How much localness could we lose?

What deregulation could mean for local content on commercial radio

I’m no scientist, so what follows is by no means a piece of scientific research.

But, with the emotive issue of deregulation changing the local commercial radio landscape, I was keen to look into its genuine potential impact on the localness of what listeners hear.

What kind of content sets local stations apart from national or networked ones? And how big a loss would it be if it disappears?

To answer these questions, I listened to the 8am hour on a range of local stations between 29 July and 9 August 2019, and logged all the on-air references specific to the station’s local area.

I’ve looked at breakfast rather than any other time of the day – and despite the fact that Bauer’s latest plans involve networking drive rather than breakfast – because it has the biggest audience, so losing this content as a result of regional or national networking would affect the most people.

I’ve included all local news and information – along with discussions about anything to do with the local area and mentions of local events.

I’ve included name-checks of local places by the people on-air, but I’ve ignored jingles mentioning the station’s transmission area (e.g. ‘Staffordshire and Cheshire’s Signal 1’). I haven’t included local adverts, which aren’t at risk and aren’t generally treated as local content anyway.

I also haven’t included people speaking with local accents. You could argue that I should have, because they reflect the character of an area – but I’m defining ‘content’ as what’s being said, not how the person sounds.

First up, as a benchmark, here’s the 8am hour from Heart Wiltshire. This lost its local breakfast show when Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden went national – and its Swindon studios were closed too. So it’s as pure an example of a ‘de-regged’ station as you’re likely to find.

Heart Wiltshire (Global)

8:00 A minute and a half of news – 1 out of 3 stories local, 1 other story given a regional angle; local weather

8:20 Local travel

8:30 A minute and a half of news – 1 out of 3 stories local, 1 other story given a regional angle; local weather

8:45 Local travel

Now here’s an 8am hour on a station from each of the groups recently bought by Bauer, as well as one of Bauer’s existing local stations. I’ve also looked at Connect FM, which will soon become Smooth.

Before we get into what I heard, I should say that this kind of analysis obviously doesn’t take into account the benefits a radio station can bring to an area like local jobs, fundraising for local charities and special coverage at times of crisis.

Nor is the hour I heard necessarily representative of the station’s overall output. But it’s hopefully a decent snapshot of what comes out of the speaker on an average morning.

Yorkshire Coast Radio (ex UKRD)

8:00 2 and a half minutes of news – 3 out of 4 stories local; local travel; local weather

8:10 2 local places mentioned in a talking point about ‘your favourite house to visit when you were a child’

8:15 Competition caller identified as being from a local town; 1 local question in the competition

8:29 2 local places mentioned during birthday shout-outs

8:32 Local weather; 1 minute of news – 2 out of 3 stories local; local travel

8:48 Short local weather forecast

8:51 Competition to win a stay at a local glamping resort

Signal 1 (ex Wireless)

8:00 2 minutes of news – 5 out of 6 stories local; local weather

8:07 Mention of a competition to win tickets to a local music festival

8:13 Mention of the competition, name-checking the local music festival

8:17 Local travel; mention of the competition, name-checking the local music festival

8:27 Mention of the competition, name-checking the local music festival

8:31 Local travel; 1 minute of news – all 3 stories local; 1 minute of sport – all 3 stories local; local weather

8:38 Competition to win local music festival tickets

8:49 Local travel

Lincs FM (ex Lincs FM group)

8:00 3 minutes of news – 5 out of 7 stories local; local weather

8:15 Local travel

8:22 Discussion about a flat for sale in Skegness for £5,000.

8:25 Short local travel update after a listener called in to report a problem

8:32 Local weather; A minute and a half of news – 3 out of 4 stories local; 1 minute of sport – 1 out of 3 stories local

8:40 Competition caller identified as being from a local town and discussion of her plans for the day in the local area

8:45 Discussion of an upcoming feature where a presenter will be somewhere in the local area giving out prizes – several local places mentioned

8:46 Local travel

The Breeze Bristol (ex Celador)

This show is networked with other Breeze stations in the south west, with splits for local information and some other links

8:00 2 minutes of news – 4 out of 7 stories local; local weather

8:30 Local travel; 1 minute of news – 3 out of 4 stories local; local weather

8:47 Local travel

8:55 Reference to Bristol, the local FM frequency, the ‘studio in Ashton’ and the Bristol Balloon Fiesta.

