Thursday, 1 July 2010

Book Review - Sounds of Your Life: The History of Independent Radio in the UK

As someone who is interested in the history of British broadcasting during the past 50 years,  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Tony Stoller's new book  'Sounds of Your Life: The history of Independent Radio in the UK'

Tony Stoller was formerly Chief Executive of the Radio Authority. He has also been a member of the IBA’s Radio Division, director of the Association of Independent Radio Contractors/Companies (now RadioCentre) and MD of Radio 210.  His book has been described as “…remarkably frank and detailed revelations about what really went on behind the scenes at the IBA and Radio Authority”:

Independent radio was introduced into the UK in the early seventies. It was intended to be local, public service radio, funded by advertising but meeting a social as well as a market purpose. Across the eighties, as the old economic and political consensus came undone, what had been Independent Local Radio (ILR) gradually took on more the characteristics of commercial radio as understood elsewhere in the world. Independent National Radio (INR) arrived in the nineties, and by the first decade of the new century it was clear than independent radio had been replaced by commercial radio. This book charts the history of the rise and fall of independent radio. It is also a fable, illustrating the failure of the social liberalism of the seventies, and what happened when it was replaced by the market liberalism of the nineties.

I have often suspected that much of the 1972 Sound Broadcasting Act was devised as a means of getting the proposals through a conservative (with a small 'c') parliament; Postmaster General Christopher Chataway & co's way of allaying MPs' fears that commercial radio would be little more than non-stop pop jukeboxes. That was the argument put forward by those opposed to commercial radio, or who wanted Britain to avoid what they considered to be the "excesses" of commercial radio in the USA.

Under the Act the Independent Broadcasting Authority would own the actual licences and appoint 'programme contractors (i.e. the actual stations) to operate each local 'franchise'. The term 'independent radio' was the preferred description of the new service; describing them as 'commercial radio' was frowned upon. Stations would pay an annual 'rental' with the more-profitable also being subject to a 'secondary rental' levy, which would be used to help fund specialist programming such as concerts and documentaries, which would also be made available for other stations to broadcast.

With the exception of London, which was to have two stations - one providing 'General Entertainment' and the other 'News' - the new ILR stations were expected to provide a broad range of programming and would be required to provide “a public service disseminating information, education and entertainment”.

Even Capital’s schedule included drama, daily serials ("She And Me", “Dapple Downs"), a weekly arts magazine, classical music (with the late Robin Ray) and Brian Rust’s Sunday evening show where he played vintage 78s.  Some very early programme schedules from Capital and Metro can be found here.

News was considered the most important aspect of programming, even to the extent that the IBA could decide how much news a station would carry. There was also a requirement to provide programmes “of an educational, religious, informational, children’s or other specialised nature”. Any changes to a station’s programme schedule even had to be cleared with the IBA beforehand.

For those whose experience of dealing with the regulator has been either with the 'light touch' Radio Authority or the lighter but 'evidence-based' Ofcom, the heavy regulation of the Independent Broadcasting Authority during the 1970s and 1980s will probably come as something of a shock.

Beyond the annual monitoring exercise, the chief mechanism for keeping ILR companies to their obligations was prior approval of programme schedules. Stations had to submit proposed schedules quarterly, with additional proposals for Christmas, Easter and any other time of significant change from normal output. The detail required was formidable, including regular feature items within each programme; the amount of music normally played within programming; regular competitions and promotion spots; time and duration of news bulletins; non-British content; live music slots; and any networked, syndicated or purchased material. Along with the fully exercised right of the IBA to approve any changes in broadcasting hours, this was highly interventionist regulation, and involved a lot of paperwork. IBA Radio Division staff actually checked all the incoming schedules, and did not infrequently go back to stations to require changes. In practice, though, the relationship was more sympathetic and informal than the apparent rigidity of the system implies.

Included in a Radio Consultative Committee Paper in 1978, in what was for those days a rare flash of lightness, was a supposed “caricature” of a scheduling discussion.  

ILR programme controller: “Can I have approval to give the Top 40 show on Sundays to Bill Smith, so that Fred Jones can stand in for Ian Brown doing jazz on Wednesdays?

