'Draft Speech By John Myers To The Radio Festival: 30 June 2009'
DRAFT SPEECH TO RADIO FESTIVAL, 30
Good afternoon everyone.
Nice to be here! As you heard in the introduction, I have just
arrived back in the UK from a three-month trip around the world.
Although it was meant to be a holiday, much to the delight of my
wife, everywhere I went I found time to listen to the radio in each
country. What I heard was really interesting and at times amazing,
lots of ideas and a variety of voices.
Creativity seems to be
It was a gratifying experience and it confirmed my long held belief
that there is always something ‘new’ that can be attempted in radio,
which is what makes it such a rewarding industry to work in.
However, it is only when you have been outside the UK for as long
as I have that, when you come back, you realise what you have
been missing. As an industry, we seem to spend so much of our
time navel-gazing, we tend to forget we are actually quite good at
this radio lark.
Yes, we have lots of problems that need to be
solved and yes, we are grappling with a future that looks uncertain
in so many ways. But that should not take anything away from the
great radio we produce here in this country, both commercially and
at the BBC.
We are still very much the envy of the world in this
Incidentally, I heard about the tragic death of Michael Jackson when
I was in Canada.
All stations there have a 40% Canadian music
policy for their formats and therefore none were able to play MJ
songs all day. Over in the US, a lot of stations were in automation
mode when the news broke and some were caught out and found it
very difficult to respond, but those who were live and networked
responded very well indeed.
There is an idea here for a great
session about live versus automation that could go on for hours!
However, I am here to talk about my radio review and I should
state that my comments today are in my personal capacity and NOT
that of GMG.
Nottingham has some great memories for me. It was here that I
was caught on film for the BBC TV show “Trouble At The Top”
sacking a religious advisor.
After that, the rest, as they say, is
It is here also that I appeared in the dock at the Crown Court,
defending a claim from a presenter who insisted he had been
verbally offered a one-year contract. When such a contract was not
forthcoming, he took me to court. He lied and, because of that, I
was determined to defend it to the bitter end. We were in the right,
he was in the wrong, and the judge agreed with me - he was an
The third thing about Nottingham is that this is where I often used
to listen to my long-time colleague and friend John Simons when he
worked on BBC Radio Nottingham. He used to ring me around 6.15
each night for a chat, while he played out some boring, prerecorded interview with some unknown celebrity.
He had good
listening figures for this segment, so his listeners were probably
conversation going on between the two of us as we schemed about
a future in commercial radio land.
And the fourth thing about Nottingham is, of course, that it is home
to Smooth Radio, one of GMG’s radio stations and obviously close to
---------------Most people here know that my entire working life has been about
I started at the BBC over 25 years ago, working my
way up from reading out lists of lost lambs, to editing and joining
up spools of recycled quarter-inch tape for future use, to the days
when you were trusted to use a razorblade without having to fill in
pages of health and safety documents, from being on-air, to
running, winning, launching and managing successful stations.
Along the way, I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of
people who shared the same love of local radio that I had, and let
me emphasise, that I still have today.
Local radio has been very
good to me and I would like to think that I have returned the favour
over time. I should say at this point how much I appreciated my
award for services to commercial radio at the Arqiva awards last
month. Even though I was in New Zealand at the time, I recorded
a special ‘thank you’ via video – very rock and roll! But this award
was, and is, something that I will treasure for a long time and I am
During my time in radio, I have seen and witnessed a lot of
I have lived through the BBC, the IBA, the Radio
Authority and lately the vision of Ofcom although, to be honest, at
times it sometimes appears that they have as much vision as Stevie
When I was asked by Lord Carter to undertake the review of local
radio for Digital Britain, I asked him – why me? There was a long
pause! He kindly replied that I had a good track record, I would not
be tempted to agree with everyone, and that he very much wanted
a personal review, and he believed I could tackle some of the more
problematic areas that other executives might wish to avoid.
was right, of course. I have never consciously evaded a good fight,
and neither am I too bothered if I put a few noses out of joint along
the way. This is just the way I am! But equally, it’s because I care!
So, if my speech upsets anyone today, please be assured that I am
trying to do it in a caring, sharing sort of way.