8:59 Local travel

Radio City (Bauer)

8:00 2 minutes of news – 3 out of 5 stories local or localised; local weather

8:08 Discussion about one of the presenters rarely leaving Merseyside; listeners invited to come along to an upcoming outside broadcast from a Liverpool pub and pick up free tickets to local attractions.

8:13 Competition caller’s place of work name-checked; 1 local question in competition

8:20 Local travel

8: 23 Short local weather forecast

8:31 1 minute of news – 3 out of 4 stories local or localised

8:43 Local travel

8:55 Local weather

Connect FM (ex Adventure)

8:00 A minute and a half of news – 4 out of 5 stories local or localised; local weather

8:16 Local weather; brief mention of a problem on the roads

8:20 Local travel

8:29 1 minute of news – 3 out of 5 stories local; local weather

8:36 Short local weather forecast

8:46 Local travel

8:57 Reference to the local weather

Conclusions

First of all, I think it’s important to say that these were all good breakfast shows, presented by talented people. I can see why so many shows like these do well and are loved by their listeners.

In terms of local content, though, the vast majority on the stations I sampled came in the form of news, weather and travel.

This content is protected under deregulation, but all the local stations I listened to reported quite a lot more local news than the minimum of one local story per bulletin required by Ofcom (which is what my ‘de-regged’ benchmark station provided).

All the stations also provided more local travel or weather updates (but not always both) than my benchmark station – and these updates were typically longer and more detailed than the ones on Heart Wiltshire.

Beyond this local news and information, I have to say that most of the local content I heard was fairly superficial. The majority of references were just passing mentions of local places (e.g. ‘happy birthday to Vicky in Scarborough’) and some of this was effectively promotional content (ticket giveaways for local attractions).

Across the five stations I sampled, I only heard one thing that could be considered a ‘what’s on’ – which, ironically, was in a split link on The Breeze’s regional show.

Only two stations – Lincs FM and Radio City – had any extended content about the local area that I’d class as a ‘discussion’ rather than a simple name-check.

However, in both cases these were fairly significant. Radio City’s was about an outside broadcast from a local pub that listeners could come along. Lincs FM had three discussions over the course of the hour.

I have to admit that I was surprised that I didn’t hear this kind of thing on more of the stations, though.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, then, my main conclusion based on what I heard would be that, on most stations, the most significant local content at risk is the one thing that’s meant to be protected: local news and information.

That’s not how I expected this to end.

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This blog is a lie

Or ‘how radio changed while I lived in London’

Image: Lee Barrows

I am a fraud. Or, at the very least, in need of a rebrand.

Everything about this blog screams ‘London’. The name is a reference to the fact that my name is Mark and I live in the capital. The photo behind these words is the London skyline.

The problem is I don’t actually live in London any more.

Don’t worry, though – this isn’t a blog about moving out of London. The reasons why people leave London are well-documented and my story is no more exciting than anyone else’s.

This, as always, is about radio.

I moved to the capital from the West Country at the start of 2010. Where I’d come from, commercial radio was a couple of mainstream stations on FM and whatever was available locally on DAB – which wasn’t much.

So, to a guy in his 20s working in the media, London’s radio landscape was dazzling.

On FM alone, I could hear urban music (Choice FM), indie music (XFM) and talk (LBC). Plus more mainstream music stations than you could shake a stick at.

Johnny Vaughan and Lisa Snowdon were riding high on Capital breakfast. London was the only place they were waking up, and the only place you could hear Capital at all.

Even Heart, which by then had replaced the local station in my old home town, was bigger and better in London – with Jamie Theakston on breakfast.

London had the kind of radio variety I’d always craved and never had. Radio I’d only ever heard on visits to the capital – or as an outsider eavesdropping online to someone else’s local station.

