MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON: RADIO REGULATIONS; Why can’t media owners run two FM stations in one area?

Radio owners are asking for more FM opportunity. Alasdair Reid investigates

Radio owners are asking for more FM opportunity. Alasdair Reid


Should radio owners be allowed to shift their gold stations on to the FM

waveband? Media owners argue that the new Broadcasting Bill should give

them this option and have begun lobbying Parliament. The Radio

Authority, however, is implacably opposed and has dropped hints that it

is prepared to lobby just as strenuously as the media owners (Campaign,

last week).

At stake is the rule which stops media owners having two FM franchises

in the same area. They can obviously have an AM and an FM licence - FM,

after all, was once a luxury add-on for stations that had established

themselves on AM. Split services came along in the late 80s, with the

premium station brand sticking to FM, while gold was introduced on AM.

Now media owners argue that the AM waveband is fast becoming a redundant

technology - the wireless equivalent of vinyl albums. Why shouldn’t gold

stations be allowed to complete radio’s migration to high-quality

airwaves? Wouldn’t a change in the rules benefit advertisers?

Bill Kinlay, media director of the Network, thinks not. ‘When split

frequencies happened less than ten years ago people looked pretty

closely at the services proposed, their target audiences and the

preferences of those target audiences,’ he points out. ‘The older, more

downmarket audiences for gold stations prefer AM. Moving to FM wouldn’t

gain listeners and you would risk losing many.’

But media owners point out that gold stations are in head-to-head

competition with BBC Radio 2, which just happens to be on FM - to its

advantage. And anyway, FM is the waveband of the future. The change will

have to be made at some point. Why not now?

This view cuts no ice with the Radio Authority. It argues that the

current rules guarantee plurality and diversity of output and stop media

owners being able to obtain - and then abuse - regional advertising


‘We agree that FM is where everyone will want to be in the future,’

Keith Robertshaw, an associate director of the Media Centre, says. ‘AM

audiences are in long-term decline. But from an advertiser’s point of

view, we wouldn’t be keen to see a reduction in competition. When you

have no choice but to go to a single contractor, that has obvious

implications for airtime rates. If it got to the stage where there were

many FM licences available in each area, then we’d have no objection to

one company owning two of them.’