MEDIA: FORUM; What is missing from the London radio market?

Who should win the last London FM commercial radio licence? The Radio Authority is currently wading through 25 applications for the 104.9 FM franchise.

Who should win the last London FM commercial radio licence? The Radio

Authority is currently wading through 25 applications for the 104.9 FM

franchise.



Will it make an inspired choice or can it be relied upon to plump for

the same tired old mainstream music formula? Alasdair Reid reports



Those wishing to apply for the 104.9 London FM radio licence had until

last Tuesday to make their submissions. A large number, 25 in all, came

forward. This was hardly surprising - using existing transmission

technologies, 104.9 is the last remaining FM frequency available for

independent local radio use on a London-wide basis.



Inevitably, most of the contenders mentioned the word ‘music’ somewhere

in their applications. Perhaps full marks should go to the one that

didn’t, London Business and Sport Radio, or those - mainly proposed

stations targeted at the Asian community - that gave significant

emphasis to speech-based feature material. Surely, we need more speech-

based radio?



We shall see. In terms of ethnic orientation, the Asian community comes

top, with four applications; Afro-Caribbean/reggae stations come next

with three, followed by Irish with two. There are two applications from

children’s stations, and one apiece for gay people and old people.



As for the rest, they appear to be the usual licence application fodder

- music stations targeted at a young (18- to 34-year-old) audience.

There is just one soul music proposal, and the ‘never take no for an

answer’ award goes to XFM, an indie rock station that can be relied on

to submit an application promising never to play any Phil Collins or

Sting records. Unfortunately, it always loses out to stations that

promise the opposite. Last time around, for instance, it was beaten by

Virgin Radio London.



You can have music courtesy of Chris Evans’s company or Time Out, CLT’s

Atlantic station or Capital Radio, which wants to take advantage of

changes in broadcast legislation to shift its Gold station on to FM.

Previously, a radio owner couldn’t hold two FM licences in any one area.

Now it can.



The long-term health of commercial radio depends on it being able to

develop new audiences but the Radio Authority thinks first and foremost

of whether the new licencee can survive in the short term. Continuing

difficulties at Viva! will not encourage the authority to be

adventurous.



What will happen, of course, is that it will award the licence to a

station that promises to play lots of Phil Collins and Sting records.

The winner will promptly go out and steal both audience and revenue from

all the other stations that play Phil Collins and Sting records. Won’t

it?



Not necessarily, Rupert Garrett, the head of radio at BBJ Media

Services, argues. ‘I believe that Chris Evans [the Edge Radio] can offer

something innovative and fresh. I know he wouldn’t be on air himself but

I think he could transpose the success of things like TFI Friday and

Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush on to radio. He understands the market and

has the big backing that a start-up always needs.



‘XFM might have been the ante-post favourite but its odds are

lengthening now. People know what to expect from the Radio Authority.

Niche offerings such as the gay station [G104.9 FM] don’t have much of a

chance, especially after what happened to Viva!. The oldie channel

[Saga] will have difficulty attracting ad revenue and everyone knows

that sport is too expensive.’



Garrett, though, believes that the new station chosen by the Radio

Authority will be unlikely to attract much new audience or revenue to

the medium. David Fletcher, the head of radio at CIA Medianetwork,

doesn’t argue with that. ‘Given recent trends - especially the solid

audience performance of mainstream commercial radio - the radio

authority will not see the need to take any risks,’ he maintains. ‘Of

the applicants, the buyer in me would want Atlantic FM, which would

deliver at the younger end of the spectrum. The consumer in me would

like to hear XFM.



‘I know it isn’t on the list but the station that I think would be ideal

would be Q magazine on radio. It would have the music but it would also

develop intelligent new formats. Of the current applicants, I suppose

that Rocket FM comes closest to that. I think we will see the licence go

to an outfit that thinks first of demographics and then about programme

content. When you take that approach, output tends to be inoffensive

rather than distinctive.’



Andrew Robertson, the corporate marketing manager at the Bradford and

Bingley Building Society and the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers’ radio spokesman, says that the licence bids come into three

categories - two of which are of no interest at all to advertisers.

‘Some are mass-market plans, basically seeking to take Capital head on.

All that will do is fragment the audience and that will not be of any

use to us. At the other end of the spectrum some are far too niche,’ he

states.



‘The ones we are interested in, such as the Edge, XFM and Festival

Radio, are the ones that are likely to bring new listeners to

commercial radio in London. They would also bring in an attractive 18-

to 25-year-old audience which, from our point of view, is welcome.

Capital delivers some of this audience but not exclusively. We would

welcome the ability to target this audience efficiently and I’m

confident that the Radio Authority will make the right decision.’



Simon Ward, the head of radio at Leo Burnett, points out that there is

plenty of scope for a new station - 29 per cent of the London population

does not listen to commercial radio at all. Like Robertson, he would not

welcome another broad-appeal station. He comments: ‘Some buyers may be

keen to have a new station that reduces Capital’s dominance. London

Atlantic would probably achieve this, but giving it the licence would be

short-sighted.



‘Another mid-market pop or rock station will not add commercial impact.

A totally new format is required. Some of the applications, however,

cater to such a niche audience that they will provide only marginal

unique cover for campaigns. But there are large parts of the music

spectrum that are not served by radio at the moment - new music and

indie, for instance, which both XFM and Festival Radio are offering.

Chris Evans’s the Edge Radio would also make a refreshing change.’



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