Remember Viva Radio? No, of course you don’t. Not as such. The
women’s interest station was a cause celebre in some quarters, had a
certain amount of notoriety in others and also provoked the odd snigger.
But no-one actually listened to it. Now it (perhaps more accurately, the
frequency it occupied) is called Liberty, is owned by the
arch-conspiracy theorist, Mohamed Al Fayed, and is about to undergo yet
another relaunch, this time as a station featuring rather a lot of 70s
music and a little bit of chat. Chat, of course, being the sort of stuff
that cheery pop-pickers indulge in between cappuccinos.
Yet Viva is perhaps worth remembering, if for no other reason than it
represents the high-water mark of flair and daring at the Radio
When it comes to handing out new radio licences, the authority has two
main duties: to make sure that the winning application is viable and to
extend listener choice.
Not so long ago, the majority view (not just within the authority but
across the radio industry as a whole) was that these two notions were
not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Quite the reverse, in fact. New
formats would attract new audiences to radio which, in turn, would mean
more revenue for the medium. Result? Bliss.
That was before Viva. Now the expectation is that extending listener
choice means flirting with all things dubious and dangerous, even
perverse which, in turn, means the listener inevitably chooses not to
exercise his or her new listening choice. Result? Misery. Worse that
that: red faces all round at the Radio Authority.
And even when it takes a minor risk, like giving a London FM licence to
the indie rock station, Xfm, the gesture can seemingly backfire - Rajar
figures released last week show that Xfm, which launched last September,
has achieved a meagre 2 per cent reach.
Last week, the Radio Authority finally awarded the new North-west radio
licence and the lucky winner was Boss FM, a consortium headed by Border
television’s BRH subsidiary. The new station will adopt the successful
format developed by Century Radio, owned by the same company, for its
North-east franchise - a ’presenter led’ peaktime schedule comprising 60
per cent music and 40 per cent speech. Sound familiar? Yet more chart
We’ll see. But should we demand more imagination from the Radio
Is its caution holding back the medium, especially its ability to steal
audience from the BBC?
Many in the industry believe that the problem is actually far worse.
The authority is not just on a different planet but in another
According to David Fletcher, the head of radio at CIA MediaNetwork, the
main worry is that its real agenda is all about plurality of ownership.
’On balance, the authority looks to favour new entrants to the radio
industry,’ he says. ’And that isn’t exactly good for the industry,
whatever editorial formats are involved.
’We all know that radio is a minority sport at the best of times and, if
a new station can’t rely on collegiate back-office support, it can
quickly find its head under water. Arguments about economies of scale do
pertain. What you don’t ever really want to do is do business with a
company that’s likely to go bust any minute. So I think, in that respect
at least, a conservative attitude is actually a good thing.’
Sally Oldham, the managing director of Capital Radio, agrees that the
aims and ambitions of the commercial radio industry appear to be the
last things on the authority’s mind. Plurality of ownership does seem to
be high on its agenda; like Fletcher, she argues that true choice can
only really be delivered by quality companies.
She states: ’Future growth is about taking the fight to the BBC but it’s
not as simple as saying new formats will attract new audiences to
commercial radio. It’s about quality of operator and critical mass. The
radio industry has a vested interest in having successful licences.
Success is about developing the audience and being able to take revenue
from the fact you have that audience, while still being able to look at
the bigger picture.
I don’t think that the Radio Authority shares our vision of the
commercial radio industry.’
Oldham suggests that some of the authority’s decisions have led to
cynical commodity trading in radio licences - some have even been bought
and sold before services go on air. Others, like Melody Radio (currently
being auctioned), are put on the block after a few years by companies
with little more than a passing interest in the medium. The authority
should be more favourably disposed to players that will stay in the
market and support the industry.
She would also like to see different types of licence up for grabs. ’We
need more regional and national licences on offer - with bigger licences
the rewards would be bigger, economies of scale greater and companies
could take more risks. The aim of the industry should be to grow
revenue. That’s not the authority’s view. We would like to see it
sharing our vision and helping us with our goals.’
Cathy Lowe, head of radio at New PHD, agrees: ’The authority is cautious
but you could argue that the Boss format doesn’t already exist in the
region. I’ve yet to be convinced that Boss will add to the commercial
radio audience as a whole. The major players are bidding a lot of money
for Melody and might suspect that, in a couple of years, Boss might do
what Melody is doing and sell to the highest bidder. That’s not
something the Radio Authority thinks about when it awards licences; some
of its decisions are not in the best long-term interests of commercial
Neil Webster, the sales director of London News Radio, also believes
broader issues are at stake. He comments: ’Boss FM does increase
listener choice. Century has worked well in the North-east and the
format will do well here. It is an underserved market. Some of the other
applicants would quite clearly have cannibalised the existing commercial
audience. However, I believe scarcity of licences is the real issue the
industry has to address.’