The UK is de-regulating commercial radio – here’s what you need to know

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

The UK’s commercial radio industry is about to get probably the biggest shakeup of its life.

Commercial radio in the UK is comparatively new – it only started in 1973. Until then, the country had four national radio stations provided by the BBC – a part-time top40 station that launched in 1967 (Radio 1), a more adult light music station (Radio 2), classical music on Radio 3 and news and drama on Radio 4. There were a few local BBC stations by this time, but not that many. The 1960s pirate radio ships playing a diet of pop music had, mostly, disappeared by this time.

In came what was known then as Independent Local Radio. Commercial stations – one per city (two in London) were heavily regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Studios had to be built to exacting standards. Transmitters were provided by the regulator. The output was forensically checked – every schedule change had to be communicated to the IBA, and there needed to be all kinds of specialist music programmes, drama and long news bulletins. The amount of ads were limited by law (which had the happy benefit of keeping advertising costs high because of demand). Most importantly, the type of music that you played during the day was carefully monitored. “All things to all listeners” was the official view. You’d think that the stations weren’t very popular with this kind of programming: but in fact, stations were massive, easily commanding 50% share in many cases.

This large amount of regulation carried on right through the 1980s and into 1990. And then came a slow amount of deregulation. Additional stations were allowed, including some national and regional services and additional, smaller licences. Stations could now run as many commercials as they wanted.

In 2017, the UK has a set of still quite tight regulations for FM radio. Format flips are still sort of forbidden, there is a quite large amount of local programming required, and there are rules about where the studios can be based and the level of local news. DAB radio (which has a market share of 32.9%) is much less regulated – with a requirement for the multiplex owner to ensure variety of choice.

The other week, on World Radio Day, the UK government has just published what it calls a consultation paper on plans to remove almost all of the onerous regulation. There will be a requirement for local news, weather and traffic information; but stations can now play whatever music they want, network as much as they like, and close as many studio buildings as they want to. The commercial radio industry’s voice, Radiocentre, has welcomed the move – hardly surprisingly.

The doom-mongers, of which there are many, point to the almost inevitable threat of a significant amount of job losses. Those who prefer to see the glass half-full are happy to see more revenue being freed-up to innovate with, rather than to tick boxes. But there’s certainly many people who remember radio as it used to be, and bemoan the change.

There are many opportunities offered by this new legislation; and perhaps new ways for radio to continue reinventing itself in an increasingly global world. The radio advertising market is continuing to grow in the UK, and, unlike the US, foreign ownership of commercial radio is acceptable under the law.

There is nothing more constant than change, as a Greek philosopher once said. The next few years will be interesting indeed.
 

About The Author

James Cridland is a radio futurologist: a writer, speaker and consultant on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business across the world.

A former radio presenter, James has worked for stations and companies across the world, including the original Virgin Radio in London, the BBC, Futuri Media, Imagination Technologies and Seven Network. He has judged many industry awards, including the CBAA, ABC Local Radio, RAIN and the UK’s ARIAS.

He writes for publications across the world, and runs media.info the worldwide media information website. He also runs a free weekly newsletter with news of radio’s future.  

British by birth, James lives in Brisbane, QLD and is a fan of craft beer.

 

Photo: Cridland

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