But now I was a Londoner and all these stations were mine.

It’s now almost a decade later and, as much as I’ll always love London, I’ve moved on and out. I may have changed during my years in the capital – but not half as much as radio.

The first thing to happen was that London’s radio stations started to outgrow their city.  Capital started appearing elsewhere on FM in 2011 and eventually went national on DAB in 2016.

Choice FM became available nationwide as Capital Xtra in 2013. Less than six months later, LBC stopped being London’s Biggest Conversation and started Leading Britain’s Conversation. The following year, Magic went national and so did XFM, relaunching as Radio X.

Then came the explosion of new national stations with the launch of the Digital 2 multiplex on DAB. Stations like Virgin, TalkRadio and Magic Chilled – and, more recently, Scala.

So, during my time in the capital, the rest of the UK gained stations at a rate of knots while London only gained the stations that were completely new.

Then came the biggest equaliser of all: smart speakers.

No longer did London’s massive and unparalleled selection of stations on local DAB mean what it used to.

As smart speakers gradually replaced DAB radios throughout my home, I started listening to my London DAB favourites like Chris Country and Mi-Soul on devices that could play them regardless of whether I was in London or Llandudno.

And then there was deregulation.

With local production requirements relaxed, that Capital breakfast show from Leicester Square – which provided the early-morning soundtrack to my first few years in London – is now on every Capital station in the country.

And very soon, Jamie Theakston – accompanied by Amanda Holden – will start waking up the whole of the Heart network.

So, over the past decade, a perfect storm of commercial, technological and regulatory developments has meant that more or less everything I loved about radio in London was waiting for me in my new home many miles away.

As a Londoner, I watched some of these developments unfold with initial resentment that eventually gave way to acceptance. Now, as an outsider once more, they’re developments for which I’m grateful.

Of course, none of this answers the question of what the heck I’m going to do about the inconveniently London-centric branding of this blog.

In the absence of any better ideas – and on the basis that I still work in London one day a week – I think I’ll just leave it as it is. For now.

Is your radio station smart enough for smart speakers?

Image: Mack Male

I’m a firm believer that smart speakers are the best thing that’s happened to radio in a very long time.

While so many advances in recent years have involved devices with screens – forcing radio listening to compete with more visual activities – smart speakers are perfect for radio.

But this new technology comes with a few challenges too. So, if you’re a radio station that wants to make the most of the smart speaker revolution, there are a few questions to bear in mind…

Do smart speakers know who you are?

If your listener can’t get their smart speaker to play your station in the first place, it’s game over before you’ve even started.

Smart speakers often struggle to play stations with names that have less-than-obvious pronunciation, sound too similar to other stations or are also the names of well-known bands or songs.

James Cridland has been having a well-documented nightmare getting his smart speaker to play his local community radio station 4ZZZ – pronounced ‘four-triple-zed’.

I’ve been having similar problems with Mi-Soul – and asking for ‘Magic’ (as opposed to ‘Magic Radio’) got me a Coldplay track.

Think of a smart speaker like a search engine – if your listener googled your name, would your station be the top result?

It’s also really important that your on-air brand matches the name you go by on TuneIn and your own smart speaker skill. Otherwise your own station imaging is working against you.

Hits Radio and Greatest Hits Radio are two straightforward new brands that may well have been created with this issue in mind.

How will you get your listeners to ask for you?

Many radios never get retuned, so your station may benefit from simply being the default one whenever that radio gets switched on. And preset buttons are an easy way for people to flick between stations they like.

Listening on a smart speaker is a much less passive affair. With no ‘on’ button or presets, someone has to specifically ask for your station.

This means that you need to keep your station on your listener’s mind.

Your brand, marketing and PR are becoming more and more important in getting people to ask for you instead of one of your competitors or Spotify. Speaking of which…

How will you compete with streaming services?

While Spotify’s been around for years and radio’s still doing just fine, smart speakers make the competition more direct than it’s ever been before.

