Grierson is actually the founder and first general manager of Manx Radio,
the Isle of Mans national commercial radio station. John commenced
Manx Radios general programming as the stations very first presenter,
at 8.00 am on the 29th of June 1964. It is a privilege to have
such an experienced broadcaster actively supporting Celtica Radio and
contributing as part of our line up.
Please remember, John has a right to freedom of speech, and a right
to express his thoughts as outlined below..
John Griersons Comment
on UK Local Radio Licencing.
has also presented a programme called
the AirColumn. The material was taken from a book written by Robert
MacGregor, and brilliantly illustrated with some of the most wicked
cartoons by a genius called Martin Wallace. The book is called "I
can't take any more Crap". That title again ... I can't take
any more Crap, by Robert MacGregor.
to Buy your copy of;-
I Can't Take Any More Crap! - By Robert MacGregor.
I Cant Take Any More Crap
I Cant Take Any More Crap
I Cant Take Any More Crap
with any other on-line book-seller you might know about, such as
WHSmith - and you can place an order directly through the publishers
I Cant Take Any More Crap
this first episode I am going to concentrate on just one subject,
because I think it's important - and I hope it may be helpful. I
am going to talk about the painful, wasteful and needlessly cumbersome
process of applying to Ofcom for a local radio licence in the light
of my decades of involvement with commercial radio. And in the light
of my own recent experience and observation.
Celtica Radio has given me the opportunity to talk to people like
myself who want to get themselves involved with local radio because
they are passionate - really passionate - about it. I am going to
set out several things you should not be doing, to help you to avoid
some of the traps. By the way, if you are not chasing a radio licence,
I hope you find this interesting anyway, because, as a member of
the British public, you ought to know something about a process
being employed in your name.
Let me make something crystal clear right from the off. I am not
some English gent, brought up to believe that taking part is more
important than winning. I have tried very hard throughout my life
to avoid going into competitions I knew I could not win. That just
wastes time, effort and money. When I lost the Cornwall licence
earlier this year, I did so under circumstances which left me very,
very angry because Ofcom made a decision which was and is unfair,
unreasonable and perverse. Ofcom will say it did not - and it now
has the backing of a High Court judgement to rely on. That changes
nothing in my mind, and I will explain that later.
Let me make something else plain. I am not trying to make a case
for getting rid of regulation of the radio spectrum altogether -
there has always been a need for some form of rationing to avoid
a free-for-all. But that's another matter for another time.
I want to talk to people who still have the energy, the personal
commitment and the sheer determination to try for local commercial
radio licences in the face of almost overwhelming odds. I am not
interested in what the large radio conglomerates think. They have
little to lose, no matter how much money or time they pour into
new licence applications. They bounce from application round to
application round, and if they lose, they simply move on to the
next one, write off the costs against tax, and that's that.
No. I am interested in what you, the committed and passionate individual
and your local colleagues might be thinking, because your thoughts
might be taking you in the wrong direction. Equally, I am not very
interested in what does or does not happen in what Ofcom calls the
larger markets. I mean the cities or big towns, or the regional
licences. Those licences will always go directly to one of the big
groups. My thoughts apply mainly to the smaller, local licence areas,
where properly local radio belongs and has a job to do. So here
First, if you feel the urge to write a letter of intent to Ofcom,
because you want to stake the first claim - by all means do it.
But don't specify to much. Make it very, very vague, because if
you do go in any particular direction in terms of programming content
or general policy, you will be painting yourself into a corner.
More about that a little later. And remember that getting what you
know is the first such letter into Ofcom will not help you at all
when it comes to the competitive application process. Even if you
were not the first, but you do all the real work to get the regulator
to consider a new licence for your area, that won't help you either.
So don't expect it.
Next, do not bother with RSL's. There is no requirement for RSL's
to be run, and if you do them, Ofcom will take not much, if any
note, of what you may have achieved. Certainly, don't bother with
researching your audience to any RSL's you run, if you do insist
on running them. And while on the subject of RSL's don't assume
that there is any need to link what you have been doing with your
RSL's, to the application you eventually make. If you run say four
RSL's targeting a youth audience, but then decide at the last minute
that applying for a youth-orientated station will be a dead duck,
don't worry about it too much. Change horses immediately. Ofcom
Next, don't get into this race for the licence too soon. It will
do you absolutely no good to spend years drumming up local support,
doing presentations and holding meetings, sending out leaflets -
go easy on all that. Ofcom is not seriously interested because the
only kind of evidence they want to see has to come from research
- and by that they mean large-sample attitudinal and similar surveys,
conducted as close as possible to the application deadline. Do you
think that you can depend on support from the local area because
Ofcom says it will take that into account? Forget it. When Ofcom
says support, or evidence of support, they mean evidence from research.
Forget that at your peril.
When it comes to research, there must be someone in your area who
has some experience in radio or audience research or possibly both
and provided you give him or her a decent piece of the shareholding
in your company, you can save a lot of that money. But hang on,
you say, such a person would then be part of your application team,
and surely it would surely not look right to have your own survey
managed by your own people? Looks a bit suspect, and not really
credible? Does not matter. Press ahead. Where does it say that research
has to be independently managed and designed?
long as it supports your proposals, and seems to have been put together
by someone with at least some knowledge, you will be OK. Oh, and
by the way. Quantity is much more important than quality when it
comes to research. Make sure you do that one big survey - at least
850 respondents - and design the questionnaire so that the answers
can do nothing other than support your proposals - but then do all
sorts of other local stuff as cheaply as possible - like a couple
of focus groups, a handful of approaches to very carefully selected
potential advertisers, and anything else you can dream up. As I
mentioned earlier, don't bother with spending money and time drumming
up support from people by talking to them and listening to them
- make up for that by lots of little exercises which you then describe
as research. Ofcom will lap it up.
What about your consortium? Avoid appointing as chairman of your
board someone who Ofcom has never heard of. It is absolutely vital
that you remember the British tradition of the great and the good
being recognised and given the nod way ahead of anyone else - and
if the person you appoint to head your Board of directors has at
some time been a media high-flyer, that's perfect. You will have
a head start. Ofcom knows them, and they know Ofcom.
As to the rest of the board: gather as many people as you like,
but be careful. Ofcom does not like to see over-large boards of
directors because they think that makes your applicant company unwieldy
and incapable of making decisions. So appoint no more than, say,
half a dozen people to the board of the applicant company itself,
and put all the rest into a Limited Liability Partnership or even
another Limited Company which lives alongside the main company.
That company can have as many directors as you like. You end up
with about fourteen people all of whom have a de facto stake in
the management and finances of the operation? Does not matter. Ofcom
will buy that.
What about shareholding? If there are too many individual shareholders
- and this is a common situation with small companies looking for
radio licences - so if there are too many, put most of them into
that separate company I mentioned earlier. That separate company
then holds a combined share in the licence application company itself.
Same number of people, same amount of investment overall, and same
spread of responsibilities. Does Ofcom object to this kind of tricky
device? Not in the least. They will applaud you for it.
And before I leave the question of the shape and size of your company,
here's another tip. Once you have decided who is going to serve
on your application company board and on the company off to the
side if you have one, do not go to the bother of registering them
at Companies House before the application goes to Ofcom. Just claim
that they will be the directors of your outfit. If you win the licence,
then you can register them. But surely the application advertisement
actually asks who the directors of the company are? Not who they
will be. Who they are. Does not matter. And you don't have to take
my word for that - a High Court judge has said so. You can claim
whomever you like as a director. Register them after you have won
the licence. Or don't. Makes no difference. You will have dressed
the window perfectly. Sounds like something out of Ripley's believe
it or not? Believe it. Ridiculous but true.
we come to the wonderful business of income projections. Ofcom does
not appear to understand very much about the way a truly local small-area
radio station works, and in particular, it does not appear to understand
where the vast majority of such stations' advertising income, comes
from. So, because they don't understand, they demand that you produce
a formula which talks about projected average weekly reach, about
projected average hours and based on that, what an advertiser will
pay you for the time you have for sale. Sounds familiar? Certainly
does. That's the way advertising agencies work on behalf of the big
national brand advertisers they represent. It has almost nothing to
do with the way local advertisers and sponsors buy radio. Local, mostly
retail businesses buy radio time on involvement, on personal relationships
with the salespeople and the presenters. They buy out of curiosity,
interest, hoping for results through the till, and the thrill of being
involved with the creative process of making commercials with the
local station's help, on their customers stopping them in the street
and saying , "heard your commercial on radio this morning - really
good". Too unscientific. Not based on research. Ofcom cannot get its
head around that, so it's the formula which counts and nothing else
matters. So make sure that your formula is clear, and show that by
the end of Year Three or sooner if possible, you are bringing in enough
income to start showing an operational excess of income over expenditure.