I was given only 6 weeks to undertake the review. I thought it best
to start with a clean slate, so I launched into a schedule of
meetings, going right across the country, whenever possible
meeting people in the places where they actually broadcast from, as
well as having many chats with Ofcom, RadioCentre and other
important stakeholders (I knew that, once I started saying things
like ‘stakeholders’, these were worrying signs that I was turning
into a ‘radio consultant’).
I was asked to pull together a small council of people from across
the BBC, Community Radio, RadioCentre, the Newspaper Society,
Government and Ofcom who met with me twice collectively to
provide feedback on what I was going to say. In the end, though,
the detail and the recommendations in the report were my decision.
I have to say that it was the most challenging 6 weeks I have
experienced for some years, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and I
learned a lot. I say quite openly that I learned a lot, because I did.
I learned that local radio is important.
I learned about the real
issues, what mattered most and what any future plan needed to
have in it to be useful. But more than that, I also became aware of
the poor relationships between the operators and the regulator. I
found significant tension existed because the operators feel that
Ofcom is ‘behind the game’ radio-wise and lacks a stable plan for
the future of radio; they are frustrated by so many reviews in so
many successive years, they are annoyed by petty regulation which
they feel is holding the industry back but, importantly, the regulator
is losing the trust of those they regulate. These are not my words,
so don’t shoot the messenger! These are the words of the people
who run our radio stations. A common viewpoint is that the radio
side of the regulator is just not up to the job – Right Now!
executive told me that, during some 20 years in radio, he had never
witnessed such a profound level of disrespect for the regulator, and
they suspect the feeling is mutual. I wondered if this was just the
industry being unkind to Ofcom, as it is an easy target to kick when
so many people in radio are losing their jobs, so many stations are
closing, and the economy is as difficult as it has been in recent
months. But, in reality, I think it is much more than that, and so I
wanted to be sure that, whatever I wrote in my report, it was based
around ‘facts’, while telling the story of exactly what has been
happening to commercial radio.
In my view, it is very difficult to really come up with a realistic plan
for the future if we, as an industry, don’t really understand how we
got to our present position. I thought I already knew these things,
but even I was surprised by the harsh realities.
commercial radio come about?
the way they were?
Why were licences handed out in
What did we learn?
What must we NOT do
again and, importantly, what must we keep doing, and why?
Therefore, I make no apologies whatsoever for my own Local Radio
document being 102 pages long because, if I was going to criticise
or offer a viewpoint, then I knew I had better get my facts right as
best I could. And I say ‘as best I could’ because sometimes it was
not particularly easy to get all the facts, but I think we got most of
them right in the end.
So how did radio get to this point?
To recap the main points in my report, the number of commercial
radio licences issued by the regulator multiplied several times
during the 90’s, and then continued to grow in the new millennium.
That growth is shown by the grey bars in this graph.
90’s, revenues grew at a rate that kept up with the launch of new
This is shown by the red line on the graph.
after 2004, you can see that revenues started to fall in real terms.
The result – too many stations, too little revenue to support them.
This next slide shows why that happened. Listening to commercial
radio grew during the 90’s and was initially keeping up with the
increase in radio stations.
The red line shows listening, and the
grey bars are still the number of commercial stations.
eventually that growth in listening fizzled out and then went into
slow decline in the new millennium. The result – too many stations,
no increase in listening to grow their revenues.
So, listening and revenues did not keep pace with the growth in the
number of commercial stations, but did these new stations at least
manage to take audience away from the BBC? After all, this was
one of the main criteria against which new licences were awarded.
Well, in the early 90’s, commercial radio performed really well
against the BBC after Radio One had been changed almost beyond
recognition. The red line shows commercial radio’s share of radio
Unfortunately, since then, it has been all downhill.
gentle downhill slope, true, but in no way has it been keeping up
with the growth in radio station numbers.
Let’s look more closely at all these new commercial stations that
were licensed. The red line on this slide shows how much of the UK
was covered by commercial radio. During the 70’s and 80’s, new
stations licensed by the regulator reached parts of the UK that had
not enjoyed commercial radio until then.
However, by the early
90’s, the whole of the country was covered by commercial radio.
After that, the number of stations was more than doubled, but most
new stations were merely taking listening away from existing
commercial stations. The result – the cake was no longer getting
bigger, but it had to be cut into more and more slices, and the
slices were getting thinner and thinner every year.
