Devon’s last stand in the fight for ‘local’ radio

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Your local radio station may not be all it seems. There is a good chance that the regional version of the radio station you listen to, may have quietly packed their bags and moved hundreds of miles away.

Almost all local commercial radio stations are now being produced a considerable distance from their listenership. With companies like Global (who own stations such as Heart, Smooth, Classic and Capital FM) who decided that they would replace around 40 local breakfast shows across its networks with just three nationwide programmes.

The local news too, has fallen prey to urbanisation of local radio, with
‘regional’ news bulletins now being broadcast vast distances from the actual place they claim to cover.

But why the change? In October last year Ofcom changed its Localness Guidelines for commercial radio stations. This means that local commercial radio stations could ‘network’ their breakfast shows and report their news from outside the specific region that they were covering. As long as local news bulletins are provided at least hourly throughout the same period, the new guidelines reduce the amount of locally produced programmes required. This also removes the requirement to provide local breakfast shows. In the process, Ofcom’s Approved Areas have also changed from counties to regions.

The Breeze FM, a commercial station covering South Devon, have their studio in Torquay. Celador, the parent company of The Breeze, sold the network to Bauer Media in February, however, Bauer, who have been on a buying spree of local stations, are now under investigation by The Competition & Markets Authority for their sudden barrage of acquisitions.

When the first radio station closures were announced, Tom Watson MP, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary condemned the move, saying: “The loss of more than 100 local radio jobs across the country is a travesty and particularly damaging at a time when local news is already under extreme pressure.”

“Replacing local voices with London based presenters will be a terrible loss to communities across the country,” he added

But was MP Tom Waston accurate in his description? One undeniable impact of the new rules is that more media jobs in the South West have been lost, with media and journalism becoming ever more London-centric in the process. The effect, arguably, is that our media becomes ever so slightly less representative of our local area.

Local FM radio stations have expensive running costs, but if most things can be done remotely, what effect could this have on local democracy? As with so much of our media, the acquisition of local stations by bigger groups further exacerbates the friction between commercial interests and quality programming.

We approached Ofcom about the new regulations; a spokesperson told The Moorlander: “The commercial radio industry faces unprecedented challenges from digital services and the changing needs of listeners. So we’re allowing stations more room to decide how and where they produce programmes, which means they can put more resources into making high-quality local content.”

Coincidently, two of the only local commercial radio stations left in the UK are both in Devon; Radio Exe and Radio Plymouth, with almost every single
local commercial radio station having been purchased by a parent media group.

Paul Nero, Managing Director of Radio Exe has some reservations about the change in the rules: “The changes to encompass larger ‘approved’ areas from which stations can broadcast has nothing to do with competition but everything to do with lobbying by large corporations, of which two international companies now dominate local radio,” says Paul.

“The new guidelines, which didn’t need parliamentary approval, work in the favour of the big broadcasters – entrenching a position that’s been built up over the years; hence why there are very few truly local broadcasters left”.

‘The savings being made by closing regional studios mean the large corporations can divert money from employing local presenters and producers. They’ll put some of it into star presenters and guests, massive on-air promotions and off-air marketing. It’s impossible for small companies such as Radio Exe – we employ just nine people, for example – to compete with that. What we can do well is local news and local promotions – and whether we’re successful will depend on the quality of the output. In the audience figures published last week, Radio Exe, which can be heard across much of Devon on DAB, achieved its biggest-ever audience. The national commercial broadcasters lost audience in our area.”

But the fundamental issue for Paul is that whilst the ‘networked’ radio stations broadcast their shows from elsewhere, the stations still rely and actively canvas advertising revenue from local businesses in an area in which they no longer provide programming. The only content local to most areas in Devon are the commercials – even though the operators run on local FM licences.

Paul added: “The problem is that these major broadcasters are still going after local advertisers but without providing very much, if any, local content. On a much-reduced cost base – which independent stations such as Radio Exe cannot take advantage of – the national commercial broadcasters can invest only in local sales people.

‘We would be quite happy to see the national groups sell local advertising, provided they also provide other local content specific for each local transmitter. So if they want to have South Hams-specific advertising, they should provide South Ham-specific news. Realistically, though, the battle is lost.”

Paul goes on to say that whilst some of the news content from networked shows still focuses on local issues, the move to a centralised studio substantially reduces the quality and the amount of local content heard on air.

Radio Exe applied for the Torbay FM licence in 2017, which would have secured local programming in the area. However, Paul says that the move received no public support from either Torbay Council, which this week is objecting to the new networked commercial guidelines – nor publicly from local Conservative MP Kevin Foster, who understandably did not want to show favouritism to any particular station. Torbay Council met on Wednesday 7th August, to discuss whether the authority should request that Ofcom review the changes.

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