For years now I’ve had a DAB radio in my kitchen, which is user-friendly and sounds nice. Because of that, I’ve always been far more likely to listen to the radio in the kitchen than fiddle with my phone or iPad in order to listen to Spotify through a tinny speaker.

But I’m about to replace that DAB radio with an Echo Dot – and, when that happens, it’ll be as easy to stream commercial-free music as it is to listen to a radio station.

The battle has already been partly lost in the bedroom, where nocturnal listening on my bedside radio has been replaced by an Alexa routine that bids me goodnight, plays me relaxing music and switches itself off after I’m asleep.

But, while beige jukebox-style stations could really struggle with this newly-levelled playing field, radio can do plenty things that streaming services can’t. The music stations that invest in really great content and personalities in between the songs are the ones that’ll stay competitive.

My bedroom Echo still wakes me up with my favourite breakfast show, and I can’t see that ever changing.

How skillful is your skill?

DAB radios have scrolling text that often tells you what song you’re listening to. Music streaming services on smart speakers will tell you if you ask them.

If your smart speaker skill can’t do this – or makes it too difficult – then you risk giving your listener a worse experience than they can get elsewhere.

If your brand is a network of local stations, how easy is it for someone to get their local version?

Do they have to ask for it specifically or choose from a list? Or does your skill use the device’s location to automatically give them their local station?

Invest in your smart speaker skill like you’d invest in upskilling your team. In both cases, the possibilities are exciting and limitless.

Should radio do Christmas by halves?

Why I wish it could be Christmas every other song

Christmas is magical – and this year Magic is, er, Christmasal.

Since November 30th, Magic Radio has been playing nothing but Christmas songs. It’s the first major UK radio station to try this (Free Radio 80s is the only other FM or AM station I know of that’s ever done it, back in 2014).

Good luck to them, I say. It’s a bold move which plenty of people will be happy with – and an opportunity to introduce those who aren’t to some of Magic’s other stations.

But the the inevitable ‘bah humbugs’ about the flip got me thinking about my ideal kind of Christmas radio format – one that you don’t hear very often.

That format is Christmas music every other song.

It makes perfect sense to me. A constant supply of music to get you feeling festive. But plenty of room for regular tracks too and less chance of hearing the same festive favourites over and over again.

As it’s a specific proposition – as opposed to a general ramping up of Christmas music – it comes with the same kind of sponsorship opportunities as a flip to 100% Christmas.

Although a small handful of US stations have tried this format, they’re few and far between.

Star 99.9 in Connecticut is using the format at weekends this year, but that’s the only current example I can find.

International broadcasting consultant Valerie Geller tells me that the popularity of stations that play wall-to-wall Christmas music means there’s not much interest in doing things by halves.

“The all-Christmas music seasonal format has been a success,” she says. “Many others mix in seasonal music into the programming, but not specifically every other song.”

But online music service Accuradio sees some potential in this format. Over the past few years, they’ve introduced 11 ‘holiday blend’ channels covering genres from pop hits to country and classical.

My personal appetite for Christmas music is pretty ravenous at this time of year, so I’m enjoying the festive Magic – and, judging by some of the feedback I’ve heard, plenty of others are too.

But I still think the 50/50 format could be a largely unexplored sweet spot.

For those who want Christmas music, never being more than one song away from it is likely to suffice.

And never being more than one song away from something else might be enough to keep the rest happy.

Regardless of whether or not it’s on your radio, I hope there’s plenty of magic in your Christmas. See you in 2019.

Reasons to be cheerful

Why radio news can afford to look on the bright side

Happy ball

Image: Mike Hoff

It’s 7.03 in the morning. I’ve been awake for three minutes, and the events of those three minutes have already got my day off to a bad start.

I spent those 180 seconds listening to the news bulletin my favourite radio station wakes me up with every morning. Very often, that news bulletin paints a fairly gloomy picture of the world and the people who live in it.

But that’s just how news works, isn’t it?

Well, maybe it doesn’t have to.

I’ve recently heard (thanks to John Myers via James Cridland) about a radio station in Cape Town called Smile 90.4FM – a station that focuses on the good news.

