Opinion piece – Martin Campbell on regulation

Martin Campbell, Media Advisor with MediaObjectives and former Chief Advisor (Radio) to Ofcom writes about this week’s proposals for radio deregulation.

The clue is in the title. “Radio Released From Shackles.” That was how the government headed its press release on the de-regulation of commercial radio. You have to admit it appears to smack of more than a little subjectivity.

If regulation in radio’s case equals shackles, and DCMS have clearly decided it does, then it is also clear that the forthcoming “consultation” on radio’s future is unlikely to create an obstacle to the lifting of all but a few requirements on local commercial radio. News, travel and traffic news virtually stand alone as must-haves.

So, one can assume the die is cast, but there are a couple of things to be considered before Ofcom’s paper on the regulation of commercial radio is nodded through, as a past Shackles-in- Chief at Ofcom you might consider my worries are based on a desire to go back to Golden Ages and heavier regulation. Far from it. I have argued for reform for years… and broadly agree with the well-argued points already made by David Lloyd on the present pressure on stations.

I urge caution for many reasons, though. Not least is the investment situation. It is clear that civil servants have swallowed the industry mantra that regulation has prevented them from investment in the past. Disingenuous does not start to begin to describe that stance. Apart from one or two notable and welcome exceptions almost every plea for regulatory change over the years has resulted in cut-backs in both staff and content and big groups just getting bigger.

It is interesting to note that the Radiocentre, representing much of the industry, has described the government move as “long awaited.” By the Radiocentre certainly.

There the search for happy campers ends. In neither Ofcom’s paper nor the government quotes is there any glimpse of what the landscape might look like when the dust settles. Does DCMS really believe they are preparing the way for a thousand flowers to bloom (to mis-quote Chairman Mao), or that all of a sudden the investment tap will gush? I don’t have all the answers, but I think we can happily discount both the above.

So what will we get? Whatever else happens, we know we will lose what variety is left in local commercial radio, because variety is all that is left for content regulation to protect. The number one truism I learned from my time in regulation is that if you don’t regulate for it you probably won’t get it. So expect fewer owners, less variety and complete desertion of over 50s and probably over 40s. It makes things easier for the commercial industry – and once again the BBC will be expected to take up the slack and fill the gaps. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but has anyone actually discussed with the BBC how it might have to react to any radio sea change in its sister sector? I doubt it. It’s the vision thing and there appears to be little here that is, in the parlance, joined up.

When the BBC is put under the microscope in such circumstances, difficult questions will be asked about audience distribution and its role when commercial radio has ring-fenced its most lucrative and tightly corralled audience to the exclusion of all others.

The UK, and England in particular, has long lost the intended commercial local radio ‘feel’ in most areas, and my second regulatory truism is ‘When it’s gone it’ll never come back’. Localness has long disappeared from most areas. The fact that stations often point to examples of localness is clear evidence that it has to be sought out these days rather than be regarded as a given. So, if de-regulation is not bringing back localness what is it doing?

Certainly it is allowing station owners to juggle services and businesses. I cannot think of any listener benefits here. And such is the nature of de-regulation. Minister Matt Hancock is quoted as saying “Under our new proposals we will be giving local radio stations more freedom and flexibility to meet the needs of listeners across the country.” I see little evidence of that, but do expect local DJs to be labelled an endangered species as the local spotlight switches to community radio.

However, herein lies more irony. Community radio stations are re-living the nightmare of commercial radio’s over-regulated years. They are going out of business daily, unable or unwilling to deliver the rashly-made over-inflated on-air and off-air promises which won them their licence awards. Many of these operators are clearly confused and feel helpless.

I would at least hope that de-regulation is linked with the length of commercial radio licences if the licences themselves become so stress-free to own. Promises made and broken in the award of these lucrative licences in the past have left a trail of broken hearts and wallets. Many businessmen who fought and lost ‘beauty parade’ battles to obtain such frequencies will feel cheated by a straight hand-over of regulation-free businesses.

They will be asking what has happened to Ofcom’s duty to make the best use of radio frequencies.

Consideration of Ofcom’s duties brings us to another hazy area. If Ofcom does not have to ensure variety in commercial radio then that needs a change in primary legislation.

It won’t have escaped many people’s notice that Brexit is preparing to eat up a fair amount of government preparation and consideration time. Broadcast Exit may not get to the table any time soon. It is unlikely Ministers can be persuaded that it is of such import that it should be given much priority at a time of such upheaval.

Particularly if one should venture to ask : “What’s it all about?”

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