This last slide shows the size of the local commercial stations
licensed by the regulator. The light grey top parts of each column
are the number of big stations serving areas of more than half a
million adults. The dark bits at the bottom of each column are the
number of small stations serving less than 250,000 adults. You can
see that, at the beginning of the 90’s, the vast majority of local
commercial stations were large in size.
But, after that, the
regulator advertised a massive number of new small stations. So,
today, we have been transformed from an industry that was
dominated by large stations to one that is now dominated by small
stations. The result – every one of those 100+ new small stations
has added another set of fixed costs to the industry, costs that have
become increasingly difficult to cover with revenues.
So, (and I admit it’s always easier with hindsight) the way that our
licences were handed out, and the way in which those licence
winners decided to launch their stations, did not work as well as we
thought they would. The plan simply did not grow commercial radio
either in terms of audience, revenue or its share of the listening
But this knowledge is not new, so why did radio licences
continue to be awarded when it should have been clear that it was
not good for commercial radio overall?
A large part of the problem was that the local radio licensing
process was ‘demand led’.
It seems that the regulator made the
decision to offer a new radio licence for a particular area according
to the volume or intensity of correspondence from local agitators or
If the local MP became involved in
campaigning for a new station in their constituency, it was almost
guaranteed that a licence would be offered if a frequency was
At no point did the regulator try to determine whether
the local economy could support a new station with sufficient
advertising, or whether the coverage area was big enough to make
a new station profitable.
Remember also that every new licence advertised by the regulator
attracted one or more bidders whose applications demonstrated
that their proposed station would make a profit, usually within the
first three years of its operation. The startling fact is that of the 80
new radio stations awarded a licence in the late 90’s, only a third
actually hit the business plan they had set out in their application.
This is an amazing figure!
Unfortunately, these new licences were seen by some applicants as
desirable in themselves, regardless of whether they could be turned
into successful local businesses.
This is where WE as an industry
seemed to lose sight of what our core skills were – we had been
employed because we were radio professionals who could create
successful radio stations. But some among us seemed to imagine
we were a kind of commodity broker who could make money not
from doing radio, but from wheeling and dealing in scarce radio
licences, making profits from winning or buying licences, many of
which never stood a chance of ever being profitable businesses.
Eventually, some of these ‘wizards’ of radio have been shown not to
possess magic powers at all, but to be merely practicing skills they
had learnt playing the game of Monopoly.
The result – local
stations that, not so long ago, were being purchased for millions of
pounds are now being closed down after a lifetime of losses.
So, in some way, probably all of us are to blame for either trying, or
for letting others succeed, in turning parts of local commercial radio
into some kind of real estate business. Unfortunately, nobody likes
estate agents, and our listeners were savvy enough to recognise
when the owners of their local radio station weren’t really interested
in local radio or worse - THEM. The problem faced by the industry
now is that, in radio, it is a lot easier to turn wine into water than it
is to turn water back into wine.
So, we are where we are and the simple fact is – there are too
many stations in too many markets. Some will fail, some will
succeed, but there will have to be a period of re-engineering first. I
stated in my review that I believe some 50 stations will go bust or
their licences will simply be handed back over the next 18 months.
Sadly, I seem to be on track with that figure.
This is why my review sought to explain how local commercial radio
arrived where it is today, and to provide some ideas as to how we
could regulate it going forward.
I was delighted that Lord Carter
agreed and that most of my recommendations were then uplifted
into his Digital Britain report. Some of these ideas will undoubtedly
end up on the floor in a forthcoming Ofcom consultation, or become
slightly different than my original thoughts, or will be developed
more than I had first imagined them, which can only be a good
thing. As long as the end results are positive for the industry as a
whole, I don’t have a problem.
However, we all know that doing
the same thing over and over again, and then expecting the same
result every time, is the definition of stupidity.
Ofcom is now due to consult on a wide range of ideas related to
local radio. They have done this in the past and they have just not
gone far enough. Four reviews in four years does not shout ‘we got
it right!’ This meant that further reviews in quick succession were
needed to bring their regulations up to date.
I would urge them
now not to fall into the same trap this time of going along in the
‘baby steps’ fashion of yester-year.
They must think bolder and
bigger than they ever have done before.
They must outline their
vision for the next 5 years, not the next few months, and they must
take the industry along with them. So much can be achieved now if
we are prepared to take giant leaps forward.
I believe strongly that local radio is important for communities up
and down the country, and I believe it should have some regulation
attached to it.
