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UK government to roll over AM/FM licences for national radio stations

By | Published on Friday 3 July 2020

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“Music to your ears!” declared the UK government’s Department Of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport on Twitter yesterday. Was that ministers speedily responding to the music industry’s massive #LetTheMusicPlay campaign that was demanding government support to stop the entire live music industry from collapsing under the pressure of the never-ending COVID-19 shutdown? No, of course not. It was radio news.

Ministers were simply announcing the conclusion they had reached regarding those radio stations whose current AM or FM licences are due to expire in 2022. A decade ago everyone assumed AM and FM would be very old hat by now, with people exclusively accessing their radio services of choice via digital channels. But with 40% of listening still via old school radio frequencies, all things AM and FM actually remain really rather important. That said, the 2020s could be the decade during which those old school frequencies do finally fall by the wayside.

That is why, last year, the government had to ask the question: should it put the AM/FM frequencies coming up for renewal up for tender and sell them to the highest bidder, or should it just allow the stations currently using those frequencies – so Global’s Classic FM, Bauer’s Absolute Radio and News UK’s TalkSport – to simply extend their current licences?

A certain Kelvin Mackenzie shouted loudly that the former option should be taken, with previous assumptions that licences should just be rolled over because AM and FM were on the way out no longer valid. Though that was because the former Sun editor and TalkSport boss wanted to bid for one of those licences for his latest radio venture, TalkSport rival Love Sport Radio.

However, the government has opted for the latter approach, announcing yesterday “provided the stations also broadcast on digital radio, the government has decided to allow [media regulator] Ofcom to renew these analogue licences for a further ten year period”.

Minister For Media And Data John Whittingdale added: “As we move into an increasingly digital world we’re making sure the licensing landscape for radio is fair and up to date and allows audiences to enjoy a wide range of high quality stations. Today’s step ensures there is no disruption for loyal listeners of treasured FM and AM radio services such as Classic FM, Absolute Radio and TalkSport over the next decade”.

Needless to say, the decision will make Global, Bauer and News UK happy, they not really wanting to have to go to the effort of re-bidding for their Classic FM, Absolute Radio and TalkSport frequencies. All the more so given the impact COVID-19 has had on the radio advertising market. Mackenzie won’t be happy, but then again he paused Love Sport Radio’s operations because of COVID, so probably has other things to worry about.

Welcoming the news, the boss of commercial radio trade group Radiocentre also noted that, in the context of ongoing COVID challenges, the government’s decision on her members’ AM/FM licences will be a relief. They’ll even get a ten year renewal, even though the extension proposed when last year’s AM/FM consultation began was eight years.

Radiocentre’s Siobhan Kenny says: “Commercial radio is facing a tough time at the moment, with advertising revenues being hit by the pandemic. These measures are welcome as they will offer a degree of stability and certainty, enabling radio stations to plan for the future rather than face the cost and distraction of multiple licence renewals”.