On air? Welsh radio in decline

As we mark 40 years since Swansea Sound’s launch, Marc Webber looks at the state of Welsh radio.

40 years ago this week, Wales’ voice in the world got louder with the launch of Swansea Sound, the nation’s first independent local radio station.

Fast forward 40 years and you will see a Welsh radio industry in decline, with jobs lost and locally-made programmes replaced by a computer playout system run from a room in London’s Leicester Square.

Since the decision to turn Marcher Sound to Heart in 2009, Wales has lost hundreds of hours of local news and entertainment programming, as the likes of Red Dragon turned into Capital and Real Radio into Heart.

Even those stations that remain in Wales have cut back local programming or even closed stations. We have seen Swansea Sound’s sister station Valleys Radio fall by the wayside and a merging of operations for Town & Country broadcasting, which owns Nation Radio and Radio Ceredigion.

All of this has led to a 40 percent fall in the number of jobs in the Welsh radio sector since 2009. Figures vary widely, but Real’s transformation to Heart saw staff numbers in Wales fall from 60 to 20; Valleys Radio closure saw four full-time posts go, along with ten part-time/freelance jobs go.

If any other industry in Wales had lost 40 percent of its workforce, there would be an Assembly debate and a financial rescue package would be put in place quicker than you could say “regeneration fund”. Many of the people once working in radio in Wales have been forced to relocate to England because there are fewer jobs in Wales.

And whilst many Assembly members are keen to talk about the “democratic deficit” regarding Welsh issues because of a dominant London press, hardly any of them have stood up to OFCOM or the DCMS against the decrease of local radio programming in Wales.

They seem to hide behind the blanket  that broadcasting is not a devolved issue, so they have no control over the issue. If that is the attitude, then those members really have no right to complain about the lack of coverage their work receives in the media. Some say community radio is the answer to the deficit of Welsh voices on air.

But however great these stations are, the people running them are hard working volunteers -not fully paid staff.

The stations are charities, not professionally accountable media bodies. Also, in some cases, OFCOM actually restricts them from earning advertising money or making profits to ensure the revenue of the stations that run their Welsh output from a computer in London can still make a profit.

The system has failed Wales and that is why we have less of a voice, and a radio industry which has almost regressed to that day in 1974 when the power was switched on in Victoria Road, Gowerton.

Thankfully, there are still groups like UTV Radio and Town & Country Broadcasting (along with many community stations) that still believe Wales should have local voices on-air.

If those with power believe the same they need to support them before they go off-air too.

Bridgend-born Marc Webber started his journalism career at Cardiff's Red Dragon Radio. A co-founder of Bridge FM in Bridgend, he now reports on sport for BBC TV and Radio as well as working for AudioBoom, a recently-floated company allowing podcasters and media companies to share audio online.

14 thoughts on “On air? Welsh radio in decline

  1. This article points to a very central dilemma for modern society and it is particularly acute in Wales. In broadcasting and and journalism in general there is a big gap between what economists call private and social benefit. People in a democracy may not be concerned to listen to local news or to understand local events. But if they are to participate in a democracy they need to do so to some extent. That means there is a clear social benefit to having popular services that provide the information and some analysis. If you cut out the information the service may be only a little less popular but it becomes much cheaper since entertainment can be “piped”. We see the result: profit-drive services cut out the news and news analysis. The implication is clear. Democracy itself requires some other way to finance news reporting and analysis. How you do it, I don’t know since public subsidy raises other issues of freedom and bias. The state of Welsh democracy and the state of Welsh media are bound up together. Neither is is great shape and a solution to media funding needs to be found.

  2. An excellent piece. This underlines the urgency of devolving broadcasting and media to Wales as part of the constitutional changes following the Scottish referendum.

    I can relate to this personally too. In the 90s I worked at a great community radio station. It was massively popular and combined commercial ads and paid presenters with local volunteers.

    The station was then bought up by a big network. I saw the local, community-focused heart ripped out of it and replaced by centralised output. The station folded.

    UK Government and OFCOM and failing to provide the structures in Wales to support a vibrant radio scene which provides diverse and good quality output. Done right, ths could have big community, social and economic benefits. The station I worked as provided a platform for local musicians and businesses. It also gave local volunteers valuable skills and engaging activities. It brought people together.

    There are some bright lights e.g. Radio Cardiff, Radio Beca. But overall the picture is sad – let’s devolve broadcasting and put the investment, support and regulations in place to serve the people of Wales.

  3. The same thing has happened In the US. Local programming suffers or disappears, replaced by taped programming provided by ownership headquarters thousands of miles or more distant. Welcome to radio in the 21st century.

  4. When things aren’t working well we always hear great clamours for more devolution and greater investment.

    Well, look here. Health and education haven’t been working well for fifteen years. And both are devolved and continue to be heavily invested in.

    Perhaps we should do precisely the opposite and see what happens.

  5. @Karen. You cannot say that,even though you are correct. Facts mean nothing to welsh nationalism as they are doing very well out the devolution settlement!!.

  6. Not long ago it became obvious that Welsh print media is in a dire state and few Bay politicians floated the idea of taking over the Trinity-Mirror group.

