NB : This article was written on the week of the Murdoch’s appearance before the Commons Select Committee and may therefore contain date references that don’t quite match today (August 7th)
Not so long ago, the commercial radio sector launched one of its frequent attacks on the BBC. It was a tried and tested criticism, that Radios 1 and 2 were encroaching too much on the kind of output provided by commercial radio. Indeed, the history books show that successive Governments openly talked about Radio 1 being privatised, because of the perception that it did something that could be provided on a commercial basis.
The reality, though, is quite different. No single commercial radio station carries the depth of specialist music genres that Radio 1 does – and its coverage of events like Glastonbury (together with 6 Music) outweigh anything that its commercial rivals can manage.
So now the commercial sector has a new target it its sights. The news and talk radio market.
The BBC Trust has recently completed a public consultation on its news and sports network Five Live. And it’s being done at a time when Five Live is under more scrutiny than ever, with its mass move to the BBC’s new centre in Salford.
Enter RadioCentre, a trade body that represents the commercial sector. Its submission to the BBC Trust pulls no punches. It’s Chief Executive Andrew Harrison says:
“In a week when news and journalism are in the spotlight [a reference to phone hacking], it is more important than ever for the BBC to provide radio listeners with the best source of impartial, accurate rolling news. Radio 5 Live is the obvious outlet for this, but its drift towards entertainment-led output means it often falls short of that aspiration.”
The submission itself acknowledges the steady growth of Five Live’s audience in recent years, and also makes the case that some commercial speech stations have enjoyed an upward trend (mainly LBC and TalkSport). But this apparent success is somehow seen as a problem for the BBC according to RadioCentre :
An ill-defined remit has exacerbated an identity crisis at 5 Live that has led to mission creep and confusion over its core purpose and distinctive role.
And Andrew Harrison goes on to conclude:
“[Five Live] requires a greater focus on high quality news output and distinctive sports coverage that will benefit industry and listener alike – and less time spent interviewing celebrities, covering light entertainment stories and running phone-ins, which is the staple output of local commercial stations.”
So let’s examine what commercial radio is doing when it comes to news and talk.
The UK’s only all-speech commercial station is TalkSport. And whilst its owners, UTV Radio, are not members of RadioCentre, the company does have form in claiming that Five Live isn’t doing enough by way of hard news. But apart from that, there’s very little evidence that there’s a real appetite for talk radio, with perhaps the exception of the well established LBC in London.
Two significant recent examples back up this theory. Talk 107 was launched in Edinburgh as an all speech format, but folded in 2008. In the same year, Liverpool’s Radio City launched City Talk. If there was a market for speech anywhere, it’s Liverpool, right? Well, not quite. In recent times, City Talk has scaled back its live, bespoke content, sharing sports and phone in shows with its music station – and running non stop music overnight and at weekends – a move which some believe is an attempt to ditch talk altogether and place the Magic brand on FM.
And in general terms, commercial radio has scrapped long form news programmes and reduced the number of regular phone ins.
ROLLING NEWS – THE ARGUMENT RUMBLES ON
Ultimately RadioCentre’s arguments centre around the assertion that Five Live is stepping on the toes of commercial talk radio, preventing growth in the sector – and generally not doing enough of the core “news and sport” output in favour of “entertainment”. And yes, it’s true that Five Live has a mix of hard news and softer features.
But when push comes to shove, the evidence is firmly in Five Live’s favour. This week, large parts of its afternoon programming were pulled to bring rolling coverage of the Murdoch’s appearance before a Commons Select Committee. And this morning, normal service was suspended to reflect the tragic events in Norway.
There’s no reason why commercial radio couldn’t provide a similar service. Indeed, the original TalkRadio UK had ambitions to do just that – and during the 7/7 bombings even Capital FM switched to all news, presented – interestingly – by one Richard Bacon – one of the current targets of RadioCentre.
The reality, though, is that good talk radio costs money. That requires investment that looks beyond the bottom line of profit. If commercial radio really were serious about the market, it would be collaborating to make that investment. Together, the big groups of Global and Bauer could buy out TalkSport and redefine it. There’s a ready made network of journalists and newsrooms – staff who’d love the chance to do more than their current short bulletins on the air.
Perhaps that should be the focus of the commercial radio industry’s efforts, instead of another empty sideswipe at the BBC.