Get the licence, then throw this out of the window, and produce a
set of proper projections for your own internal use. You can even
submit a totally different set of projections to Ofcom after you have
won the licence. No problem.
Now a very difficult question indeed. Big Brother. Do you need a Big
Radio Company on board with you if you are going to win that licence?
Yes you do, and unless you have a Big Brother partner, you do not
stand a chance. But how Big does Big Brother have to be? Not necessarily
one of the really Big Monsters, but your Big brother had better have
at least a handful of other stations under its belt - and it does
not matter if most of those stations are making no profit at all.
As long as Ofcom can see that there is a safety net into which you
can fall, a pit of cash provided by big enough investors somewhere
in the background, they will not care if you turn out to have got
your sums wrong, and at the end of your second year, your company
would go bust unless it were pulled out of the fire by its Big Brother.
So, by the back door, the licence is awarded not to you, but to the
safety-net which Ofcom needs to see. Ofcom will not even consider
the possibility of failure. If you get that licence with the help
of that safety net, you get it for life.
Now - is there anything else you can learn from the way things have
gone since Ofcom started to be responsible for commercial radio licences
in the context of this Big Brother business? Certainly there is. The
pattern is as clear as a bell - do everything you can to have a press
group on board, and the bigger the group, the better. With very few
exceptions, the licences that have been awarded since December 2004
have been given to consortia where the press is a major player. Now
I can't be a hypocrite about this - my consortium in Cornwall had
a Press Big Brother because that seemed the sensible way to go. In
any case, almost all of the major local and regional press players
in particular have commercial radio divisions now, for obvious reasons,
so Big Brother is almost invariably going to be a press conglomerate.
So love them or hate them, you had better get the press on board.
Now - should you go the trouble of nominating a general manager and
a sales manager or even nominate both of them as future board directors
on a confidential basis so that you are ready to hit the ground running
the minute you are awarded the licence? Don't waste your time. Ofcom
is not interested. Simply inform Ofcom that a currently nameless station
manager or Managing Director will be appointed in due course and you
don't even need to refer to a head of sales at all. Just make your
promise of future action sound good.
While I am on the subject of sounding and looking good, here's something
else. Don't kid yourself that you can write a successful application
document by keeping it simple and to the point. You think that's what
Ofcom wants because they appear to say so in the application advertisement
and elsewhere? Forget it. Find someone who can produce the most flowery
language, using high-sounding phrases and promises wherever possible.
And instruct the writer to pepper the application with as many graphs
and charts as you can lay your hands on. It is probably a good idea
not to allow the overall length to go beyond about 60 pages or so,
but cram into those pages everything including the kitchen sink. And
then, if you are on the receiving end of supplementary questions after
the application deadline, don't try to hold back on your answers in
the interests of being brief, as requested. Go right ahead and virtually
submit a second application. The more explanation, the more verbiage,
In Part Two I will deal with the essential business of Section 105
of the Broadcasting Act - and I will recount briefly what happened
to me when I tried to get help from the High Court because I felt
that the award in Cornwall was unfair and perverse.
is Part Two of my story on the licensing of local commercial radio.
I'll start with the business of Sections 105 (a) to (d) of the Broadcasting
Act of 1990 as amended in 1996. This is the real core of the process,
Ofcom says. Now, the Broadcasting Act has been on the statute books
since 1990 and even the Radio Authority was supposed to be assessing
applications according to that statute. But Ofcom makes a really big
deal out of it, so concentrate your fire on answering those requirements.
However - and this is very important - when it comes to the requirements
under section 105 (c) where the law says Ofcom must assess how you
propose broadening the choice of commercial radio programming available
to local listeners, be very careful. Whatever you do, don't be specific.
Do not identify a demographic group or any group at which you intend
to target your programming. You are at liberty to tell Ofcom that
your new station will offer a broadening of choice by doing almost
exactly the same thing as an existing station, and that the choice
will take the form of competition between your new station and an
existing one. Just use appropriate language here to make sure that
you appear to be complying with Section 105 (c). But hang on, I can't
be serious can I? Surely section 105 (c) says exactly the opposite
of that? Surely the purpose of the legislation is to offer local listeners
something different? Well, you would think so - but again, you don't
have to take my word that Ofcom can completely turn this on its head.
This question was tested in the High Court, and the same judge who
declared that it is perfectly OK to claim directors who are not directors
also said that direct competition under Section 105 (c) is also perfectly
OK. So 105 (c) does not mean give local listeners a broadened choice
by offering them a new kind of service at all. It just means offer
to put another radio station on the air, and if that your application
says it is going to produce almost exactly the same programming format
as one already on the air - that's fine.
And there's another wrinkle you should be careful to use. Make sure
that the formal format promise you make is as short and as vaguely
worded as you think you can get away with. If your format is terse
but woolly, and you win the licence, you have an ace in the hole.
Let's say that in a year or so, your business does not look so good,
and the problem is that the audience you decided to target are just
not listening. No problem. Provided that your format is loose enough,
you can switch your target to almost anywhere you like, and start
again. Even better if the existing station, which may have been around
for a while, also has a format promise which is loosely worded.
Ofcom says that either your new station or the existing one can shift
programming to target a different audience if either one of you finds
that you are too close for comfort to the other. But doesn't that
defeat the whole purpose of a Format? You would think so, but again,
this was tested in the High Court, and the judge said that this possibility
of sliding about would be perfectly legal, perfectly OK. Provided
you have not stupidly committed yourself too tightly to a format which
leaves no room to wriggle, Ofcom will give you immediate permission
to change. More stuff for Ripley's Believe It Or Not.
OK, so you have carefully tailored the requirements of section 105
(c), which is supposed to broaden choice. What about sections (a)
(b) and (d)? Let me dispose of Section (b) right away - it asks you
to explain how you will cater for the tastes and interests of the
audience you propose to attract. Don't exactly avoid the question,
but wrap up your answer in the most extravagant and ornate language
you can manage. Make all kinds of deliberately vague and high-sounding
promises - but commit yourself to as little as possible. Provided
that your research generally endorses what you propose doing, the
way you propose delivering the detailed programming counts for very
little. And you can ask for any promises you do make to be kept confidential.
Now to Section (d) - support and research. Remember what I said earlier
about research. Lots of it, little bites here and there and one big
overall survey. Ofcom is fixated on research, almost to the point
where you wonder if they have some sort of interest in seeing that
research companies make good profits. And by research, in small licence
areas, they do not mean expressions of support, even if they say they
will take both informal support and formal research into account.
They will concentrate all their attention on your formal research
with graphs and charts and percentages and as much arithmetical bull
as you can cobble together. If you managed to get hundreds (and in
the case of my application in Cornwall, thousands) of letters and
statements of support which have taken you a long time to gather,
Ofcom will sniff at that, and if they behave as they did with Cornwall,
they will simply brush it aside. It has happened elsewhere with licences
they have awarded, so my advice is - get a handful of letters of support
from the great and good of your area, and forget about lots of directly
expressed support from people who will actually form the bulk of your
audience. Ofcom is not really interested. Elitism is alive and well
and living at Riverside House in London.
And finally, Section (a) which asks you to demonstrate how you will
keep the station going for the full length of the licence period -
twelve years. Forget for the moment that this question is comprehensively
stupid, and is enshrined in the legislation - politicians and civil
servants drew it up, remember. Who on Earth in 2005 or 2006 can possibly
have anything sensible to say about the way radio - even radio in
small areas - is going to develop in four or five years, never mind
twelve? You are listening to this on a computer via the Internet.
Need I say more? So - concentrate on how you say you will keep your
station viable for those twelve long years. Some of this I dealt with
earlier when I was talking about the size and shape of your board,
your shareholding and your income projections and so on - but here's
the real trick which you must pull off if you want to beat your competition
to the licence.
have to say things which will leave Ofcom feeling that you have
the best chance of being commercially successful. That is their
main focus. Now, you and all of your competitors will be saying
and doing roughly the same thing because there is just so much you
can say and promise. Your trick is to persuade Ofcom that your combination
of promises is bigger, better and more plausible than any of the
others, so pull out all the stops here. And by this I mean take
great care with how you make those promises - the style is going
to be much more important that the substance. Get some really smart
marketing person to come up with a USP for you - and remember what
USP actually stands for. Unique Selling Proposition. It does not
mean Unique Product Property. It means that the way you sell your
product has to be better than the way the competition sells theirs
- and just like toothpaste or washing powder or petrol, where the
products are 99% identical. It's how you say it that really matters.
Several people have asked me a simple question: if I felt so strongly
about the way the Cornwall licence was awarded in the first place,
why did I not push the legal channels open to me as far as possible?
