stations less room for creative interpretation. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Which would you prefer: A set of vague, archaic rules that have little relevance to modern day radio programming? Or a set of tightly defined modern, analytical rules whose very precision gives you little room for manoeuvre? At least, at present, radio stations can blame their inadequate Format if questioned about their programming. For Ofcom, there is also the problem of setting a precedent. If it is moved by the CN Radio application to “fix” the Kix 96 Format to make it workable for the first time, what does it do about similarly inconsistent Formats issued by its predecessor, the Radio Authority? If Ofcom accedes to CN Radio’s demands in the way it changes the Kix 96 Format, it could be flooded by applications from other stations wanting to similarly re-word their Formats to make them workable (or, more likely, to reflect what they are already doing on-air). If, on the other hand, Ofcom does not accede to CN Radio’s requests in the way it changes the Kix 96 Format, it is unlikely ever to receive similar applications Kix 96 Coventry Takes The Format Challenge ©2005 Grant Goddard page 3
  4. 4. from other stations, as they will not seek to rationalise their Formats if they think they will end up with amendments they do not want. Additionally, if Ofcom rationalises the Kix 96 Format, will it be driven to initiate an active programme of rationalising other stations’ Formats to correct similar anomalies inherited from the Radio Authority? And then, in order to make sure changes such as these are implemented on-the-ground, will the regulator start an active programme of policing Formats? The Kix 96 application is far more important for the future of regulation than it seems at first sight. By publicly raising the whole issue of unworkable, badly written Formats, CN Radio has unwittingly struck at the heart of one of the most significant and longstanding problems in UK radio regulation. For Ofcom, CN Radio’s application has exposed another area of poor regulatory management that it has inherited from the Radio Authority. The way Ofcom deals with this particular station’s format change is critical in framing its policy on how it intends to right similar historical “wrongs” in the years ahead. [First published in 'The Radio Magazine', #681, 27 April 2005, pp.12-13] Grant Goddard is a media analyst / radio specialist / radio consultant with thirty years of experience in the broadcasting industry, having held senior management and consultancy roles within the commercial media sector in the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. Details at http://www.grantgoddard.co.uk Kix 96 Coventry Takes The Format Challenge ©2005 Grant Goddard page 4