Smile isn’t a niche or novelty radio station. It plays Cape Town’s best mix of the 80s, 90s and now. In between the songs, the presenters talk about the same kind of things that presenters on lots of radio stations talk about.

But, when it comes to their news bulletins, they always start with something positive. So, when I tuned in to sample it myself, the top story was about people being thanked for their outpouring of support following wildfires.

They don’t ignore major stories about bad things happening, but they try to put them in the kind of perspective that leaves you feeling that the world might not be as terrible place as others would have you think.

I really think Smile could be onto something here.

Let’s start by thinking about why most news is the way it is – with the negative typically trumping the positive.

The whole ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach to news is centuries-old and inseparable from the concept of news as a consumer product.

As far back as 1556, newspapers were something you had to pay for. I’m no psychologist – but I’m going to hazard a guess that people have always been more likely to pay to read something shocking than just to be told that all’s well in the world.

So, as more and more newspapers came onto the scene, they increasingly had to shock to sell, and they still do. Similar commercial forces apply to a lot of online news, 24-hour TV news channels and news/talk radio stations – they need to hook in the readers, viewers and listeners in order to sell advertising.

But music radio can afford to be different.

I very much doubt that many people choose a music radio station on the strength of what’s in its news bulletins. Sure, lots of people want their radio station of choice to have news – but it’s part of a much bigger package where the rest of the output is the big draw.

No-one’s going to switch from Magic to Radio 2 because Magic’s news bulletins didn’t make them cry into their cornflakes enough.

So, if a station sells itself on its feel-good music and fun presenters, why should it adhere to an ancient convention of prioritising bad news over good?

As Smile have realised, there’s no reason at all.

It’s not like any of this is revolutionary. If it’s big enough, good news can triumph – recent events like the royal wedding and England’s World Cup success prove that.

It’s just a case of turning the exceptions into the rule. Of not going in search of a negative angle. Of not assuming that passive consumers of news need to be sold it in the same way as someone buying a paper.

A more positive approach to news could become a huge selling point for music radio – and great news for broadcasters and listeners alike.

Why Zoe Ball is more than a woman

So, Zoe Ball is the new Radio 2 breakfast show presenter. And, yes, she’s a woman.

But here’s a question for anyone tempted to put Zoe Ball’s appointment down to box-ticking by a station with too many men on it… Which men could have actually done the job?

As far as I can tell, there weren’t any obvious male candidates. Zoe Ball got the gig because she was the strongest candidate from a field dominated by great female broadcasters.

You might think that’s ridiculous given the number of talented male radio broadcasters out there. But, when you consider how Radio 2 works – and how that affects the way they approached the task of replacing Chris Evans – it all makes sense.

The station has a massive, loyal audience that isn’t a big fan of change. The listening figures prove the first part of that statement, and reaction to Chris Evans starting breakfast and the recent changes at drivetime proves the rest.

So Radio 2 handles changes to its daytime line-up very, very carefully. Chris Evans moved to breakfast after four years on drivetime. Jo Whiley’s move to co-host drive – the first change to the daytime schedule in eight years – came after seven years on the evening show.

And those changes still annoyed a fair few listeners.

This means that, realistically, Radio 2 was only ever going to promote someone to the flagship breakfast slot from within – someone listeners are used to hearing on the station. So that rules out all the men working anywhere else.

With them out of the picture, who did that leave?

Looking at the rest of the daytime line-up, Ken Bruce, Steve Wright and Simon Mayo – at 67, 64 and 60 respectively – aren’t the right people to launch a breakfast show to bring in the next generation of Radio 2 listeners. And Jeremy Vine would probably be the first to admit that he wouldn’t be a great fit at breakfast.

When you look at the rest of the schedule, the options get even more far-fetched. It’s hard to see the likes of Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady, Dermot O’Leary or Trevor Nelson wanting or being right for the breakfast show.

So who from the Radio 2 schedule might have realistically been in the running if they were open to it?