    In Wales anything is possible as we have seen with the acquisition of Cardiff airport and who knows we may yet see Carwyn Jones taking Western Mail and the Daily Post under the Government control!?

    Coming back to Welsh radio decline in my view its down to broadcasters losing touch with their audiences and we all know what happens to any business if customers walk away.

    Marcher Sound got it right and for many years provided a good local entertainment throughout North Wales that people enjoyed listening to and was immensely popular especially with younger audiences then Devolution came, Heart and so on and the station brought in Welsh language perhaps for political reasons.

    Welsh language items didn’t feature all that much (Just occasional Welsh song, few Welsh language adverts some local news in Welsh), intermittently included into something that has always been an English language media and overnight alienated huge audiences who simply found other stations that gave them what they wanted.

    If there is any moral in this it suggests to me that in Wales we now have many parallels with the style of governance used in Stalinist USSR and in my view Welsh people deserve better from the so called Labour Government!?

  7. I’m not sure whether the devolution of responsibility for broadcasting – as in favour of it as a general principle as I am – would do much to alleviate the problems Marc Webber describes. It is notable that all the weaknesses and decline he describes have happened in the commercial sector, and this is mostly as a result of the latitude given to large media conglomerates to buy up, ‘rationalise’ (a word which stands alongside ‘reform’ as the most insidiously misleading in the contemporary lexicon – they both mean, essentially, ‘cut’) and emasculate what those stations were supposedly there for to begin with. I’m not sure that a national assembly dominated by pro-market parties would ever do much to tighten up the rules to reduce the risks of that happening.

    Swansea Sound, for example, was one of the first tranche of what was called ‘Independent Local Radio’. Now, the word ‘Independent’ here was only ever a euphemism for ‘commercial’, a word which – in broadcasting terms – was considered rather vulgar at the time. But SS and its successors in Cardiff, Newport and Wrexham were local to greater or lesser degree (although Marcher Sound, from the get-go, regarded Chester as ‘local’ rather than Wrexham, due to the proposed target area being expanded beyond the north east in order to try to make the station more viable (it didn’t work)). What happened to MS was that it fell into difficulties – mostly to do with a very adverse economic situation in the area at the time – and was then subjected to a game of media corporation ‘pass the parcel’ which gradually removed all meaningful local input and made the station – like many others, as Marc Webber notes – nothing much more than relay services for the output of large media-power concentration, mostly of course in London.

    I refer to some of this in my essay From A Distance which was kindly published by Transdiffusion a couple of years ago:

  8. @”GlasnostUK” (as you style yourself, Mr. Protic):

    Not for the first time, you have made it obvious that you know little whereof you speak. e.g.,

    “Marcher Sound got it right and for many years provided […] good local entertainment”

    The people who ended up running Marcher Sound once the consortium which won the franchise were shoved aside were almost entirely uninterested in providing anything ‘local’ beyond gossip and ‘personality’ DJs. Their commitment to the communities of the north east was extremely limited; it’s ‘community action’ desk was run by people who were employed by CSV via a government scheme designed to fiddle the unemployment rate. And, as I said last time, it seemed to care far more about what was going on in Chester and up the Wirral than what was happening on the side of the border it happened actually to be sitting on.

    ” then Devolution came, Heart and so on and the station brought in Welsh language perhaps for political reasons.”

    MS broadcast one hour in Welsh of an evening (weekdays only) from very early on, certainly a good decade and a half before Devolution. Its reasons had damn all to do with politics, but much more to do with the fact that there were quite a few thousand daily speakers of the language within its catchment area.

    “…overnight alienated huge audiences…”

    Leaving aside the inconvenient (for you) truth that Marcher never had ‘huge audiences’ to lose, the idea that broadcasting five hours a week in Welsh (and only on one of its frequencies) was going to cause such a massive rejection is silly beyond description.

    Oh, and: “something that has always been an English language media” means, I presume, that you think that Welsh people should only be allowed to communicate in either, a) English, or b) by means of two empty baked-bean tins connected by a long piece of string? (And ‘media’ is plural, by the way)

    As for your comparison with Stalinism, well…

  9. Radio is just a poor medium for anything serious – unlike print, the internet or TV it is non-visual so no photos or graphs to illustrate the words… It is past its sell-by date for anything but music and trivia and it no longer does that very well either. The medium has become raucous, tasteless, and trashy… That’s why it is going to die. So what? I have little doubt the process can be accelerated by handing control to the WAG – they have damaged nearly everything else they’ve touched – it would probably be a bit like assisted suicide…

  10. Nigel Stapley,

    Interesting comment and perhaps I (Jacques Protic) detect some ‘indignation’ on your part of what I had to say but equally I respect freedom of thought and expression and welcome any constructive critique from you and anyone else for that matter.

    Must say and acknowledge that your approach is mild compared to the usual venom I get from Welsh nationalists, whenever I question the Welsh language imposition that often include web based hate campaigns, hate mail, ranting and threatening phone calls and so on…

    You seem to have a problem with the ‘border issue’ as the sound within the limits of transmitter capabilities may reach ‘Foreign Audiences’ that then can’t be sanitised by those who would prefer Ethnic Purity above all else… (Not important but Chester and Wirral have access to Liverpool and Manchester radio station in abundance and your claim that MS targeted these audiences is simply wrong).

