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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