It’s the silly season, when many people with “normal” jobs are away on holiday, and most of the movers and shakers at Westminster are enjoying a few weeks of respite from the close scrutiny of those pesky journalists.
We all accept it. August is a time when there is no news, apart from the huge success of the Olympics. Yet this accepted complacency runs the risk of missing one the most important developments in the history of UK commercial radio.
Right now, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is asking OFCOM to look into the proposed takeover of GMG Radio – the owners of the Smooth and Real brands – by Global, the country’s biggest radio operator. And – bang in the middle of the summer holidays – you only have until Friday to air your views.
It’s already riling Paul Keenan, the Chief Executive of Bauer Media, which arguably stands to be affected the most by the £50 million deal. He’s told Radio Today:
“We were very concerned when the takeover was announced. Global Radio taking over all of GMG Radio is a significant landmark and Jeremy Hunt’s decision to ask for feedback during a time when people are distracted with the Olympics and potentially on summer holidays is not good.”
The perceived threat is that Global will most likely ditch the Real Radio brand, which has been struggling to sustain audiences across Northern England and Central Scotland – the focus of Bauer’s radio business. It could see heritage stations like Metro, Key 103, Radio City, Clyde and Radio Aire competing against Heart FM. Regional breakfast and drive shows in Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds would remain, with the rest of the output coming from Global’s London base.
This would be on top of the assault already launched in those markets by Global’s roll out of Capital – thus attacking both the younger and older end of Bauer’s demographic. Not surprising, then, that Bauer should go on the offensive against the merger. Keenan continues:
“The outcome would be less choice for listeners – we are concerned for the short and long term implications this deal could bring. Ofcom should be looking at more than just news provision”
Bauer’s strategy thus far has been completely at odds with that of Global. Live and local programmes in its key markets remain strong, and whilst there is some networking, the distinctive names and brands dating back to the earliest days of commercial radio are still there. Bauer even stole a march on its rival Capital North East by recently poaching its breakfast presenters.
The digital radio market could prove to be even more interesting. At the moment, Bauer operates its medium wave network of Magic stations in tandem with its FM outlets. But another possibility is that Global will replace GMG’s existing Smooth Radio brand with Gold – raising the prospect of two oldies formats operating in the same market across Northern England and Scotland.
Some observers reckon that Jeremy Hunt’s consultation is merely a formality, which will then leave Bauer with a difficult choice. Will the long standing heritage of names like Hallam and Forth be enough to hold their own against the marketing and branding machine of Heart? Or will there be a significant change in their strategy?
Bauer might well cry foul when it comes to plurality. Yet sometimes, consolidation is the only way of keeping some stations alive. Real Radio – although setting out with good intentions – appears to have lost its way in recent times. Full service formats like Real have struggled to survive in the face of increased competition.
It remains to be seen whether Bauer’s heritage names will go the same way.