Community Media Discussion – Media Bill and Community Radio

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At our community media discussion from 6pm on Tuesday 18th April, we are hosting an open discussion about the recently published Media Bill. This legislation will introduce significant changes to UK radio and television broadcasting, that will reduce the protection given to local services, and allow stations to change their content as they see fit. Will deregulation of commercial radio result in more consolidation and fewer suppliers in the market? Will content become more brand-focussed, with local communities and places reduced to a message board, with no direct input to programming? What will be the knock-on effect for community radio? Join us for an open conversation as we think about how to respond to the draft legislation and scope out what the best way to ensure media plurality, diversity of supply and independent creative input can be put back into local radio.

Tickets can be booked from Eventbrite.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has published its long-awaited Media Bill, which lays out several important reforms to the UK media which are said to be essential as listeners and viewers move from broadcast television and radio services to on-demand platforms. As ever with any proposed legislation, there are good parts and bad parts to these proposals, and I want to give my immediate reaction to the proposals before I speak with colleagues about what the impact might be if these changes become law.

Let’s start with a good positive. The proposal to bring video-on-demand services in line with television regulation, by having an on-demand media code, similar to the Broadcast Code, is long overdue. Online television-like services such as Netflix, Prime and Paramount, aren’t presently held accountable with the same duties that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are bound by, which are designed to protect the public from material that is harmful in nature, and to give an essential balance to coverage of matters of public controversy.

The Broadcast Code is generally effective and gives a sense to members of the public that broadcasters can be trusted. We might disagree with some of the decisions and the way Ofcom goes about handling complaints, but overall, the sense of fairness that the Broadcast Code promotes is one thing that stops British television becoming an arena of hate and antagonism. If you want biased content, pick up a newspaper or follow your favourite commentator on social media. Having a standard set for ‘television-like’ content is something I’d welcome.

Where I am less happy with the Media Bill can be summed-up in the phrase ‘market-deregulation’, which in my view can only lead to disaster. Has the UK government learnt nothing from the mess that deregulation caused in the financial industry? Actually, it is a misnomer to call this legislation deregulatory, as the opposite will result, and we will see a super-concentration of ownership and restricted supply of only a handful of media incumbents, as any remaining requirements for diversity of supply and guarantees of local content production get watered down.

In the legislation as it stands, public service content providers will see reductions in their present duties to provide a specific number of hours of programmes locally. This will be changed so that the amount the service provider spends is considered. So, by focussing on one single commission that uses the entire budget of the broadcaster, and then recycling and regurgitating the remaining ninety-nine percent of airtime that is left, a public service broadcaster will be able to claim they are meeting their minimum requirements to originate content locally and from independent producers.

Any widespread of programmes that are produced and originated locally are going to vanish, and will be replaced by internationally produced dross. Any chance of building and nurturing local production will be lost to the likes of Disney and Netflix, as the quality of local production drops, and the corporations pull-in the skilled and creative producers. The reason we have protections for local production to prevent imbalances in the geographic availability of certain services. Or have the people who drafted this bill not read their own Levelling Up legislation?

I’m even more concerned about radio, and the effect that the Media Bill will have on the diversity of service provision. A healthy market and a healthy democracy are dependent on a diversity of supply. Unfortunately, recently we’ve seen how the major international corporate radio networks have been allowed to centralise and homogenise their platforms with hardly a murmur from Ofcom. This bill will remove any requirements for a local production, and will instead allow for content that is made centrally, with drop-ins of localised news and information.

It is entirely possible after a few years following this bill becoming law that only a few local radio stations will exist outside of London. Everything else will be provided from a central production facility, which is then repackaged and marketed as local content. This means standardised products and services, built around celebrities and brands, with no local input from people who actually live in an area, who will have no way to meaningful shape any of this homogenised content to local needs. These consolidated stations aren’t competing any longer with other radio stations. Instead, they are competing with the international streaming media companies, like Spotify, Apple and YouTube.

The radio advertising market is worth £750 million in the UK, but most of it goes to only a handful of service providers. As this money is bled-out of local communities, any locally produced content will soon become a distant memory. As proposed in this bill, stations will be allowed to change their character of service to suit their own needs. Expect copycat services to target specific audiences based on their spending power and the marketing pressure of the major brands. As has happened with our supermarkets, everything will be replicated the same everywhere. No doubt this content will be super-convenient, but none of it will be local or nutritious.

I wouldn’t mind the commercial stations doing this if this was being proposed in the full glare of the market forces, but that’s not going to be the case. The proposal in the Media Bill is to allow stations to run on endlessly, and for them to never be readvertised. How will new competitors come into this marketplace? Are we simply giving away this scarce resource as a licence to print money? This is compounded as the bill also enshrines the ability of the government to subsidise content production by giving commercial stations and platforms free content that they claim not to be able to make on their own. You can’t have it both ways. Either you have the freedom of the market, or you have the protection of the government because the service you provide will not survive if it is not supported and provided with investment.

There are many community radio stations that won’t survive if they are expected to face the onslaught of market forces and ‘monetise’ their services. Why commercial radio stations need state subsidy to produce content is beyond me, but this legislation will pave the way for the closing of the Community Radio Fund, which will be replaced by a new version of the Audio Content Fund, which saw the majority of its subsidies go to commercial services.

The elephant in the room, however, is the proposed digital switch off, and while the draft Bill doesn’t provide a date for when this should happen, it does say that Ofcom must divert any proposed new radio services towards the DAB platforms first: regardless of their suitability; regardless of the availability of sets; regardless of the wishes of the audiences being served; regardless of the geographic challenge of getting high-quality and sustainable signals to people; and regardless of the blocking and interference that is leaving gaping holes in coverage for many people.

For disclosure, I help with the Coventry and Leicester SSDAB multiplexes, and for eighty percent of the population of these places they are fine, but the coverage is limited and restricted by Ofcom due to the ‘forty percent rule’. It’s further restricted by the number of people who actually own a DAB+ set, which is miniscule compared to AM and FM radios. From a pragmatic perspective, why are we even contemplating switching off AM and FM radio? The frequencies will not be used by anyone else.

If the corporates want to come off these platforms and got to DAB and Online only, that’s great, but small, independent and local providers who would like to use the FM and AM spectrum that is available should have the right and support of the government and the regulator to do so. I favour diversity of supply, plurality of types of service provision, and allowing people to choose which service suits them best. I can only assume that the Media Bill in its present form is the result of the government speaking for industry interests first, and citizens and consumers second. There is some good stuff in this bill, but there are some truly dreadful things in it as well.

I’m dedicating the next Community Media Discussion session to the impact that the bill will have on community radio. Taking place at 6pm on Tuesday 18th of April, register for a free place on the Zoom call via Eventbrite.