Media Bill - The End of Local Radio?

Originally published at:

The Media Bill has now been published on the UK Parliament website. The bill proposes sweeping reforms to the legislative framework regulating public service broadcasters (PSBs) and other providers, including TV and radio broadcasters, digital content selection platforms, and smart devices.[i] The bill aims to reform broadcasting law to enable the UK’s public service broadcasters to better compete with the global streaming giants, such as Apple, Netflix and Amazon.[ii]

The Media Bill will make long-term changes that will affect viewers and listeners across the UK, who want to continue to access public service television and radio content as technology changes.[iii] The proposed Media Bill is part of the government’s legislative agenda before the next general election.[iv] The bill also makes provision to protect UK radio’s availability on voice-activated smart speakers, while reducing the oversight that Ofcom has in determining that character of radio services in different places.[v]

During the evidence phase of the inquiry into the draft bill, the written and oral evidence indicated that the measures relating to radio are the most contentious aspects. In particular, the evidence highlighted differing views relating to the interaction between radio stations and radio selection platforms. The bill introduces new rules for the prominence of public service Video on Demand and other internet-delivered content on television platforms, and attempts to do the same for radio.[vi]

The bill proposes to fully deregulate the provision of local radio, by allowing existing radio services to change their format whenever they wish, and to remove any obligation for Ofcom to ensure that each area in the UK is served by a range of services. The expectation is that radio listening will continue to shift to online and onto digital platforms, with traditional analogue forms of broadcasting being phased out in a ‘digital switchover’. We are entering a post-scarcity media age, and broadcasting is only one option among many, so does not need to be regulated in the way that it was in the past. The argument is that the market will decide.

However, the market isn’t expected to operate openly and transparently, hence the need to mandate smart speakers to offer all UK-licensed radio stations by law.[vii] The bill aims to bolster the presence of UK radio on smart speakers and other media platforms, such as smart-TVs, so they don’t get left behind in a global marketplace. 

The Media Bill follows up on a draft bill presented to parliament in March. It intends to remove any remaining obligations and commitments by the large commercial providers to offer a range of services and content. Supposedly, this is a about ripping up decades-old red tape that is said to hold back commercial stations.[viii] However, some, Like Better Media and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer are concerned that if the legislation removes protections that only benefits the suppliers, then citizens and consumers may no longer be able to access universal radio services, or expect a diverse range of services in each area.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee backed the Media Bill’s measures to deregulate radio, and agrees with the intention that stations should focus on a much narrower set of duties, for example, simply providing local news and information, rather than local non-news content.[ix] This means that radio services can be provided that are brand-led, such as Capital, Absolute, Heart or Greatest Hits, who will no longer be required to be produced and delivered from a specific area or place.

The gathering of news, for example, can be done through virtual hubs, with little provision for locally journalists employed to work in specific areas, who will live and operate in any of the specific places that the radio stations purports to represent. It is entirely feasible that news will be harvested by AI systems, and then reported by those AI systems in a local accent and with local pronunciation of place names, all from a server farm in South London, with no human interaction, analysis, or investigation ever taking place by actual journalists.

Section five of the bill covers the changes being made to existing legislation, such as the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Communications Act 2003. Section five specifies how changes will be made to the regulation of broadcast radio services in the UK. The explanatory notes indicate that:

Ofcom will no longer be obliged to provide for a diversity of national, regional or local analogue (i.e. AM/FM) services, or to ensure there is any range and diversity of local analogue services. This obligation is being removed because it is expected that digital diversity has increased the range of national and local services that are now available via digital means. This change will give Ofcom the power to decide whether to re-license any analogue frequency which may be vacated over the coming years, as radio broadcasters, who may wish to focus on DAB digital radio and online distribution, choose to shut down their analogue services to save money.

The bill retains an expectation that at some point a digital switchover of radio services, from analogue to digital, will take place, and makes provision for Ofcom to be flexible and extend existing licences without the need for further legislation. However, it’s concerning that after nearly twenty years of discussing an analogue switch off for radio, that we are no way near an acceptable threshold for a digital switchover. Indeed, BBC Radio 2 still has forty percent of its listeners tuning in on FM. If the BBC can’t get this figure up after more than twenty years of DAB transmission, what chance is there of shifting to digital platforms?

The bill gives Ofcom the power to decide how “applications for a radio broadcast licence must be made”, and removes the previous requirements, including the publication of a notice, on how such applications should be processed. According to the guidance notes accompanying the Bill, this reflects the expectation that in coming years there are likely to be very few occasions where Ofcom will need to hold a competition for any analogue local independent radio licence, given that nearly all licences will be eligible for renewal because they already provide a local digital service.

However, the bill will require Ofcom to impose a licence condition on any radio station who intends to apply for an analogue only licence, requiring the station to nominate a suitable multiplex service as soon as it is reasonably possible to do so. This means that anyone who presently has, or who wishes to apply for an analogue licence, must also commit to running a digital service, and apply for an equivalent licence at the earliest opportunity.

  • It’s difficult to understand what ‘suitable’ will actually mean in practice?
  • Does this mean that a digital service has an equivalent reception profile and use value to listeners?
  • Or, does it simply mean that there are DAB services in an area that can be utilised?
  • What if the cost of accessing a multiplex if prohibitive compared to FM and AM coverage?
  • What if the reception profile is not the same, as digital signals can be blocked from reaching indoor domestic sets?
  • What about the power consumption that’s required to use a DAB compared to an analogue receiver?
  • DAB sets are still relatively expensive when compared to analogue receivers, requiring more batteries for longer?

How this can be policed is not clear, given that digital services do not presently match the provision of analogue services. Who will decide this, and what happens if a station never goes digital? Perhaps this proposal should just be dropped.

The next area of concern is the relaxing of rules about the character of services that stations agree to when they are awarded a licence. The bill will remove the requirement for local radio licences to include conditions for securing the character of the licensed service. This means that local radio stations will no longer have to commit, and then adhere, to conditions in their licences requiring them to broadcast specific genres of content, or target a particular age group, what’s called the ‘format’. Instead, stations will be required to carry local news and information; however, this is gathered and produced. Perhaps radio news bulletins will carry a disclaimer in the future – ‘no journalists were involved in the production of this news content!’

In addition, Ofcom will no longer be required to review who owns and runs a station because once the service has decided to change the character of its local service, there is no reason any longer to specify who can and can’t control the service. Basically, this means that the large network providers can get rid of all the small stations and their separate companies, and homogenise each service into one national management company. The bill is based on the idea that it is no longer ‘proportionate’ to expect local ownership and control of local stations. The only local content will be branding and local news and information, the rest of the service can be managed centrally and from a distance.

To maintain some level of local specificity for radio, the bill will reframe the localness requirements on local commercial radio services [Note: The Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Communications Act 2003 do not refer to Commercial Radio, but to Independent Radio, why the framers of the legislation can’t use the terms defined in law is not clear]. Ofcom would retain some power to apply a localness test in very specific cases, but it is not made clear in the guidance what that test would be based on.

Ofcom’s only obligation in the future will be to “ensure the services include, and regularly broadcast, programmes consisting of or including local news and information (such as traffic/travel/weather/what’s on/local events), and to require that “local news to include locally gathered news.”  Ofcom will no longer have the power to require that stations provide non-news local material (e.g. spoken material or music). It is said in the guidance notes that this “reflects the fundamental importance of news and information to listeners”, but no reference is made to the research that prompts this claim.

There is an acknowledgement that radio plays an essential role in “ensuring plurality within the local news sector”. However, Ofcom will no longer be required to impose any requirements on stations to ensure they provide a “certain amount of programming from a studio within their coverage area”. Apparently, this is to provide stations with increased flexibility in terms of where to produce their content, though it seems to me that this is an abandonment of any commitment to local origination of content.

The Media Bill removes any specification that requires stations to directly employ journalists to gather this local news, but allows, instead, “for the possibility of, for example, a station entering into a relationship with a newspaper, agency or freelance journalist who gathers news in the local area”.

