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Government opens consultation on relaxing rules for local radio in the UK

By | Published on Wednesday 15 February 2017

The government’s Department Of Culture, Media And Sport has announced a consultation on plans to deregulate the commercial radio sector, which would remove a number of the constraints that cover local AM and FM stations in the UK.

The rules contained within the licences issued by media regulator OfCom to local radio operations have been greatly relaxed over the years, though the commercial broadcasters argue that they need relaxing further as stations compete with an increasing number of rival audio services on the digital networks and online.

The broadcast firms also argue that, with so much more choice for consumers today, the media regulator doesn’t need to worry itself so much about exactly what kind of content is airing on the AM and FM networks.

The consultation comes off the back of research done by OfCom at the request of former culture minister Ed Vaizey.

The DCMS explains: “At present, commercial radio has to abide by a series of complex rules regarding content which are enforced by OfCom, many of which were devised in the late 1980s before the emergence of digital technologies. But the government has announced today that it is consulting on changes to the rules that govern much of the programming decisions, and is proposing to give greater flexibility to local radio stations in particular, so that they can have a say in their own content”.

The revised rules would allow broadcasters to more easily alter the music and programming policies of their stations, and to network in more programmes from central hubs providing that there was still decent local news provision.

The latter change would allow the big radio groups that have already networked a lot of programming across their local stations to also run single prime time shows across their networks too, giving their London breakfast show – which usually has the biggest name DJ – an audience elsewhere in the UK.

Or in the words of the DCMS: “It will further mean that DJs will be free to play more of the music and content they and their listeners want, when they want, without their station needing OfCom’s permission. Stations will also be able to network more of their services across different stations, allowing them to showcase star presenters throughout the day including at breakfast time”.

Although being spun by the government as a move to give radio DJs more musical freedom, critics of the proposed measures will no doubt point out that the changes will actually allow stations that currently have commitments to play a certain amount of music from new acts or niche genres to instead air more shows playing their mainstream core playlist. Meanwhile the promise of celebrity voices over breakfast is code for more local radio stations having no actual local content beyond the headlines on the hour and occasional travel news bulletins.

But, unsurprisingly, the boss of commercial radio trade group Radiocentre, Siobhan Kenny, welcomes the proposed changes, saying earlier this week: “Radiocentre welcomes the government’s announcement wholeheartedly as we have been asking for the existing rules on both music output and how and where content is made to be updated. Most of the rules are over 20 years old, so effectively designed for a pre-internet age. With 45% of radio listening now on digital platforms and new competition from streaming services, it is high time legislation caught up. The times have already changed so this is excellent news”.

Meanwhile, the minister now in charge of radio, Matt Hancock, waffled on thus: “In a time of extraordinary change, radio has thrived. But the way commercial radio is regulated is increasingly outdated and holding it back from investing in new content, services and platforms. All these things are essential for radio to stay relevant, especially in an age of unregulated internet audio services”.

Noting that Monday was World Radio Day, he continued: “So I’m delighted to announce on World Radio Day that we will be asking industry and members of the public for their views on the deregulation of local radio. Under our new proposals we will be giving local radio stations more freedom and flexibility to meet the needs of listeners across the country”.

The DCMS’s consultation will take submissions until 8 May.