Maggie Brown...On Commercial Radio Ownership

Maggie Brown...On Commercial Radio Ownership

Maggie Brown

Make no mistake, when the Government last week altered course and accepted the "two plus one" rule in commercial radio, it was ushering in a huge degree of ownership concentration.

It is a striking decision, flying in the face of advice from the Radio Authority and Puttnam committee. There will be a backlash. For sure, it has been presented as sweet reason, moving from a "three plus one rule" to "two plus one". But that's wrong. Three owners plus the BBC was only a proposal. And that represented a big ratchet up from the current lower base, which allows owners to hold licences worth (in points) 15% of the market.

The deal agreed by Government raises the number of points one owner can amass to 55%, (in a defined listening area). It is a massive jump upward. Working out the merger regime will be a field day for media lawyers. But obscure details should not sweep the real concentration issues under the carpet.

So Capital Radio could control not two but eight licences in the London area, with similar changes in towns and cities across the UK. And the changes coincide with the decision to lift foreign ownership.

So the Texan-controlled Clear Channel could make a huge impact on the sector. When Clear Channel's founder addressed the Radio Academy in July he saw the medium as one to sell hamburgers and toothpaste. A far cry from the civilized veneer provided to the current sector, thanks to GWR's Classic FM.

There is no weighting, either, in the new regime, for the relative importance of certain licences, speech against music. It is also a fact that the BBC's local radio radio network, the "plus one" in the equation, is patchy.

Second, consider the lesson as the Communications Bill is published this week, sparking the legislative process. There is still everything to lobby for. Nothing has been set in stone. What cheer to the merging sides at Carlton, Granada and the Barclay brothers as they pursue the Glasgow Herald.

The spin is that the Government is reasonable, seeking consensus in sectors which will rely heavily on self-
regulation. But it looks like it is prepared to bend before vociferous campaigning. That those with the most resources or the highest placed friends will get change.

The commercial radio companies conducted a high-
profile, all hands to the pump, lobby to get the previous clause overturned.

It helps to have a repected Labour peer at your head: Lord John Eatwell, chairman of the Commercial Radio
Companies Association has delivered. And, uneasy thought, why should the commercial lobbyists stick at
a 55% ceiling? And why should regional newspapers be
subjected to a tougher lower ceiling?

So, prepare for a lobbyists' bunfight, from independent producers to advertisers. Why should anyone manage down your expectations? But be prepared. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. We have yet to see the guardians of public service content in full cry.

Last week, at a Lambeth Palace lunch, in the presence of a brace of bishops, it was clear they had a great many worries about safeguarding religious broadcasting.

Children's television lobbyists are also pledged to write in protection, to tighten the definition of public service broadcasting and raise ITV's obligations. The Government has already agreed to add international issues and science to a specified list of content and make ITV show news and current affairs in peak time. Light touch?

The commercial radio decision is a charter to keep pushing, to the bitter end.

There will be other surprises.

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