IBA radio officer: “We don’t mind too much about that, but isn’t it time you included some local education?”

That was not so far from reality, as I recall it, revealing the depth of involvement of the regulator in the programming process.

One of the more-interesting areas covered by Tony's book is how the IBA and Radio Authority approached the awarding of licences. It explains much of the thinking behind the IBA's decision to strip Radio Victory of the Portsmouth ILR franchise and award the newly-created Portsmouth/Southampton one to Ocean Sound. There is also a chapter that deals with the highly controversial decisions not to re-award LBC's licences in 1993, as well as the award of a London FM licence to Virgin Radio (which already held the INR2 national licence) in 1994.

It also reveals that when Capital was re-awarded its FM and AM licences in 1994 the Members of the Radio Authority asked Lord Chalfont, the RA Chairman, to "convey the Authority's disquiet about Capital's complacency".  It seems the meeting had been told there had been "a certain amount of arrogance" in Capital's approach, and noted, presciently as it turned out, that the strong adult contemporary applications "represented a challenge to Capital's dominance."  One of the other FM winners on that occasion was Chrysalis Radio's application as 'Crystal', offering a similar AC format to its recently-launched West Midlands regonal station, Heart FM, and which would eventually launch the following year as Heart 106.2.

One key chapter deals with what is now known as the 'Heathrow Conference' of ILR managing directors in June 1984 (so called because it took place at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow Airport), at which they called for less-interventionist regulation under the Independent Broadcasting Authority and greater commercial freedom. Tony Stoller considers this to be the pivotal moment in the transition from 'Independent Radio' to 'Commercial Radio'.

The book also acknowledges that, in hindsight, the Radio Authority's licensing strategy (and continued in a similar vein by Ofcom) resulted in the licensing of too many small-scale stations which would be unlikely to be profitable. In many cases those stations had based their market projections on having run a number of short-term 28-day Restricted Service Licences but, in the cold light of day, discovered the hard way that the local economy wasn't always able to support a longer-term station.

Some of these stations were then sold for what often turned out to be a vastly-inflated price which the new owners could only really have a chance to recoup through heavy cost-cutting or, in some extreme cases, simply handing back their licence.

At the time it was hoped these new stations would have provided "...a last flowering of the independent radio notion within ILR," but all too often they hit the reality of the commercial world in short order. 

Here and there, some applicants had from the beginning more of an eye to the profit to be gained from selling on the licence than on the romance of running a station for their home town, but these were a smallish minority. Yet there were significantly more who were soon persuaded to sell on by the difficulty of making a go of it in the early months, the blandishments offered by potential buyers, and the natural anti-climax which came after the winning of the licence itself.

Events of the past week or so, in which Global Radio has re-structured its Heart and Gold 'brands' and the news that GMG proposes to turn the Smooth stations into a single national service, as a result of the new Digital Economy Act, would seem to have brought an end to the original ideals of 'Independent Local Radio'; stations which were locally-owned and locally-based while providing 'public service broadcasting' for a broad audience.

It makes Tony Stoller's final words even more poignant.

The house of independent radio has fallen; its commercial radio heirs are largely indifferent to their legacy; the old music has died. These days, if you want to listen to the sounds of your life in a single accessible local medium, you will mostly search in vain … except in the echoes of the past.

Sounds of Your Life: The History of Independent Radio in the UK by Tony Stoller (Published: John Libbey & Co Ltd.).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Paul, it looks like an interesting read.

    The spirit of ILR in the 70's and 80's may not have been strong enough to resist the power of the commercial imperative but no one can deny there was something new, interesting and creative going on. LBC/IRN redefined radio news in ways that left the BBC standing. Local ILR stations gave communities new points of focus and great entertainment. It seems odd to contemplate in these very commercial times, but the largely laissez-faire Canadian owners of LBC tolerated losses year after year, before finally throwing in the towel and letting the Aussies in.

    It would be naive to wish that it could all have carried on - the market simply refused to support ILR sufficiently in those early days for the model to continue, leaving the door open to the argument of commercial imperative that drove the amalgamations, takeovers and ultimately diluted what was so special about it all.

    Happy days though!