BlogPost : What's Wrong with Local Commercial Radio in the UK?

Dex has been thinking about this subject for a few months, and has come to a few conclusions ... Rant Ahead!

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Opinion | Radio

Thu 20 May 2021

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Dex Vinyl

Dex has been thinking about this subject for a few months, and has come to a few conclusions ... Rant Ahead!

Over the last few years in the UK, and no doubt in other countries around the world, the commercial radio landscape has radically changed.

Before we get into WHAT has changed and HOW it has been able to change, let's look at a very brief recent history of commercial radio, from a listeners' point of view.

Back in the 1980's and 1990's certainly the stations that I was listening to, the vast majority of local commercial radio was locally produced, and the shows generally would cover local news and events with reasonable detail and promptness. Of course, a lot of the music played on the radio was still played from physical media; Vinyl, Cassette, Reel to Reel on occasion, and also CD once it had been introduced in the mid-1980s. The main exception to this local content would be the weekly "Top 40 Chart Show" which would be a national show, which many stations would take.

Throughout the early 2000's I noticed that the station programming started to subtly change, it would become more and more "Network" and more Voice Tracked, (I'll explain Voice Tracking in a moment, read on). It would start with Breakfast, and DriveTime, these shows would generally become a Regional show, so multiple shows in Manchester, West Yorkshire, Birmingham, etc would have the same program, but with the station's own branding, or more often, it would be a Generic branding exercise for example "Your Local Breakfast Show" whilst this isn't too bad, at least from a listeners point of view, as traffic news and local news would generally be still relevant, I believe the acceptance of this by the listeners was the start of a very slippery slope towards where we find ourselves now. With the advent of the MP3 file (or digital formats in particular), and digital technology I suppose that the march towards centralised content was made easier, but I do feel that it has gone too far.

Local Radio was the breeding ground for New Presenters often in the "unpopular" or "graveyard" shifts but to a young DJ, that would never be a problem (I know if I had been lucky enough to have been offered one of these shifts in my youth, I wouldn't have said no). These new presenters would then either disappear, or climb the ladder of shows, either in the same station, or move on to other stations, and occasionally even to one of the National radio stations, either BBC or Commercial. A local station was a go-to for local news and traffic information. Driving around the country, there are still many brown road signs, that say "Local Radio tune to xx.x FM" or "Local Traffic and Travel tune to xx.x FM" or something similar. I'm not going to be crazy enough to say that ALL these stations have gone away, but I can say from experience that a vast majority of them have.

A little more about Voice Tracking ....
Voice Tracking is, without getting too technical, a procedure where a presenter effectively records the spoken sections of a radio show, and sends them to a radio station, with a list of tracks to play, and the station/s put the show together using the music in their libraries or even a centralised music library, shared by a network of stations.

Local Radio, at least the style of local radio that I remember has almost vanished from the FM and AM airwaves, and with a DAB license being so expensive, the stations don't really exist there either, so where has it gone? Well, it does exist to one degree or another online, a lot of CIC (Community Interest Company) stations, staffed by volunteers and with shows presented by volunteers, and in some instances, the presenters are asked to pay a small annual fee for their show to be aired to cover licenses, insurance, and other expenses. (Personally, I have no issue with paying a reasonable fee if I want the Vinyl Vault Show on a particular station with this policy, but I will choose carefully.)

So, I hear you asking "How did this happen?" well as far as I can see, from the outside, a few large conglomerates started buying local radio stations, for one reason or another, and with these acquisitions, they started wanting to bring the "Group Style" to the broadcasts. and sadly, very sadly over time, these wonderful local radio stations, have been absorbed into a "Brand". I can see 2 major players in this market, and yes I know there are more, Bauer Media, and Global Radio as far as I can tell are the 2 largest, certainly by weekly listener figures.

What can we do about it? The honest answer, at least for me and as far as I can learn, is not a lot, we have sadly missed the boat to stop this happening, at least in most areas. If you have a local radio station that really is still local on FM or AM, support it! Listen to the output, contact the station, or the shows, and contribute to the output by phoning in to talk shows, and giving your opinion, making requests to the shows that are on air, especially those who ask for requests, write a letter or an email to the station telling them about an event you are holding, you might just get a response from the station, and that may lead to extra coverage for your event.

Why has it happened? In my opinion, this has happened for one reason and one reason alone. MONEY! The likes of Bauer, Global, and the other conglomerates that own many stations, want to save as much as possible and spend as little as possible. Every station that is in the local area requires a few things, and they all cost money. Let's look at just a couple of them to give you an idea ... lots of small stations, each requires licensing, and studio space, maintenance of the building and the equipment, also each studio requires a way of getting the output to the transmission site, which usually, but not always is not on-site, and of course staffing for the building, presenters, security, office staff, etc. All of these costs will amount to tens of thousands of pounds a month so yes it's not cheap. Whereas a more regional or nationally broadcast show, only requires one studio to be used, one presenter wages to be paid, and that output is on 5,6,7 maybe more stations. It simply is a case of the economy of scale. Whilst this is a good thing for shareholders in these conglomerates, as they are making more money, it is a bad thing for the local radio listener we are losing our local radio landscape.

But, as I said, there is a silver lining to all this negativity of local radio leaving FM and AM, we can actually switch off these basically national stations in our homes and cars and instead tune into a mostly locally produced, locally presented Internet Radio Station. These stations really need your support. If you have some spare time, maybe you could even volunteer. You wouldn't have to necessarily be on-air talent, you may be a social media whizz, or be a budding show producer I'm sure many stations would be happy to talk to you about being able to help out in some capacity.

I may well be doing myself out of work by writing this blog post, because yes, I would like The Vinyl Vault Show to be on many radio stations around the world. BUT there is a difference, it's a small one, but it matters! The Vinyl Vault Show is something of a specialist show, there are not so many people that have a large collection of Vinyl, but, the shows I've been talking about in this post, are not specialist in any way, they all play the same 80 - 100 tracks often less, as decided by a team in an executive office and the playlist is issued. Of course, there is an exception to every generalised statement like that, and I accept that you will no doubt be able to name one, maybe if you're lucky more, in your local area that is such an exception.

Why no mention of the BBC in this article, apart from here? The reason is simple. The BBC is not a commercial radio platform. I'm not going to make this a discussion of how the BBC works, and the rights, or wrongs of it.

Please note, the opinions in this post are the opinions of Dex Vinyl alone, and in no way should reflect or be taken as the opinion of any station that The Vinyl Vault Show is broadcast on.

As ever, I'll catch you on the flip side and keep putting that needle on the records, (carefully) and we'll see you on air!

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