Sara Cox – weekday late-night presenter and popular stand-in for Chris Evans. Maybe Claudia Winkleman – weekend presenter with a massive TV profile. Maybe Jo Whiley – a familiar voice to listeners across a range of age groups.

And Zoe Ball – Saturday afternoon presenter with years of experience in radio, and TV shows on two channels to boot.

These all have the right kind of personality and energy levels for weekday breakfast. They all have the potential to bring in younger listeners. They’re all experienced radio broadcasters – and, for some, this is backed up with a TV profile that adds to their star quality and gives them a fan base beyond Radio 2 that they might bring with them.

Quite simply, Zoe Ball was a great candidate from what I strongly suspect was an all-female field that emerged completely naturally. I honestly can’t think of any man who’d have grounds to think he lost out.

And that wouldn’t have been the case if it wasn’t for Radio 2’s investment in female talent over the past few years. It probably doesn’t stop here, either, because those women who didn’t get the job are in pole position for other daytime slots that might become available in the future.

So the station might not have had the best gender balance in its daytime line-up until now – but they’ve certainly made up for it in their succession planning.

Chris Evans and the ultimate test of the radio star

On Monday morning, Chris Evans announced that he was giving up his Radio 2 show – the number one breakfast show in the country – and moving to the same slot on digital-only Virgin Radio.

The astonishing nature of this apparently voluntary move is hard to put into words. It’s possibly best exemplified by listing a handful of the stations that have a bigger audience than Virgin:

  • Heart Four Counties
  • LBC London News (the AM/digital-only rolling news station)
  • Mellow Magic

This is a massive coup for Virgin. And, for Chris, it’s a new challenge after what’ll be nearly nine years in the mornings at Radio 2.

Throughout those nine years, he’s had more listeners than anyone else since day one. While staying on top is still a big achievement, I can see why maintaining a status quo might lack the excitement that a high-energy petrolhead like Chris probably craves.

And what a challenge he’s taking on. In fact, it has the potential to be make or break for the whole idea of the radio star.

Chris Evans currently has 9 million listeners to his Radio 2 show and Virgin has an overall audience of 413,000. If Chris can bring even a small fraction of his Radio 2 audience over to Virgin, it’ll be a complete game-changer for the latter.

But radio listeners can be creatures of habit – especially Radio 2 listeners. Many radios never get re-tuned. Despite speculation that Chris Evans would shed listeners after taking over from the much-loved Terry Wogan, he actually grew the audience.

There’s also the possibility that not everyone who wants to listen will be able to. Realistically, you’ll need to have a DAB radio and live in part of the country covered by the Sound Digital multiplex. Not the biggest barrier to entry, but still a hurdle for some.

Whether or not Chris will be able to bring a decent number of his analogue and digital listeners over to a digital station is hard to say, as there’s not really a reliable precedent – at least not in this country.

Internationally, the closest comparison is probably Howard Stern’s move from syndicated terrestrial radio to satellite radio in the US. While there have never been any listening figures produced for the latter, the fact that the relationship has endured for well over a decade – with subscriber numbers increasing – suggests that it’s been a success.

If  Chris Evans doesn’t make a significant impact on Virgin’s figures then it’ll call into question whether listeners care as much about the concept of the radio star as the media do. But, if he can pull this off, we’ll know for sure that it’s not just a concept but an enduringly-valuable commodity.

Radio deregulation: the show’s on the road

Things just got real.

Six months after the government confirmed its plans to press ahead with the deregulation of UK commercial radio, Ofcom has announced the first concrete proposals, focusing on localness. These are:

  • Reducing the number of hours that have to be locally-produced on weekdays to 3, any time between 6am and 7pm, for stations that provide local news all day (or 6 hours for those that don’t) – and dropping the need for local programmes at weekends altogether.
  • Significantly enlarging the ‘approved areas’ where stations can share premises and programmes, bringing them roughly in line with the ITV regions.

Ofcom’s consultation runs until August – and the clear mandate from the government means it’s highly likely these plans will go through. If so, we could see some big changes to local commercial radio by the end of the year.

For me, there are two main questions.

1) Will this really mean the end of local programmes at peak times?