I am NOT in favour of those who say the market
should be the only deciding factor because, in every industry, in
every market, in every generation, there will always be owners or
operators who think they know best and want to push the
boundaries, and someone has to say ‘enough is enough’!
people were surprised I said there was not enough local news on
local radio. There isn’t, and a minimum number of bulletins should
be plainly laid out for each station so that confusion on this
particular point does not arise.
Interestingly, on my travels, I came across Radio Twizzel in New
Zealand - a small, local town station that is on the air 24 hours a
It plays back-to-back music all day and night, with the
exception of occasional local information inserted into its output.
Sometimes there might be no local content for hours on end, but
the station promises its listeners that if anything of interest breaks
in their area, they will hear about it first as someone will effectively
jump in their car, go on-air and tell them about it.
seemed popular in my personal mini-research programme, as I
went from shop to shop to hear what they were listening to. It was
on the radio in a local pub and I asked a couple of guys at the bar
about it. They said they liked it, it was OK, and it was local. It was
their local station, they knew what it was, they knew when it was
very local and they knew it was for them. I said to one guy that it
sounded a little – err well shite! They said ‘yes, but it’s OUR shite’.
There is something in that!
In my view, local radio must broadcast some sort of local
information, it must offer a service for the market it broadcasts to
and importantly, for me anyway, it would be good if it was valued
by the people of that local area at the same time. Is it really too
difficult to find a way in which we can monitor people’s appreciation
of a local radio station?
The BBC has been doing it since 1936,
using market research to produce an ‘Appreciation Index’ for
individual programmes. I understand that Ofcom is saying it’s just
too difficult to do, but just because it is in the ‘difficult’ box does not
mean it should automatically fall into the ‘can’t be done’ box.
The regulator has said that one of the areas they are concerned
about is that they are not sure what would be a ‘pass’ and what
would be a ‘fail’ under this system. This is the very same question
we have all been asking them about the current regulatory rules for
years! So what is new?
Within the scope of my review, I spoke to just about every radio
group in the UK and they all believed, like I do, that the current way
of regulating localness is ridiculous, and even Ofcom now accepts
The current rule that a local radio station has to produce
programmes locally for 10 hours a day merely keeps it the right
side of the regulator. However, it is perfectly clear to everyone that
I could sit in that same local radio studio and just play out music
and adverts all day without ever mentioning the station’s area
whatsoever. Under the present system, Ofcom would say that falls
within the rules. It may do so, but IT IS NOT LOCAL RADIO.
I have long debated whether or not local radio has to be broadcast
from the area it serves, and I have even argued with myself that
surely it must have to because how can you really serve listeners in
the area if you are not broadcasting from that area. The truth is
that, at the end of the day, local radio is about what comes out of
the speakers, not where it comes from, and I have gradually come
to understand and reluctantly accept that it is very possible to air
local information without you having to be in that local market and,
if you can only survive as a station at all by co-locating, then that
must be a sensible way forward. It might not be great local radio
but, as they say in Radio Twizzle land, it’s good local shite!
The size of our industry, the reduction in revenues, the way licences
were awarded and the way some dumb management have run
them means we are left with very little choice.
So a big step
towards co-location must be achieved but, at the same time, local
output must be protected and it must be news led. I would urge
the regulator not to be pedantic in this area.
When you ask a
listener what is most important to them, they will always say ‘the
output’ first and, yes, they would prefer it if their local station was
based somewhere in their locality.
But if we have to agree to
changes to save the very existence of local stations, then it must be
sensible to say ‘yes’ to co-location and this should be allowed as
widely as possible.
I was delighted to learn that Ofcom recently came out and said that
they agree with a number of aspects of my review, and I am
grateful for that, but they do not agree with my proposal to
introduce the Local Impact Test. To be fair to Peter Davies, he told
me so before I published my report, not because he disagreed with
the ambition, but because he thought it was unworkable in practice.
I didn’t agree with him and said so, but the ambition I think is
worth fighting for, which is why I put it in. It is also the reason why
Lord Carter, in his Digital Britain report, also believes there is merit
in this approach and why his report proposed that we should test
the possibility that some sort of Local Impact Test can be achieved.
I just don’t believe that sensible people from all sides of our
industry cannot come up with a workable formula that can measure
listener satisfaction in some way that achieves everyone’s aims. I
hope that Ofcom and RadioCentre will work closely together on this
idea and make the test work effectively.
Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that the regulator simply
doesn’t want to do it and will find a way to kill it. I am fine with
that, but I would rather they just said ‘we don’t want to do it’ and
instead we want to achieve it anther way. There is no need to find
reasons why it doesn’t work, just say you don’t like it. I’m an adult,
I can take it. It’s a noble ambition that is not realistic to achieve in
these times, but I did say quite clearly in my report that the Local
Impact Test was just the germ of an idea.
What is far more
important is to make the move from input to output regulation. So
Ofcom came up with three ideas in their own recent consultation to
The first Ofcom proposal is that all local stations would be required
to broadcast local news hourly during daytime. In addition, travel
and weather information would be required at peak times. Ofcom
suggests that enforcement of this would be achieved by, I quote,
“regular monitoring” and a new formal, two-yearly assessment of
content across commercial radio.
Let’s do the maths.
300 local stations and it might take someone at Ofcom seven hours
to analyse and write up the news content of a single day’s output of
a single station.
That would create 52 weeks of full-time work
simply to sample each station once.
And this is a proposal that
Ofcom describes as “simple to implement”? More importantly, it’s
just another box-ticking exercise which doesn’t guarantee that the
local news being broadcast is actually of any use to the audience. I
have heard of stations that record one local news bulletin early in
the morning and play it out every hour for the rest of the day.
Does that really serve a local audience? So what does this proposal
Well, it creates one more job at Ofcom, but it fails to
make any distinction between a station that is investing in a proper
local news operation, and another station that is merely paying lip
service to local news.
Worse, it seems to ignore the demands of
the “citizen/consumer”, as Ofcom likes to call our listeners.
Ofcom’s second proposal is to require local stations to agree to a
new Localness Charter that would be added to their licences.
Ofcom would require stations to publicise this Charter and would
invite listeners to complain to Ofcom if they felt a station was falling
short of its commitments. To me, this sounds suspiciously like the
regulator adding yet another layer of requirements on top of all the
existing things that stations already have to do.
legislation in the Broadcasting Act 1990 already require local
stations to, and I quote here, “cater for the tastes and interests of
persons living in the area”?
Doesn’t each station’s Ofcom licence
already set out the contractual basis for what it legally can and
Doesn’t each station’s ‘Format’ already set out what
content a station has to broadcast, when it has to be broadcast, and
where its programmes have to be made? It seems to me as if this
proposal just wants to add a further layer of bureaucracy because
the regulator realises that all the existing layers of regulation still do
not achieve the required results. My response is – fix the current
rules and regulations that plainly are not working!
Don’t try and
stick a plaster over a festering wound and expect it to magically
make everything better.
The final Ofcom proposal is to allow programme sharing and colocation of stations in newly created ‘mini-regions’.
example, four stations owned by Global in Devon could merge into a
single station serving the whole county (maybe a bit like BBC Radio
Devon on speed). Ofcom proposes that FM stations would have to
produce local programmes for at least 7 hours a day during
weekday daytimes, and at least 4 hours a day during weekend
daytimes. In addition, local news would be required at least hourly
during weekday daytimes and weekend peak times. I hope you’re
keeping up with this – there will be a test afterwards.
stations serving populations less than 250,000, if there is no other
local station for them to merge with, they would be required to
produce at least 4 hours a day of local programming. Ofcom says
that this proposal, and I quote, “ensures provision of both hard
informational content and softer community content as audiences
For me, this proposal accepts the need for more co-
location which I had suggested, but it still sticks to the old boxticking system of inputs to try and ensure localness. As I explained
earlier, simply putting a presenter in a local studio with a music
playlist in no way guarantees that the station’s output has anything
to do with LOCAL RADIO. And, as Ofcom itself admits, this proposal
once again fails to include any measure of audience opinion.
So those are Ofcom’s three proposed options and it would appear
that they are going for a mixture of the first and the last – an
increased emphasis on news, combined with greater co-location and
shared programming. Ed Richards has said, and I quote, that “both
place the focus on measurable and sustainable ways of securing of
a future for local radio”. Let’s examine those proposals.