Why did I take Ofcom on Judicial Review to the High Court, ask permission
for a full Judicial Review, have that refused, and then drop the
whole matter? Why did I not appeal and keep on appealing until I
had exhausted every legal avenue? Easy enough to answer. Halfway
through the day-long hearing in London, I passed a note to my wife.
By the way, she and I, with some help from one of my sons - that
was our entire legal team. We had no support from the company I
had formed five years previously - they took fright at the possibility
of losing a court case and what that might cost them, and I can't
blame them for that, not really. Ofcom and the other party to the
court action had herds of solicitors and barristers.
What made the position very difficult for me was the fact that our
Big Brother backer immediately put large amounts of distance between
themselves and any suggestion of challenging Ofcom, and that did
not help my local directors to take matters further. Again, I can't
blame either of them for that. The Big Crocs have to keep Ofcom
sweet and taking the regulator to court is considered dangerous.
The Big Crocs have more fish to catch. So I took on the Judicial
Review challenge by myself. It was either a matter of accepting
the atrociously perverse decision made by Ofcom in Cornwall - or
fight it. I felt that I had no choice - I had to fight it. And I
had no financial resources with which to buy lawyers. Lawyers only
come in two price brackets - expensive and massively expensive.
I could not afford either, so I went into the case as a litigant
But back to that note I passed to my wife. It said "I think this
judge has already made up his mind - he does not give any impression
that he is listening to what I have to say". And so it turned out.
Permission to proceed to a full and proper Judicial Review was refused
by this judge without his taking even five minutes at the end of
the hearing to think about it. He even went so far as to say, and
this was both ridiculous and unjust, that the permission hearing
had been as good as a full Judicial Review, and that I would not
be able to produce anything more in a full Judicial Review. Summary
judgement - end of story.
He behaved as though he had a pressing engagement elsewhere and
he had devoted enough of his time to this case. And I left that
courtroom wondering whether perhaps the English Establishment had
closed ranks when faced with the possibility of their bright shiny
new regulator, Ofcom, being trounced in court by a mere litigant
in person. Not even a proper lawyer. That could not be allowed to
happen. Am I suggesting that in our democracy where the judiciary
is independent that a judge could be "got at" to influence his decision?
Good heavens, of course not. All I am saying is that I had presented
the judge with several reasons why this award in Cornwall was an
unreasonable one and a perverse one, but when his written his judgement
was handed down, it could be summed up as follows. "Ofcom is the
statutorily appointed regulator and it can do whatever it pleases,
unreasonable or not. Now go away. And here's a shed-load of legal
costs for you as well. If you want to appeal - go ahead." The bottom
line is this: in Judicial Review cases in particular, judges say
that are reluctant to interfere with the workings and decision-making
processes of a regulator appointed by Parliament. My view is that
reluctance should not mean the same thing as refusal, and asking
a court to asses whether a Government body has acted reasonably
is not the same thing as asking it to interfere. I said so, in court.
Was anyone listening? It did not seem like it to me.
Do you think I would, on the strength of that, have stood the slightest
chance of success on appeal? Did I want to put myself and my family
through months and months more of this utterly awful and soul-destroying
business of dealing with slimy lawyers and judges and courts - and
having to do so by myself again because having started out with
no financial resources, I still had none? No. Enough was enough.
But what about legal Aid?
Sorry - not available in cases like this. So very reluctantly I
dropped the case. No-one can beat The Establishment when The Establishment
decides it is not going to be beaten.
me mention the Ofcom bureaucrats and their relationship with the Radio
Licensing Committee. The R L C as it is known is not what it ought
to be, namely a group of people who really know how commercial radio
works and who have the kind of experience and expertise which such
a body ought to have right from Day One. They are almost totally dependent
on what the Ofcom bureaucrats tell them in what are called staff papers.
These are documents prepared by the bureaucratic staff who have been
given the job of assessing the applications, and you can take it from
me - what the staff says, goes. Ask Ofcom how many times the R L C
has gone against the recommendations of the staff in awarding licences.
I bet you they will tell you that it would not be in the public interest
to provide that information. Did I hear you say Freedom of Information
Act? Don't make me laugh. When it came to my preparing for the court
case, there was a lot of information I wanted from Ofcom and I made
application in terms of the FOIA. The answer on all but a very few
questions? "This falls under exception clause this, that or the other
and in terms of those exceptions, we are not obliged to provide the
information. Goodbye". So be warned - Ofcom, our bright shiny new
open and transparent regulator is about as open as a closed clam and
as transparent as mud. A slight digression there - but back to the
bureaucrats. I don't think that one of the radio licensing team has
ever run a commercial radio station. Am I sure? No, and Ofcom will
not release any information about them either, so I will continue
to believe what I believe until I have proof to the contrary. The
Ofcom radio licensing staff by the way, have come from every media
fringe you can think of - including press journalism and the old Radio
Authority, but that's another story. However, they exercise the most
awesome power and however you do this, make sure that someone in your
consortium gets to know everything they can about the people who will
actually decide who gets that licence. They make the decision. The
Radio Licensing Committee rubber stamps it.
Many people have asked me what I think will happen in Cornwall when
the new station comes on the air - and shamefully that will only happen
about a year after the licence award. There will only be one winner
in the battle for Cornwall audiences. BBC Radio Cornwall of course.
It is already the number one station in Cornwall and consistently
beats Pirate FM into second place, and given that the new station
will be going head to head with Pirate FM, targeting exactly the same
audience as Pirate, the field will be left open and clear for the
BBC greatly to increase its dominance here. If Ofcom had deliberately
set out to ensure that the BBC in Cornwall remained top radio dog,
they could not have done a better job.
A few years ago, I said in public that the way commercial radio licences
are awarded in Britain, stinks. I should not have done that, because
it did not help my cause at all, and it serves me right for telling
things they way I see them. I was not behaving Englishly enough. But
now I no longer care, so let me say it again. The system stinks to
It is unfair, wasteful, cumbersome, far too slow, far too expensive
and much, much too steeped in protectionism, bureaucracy and frankly,
it is borderline corrupt as well in that peculiar British old-boy
way. Since 1973 when commercial radio came to mainland Britain a grand
total of 309 permanent commercial stations have been licensed and
that includes the national, regional and local stations - the lot.
That's in thirty-three years, give or take. An average of just over
nine new stations per year. In a country with a population now pushing
57 million. It's a disgrace. If you want a comparison, here's an exercise
for you. Trace out the total area covered by FM and AM radio during
daytime in Britain - and that's pretty well all of it Using the same
scale, superimpose that area on the eastern seaboard of the USA.,
with the outer eastern edge of the coverage area touching the Atlantic
ocean but excluding the New York area, and then find out how many
local radio stations are on the air in that area. Let me save you
the trouble. It is over 2,000, and this I repeat does NOT include
New York. Population? About the same as Britain and Northern Ireland.
How come? The answer is easy enough. Although the USA is now sadly
becoming almost as bureaucratic as the UK, commercial radio in the
USA has been, for most of its life, a bottom-up business. If you wanted
to put a station on the air, and provided you could comply with some
relatively simply conditions, you were given a licence. If you failed,
you failed - and either you handed the licence back, or you sold it.
Here, successive radio licensing regulators have wet themselves at
the thought of giving a licence to a group of people and then finding
that, oops, they made a mistake and the station is going down the
s-bend. That would make the regulator look bad. So the politicians
and the lobbyists concocted the stupidly fail-safe system we now have
in the UK.
Here, licences are handed down and handed down very, very slowly,
to licensee-companies which have enough background cash to ensure
that they cannot fail financially, even if they make operational losses
year after year. It is radio licensing by subsidy. And it is ridiculous.
Is it likely to change? Yes it is, but not because Government will
bring that change about. It will change because radio will stop being
radio and become audio. You and I will be able to listen to what suits
us best through our computers, our mobile phones, through pod-casting,
through our TV sets, via satellite, with I-pods, MP3 players and who
knows what new technical developments in the next very few years.
Traditional radio will be just one of the many methods of audio-delivery,
and given how tightly traditional commercial radio is regulated, it
is going to struggle against competition it cannot handle. Not even
Digital radio is going to rescue it. So why would you even think about
trying to get a standard common or garden FM licence from Ofcom? Because
you have a lingering, or even a new found passion for old-fashioned
radio with all its problems and despite everything that the future
commercial radio in the UK cannot even compete as it ought to with
the BBC. Despite three decades-plus of existence and many more stations
that the mighty BBC can manage, commercial radio still cannot get
on even terms with the BBC, never mind overtaking it. Overall listening
numbers to commercial radio still lag well behind the BBC. And at
least part of the reason for that is sad but clear. British Commercial
radio, with a few exceptions, is bland, boring, repetitive, and
for the most part in the hands of people whose interest is in money
and more money. These radio barons keep telling everyone that most
of the money they make, when they do make it, goes back into improving
the programming of the stations they control. Noble, very noble.