The proposed changes to the number of local hours – and when they can be – are no big surprise. After all, the government’s consultation response from the end of last year talked about letting station networks develop national breakfast shows.

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, though.

As the very knowledgeable Matt Deegan has pointed out, local – or regional – breakfast shows can be a good source of local sponsorship and promotions.

He highlights the fact that Capital North East already has the option to network all its output from London. The rules are that, if you hold a regional (as opposed to a local) licence and have national DAB coverage, you don’t need to do anything local.

Kiss and Radio X are two stations that have taken advantage of this, but Capital hasn’t.

Global could also very easily have given Heart the national DAB slot where Heart Extra currently lives, which would have enabled them to drop all regional programming in the North East, North West and West Midlands.

But, again, they haven’t gone down that road – and they actually chose to reinstate regional programmes when they bought Smooth, which was on national DAB at the time.

And then there are The Wireless Group’s local stations, which currently broadcast 13 hours of local output on weekdays – far more than the 7 that are currently required.

So, given that not everyone is exploiting even the existing possibilities to the full, I wouldn’t necessarily expect every station network to bump all local programming down to the afternoon slot as soon as they get the nod.

2) How will everyone feel about the new ‘approved areas’?

The much bigger ‘approved areas’ were something I didn’t see coming, and this is probably the more significant of the two proposals. Ultimately, it’s this one that removes both the need for local programmes to come from a station’s licensed area (or very close to it) and the need for any staff or premises in that area.

For station groups that want to take full advantage of this, the impact on jobs outside the major cities could be significant. So I won’t be surprised if this proposal generates a bit of criticism on that basis – just like we saw when the Main Studio Rule was abolished in the US.

If my back-of-a-fag-packet calculations are correct, Global would potentially be able to merge 24 sites across the UK into 10 and Bauer could go from 21 down to 9 if they wanted to.

However, it’ll be interesting to see how the smaller groups react, as geographical reasons mean that some stand to gain less than the biggest operators. For example, The Wireless Group would be able to merge 8 local studios into 5 – a potential reduction of 38% compared with Bauer’s 57%.

And Dee Radio’s two stations – Dee 106.3 and Silk 106.9 – both serve Cheshire, but the two stations will sit in two different approved areas. If they wanted to change the status quo, they’d need to make a special case.

So, while this proposal will definitely be music to the ears of some of the industry, it might not hit quite the right note elsewhere.

Hits Radio: the first week

Hits Radio logo

Never review a new radio show – let alone a whole new station – on day one.

Really, there’s no point. Everyone’s nervous and things often go wrong that’ll quickly get ironed out. It’s not a true reflection of how it’s actually going to sound.

I think listeners get this. After all, who can honestly say that their finest hour in any job came on their first day?

So I’ve been listening to the new Hits Radio all week before drawing any conclusions, and here are my thoughts.

Given the station’s name, it makes sense to start with the music.

As someone (almost) in the middle of the 25-44 target audience, the fresh, upbeat and mostly-current playlist really works for me. I wouldn’t mind a few more of the slightly older tracks, but I think the music policy is generally pretty good.

Some songs are on quite heavy rotation – Portugal. The Man is starting to wear a bit thin – but, to be fair, I’ve probably heard a lot more output over the past few days than I’m likely to in any normal week.

After a cautious start on Monday, the breakfast team has really been starting to gel over the course of the week and I think they’re going to be fantastic together.

It’s a cruel fact that a new and much-scrutinised flagship breakfast show with multiple presenters can often sound less slick than single-headed shows elsewhere on the schedule. This shouldn’t be remotely surprising, though – obviously it takes a bit of time for a group of people who haven’t worked together before to hit their stride.

Even in these early days I’ve really been liking what I’ve heard at breakfast. It’s especially good to have Dave Vitty back on the radio. He’s a very talented comedy writer and I’m hoping we’ll hear more and more of his work as the show develops.

As you’d expect, experienced jocks like Mike Toolan, Debbie Mac, Wes Butters and Sarah-Jane Crawford are sounding strong. It’s great that there’s plenty of content and personality outside breakfast – this, combined with the music, makes the station a lively and entertaining listen.

