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