Macquarie hovers in UK radio wings

The Australian media giant is keeping quiet about its UK business objectives. However, Sarah Crawley-Boevey canvasses some industry experts to find out what its game plan might be.

Today, Macquarie is a minnow in the pond of UK radio. But other operators should watch out: the Australian company is a big fish internationally and has its sights on these shores.

Alarm bells started ringing last month when the company, through its subsidiary Arqiva, made a bid for arch rival National Grid Wireless (NGW), one of two bidders for the second digital radio multiplex.

The deal is still subject to approval from the Competition Commission, but if it goes through, and if NGW was to beat Channel 4 to the multiplex, Macquarie would have interests in Digital One, Digital Two and Freeview.

Will Harding, group strategy and development director at GCap Media, which owns a majority stake in Digital One, says: "It's a concern for the industry as a whole, but particularly for radio because transmission is our biggest single cost after staff.

"While there are two companies offering transmission, we will often be able to offer long-term commitment to one in return for a good deal, but when both are owned by one company, that won't be possible. Committing to work with someone is our carrot."

GCap is now "looking very carefully" at the impact the deal will have on its business and that of the industry as a whole, and will be discussing its concerns with Arqiva, NGW and the regulatory authorities.

The Aussie connection

Macquarie Media Group is an investment fund established to create a platform for investments in a broad range of media assets globally. It owns a 100% interest in Macquarie Regional Radio works, the owner and operator of the largest commercial radio network in Australia, with 87 commercial radio stations in 45 licence areas in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.

But what does it have to say? Sadly, very little. The company refused to speak to Media Week. It offers few interviews to the press and there is limited information about its strategy or plans in the UK.

Until the verdict is in on the acquisition of NGW, which Arqiva stresses was its operation, not that of its parent company Macquarie, neither is willing to reveal any element of its tactics. But speculation is rife.

After failing to secure radio stations through application, some observers ask if it is now attempting to get in via the back door and launch stations on the second digital multiplex, for example, if it is won by NGW. However, some industry experts dismiss this.

Paul Bates, an analyst at Charles Stanley Securities, says: "Its interest in UK radio licences was clear because it was applying for them everywhere and it tallied with what it had in Australia, but what it's doing in other areas is not necessarily closely related.

"I would imagine they're not worried that competition issues might lose the multiplex for NGW - that acquisition was about something much bigger."

This opinion is backed up by the thoughts of another radio industry expert who is close to Macquarie, but who asked to remain anonymous.

"Macquarie is heavily into the transmission side of things because it sees it as more exciting," he says. "It was interested in winning licences, but after it only got one, it reassessed its options and decided to do a U-turn."

Distribution assets

He dismissed suggestions Macquarie might be interested in scooping up Virgin Radio or Chrysalis, both on the market, as a ready-made route into radio. "It is buying up distribution assets and won't be interested in buying stations," he said.

Yet, it is only a year since Macquarie hired two big guns to advise on its subsidiary, Radio UK Holdings, in the form of Emap Radio chairman Tim Schoonmaker and Emap Radio's managing director of national brands, Shaun Gregory, in an attempt to establish a radio presence similar to that in Australia by winning a slew of UK regional licences advertised by Ofcom.

The failure of this ambition seems to have brought a rethink and a major strategy change. But this may be a positive move in terms of immediate financial return. Even its rival for the second multiplex, Channel 4, admits there is more money to be made from owning the platform than putting content onto it

MACQUARIE

Parent company The Macquarie Bank Group comprises the Macquarie Bank and a series of affiliated entities across the world, focusing on the investment and management of infrastructure businesses, managing EUR28bn in equity

- Macquarie Infrastructure Group's investments also include the M6 toll road in the Midlands and its airports division has stakes in Bristol International and Birmingham Airports

- Macquarie Communications Infrastructure Group is quoted on the Australian Stock Exchange and invests in communications infrastructure such as broadcast transmission towers, wireless communication towers and satellite infrastructure

- This includes the 44% stake in Arqiva, which provides transmission services to TV and radio in the UK

- Last week, Macquarie announced it had bought a 50% interest in Airwave, the UK's police radio network.

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