In reality, instead of moving us towards output regulation, both of
Ofcom’s preferred options would require us to tick more boxes than
According to Ofcom’s submission, both options offer
the regulator a ‘high’ level of legal robustness. However, according
to Ofcom, both options offer only ‘low’ or ‘medium’ accountability to
So which do we consider to be more important –
making radio regulation ‘easy’ for Ofcom to do, or making sure that
commercial radio regulation meets the needs of its listeners? I am
asking this not as a rhetorical question.
Furthermore, Ofcom’s submission explains that both of its preferred
options depend upon, I quote, “reactive monitoring, only after
complaints”. I think this is probably what the Radio Authority used
to call “light touch regulation”.
Now I am beginning to wonder if
Ofcom has upgraded this idea to “turn a blind eye regulation”. Our
regulators sit in their modern building, surrounded by glass on all
sides, with a perfect view of the world, yet they will only notice that
something is wrong in that outside world they are regulating once a
member of the public has taken the time and effort to write and tell
them. Is this what we call regulation? Do we regulate our schools
by employing a team of people to sit in a cosy London office,
waiting for some angry parent in Sunderland to write them a letter
complaining that their local school has no teachers?
I might have more confidence in Ofcom’s proposals if I were
convinced that Ofcom would go the extra mile to make sure that all
of the extra box ticking we are expected to do would somehow be
meticulously checked to make sure it was happening in reality.
Now, who is going to monitor all this radio output? Don’t believe for
a moment that Ofcom will, because they simply do NOT. I cannot
find evidence that Ofcom monitored more than 10 local stations
At that rate of productivity, it will take 30 years to
listen to every station.
I have come to the conclusion that the
regulator does not want to, or even like to, regulate.
One of the areas I looked at in detail in my research was how
yellow cards are handed out. I was astonished to learn that, of all
the yellow cards issued by Ofcom to date, not one has been given
out because the regulator listened to a station without an external
prompt to do so. As I understand it (and I could be wrong here by
a factor of one!), each and every yellow card was issued because a
competitor or a listener had complained.
respond by listening.
Only then did Ofcom
Only then was the station fined, or yellow
carded or some other action was taken, but am I the only one on
the planet who believes that it is mad for any regulator to be
regulating via complaints alone? It is a crazy system.
So, for this new system of Ofcom’s to work effectively, you have to
believe that the regulator is going to spend some of its valuable
time (which we pay for in our licence fees) effectively measuring
and monitoring radio stations across the UK without anyone asking
If they are not going to do that, and I believe they won’t
because they can’t as they simply do not have enough time or staff
to do it, they are going to have to continue to regulate by
complaints. Without a clear acknowledgement from them, we are
left to assume that when their proposal goes through, Ofcom is
going to spend more time listening to the output of radio stations
than ever before. No they won’t. What they will do is offer up the
same complaints regulatory system. You complain and we will take
it up. If that is the system, and I think this is what they want to do
but without spelling it out clearly, then let’s just say this is the
It is a system after all.
Local radio stations should
therefore have to broadcast at regular intervals adverts or promos
in peak time that tell listeners how to complain, and each station
website must include full accountability of what it is supposed to
However, if it is decided to go ahead with this idea, I have a
counter-proposal for everyone in this room. Go home tonight and
complain about five things on your local radio station to Ofcom! It
doesn’t matter what they are, just go into complaint overdrive. And
then, every week, complain about another five.
I tell you, within
three months, the whole of the radio regulatory system will have
some 500 complaints to work through and the whole of the radio
department at Ofcom will grind to a halt. No one will be able to do
anything at Ofcom, complaints will take months, even years to get
to the discussion stage and, in the meantime, local radio stations
will be able to do whatever they like.
To be more reasonable for a moment, it is important that local radio
is regulated. But it is just as important that local radio is allowed
the freedom to operate more efficiently, more openly and be local
at the times when the local management feels their audience needs
But someone needs to ensure that the local
information they are putting out is information that is appreciated
and valued. A local station that is not valued by the community it is
there to serve is not a local station at all.
It is just noise on the
dial. By all means go complaints-led, but I tell you, we will be back
with another review within two years because we will have found
out that there are too many complaints to deal with.
Finally, let me come back to my earlier comments about the
industry feeling that Ofcom is not performing, at least radio-wise.
I have thought about this issue a lot in recent months and have
talked to many colleagues about it. I actually quite like the people
in the radio division at Ofcom. There is not one person there that I
do not get on with, and I realise it must be a tough job being a
regulator, but that is their choice.
