diamond geezer

 Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Whatever happened to independent local radio?

Yesterday came the news that Heart, Capital and Smooth Radio are to ditch local breakfast shows in favour of national programmes. Heart is merging 22 breakfast shows into one, Capital 14 into one and Smooth 7 into one. All the regional presenters, bar one set each, will be lost. Meanwhile drivetime shows will be merged into much larger regions, only one news story per hour need be 'local', and all other programming will be nationally led. How did we get here?

To try to answer that question, I've dug back in time to try to follow the history of one independent local radio station, specifically that for Bedfordshire. Chiltern Radio were pioneers in adopting the regional opt-out as a cost-cutting measure, as I spotted when I lived there in the 1990s. My local station was on 96.9, but if I retuned slightly I could get Northants 96 from Northampton and if I retuned again I could get Horizon Radio from Milton Keynes. Each had different news and different adverts, but inbetween it seemed they were always playing exactly the same tunes... Lighthouse Family/Natalie Imbruglia/All Saints/commercial break.

Chiltern Radio started out in October 1981, playing to audiences in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Daily programming began with The Holmes & Newman Breakfast Report, followed by Morning To Midday with Phil Fothergill. After lunch came Afternoon Talkabout with Tara Jefferies, which kicked off on day one with an interview with Alan Poole from the Beds District Association of Camping and Caravanning. Later in the day Home Again with Peter Wagstaff promised "traffic and travel, music and news to get you home safely". For a trip down memory lane here's a lovely little tribute website (with a couple of very-80s jingles), and here's a chance to relive the station's early history and first few minutes on YouTube.

Initially the Chiltern Radio Network proved commercially adept, not least in spinning off their news-gathering capability as a competitor for IRN. In 1986 they took over the local radio franchise for Northampton, but weren't overkeen to set up an entire new station so decided to share most of the daytime content apart from the 10am to 2pm slot and separate news bulletins. When severe weather hit in the winter of 1987 Chiltern introduced local snow updates, one per transmitter, and it turned out audiences liked that kind of thing so the opt-outs stayed. Horizon Radio joined the network in 1989, adding Milton Keynes and its environs, and the umbrella title for the network became The Hot FM.

In 1995 came the first takeover. GWR started out as a single radio station in Swindon in 1982, then grew by adding Wiltshire Radio and Bristol's Radio West in 1985. They also ran Classic FM, the first Independent National Radio station, which gave them the buying power to acquire several local stations across East Anglia and the Severn valley. In 1996 GWR decided to rebrand Chiltern as B97, which wasn't a great idea and in 1999 the name returned to Chiltern FM. I remember listening to the schmaltzy Late Night Love with Graham Torrington, intrigued that listeners in Ipswich, Peterborough and Worcester were listening too.

Let's pause to take a look at this map which shows the independent radio stations broadcasting outside London in 1999.

Most of these have been swallowed up over the last 20 years, diminishing the local radio landscape. Note the handful of 'regional stations' marked with a grey diamond. The East Midlands, North West and North East got Century, while Bristol and Yorkshire got Galaxy and the south coast got Wave. I always thought it strange that East Anglia got Vibe FM, a dance music station that never really took off, though it's doing much better now under the Kiss umbrella. The one to watch is of course West Midlands upstart Heart, offering what was then described as a "hot adult contemporary" format.

Chiltern Radio was still a recognisable entity at this time, but that was about to change. In 2005 the GWR group merged with Capital Radio, who'd been pumping out pop radio across London since 1973. Their aggressive expansion began with the acquisition of Birmingham's BRMB in 1993, and further trophies included Southern, Invicta, Fox and Red Dragon. The merged company was called GCap Media, and swiftly lost money, so was taken over in turn by newcomers Global Radio in 2008. They'd just bought the Heart network and were intent on further expansion, which meant Chiltern's days were numbered.

Chiltern Radio's last day was 4th January 2009, after which it was rebranded as Heart and took on a lot more centrally-produced programming. Initially there was one Heart station per transmitter, namely Heart Bedford, Heart Dunstable, Heart Milton Keynes and Heart Northampton, but in 2010 that pretence was dropped and the whole lot was bundled up as Heart Four Counties. There were now only seven hours of local content per day, specifically the breakfast and drivetime shows, plus four hours of local stuff at weekends. As the boss said at the time, "There cannot possibly be 50 good presenters at every station in a particular slot. Why not take the two or three quality class players and put them across the network?”

What's just been announced, thanks to Ofcom's loosening of the definition of local, is a further rationalisation. The newly-approved Anglia region will see Heart Four Counties join up with Heart Cambridgeshire, Heart East Anglia, Heart Essex and the (badly-named) Heart Hertfordshire. By the end of the year they'll become a single station, presumably called Heart Anglia, featuring just three hours of locally-produced drivetime amid 21 hours of national programming. Local now includes anywhere from Milton Keynes to Great Yarmouth or Peterborough to Southend - essentially the radio equivalent of an entire television region. Where once there were a dozen independent stations, now there's barely one.

You'll still hear adverts for your local carpet warehouse and traffic news from up the road, but the presenters will no longer be talking about where you live inbetween the records. Numerous studios are being closed, hundreds of talented presenters and staff are to be laid off, and independent radio is about to become a whole lot less local. Bosses are excited because this means they get to fill the same amount of airtime with a lot fewer resources, plus they get the opportunity to "properly compete with BBC Radio 1 and 2 at breakfast time", because profits and competition is ultimately what it's all about.

What we have here is the irreversible creeping monopolisation of a previously diverse media platform. We've seen it before with regional ITV and local newspapers, where mergers and buyouts ultimately lead to larger and larger groupings and less and less of a local connection. It turns out Chiltern Radio's most valuable resource wasn't its staff but its transmitter, sequentially hijacked by a chain of bigger fish. Shareholders always demand growth, which means the constant need for efficiencies, which results in more and more rationalisation and ultimately leads to Toby Anstis for everyone.

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