    Also, you are wrong in your assumption that ‘I know nothing’ about the issues I write about and it may come as a shock to you but for most part East Wales lives through English and for now are unaware of the new ‘Being Welsh Definitions’ that are creeping in from the West!?

  11. I dont know that radio is in decline. It is a fact that the big radio companies have been allowed to buy up and close down local commercial stations and replace them relays of national networks. In Eire the government has not allowed this so many local stations carry a lot a speech programming and report on what is going on in their areas. Ofcom is a toothless watchdog controlled by the big radio companies.
    When Real Radio started it cariied proper news programmes, business programmes , sports commentaries and phone ins on issues in Wales.It was allowed to have frequencies to cover all of Wales in the hope it would provide an alternative all Wales news service to the BBC. All this has been allowed to go by Ofcom and its wooden Welsh Office. The Labour Party MPs AMs and Councillors in Wales have not objected to this. Perhaps they dont want to be scruitinised by any journalists.
    BBC Wales Radio like its friends in BBC Radio Scotland proved themselves to be pro union.pro establishment stations that lied on behalf of the Better Together Campaign and produced an absurd opinion poll recently in Wales. Wales needs a second national speech network onFM radio.
    Most Radio listening is on FM. Radio Wales can not be heard on FM in large areas of Wales. It is non existent on FM in most of north and mid Wales. Yet Radio Four is broadcast across the area on dozens of frequencies on FM. This is a deliberate act by the BBC to deny people in much of Wales information on Welsh politics.

  12. @ John R Walker:

    What you say about radio today may well be generally valid, but that can’t be a fault in the medium itself; if it were, then radio would always have been like that, which it clearly hasn’t.

    The fault lies in the way that radio (and broadcasting in general, for that matter) is owned, controlled and regulated; or not regulated, as the case may be. Your criticisms of radio could equally be made of television, and for much the same reasons.

    @ Keith Parry:

    What the recent experience in Scotland may lead to is a falling of scales from the eyes of all bar those who simply refuse to see regarding the true nature of the BBC. Seldom before in peacetime could the Corporation have shown itself so clearly to be – when push comes to shove – the State Broadcaster, accomplishing by slanted language and sins both of commission and omission what its equivalents elsewhere have previously achieved by outright lies.

  13. Nigel Stapley writes a lot of rubbish.

    For the best part of twenty years with a board of local people, Marcher Sound based in Wrexham, was committed to local news and local interests. It maintained its Welsh programming at a peak hour of the day, notwithstanding that the original broadcast area was mainly monoglot English, Rhosllanerchrugog excepted of course. Chester was within the broadcast area but was frankly disappointing in producing the audience and consequently the advertising revenue the broadcasting authority expected. In no way was the output aimed at them.
    Our young and local journalists progressed to make themselves outstanding careers in the BBC and elsewhere. Some of our presenters went on to make national names for themselves.

    We expanded first to the Coast station at Colwyn Bay and later to Champion broadcasting from Bangor. Champion quickly outstripped BBC Cymru in listening figures in the Welsh language. None of these were large money-making ventures. There was one crisis period when my wife was voicing the commercials and I was cleaning the Wrexham station’s lavatories.

    Unlike the South Wales companies , we resisted commercial pressures until by the end of the nineties, we were the largest independent broadcasting company in the UK which remained outside the large conglomerates. Eventually, facing a potential downturn in radio generally, we were taken over but I remain very proud of our efforts and particularly grateful to Godfrey Williams who initially came to the station to work for nothing, made it viable, put a significant amount of his own resources into it and ran it with great verve and determination until we reluctantly handed it over.

    I was approached initially to put together the bid, was the first Vice Chairman under Gruff Evans and after his death, the Chairman.

  14. Has Wales lost out to Scotland over BBC funding of FM frequencies? During the recent referendum campaign, it was leaked that the BBC thought the value of its services in Scotland was worth double the cost of the licence fee, due to the extra cost of programme delivery to remote areas. If this is true then the rest in England, Wales and Northern Ireland must be subsidising Scotland to the tune of around £14.00 per licence fee. Living in a remote area in Scotland, I knew that the BBC was still opening FM transmitters (more than 50 years after launching FM, which seems ludicrous) but never gave a thought that this was costing others. Freeview radio only became available to me 3 years ago (BBC stations only) and DAB arrived 2 years ago (UK national BBC stations only). I’m grateful for the DAB because I have particular reception problems on FM,MW and LW most of the day, though this was not always the case However, on reflection, it seems that the FM networks should have been completed first. The head of the commercial radio body complains that the competitiveness of BBC radio is eroding the profits of commercial sector, and wants the B8C to extend choice by leaving larger gaps for that sector to thrive. As I can’t receive a decent signal for most of the day for this area’s sole commercial radio station, I’d suggest the BBC should have one station replicating the commercial music-market stations as a whole, including a share for popular classical music, before pursuing a ‘distinctiveness’ agenda on the rest.

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