Media: Fury of a would-be venture Capitalist

Capital Radio's Richard Park may look laid-back but, as the commercial radio industry celebrates its first 25 years, he is a frustrated director of programmes. Why? It's the Byzantine nature of licence regulation and competition with the BBC.bins

Everywhere you go at Capital Radio's Leicester Square office in London, pop music is playing, loud and relentlessly. It's in the reception area, the lifts and the corridors. And the radio's on full blast in the office of Richard Park, the director of programmes, who this week celebrates 25 years in commercial radio. The predominant feeling around the place is that a quarter of a century of this industry has made it brash and confident - but also mightily frustrated.

Park's career tells the story of the successful side of the business. In October 1973, when the first commercial radio licences were awarded, he joined Radio Clyde in Scotland as a DJ and sports presenter, and remembers it as a period of liberation. "After years of nothing but the BBC, we could see the desperate need for diversity," he says. While most of commercial radio was practically strangled at birth by over-regulation, Clyde gave a voice to Scottish nationalism, and was so successful that it soon overtook the local BBC stations in listening figures.

In 1987 Park moved to London, where Capital Radio was thriving after a rocky start. He launched Capital Gold in 1988, and has presided over a maturing business, focusing increasingly on a target audience of 15- to-34-year-olds, and on expanding Capital's businesses around the country to make it one of the three big national players along with GWR, which owns Classic FM, and Emap, the owner of London's Kiss 100 and Manchester Piccadilly.

Now, though, as the parties get under way to celebrate the 25-year anniversaries of the business, and of Capital, there is a sense of looking to the future with frustration - of a need for commercial radio to break loose once more if, after coming of age, it is to be allowed to mature.

A glimpse into the in-tray of Richard Park explains why. His priority right now is connected with a radio licence that is up for grabs in the North-east of England around Newcastle, and which will be awarded by the Radio Authority this Friday. Along with 15 others, Capital has put in a bid, and would like to establish "Fun Radio", a station for children aged four to 14, that would include pop music, competitions and phone- ins alongside a remit to make technology fun and to connect the radio to using the Internet.

It's all very sound, and very New Labour with its emphasis on community, science and creativity. But it raises a number of issues. Why is it, for instance, that the BBC, which has nearly half the radio listenership in the country and is financed by a licence fee, not already developing children's radio? Or put another way, why is commercial radio offering a public service that the BBC has failed to satisfy?

Park, like many in the business, is irritated by the relationship between the BBC and commercial radio. The BBC, he says, is concentrating on doing things that the commercial sector could do equally well, like playing pop music on Radio 1. It tries to keep its market share up, for instance by bringing down the age of its target audience for Radio 2; and its success with Radio 5 could make the station a direct competitor to any future development of Talk Radio.

But the fact which most annoys the commercial sector is that, when faced with competition from the BBC, they are not on a level playing field. The BBC has the flexibility to change its stations' remits overnight if it wishes - to make its target audiences older or younger, to switch its music styles or whatever. Commercial radio, though, is hamstrung by strict conditions on licences which can result in tough fines for even minor infringements. Last year Leicester Sound was found to have only 341/2 minutes of speech in a three-hour period, when it was supposed to have 36 minutes. For a 90-second infringement of its licence, the station was fined pounds 5,000. Park reckons the situation is unsustainable, and that "it's not inconceivable that some BBC channels will fall into the commercial domain in the next 10 years" instead of replicating services and splitting audiences.

The North-east raises another thorny issue. The Radio Authority has proved extremely reluctant to award new licences to any of the three big commercial radio companies, and if the past is anything to go by, it will bypass them again on Friday and favour a smaller, local player. The idea is to widen diversity - but the consequences have often been perverse.

Last year, for instance, the authority spurned bigger companies and awarded a London licence to one Chris Parry, who proposed an alternative music channel called XFM. While many liked Parry's choice of music, the station did not make money and looked as if it would fold. After nine months Capital was able to step in and buy it because, despite its complete power in awarding licences, the Radio Authority can block their sale only if the prospective purchasers are seen as "unfit".

Park, understandably, seems, if not bitter, then astounded. "For running a station for nine months and failing, the guy will get pounds 4m," he says, "which is more than I'll ever earn for succeeding in the business. It's not a judgement about him, it's a comment on the system."

The same could happen in Newcastle - a small group of individuals could be awarded the licence, and sell out to Capital within a year. Anyone wanting to make a fast buck should be thinking about applying for a radio licence - it's a far faster route to riches than a lottery ticket.

Both barriers to the expansion of Capital, and the other big players, are part of a bigger debate over the future of commercial radio. The system as it stands puts firm obstacles in the way of consolidating radio companies, and does not allow them to grow as American radio giants have. Unsurprisingly, Park and others would like government to free up the heavy regulation on commercial radio, in its next Broadcasting Bill. Though that would be a "second term" priority for Labour, Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, seems sympathetic. In a speech to an industry audience in June he said the Government was "committed to regulation with the lightest touch," and his department would "continue to listen to the radio industry and help where we can".

Park argues for the end to a points system that limits the market share of any large company. Each is restricted to 15 per cent of the potential total audience for commercial radio - which sounds reasonable until you realise that a small station like XFM can take up as many of Capital's points as its Capital station, simply because it has the potential to reach as many listeners; never mind that it doesn't in practice.

Also, the system is far more restrictive than television - where the limit on growth is 15 per cent of the total audience, including the BBC. If the BBC were included in the radio calculations, it would practically double the maximum size of Capital and its main competitors.

It's not necessarily that big is good. But everyone recognises that the situation is a mess, with powerful companies anxious to expand but facing illogical limits on their ability to do so.

Capital still has a number of points left, and is in acquisition mode, but a few years down the line it will, like GWR and Emap, be straining at the leash, and desperate for Government to allow commercial radio to approach its half-century anniversary in a less contorted, far freer market- place.

Ups And Downs Of Life In The City

1973: On 16 October Capital and LBC are the first two commercial radio stations to launch in the UK. The omens are not good: it's the middle of the three-day week and a lot of business has halted. The first disc to be spun on the station is "Bridge over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel.

1976: Launch of Help a London Child campaign, and of the Flying Eye, London's first traffic-spotting plane. But the early years are a struggle, and the station relies on cash injections from investors such as The Observer, and at one stage chairman Richard Attenborough (above, left) pawns a Degas painting to pay wages.

1979: 1 April - Capital's Sunday Soapbox features John Irving from Golders Green, who declares that the Government has axed the next two Thursdays. Most listeners are not fooled, but a Middle Eastern Airline cancels Thursday flights.

1984: Chris Tarrant (above, right) joins Capital, initially working on the Lunchtime Show, but soon moving to the breakfast slot, where he will eventually wage "the war of the two Chrises" with Chris Evans.

1987: Capital becomes the first radio station to float on the London Stock Exchange.

1990: Capital FM's audience exceeds that of BBC Radio 1 in London for the first time. Its 3 million listeners a week make it the most popular metropolitan radio station in the world.

1996: Capital gets permission to construct a weather station on top of Euston Tower. Gusting winds make readings impossible.

1997: Capital moves from Euston Tower to Leicester Square in the West End.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat