Does UK Small-Scale Radio Licensing Need Rethinking?

A recent report by radio consultant David Lloyd to Ofcom says that the UK government should rethink its approach to community and small-scale radio.

In an ideal world it would be nice for us all to have a community radio station with news and information about what is going on in and around the area. However, when you are talking about areas within say a London Borough, my own area – Colindale – has a population of only 17,098 and the nearest bigger area is Hendon with just 18,472 people. The whole Borough of Barnet has a population of 379,691.

Without delving into heaps of statistics, one has to work out what percentage of the population will listen to the radio at all and then how many of those will listen to ‘our’ station.

Would there be sufficient content to make it “local/community” without resorting to playing the Top40? Would it be funded by advertising or by one or more people with deep pockets?

I suppose the cheapest way of providing the service is ‘back-bedroom’ and hiring air-space on something like Shoutcast.

However, time and effort is involved because the local stories would need to be researched and written up. Would presenters want to be paid or would it be voluntary for the love of the community?

Incidentally, we used to have two local newspapers in the Borough. One folded up completely and the other has amalgamated all its titles across the Borough into one. Even after that, they still use stories from other Boroughs — of no great interest for those wanting local news.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when we were campaigning with the Campaign For Independent Broadcasting for an end to monopoly radio in the UK, we strongly believed that the only criteria for the limitation on the number of radio stations in any region or locality should be technical feasibility and commercial viability. I think the same still holds today.

BBC Trashing 13 UK Medium Wave Transmitters

So the BBC has decided to turn off 13 of its Medium Wave radio transmitters.

The BBC is meant to be a public service, so in principle, saving money is good, but not if listeners are deprived from services. However, as MW use in Britain is probably pretty low now, the BBC will likely get away with it this time.

But some of the BBC local stations do occasionally split services to cover things like local sports events on MW only, leaving regular programs on FM. BBC Gloucestershire does this now and then, but I see they are not on the current list to lose MW yet.

I’m not sure how the BBC would get on removing national MW services, e.g. Virgin Radio possibly still has some audience on MW.

The Beeb’s decision is, of course, all to do with cutting transmitter running costs and the smaller but important costs of line-links and transmitter and mast maintenance.

Of course, the longer term issue is what is going to happen to the MW band? The obvious answer I wish for is to see the reworking of these frequencies using digital DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale), which would give all sorts of possibilities … e.g. multiplexing of channels, an emergency alert system for the whole country and some small video content alongside radio.

But, so far, I don’t see any appetite for doing this. The BBC would probably say they could not accept the necessary capital costs and it would need the usual long-term blessing from OFCOM – and we know only too well that they are driven by political people at Westminster, who either don’t really know about the situation, or are driven by thoughts of avoiding expense … especially now when the Government faces huge capital spends reworking hundreds of high rise buildings, etc..

Is there an appetite from entrepreneurs to apply for use of some MW frequencies and start DRM? Somehow I don’t think so. Its not the same situation as in the 1960’s when there was a wide-open opportunity with a huge number of listeners equipped and ready-to-go with conventional MW sets.

It’s unlike India where the government has made the political decision and converted All India Radio to DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) without a huge number of receivers out in the population. They clearly live in hopes of building new receiver business in the country.

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