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Radio: Local Commercial Stations

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the importance of having locally produced content and services on local commercial radio stations.

My Lords, the Government support a strong and vibrant radio sector encompassing the BBC, commercial and community radio, providing the widest possible choice for listeners. We acknowledge and value the role that local commercial stations play in the provision of national and local news and other local content. Local programming and content requirements for holders of local analogue commercial radio licences are set by Ofcom, the independent regulator, under the existing legislative framework.

I am not as sanguine as the Minister. He will know that large media players have been buying up local commercial radio stations and stripping out hundreds of hours of local programming for that programming to be made in London. We have seen the largest compulsory redundancies in commercial radio as DJs, engineers and producers lose their jobs. How will we maintain this local presence, not just in news, travel and weather, but in proper programme making? Perhaps he can talk to Ofcom about being more proactive or maybe look at how community radio can be developed.

Of course, the noble Lord is right. Not only community radio but commercial radio has seen a massive increase since 2010, when the current regime was bought in. But according to Ofcom’s guidelines, the large commercial radio groups still need to have studios that originate programming within approved local areas. The approved local areas were brought in under the last Labour Government. They will not be able to originate content solely in London. We support local radio in a number of ways and are looking forward, for example, to introducing multiplexes soon for local DAB radio.

My Lords, I spent part of the recent break reading—or rereading—Seven Types of Ambiguity. It occurred to me that chapter 5 of that momentous work dealt with statements in the briefing I received from the radio industry putting forward its case:

“Through technology, stations have the ability to customise the news information they broadcast, irrespective of where the presenters are based”,

which means that we no longer have keep to the same number of stations open. These approved areas can be a pretext behind which we hide the diminution of jobs, of locally based services and of immediate contact with local communities, and can produce and customise in faraway places, with no reporters on site, things that sound as if they are near. Do the Government think that that is really what is behind the slackening of regulation affecting this sector of our life?

The basic issue is that commercial analogue radio faces an enormous challenge from digital services, both online and terrestrial. The changes that have been made by Ofcom to localness were in accordance with listeners’ views. For example, only 17% of respondents to the survey and the consultation thought that locally based presenters were a factor which helped make their station feel local. Ofcom has a requirement to have content made in approved areas, which are local ITV areas, and local news must be produced either hourly or twice a day. If stations have local news only twice a day, they have to produce more locally made content. The greatest factor in whether people listen to local radio is—shock, horror—that it plays the music the listeners like; 72% of respondents said so.

My Lords, I had the privilege, as a very young man, of contributing to the White Paper that brought about commercial radio in this country, and I later applied, unsuccessfully, as it happened, for a franchise. My concern at that time, quite rightly, was that the White Paper and the Government’s legislation made it clear that a local component was very important in establishing these stations, as had previously been the case with ITV and television stations. In both cases, we seem to have lost that, and we now end up with repeat transmitters everywhere and a lot of jobs lost. Does my noble friend agree that the pattern which is still being sustained in BBC local radio stations is enormously important and should be reflected more in future in commercial broadcasting?

The legislation to which my noble friend refers gave the definition of localness to Ofcom, which is the independent regulator. After 10 years, it has updated it to take account of modern listeners’ views and the increase in commercial radio in the digital space. However, stations still have to produce local news at regular intervals throughout the day and should broadcast at least three hours of locally made programming each weekday. If they do not provide local news hourly, they have to broadcast at least six hours of locally made programming each weekday.

My Lords, following on from the idea that a local music station is listened to because people like the music, does the Minister agree that you could make sure it is local by having a local guide to live music, for example? You cannot fake that from London. It would ensure that stations had people on the ground. Would that not be a model going forward?