One thing that I’ve particularly been enjoying is So Wright’s late-night ‘Hits Chilled’ show. I like that this show plays lots of acoustic versions and chilled remixes – not just the slower end of the regular playlist. The music is spot-on for that time of night.

It’s worth mentioning that there’s also a good gender balance across the presenter line-up, which you don’t see everywhere.

As a London listener who knows the station’s backstory, I have to say that, after a week, it still feels a tiny bit like I’m listening to a local Manchester station with national news and travel.

That’s mostly due to the fact that so many of the accents on air – most of the presenters and all the callers I’ve heard – are northern. There’s no reason why that should be a problem if the content’s right, and it’s probably just a reflection of how London-based other national stations are.

It’s just going to take a bit of getting used to, that’s all. But, as this brand new station attracts more listeners outside its heritage heartland, the callers should become more geographically diverse.

One thing that’s a bit weird is the fact that they don’t tell you what time it is on the news. Maybe this is a trick to keep us listening for longer – like those Vegas casinos that don’t have any clocks so you lose track of how long you’ve been gambling.

And one final observation that doesn’t actually have a great deal to do with the station itself… What’s with the glut of Taylor Swift tickets?

The station is practically throwing them at listeners. Every caller to make it on air this week has been given a pair – and lots of them don’t even sound that excited about it. One guy easily blagged a third so he could take his whole family.

I thought this would be a sell-out tour with tickets rationed out as competition prizes like Capital do with the Summertime Ball.

Then again, when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not in the pop world, maybe my knowledge isn’t what it once was.

I obviously need Hits Radio more than I realised. After a decent first week, I’ll definitely be back for more.

Why Hits Radio makes sense

Hits Radio logo

Bauer Media don’t do things by halves.

On Monday, not only are they launching Dave Berry’s brand new breakfast show on Absolute Radio – but they’re also launching a whole new national radio station.

Hits Radio will be replacing Key 103 in Manchester and going national on local DAB multiplexes across the country.

No offence to Dave Berry, but it’s the launch of Hits Radio that I’m most excited about, because I think it’s a great idea on all kinds of levels. Here’s why…

It’s good for listeners

A brand new mainstream national music station is good for anyone who likes mainstream music.

It means more choice for listeners in the many parts of the country that don’t currently have a Bauer City 1 station. More choice means more competition. More competition keeps everyone on their toes, which helps to keep standards high.

The strong breakfast line-up of Gethin Jones, Gemma Atkinson and Dave Vitty sounds like it could be a particularly great addition to what’s currently out there.

It’s good for Manchester

Manchester has really been growing as a national media hub in recent years. It’s already home to the likes of BBC Breakfast, Five Live and 6 Music, plus Chris Country and loads of production companies.

A mainstream national music station based in the city is another big step forward.

Listeners in Manchester will still get all the local information they’re used to getting on Key 103. I’d imagine this will be top-notch, as Hits Radio will want to show the local audience that they still matter.

It’s a smart business move

Bauer doesn’t currently have a big national radio brand targeting the 25-44 audience. Kiss is a bit younger, Magic is a bit older. While officially the two target audiences meet in the mid-30s, you can see from Compare My Radio that there’s very little musical crossover.

So, when Bauer already have a regional network of stations targeting that lucrative middle ground, it makes a lot of sense to maximise its reach and the opportunities for a slice of the national advertising market that come with it.

They already have the studios, staff and output needed to run the current City 1 network. They also already have the DAB slots to carry Hits Radio in many major cities, including London and Birmingham.

So they’re essentially getting a commercially-appealing national station for the price of a rebrand and some extra local DAB slots. I like that.

It solves Bauer’s Key 103 problem

Key 103 has gradually been losing listeners and market share, so the rebrand to Hits Radio gives it a fresh start.

The publicity around the rebrand has positioned it as more than just a new lick of paint – it’s being sold as a brand new station made in Manchester and flying the flag for the city nationwide.

That might just work.