None of these restrictions apply, of course, to the DAB stations, where there is already flexibility to change the character of services as the station wishes. The bill inserts a new section into the Communication Act 2003 giving the Secretary of State the power to enable OFCOM to “ensure that at least one local digital radio service in a local multiplex area carries local news and information” on each multiplex. According to the guidance:

“Currently, there are no localness requirements applying to local digital services though, in practice, many existing digital radio services will be simulcast versions of analogue stations carrying local news and information. As the market evolves, it is likely that increasing numbers of stations will decide to cease transmitting over analogue and provide a broadcast service solely over digital. In the event this results in a lack of local news and information, new section 315A allows the Secretary of State to extend localness requirements to digital radio. For example, OFCOM could be required to impose conditions in local radio multiplex licences requiring the multiplex operator to carry at least one digital radio service carrying local news and information, or to reserve capacity on the multiplex for a radio service carrying local news or information.”

If a digital switch-off ever happens, and feasibly this might be a rolling-switch off as the plug is pulled on the local FM and AM services, then only one news provider in any area will be carried on each regional multiplex. This may be in addition to the BBC, but as we have seen this year, the BBC is taking an axe to Local Radio in England and reducing dedicated programming for local radio news. So much for protecting the plurality of supply with such minimal stipulations.

Several observations occurred to me after reading this part of the Media Bill:

  • Any mention of a digital switch-off should be expunged from the bill, guidance, and policy. Digital radio listening in the UK has not reached a viable threshold to justify forcing people to ditch their FM and AM sets entirely.
  • The rise of streaming via smart speakers and television sets, will soon be supplemented by IP-based broadcast-style content distribution, which this bill does not address.
  • If a suitable alternative digital platform that matches the reach, accessibility, cost, and reliability of AM and FM broadcasting, then it should be considered.
  • No viable alternative use of the FM and AM spectrum has ever been proposed. If this spectrum is not used, it will lie fallow.
  • The UK has international obligations to make efficient use of available broadcast spectrum, including analogue radio, which is still recognised internationally as a viable media platform.
  • The thresholds and protections for analogue broadcasting in the UK were last defined in the 1940s to provide high-quality indoor coverage. If these thresholds can be modernised and brought into line with many European practices, then significant additional spectrum on AM and FM would be available.
  • If Ofcom is no longer obliged to act as if radio spectrum is scarce, then it can use the powers provided in this bill to enable on-demand licencing for local independent and community stations, and increase the potential for supply.
  • A market-competitive test needs to be applied to the measures in this bill, to ensure that market flexibility and innovation are being maximised, supporting potential future growth through the diversification of supply. This means ending simulcasting and allowing new market entrants to provide services where they see fit as the spectrum is freed-up.
  • The intention of the Digital Radio Action Plan in 2010, was for local independent and community services to remain on FM/AM and large-scale providers to move to DAB. This should remain the aim.
  • Any obligation on any services to sign a commitment with Ofcom as a licence requirement to seek broadcast on either digital or analogue platforms should be scrapped because they are meaningless in a post-scarcity and deregulated market.
  • Obligations for carriage online, and the visibility of services is governed as much by international corporations acting in their own business interests, as it is a matter for UK citizens. We should not give up platforms that are tired and tested and lose control of them in a game of cat and mouse with the global tech giants.
  • All simulcasting of DAB and analogue services must end in the name of market diversification, allowing the potential supply of locally focussed and derived stations to come forward on FM and AM as they see fit, and according to the wishes of people in each place.
  • Demand for FM and AM services has been stymied by Ofcom as it introduces Small-Scale DAB, and a significant period has passed since any competitively awarded licences have been awarded. Perhaps it is time for all FM and AM services to be put out to tender and readvertised?

To obtain the deregulated market freedoms that are at the heart of this bill, there should be no residual monopolisation or protectionism over other parts of the spectrum. DAB services providers should not have any kind of veto on what services can be carried on FM or AM. The principle of plurality and diversity of supply should be applied separately to each platform, with any residual requirement for simulcasting removed, and as licences become available, they should be opened to expressions of interest from both independent and community providers.

In addition to issues of market supply, there are issues for citizenship, security and democratic accountability that this bill affects. This is not the benign and simple cutting of red tape that it is made to appear, but will have significant implications for public communications in years to come. Many people rely on radio and enjoy radio as their primary means of communication. Just because a new service comes along and makes promises of something exciting, does not mean that it is sustainable, of positive benefit, or likely to improve our collective wellbeing. I have serious reservations about this bill because it amounts to giving away too much power to unaccountable business and vested interests.