I am sorry if my comments
might mean I will no longer be given coffee or a chocolate biscuit
when I am next there, but the reality is stark and I will summarise
for ease as I really feel we need to understand this important point:
Over the past few years, we have all had to deal with significant
Every CEO of every major radio group has gone.
Schoonmaker at EMAP gone, Kelvin McKenzie at The Wireless Group
gone, John Myers at GMG gone, Virgin is now absolutely gone,
UKRD has gobbled up The Local Radio Company, Scottish Radio now
talks with a German accent, and even the BBC has changed. Jenny
Abramsky has gone, Lesley has legged it to Universal, and even
BBC local radio has seen significant management changes along the
way. In media agencies, there is also widespread change, jobs lost,
new ideas coming in, a fresh look and a new approach. I constantly
tell my team never to stand still, as they will be crushed by the
stampede of change. Radio groups have re-engineered their sales
teams, sales directors think differently, marketing directors are
younger and new, and with new agencies in tow. The RadioCentre
is a very different beast to what it once was.
It is now smaller,
leaner and thinks differently. It has had to adapt to change more
than most because its members have changed so much.
these companies and organisations have restructured and now
reflect the times we are all in because new times demand new
However, over at Ofcom towers, there is very little obvious change
for anyone to see. The same people with the same ideas are still
there. This is not to say there are no good people at the regulator,
because there are many.
But how come the whole world has
changed around them and they have not? You have to move the
furniture around to get interest going, and this is being done
everywhere you look. Experts in their fields are being brought in,
more information is required, and more time is spent on the things
In Peter Davies, who I respect and have worked
closely with at times, we have someone who has absolutely zero
experience of working at the sharp end of commercial radio. Does
this matter? The feeling in the industry is that, right now, it very
My own view is that we just need a leader and a
regulator who is ready to really outline the vision for the future and
be ready to really work with the industry to get it right. If we can
achieve that, the regulator will have taken the industry to the
Peter could then change his name to Moses and
walk around the UK, parting the seas as he took the applause from
radio’s grateful executives, not to mention listeners.
Of course you have to work within the system and within the
current Broadcasting and Communication Acts, but new people
bring new ideas and a fresh impetus to the job. What I would ask
Ofcom to do is surround themselves with people who have a great
deal of radio experience, and mix them up with new and younger
people so that you get a ‘better music mix’ of knowledge, industry
experience and ideas. Of course they can make the final decision
as is their remit, but I advise that this would be a wise move. This
is by no means meant to be a slight on those who work at Ofcom
now, it is just that we desperately need to have change, and new
ideas will come from new people.
Every company in the world is
doing it, except the regulator and that cannot be right!
To conclude, I want to share with you my belief that we are on the
cusp of some great steps forward for the radio industry.
location is a necessity because we should never have awarded
licences to some of those small stations anyway.
submitted applications for those licences, and the system we had
for advertising and awarding those licences was wrong, and
therefore we simply need to do what we can now to protect the
livelihoods of as many local stations as possible.
But we have to
recognise that some will go bust, and they must be allowed to do
The bigger stations should continue to be local, as most of them
produce brilliant radio and will continue to be brilliant at what they
Local radio is great radio and millions of listeners agree with
Regional stations will move towards more nationally-
orientated output, because that is what those frequencies should
have been awarded for in the first place.
But make no mistake,
Local Radio is important. It is so important that we need to be clear
about what is required to ensure it continues to be successful, and
news and relevant local output must sit at the heart of that
ambition. It needs to broadcast material that local audiences want
and then, together, we can all achieve that goal. It may be painful
to walk this road, it may be uncomfortable and it might mean we
have to work a little harder but, with these changes, I hope that
commercial radio will be able to move towards a more secure future
in these uncertain times, and be able to offer more effective
competition towards the BBC.
But make no mistake, the future for radio is going to be your
station’s Unique Selling Point. If you are local, you better be very
good at it and do as much as you can.
If you are national, you
have to be prepared to mix it with the best, not only across the UK
but in my view, where your audience can be connected around the
world at the touch of a button, you will have to be the best globally.
Local radio is not dead, it is just being re-engineered. The Digital
Britain Report was full of things we could do, but short of things we
are going to do. This has been left to Ofcom and they in turn must
take the opportunity of clearly setting out the path for the future.
They must drive the industry forward, and we must very much
believe and want to go along that road with them.