MEDIA FORUM: Should the Radio Authority be more imaginative? Boss FM’s triumph over a strong field to win the North-west radio franchise will not set many pulses racing. Should we expect the Radio Authority to live a bit more dangerously? Or has i

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.

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

Authority.



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

and chat?



We’ll see. But should we demand more imagination from the Radio

Authority?



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

universe.



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

radio.’



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.’



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