Unfortunately, very seldom true in terms of operational profit.
But what the hell - If they can't make money out of operational
profit, they look upon radio licences as assets they can sell for
stupidly massive capital gains, so they look to make their money
that way, eventually.
Some people who are not sympathetic to my views have thrown another
simple question at me. Ofcom has awarded 17 commercial radio licences
since it started in December 2004, so why has it only been myself
and Francis Wildman in Kent who have made such a fuss about losing
and have taken Ofcom to court? Surely almost everyone is happy with
the new regime? The answer is equally simple. The Big Radio Crocodiles
in the swamp are happy enough. They are not especially upset about
losing. And remember that almost every commercial radio licence
application is backed by a Big Radio Croc. So even if the local
consortium members are absolutely furious at having lost a licence
they think they should have won, they will be held back from taking
things further by their Big Brother backers. That's what happened
in Cornwall. But there are people like Francis and me, motivated
by other things. When we lose to applicants who should never have
won, we are heartbroken, despairing and furious.
Aside from Francis Wildman and myself, I know of at least two other
applicants in small-licence areas to whom I have spoken, and one
in a large market - all of them disgusted and very, very angry.
That makes five out of seventeen, or nearly a third of their awards
where they have left very angry people behind. Not just disappointed
- there have to be winners and losers - I am talking about seriously
angry. There may be more. Those I have spoken to feel as I do and
as Francis does, but they lack just that last bit of fury which
gives them the courage to challenge the regulator. The fact that
I was brushed aside by the High Court does not help, either. Who
is ever going to challenge Ofcom unless they are very, very rich
and very, very courageous? Which is sad, because if there were enough
challenges, even The Establishment would have to take note, and
force a re-think about the legislation and the regulator charged
with implementing it. A good start, incidentally, would be to legislate
a proper appeals procedure whereby failed applicants who believe
that there has been a serious miscarriage of justice and mal-administration
by Ofcom can apply to have the decision reviewed by an independent
panel of acknowledged radio experts, without the terrible and expensive
business of having to go to the High Court.
Competition for a radio licence is sometimes described as a beauty
contest, and the way you are supposed to demonstrate your beauty
is to have better responses to the regulator's questions and be
more thorough in answering them. But sadly, in too many cases, the
ugly entrant is winning the prize. So, be warned. Ofcom does not
assess applications by any consistent series of objective tests.
It says it does, but in fact the evidence suggests that it is influenced
by who-knows-whom, who has lunched whom, who has the bigger pockets,
who can do the better job of blinding this regulator with purple
prose, fancy illustrations and research, research, research.
And one final thought: local commercial radio is not the place to
be if you want to make a lot of money. It has to be a business,
yes, and it has to be viable, but the people who are attracted to
this unique medium are those who are in love with it, truly passionate
about it. Unfortunately, Ofcom does not see things that way. They
are focused on the financial aspects of local radio to an extent
which will stultify and sanitise the industry even beyond where
it is now. They are getting the balance wrong and they are treating
radio as if it were a series of factories producing furniture or
electrical goods. Radio just isn't like that.
Here's a core problem: when people have a new business idea, especially
if it is going to be a small business, generally they do not have
to put themselves up for judgement by others to whom they would
not give the time of day. They have to comply with planning and
health and safety requirements and that sort of stuff of course,
but for the most part they don't need a licence from a regulator
in order to get their business going. They make a success of it
by just doing it, taking the normal commercial risks - and taking
the consequences if they fail. But in my case, and in the case of
many like me who have not merely worked in commercial radio all
our lives, but have lived it, breathed it, eaten it, drunk it, slept
it and loved it, we have always had to bang our heads against the
deadly wall of regulation. We just don't have the luxury of starting
a business without having to go on bended knees before some very
arrogant and not terribly expert bureaucrats who have the power
of business life or death in their hands.
There are some wise words from one of the ancients. "Select with
care those by whom you would be judged". Sadly, there is no choice
open to you when you decide you want to create a new local commercial
radio licence. You have to deal with Ofcom. And now you know how
I feel about that.
If you missed the actual show, click
here to listen again.
Thank you for listening.
Go ahead, e-mail me at email@example.com.
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