Martin Mumford on realities and regulation
Within Nation Broadcasting we often talk about how we have ‘grown up’ in the past few years.
Since 2001 the company has grown from a single start up with Radio Pembrokeshire to a group comprising 17 companies. We operate 7 radio services in Wales including Nation Radio and Dragon Radio, 2 in London and the South East, several of the local DAB transmission areas in Wales, a digital media company in Pembrokeshire and a worldwide DAB software and hardware company.
We employ almost 100 people and over 300,000 people in Wales listen to one of our stations every week, with almost all of our programmes delivered from studios in Narberth or St Hilary.
In this blog I want to concentrate on three inter-related challenges our business faces currently: the roll out of local DAB coverage, de-regulation and news plurality.
Twenty years ago I was in meetings discussing FM switchover and the drive to DAB. Now, I still can’t give you a date when FM will disappear but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d expect FM will still be the primary platform for listening to radio in Wales for at least another decade.
The problem we have is that we’re a long way behind other parts of the UK in terms of DAB build-out and listening. The latest audience figures show less than 33% of all radio listening hours in Wales is via DAB and only 25% of audience hours in commercial radio is via DAB. As audience hours are the primary driver of advertising effectiveness and therefore correlates to revenue, you’ll understand my reluctance to be switching off FM any time soon!
In fact, we’re about to switch on FM transmitters in West Wales for Nation Radio and it would be good to see any remaining FM capacity in the UK released to commercial radio providers – we’d certainly be keen to add transmitters for Nation Radio in other parts of Wales.
Although multiplex operators in Wales have launched DAB transmitters to cover the majority of the country there are still several hundred thousand people, predominantly in Mid Wales, without coverage of a local multiplex to deliver local commercial services and the two BBC National services.
The remaining build out to these areas is commercially uneconomic – it is going to need public intervention or it’s unlikely to take place. A realisation that Wales is about to be left behind needs to be addressed by DCMS, the BBC, commercial operators and, despite communications not being a devolved matter, probably the Welsh Government too. This should be happening now whilst there is still time to deliver a solution rather than playing ‘catch-up’.
We’re in a massive regulatory muddle; hamstrung by outdated music format regulation and a map of Wales split into three arbitrary areas which govern how and where studios and programming can be provided.
The DCMS is currently consulting over wholesale change to commercial radio regulation which, in a nutshell, proposes to remove regulation over programme location and music format in return for enhanced commitments to news and content provision.
Although this might surprise some regulators – I’m not entirely sure the current system is broken. Ofcom’s very recent decision to remove music constraints on Nation Radio in return for considerably more locally-produced programming looks to me to be more sensible way to proceed for the future, perhaps in tandem with combining all three of the current approved areas.
However, it seems that the likely direction of travel could result in additional regulation for our services which can’t be necessary or sensible as there needs to be a level playing field across the UK. The danger is that by adding regulation Wales could get boxed off by UK wide operators as being ‘too difficult’ to operate a service in.
With the terminal decline of local printed press and the dominance of the BBC as a news provider, I can understand why potential deregulation is seen as an opportunity to load commercial radio with commitments to help deliver ‘plurality’.
News exists on commercial radio as part of an overall ‘sense of day’ – I am proud of the news service we provide especially the innovative way we deliver ‘News for Wales’ – which is broadcast across our services in Wales during peak times and supplemented by local news for our local services – but I don’t believe this is the primary reason why an audience seeks out one of our stations.
We’re also competing with one of the world’s biggest and best news providers who benefit from considerable public funding to generate their output.
Enhanced regulatory requirements need to come with a pragmatic funding solution – the carrot to match the stick – and I’m not sure the current carrot looks that appetising.
The BBC local journalism project will embed 8 journalists with other media organisations in Wales but this looks like a sticking plaster solution seemingly progressing without the wholehearted support of any of the potential participants.
I’d prefer the BBC to release all their audio content for use by commercial providers and open up the i-player platform to commercial providers at the same time.
After all, as consumers we’ve paid for the generation of the content and creation of this platform once already – why shouldn’t it reach a larger audience and be used to extend listener choice?
I don’t want to paint too pessimistic a picture though – whilst the challenges I have highlighted are specific to commercial radio, our industry and this business in particular has adapted to everything thrown at it in the past – and our audiences and revenues continue to grow.
Above all, I still love the variety and excitement of my day job – between starting and submitting this blog I’ve dealt with the provision of additional travel reports this morning for our London services in light of the terror attack in London yesterday, planned our coverage on Nation Radio if Jamie from Cardiff makes it through to the final of the Voice next week, investigated listener reports of a possible DAB transmission problem in West Wales and proofed the latest company brand presentation booklet.
It’s all in a day’s work!
Editorial note: This is part of Click on Wales’ week-long focus on media issues. The Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs is holding the third Cardiff Media Summit on 29th March and booking information can be found here