Regional Media: Merger mania hits radio

Consolidation calls for a balancing act between network strength and local appeal.

Not even the smallest tin-pot radio station in the remotest part of the UK can escape the sweeping tide of consolidation. The recent merger of GWR and Capital Radio created GCap. The UK's largest commercial radio group, with 17 million listeners, GCap listeners account for around 35 per cent of the country's commercial radio audience.

GCap's creation was followed in June by Emap's acquisition of Scottish Radio Holdings and its network of 22 stations. GCap, Emap and Chrysalis make up a triumvirate of heavyweight media owners that accounts for the lion's share of the commercial radio spoils.

There are concerns in the agency world that concentrating media ownership may push up airtime prices. There are also fears it may presage more bland on-air homogeneity that could put off listeners and advertisers. Against this background, advertiser confidence seems a little shaky.

In a trading update at the end of June, GCap announced that business in May was affected by weak consumer confidence and low spend from key advertisers. Year-on-year revenues fell 14 per cent that month. Chrysalis was similarly downbeat. Heart FM's owner announced a 14.5 per cent slump in radio revenues for the three months to the end of May.

"A smaller number of players in the market is a concern," MindShare's head of radio, Howard Bareham, says. "But we haven't yet seen any evidence that they will stop being competitive. Time will tell."

In Bareham's opinion, there will still be a place on schedules for the smaller, local players. He sees them benefiting from advertising placed by retailers and other businesses with a strong local presence. The likes of GCap and Emap, however, are looking to make their radio offer increasingly attractive to national advertisers.

"I think what advertisers are looking for is scale with good audiences," the Emap broadcast sales director, Karen Stacey, says. Consolidation, she argues, offers benefits for the sector. Because there are no longer 18 people around a table, rival media owners can collaborate more efficiently when it is in the interests of the medium.

Stacey cites the sector's response to the tsunami disaster - Radio Aid - as a shining example of how collaboration can deliver something extra.

A few months later, commercial radio stations joined forces again for Leaders Live, whereby they broadcasted interviews with the three main political leaders in the run-up to May's general election. More recently, they teamed up for Live8.

In addition, media owners including GCap, Emap, Chrysalis and Guardian Media Group have discussed producing syndicated programming across their radio networks.

"Radio is still quite a small medium and I hope that we're still hungry to grow it," the GCap managing director of national sales, Duncan George, says. "I hope the national sales operation makes it easier to buy and transact with us. Some advertisers told me that one of the reasons radio was further down their agenda was because it is a fragmented buy."

Unsurprisingly, George can name a number of other advantages GCap's scale can deliver, one being content. GCap's newly created national newsdesk, for instance, gives stations in the group access to content that was previously beyond them.

He does, however, accept that it would be foolish to overwhelm local stations with too much national content. This could damage their identities and their all-important connections with the local community. "There's a balance at local stations between keeping the programming suitably local and deploying some network properties. Too much network programming would probably not be allowed, but in any case we wouldn't do it because it would diminish the localness that listeners want."

Tim McCabe, Vizeum's former head of radio, who quit to join Emap Advertising last month, says sharing the best programming is a good idea. It will, he believes, help the commercial sector in its tussle with the BBC's formidable arsenal of radio brands. But he sees a continuing role for smaller stations and thinks they are often better at manipulating programming to fit in with advertiser needs without "all the restrictions of programming ego" that are found at the bigger media groups.

For Initiative's head of radio, Jonathan Barrowman, consolidation has created "quasi-national properties". Scale, he believes, should give the leading media owners the confidence and revenue to develop discrete audiences and better programming.

Barrowman says he has yet to see this. With the merger still fresh and GCap still busy getting its house in order, Barrowman feels that almost 40 per cent of the radio market is not yet fully operational.

"Service levels aren't great and the structure is still quite complex," he says. "Scale can be problematic when it comes to being flexible. And that's important, because you have to excite clients to raise their awareness and understanding of the medium."

Despite the growth of consolidation and co-operation, the commercial sector still falls short in some respects. The BBC is more successful in reaching older listeners and often beats its commercial rivals in the battle for talent. Take the recent case of the maverick DJ Chris Evans, who joined Radio 2 after extensive discussions with commercial groups.

"Sales points need to get together more to collaborate on creating a platform and selling a show," Barrowman says. "They can attract better talent and create better programmes for advertisers. They came close to getting Chris Evans - it was a shame to see him sign quite publicly for Radio 2."

The ginger mischief-maker slipped through commercial radio's fingers and advertiser confidence seems a little delicate at present. But consolidation allows radio to mount a more serious challenge for a larger share of revenue from national advertisers.

COI Communications, Camelot, BT and Quaker Snack-a-Jacks have used radio heavily in recent months.

For GCap and Emap, the hope is that their enhanced scale and reach will persuade other big brands to beef up their radio spend.

THE 'BIG THREE' COMMERCIAL RADIO PLAYERS Media Number Share of Key regional radio brands owner of total stations listening (%) GCap 54 28 London: Capital, Capital Gold, Xfm, Choice. North West and North East: Century. Central Scotland: Beat 106. Emap 40 23 London: Kiss , Magic. West Midlands: Kerrrang!. Northern England: Big City. Manchester: Key 103. Liverpool: Radio City. Newcastle: Metro Radio. Glasgow: Radio Clyde. Edinburgh: Radio Forth. Belfast: Downtown Radio. Dublin: Today. Chrysalis 12 11 London: LBC, Heart. Midlands: Heart. Manchester, Birmingham, Yorkshire and North East: Galaxy. Source: Media owners.