2012 – The Year Of Freedom?

Who says the commercial radio industry’s lost its buzz? After years of consolidation and claims of local communities losing their localness, I reckon there is much to celebrate. Or at least keep a keen eye on. And who’d have predicted that the big showdown of 2012 wouldn’t be in London, but the West Midlands?

The drama started a few weeks ago when Orion Media took the ambitious step of announcing the end of one of the best known names in the industry. Birmingham’s BRMB – together with Mercia in Coventry, Beacon in Wolverhampton and Hereford and Worcestershire’s Wyvern – are to lose their identities in the name of freedom – or to be more accurate Free Radio.

Orion’s boss, Phil Riley, has predictably been overseeing a backlash from the listeners and the anoraks. And it’s easy to see why. A little over a year ago I was questioning the wisdom behind Global Radio’s decision to rebrand Trent FM and two other East Midlands stations to Capital. Ditching a heritage name is not something to be done in a hurry.

Yet it’s over 18 months since Orion bought its portfolio of stations on the West Midlands, and Riley has decided that it’ll be easier to sell a single brand to national advertisers, whilst at the same time shaking off some of the dated connotations associated with BRMB et al.

Which would have been interesting in itself, not least because – in a recent Radio Academy podcast – Phil was careful not to disclose the details of the Free Radio brand. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t – because this week an unlikely rival has entered the market.

UTV radio already had a small interest in the region with The Wolf, pulling in 53,000 listeners. It’s currently one of the group’s weaker performing stations, so perhaps it’s not all that surprising that it too was looking at a strategic long game.

Coincidentally, the MNA newspaper group had put its stations in Kidderminster and Telford up for sale. It had even threatened to hand the licences back to OFCOM and turn the transmitters off. It was just too tempting a deal for UTV.

The result will be a single brand for the West Midlands portfolio – rather cleverly extending the Signal Radio brand from Stoke. This opens up the possibility of a single news hub, daytime networking and a second major brand for advertisers across the region.

This won’t be the first time that two or more networks have competed in the same region. The likes of Smooth and Capital have jostled for space with heritage names in places like the North West and Central Scotland for some time. But arguably, it could be the first time we see two mainstream, part local/part networked stations chasing a similar audience.

The middle ground, quite literally, of middle England.

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