Media Forum: Is Radio Council good news?

Should advertisers welcome the new radio venture, Alasdair Reid asks.

It's rather mind-numbing to reflect that, a mere matter of months ago, we were all still banging on about putting the BBC "back in its box". Some box. Now the corporation not only roams free, but is master of all it surveys and holds the future of most commercially funded media in its gift.

In television, we've not only seen Channel 4 going cap in hand to its former adversary, but also ITV accelerating its efforts to wriggle free of regional news commitments - provided the BBC agrees to take up much of the slack.

A proposed regional news joint venture could also see the BBC using its licence-fee-derived resources to help out regional newspaper groups. Soon, you suspect, all communications channels will be run by a Ministry of Media, with the director-generalship of the BBC made up to a full cabinet position.

Because, last week, it was radio's turn. Commercial radio interests (including Global Radio, Bauer Media, Guardian Media Group and RadioCentre) are to join forces with the BBC to form The Radio Council, which will aim to "lead a range of partnership initiatives ... bringing the industry together to secure radio's interests in the digital age".

Already on the agenda are several projects: one, to develop an open platform radio version of the BBC's iPlayer; another to create an electronic programme guide for listeners across all digital platforms; and a third to commission digital-only content that will help popularise listening on these platforms.

Not so very long ago, commercial radio's future was predicated on taking audience share from the BBC. This new initiative, its most stringent critics will argue, is surely an admission that the game is up and that the commercial radio business, having suffered a more torrid time recently than most media sectors, has decided to content itself with becoming a rather curious sideshow.

So, should advertisers welcome the advent of The Radio Council? Andrew Harrison, the chief executive of RadioCentre, thinks so. He points out that the new body intends to consult with the Government in the appointment of a chief executive to head up Lord Carter's Digital Radio Delivery Group.

Part of the Digital Britain initiative, the DRDG will focus on developing a timetable for analogue switch-off - and many believe that radio must become a wholly digital medium if it is to have any hope of commercial growth. "This initiative kick-starts our collective approach to ensuring radio's digital future," Harrison says.

Which is clearly laudable, Dominic Woolfe, the director of radio at Starcom, agrees - but the new body has to get it right. He explains: "If it can, it will be good news for the radio industry. I don't think it has been good, historically, where digital has been concerned, for the commercial sector to have one view and the BBC another - and the success of DAB is ultimately linked with a commitment to a switchover date.

"Radio needs to stop being so apologetic - and if we saw more progress on standardising digital delivery platforms, there might be more optimism about audiences."

Which is pretty much how Louise Reid, an associate director of Maxus, sees things too. She comments: "Digital is still important for the future of commercial radio - and, a year ago, perhaps people were right to be worried about the viability of DAB. The Council will put new momentum behind it - and other digital developments will be positive too. If it gets it right, the Council will help grow listenership and that will definitely benefit commercial radio."

And Tom Drummond, the head of radio at Initiative, concludes: "We are seeing the radio industry focusing itself again, both commercially and on the BBC side - and part of that focus must be establishing a clear path for digital. Digital gives people more choice, which can ultimately be beneficial for commercial radio audiences."

YES - Andrew Harrison, chief executive, RadioCentre

"We will remain competitors for listeners with the BBC - and RadioCentre will continue to lobby for freedom to compete on level terms - but we recognise that we need to work together to deliver a thriving radio sector."

MAYBE - Dominic Woolfe, director of radio, Starcom

"In an ideal world, commercial radio would be able to take audience share from the BBC - but I think we should also acknowledge that the BBC is very good at what it does."

YES - Louise Reid, associate director, Maxus

"This should help move radio forward into the 21st century - and I can't see it diminishing the competitive nature of the marketplace. The Council will help the whole medium, provided it's careful and doesn't rush into things."

YES - Tom Drummond, head of radio, Initiative

"I believe it's important for the BBC and commercial radio to come together to promote DAB in particular. I don't think this compromises the fight for listeners in any way - and I find it encouraging that the radio industry is working towards some common purpose."

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