Broadcasters battling to be heard: Applications for four new radio licences in London must be in by the end of this month. Rhys Williams wonders whether the capital already has enough on its dial

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Not content with the 15 commercial radio stations already clouding the capital's ether (17 if you include the national networks Classic and Virgin), the Radio Authority is accepting applications for four new services - two AM, two FM.

In addition, a to-be-specified number of FM frequencies nestling from 105 to 108 MHz will be available to local and community radio stations in January 1996. There are, however, industry concerns that in the mad dash to spoil listeners for choice, the authority is spoiling the medium itself.

Sheila Porritt, managing director of Melody Radio, the easy listening station which began in 1990, said: 'There has been a worrying increase in the number of people not listening to radio at all in London. It's as though there's been Big Bang too soon and it could be there is confusion among listeners about what is available. Instead of tuning in to find out, they're switching off.'

RAJAR figures confirm the number of listeners to radio, including non-commercial stations, in the capital fell to 88 per cent in the first quarter of this year from 92 per cent in 1992. Instead of exposing London to more stations, Ms Porritt believes the authority would be better off concentrating on cities such as Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle, where services are less developed.

'I believe in the expansion of radio but that should take into account prevailing economic conditions. The Radio Authority has tended to say 'we've got a spare frequency, ergo let's license it'. Of course, they will say that there is demand from companies to run the licences in London. But if you asked me if I'd like to own a Rolls-Royce, I'd say 'yes' - that doesn't mean I could afford to run it.'

From 1973 to 1987 there were two commercial stations on air in London - Capital and LBC. Today there are 15, of which 10 are capital-wide. Throw in national networks Classic, Virgin, Talk Radio UK (due on air next February) and, of course, the four new licences up for grabs, and we are talking about a commercial marketplace only marginally less crowded than Portobello Road on a sunny day.

Commercial radio's growth in London has been remarkable - it has more than doubled its share of listening hours from 25 per cent in 1987 to 57.2 today. But despite Ms Porritt's talk of 'Big Bang', it has not been through deregulation.

Commercial radio is a managed market. So while it has opened up to additional operators, particularly in the past four years, entry is regulated by the Radio Authority. Under its mandate to 'extend listener choice', the authority ensures no new operator duplicates an existing service and zealously polices programme promises made in licence pitches.

This means none of the current clutch of licence hopefuls can propose a dance music station since Kiss 100 FM is out there. Ditto for easy listening (Melody), chart music or golden oldies (Capital FM and Gold), country and western (London Country 1035), and jazz (er, Jazz FM).

The authority insists it is merely a facilitator, leaving the job of determining whether a market exists to prospective operators. However, it does point up the 48 applications it received last year for six existing and two new licences. With four new services being advertised this time, the authority believes the response could run to three figures.

And, while there are potentially new formats floating around, it is obliged to play the Man from Del Monte. 'There are a lot of people out there wanting to get into London,' a spokeswoman explained. 'As long as they present healthy business plans and original programming ideas, who are we to say no.' Hoping for the big yes are the proposers of a women's station, Radio Viva. Chaired by Lynne Franks and backed by the Jazz FM owners, Golden Rose, Viva will adopt a magazine format, a talking Marie Claire without pictures.

Viva missed out last year and will again have to beat off a stern challenge from London FM, a mixed speech and music format backed by Emap Radio and chaired by Joan Bakewell. Liz Kershaw, Sarah Greene and Felicity Kendall have been signed up as non-executive directors to help to fashion a station also pitched, though not exclusively, at women.

Another to bid unsuccessfully last year, X-FM is tipped to clinch an FM licence to launch an Indie station. Backed by Harvey Goldsmith, Robert Smith of the Cure, and Fiction Records, the band's label, the station has used two restricted service licences to devote airtime to the sort of bands that regularly crop up in NME and Melody Maker.

Although London Regional Transport will not be resubmitting plans for a travel channel (so no cheap gags about no bulletins for half an hour, and then three together), consortia pitching for specialist sport, comedy and business services are sure to apply again.

Most activity is expected in the 'adult contemporary' format. That, according to one of the front-runners, London 106 FM, means music that is 'highly melodic in style, does not include hard musical sounds (dance or rap), is primarily lyric-based and perceived not as from a previous era.' Right.

The authority's awarding of an additional licence in Birmingham to an adult contemporary station - Heart FM - is exciting speculation that it will do the same in London. Good news then for Mark Story, programme director at Manchester's Piccadilly Radio and at the fledgling 106 FM. He insists a whole tranche of older (well 25-40) listeners 'disenfranchised' by Radio 1 changes are ready to tune in to wall-to-wall Simply Red, Phil Collins, Chris Rea and Dire Straits.

But is there a market for more commercial radio? Launched in the teeth of the deepest advertising recession, the last big wave of new stations have had a mixed time since geting licences in 1989.

Jazz FM had lost its way, straying over the insolvency cliff, until Golden Rose took charge in 1991. Losses have been halted and listeners are steady at 560,000-a-week. Last year, the company won a second licence to broadcast in the North-west and it is set to embark on a pounds 500,000 promotion under the name J-FM.

Melody Radio, unkindly described by someone once as 'the stereo equivalent of a flotation tank' to which you could 'turn on, tune in and drop off', has regularly pulled a healthy 760,000 listeners.

In many ways, Kiss has faced the most searching examination. The former pirate has had to prove that in coming above board, it has lost nothing of the underground. The 904,000 listeners a week and 2.6 per cent share it currently and fairly consistently commands suggests it is succeeding.

Steve Cox, a strategic planner at the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), says rather than stealing from each other, new commercial stations have drawn listeners away from the BBC.

In London, Radio 1 has suffered most. Since 1986, commercial radio's share of listening hours has risen to 57.2 per cent from 27.4; Radio 1's has more than halved to 8.8.

'The evidence of recent years is that more commercial stations have meant more commercial radio listening with the BBC being squeezed. The question is how long that can continue, because at some point there will be a plateauing and new stations will begin to cannibalise each other.'

The RAB is bullish about commercial radio's earning potential. Its national share of all advertising revenue has been static at around 2 per cent. Last year it hit 3.4per cent.

By 1997, the bureau predicts it will rise to 5 per cent, which, if growth forecasts in all advertising are correct, would represent pounds 384m. 'If that happens there is easily enough scope to support the growth of new stations.' Easy listening to a string of commercial radio hopefuls, heavy metal to the BBC.

NOT CONTENT with the 15 commercial radio stations already clouding the capital's ether (17 if you include the national networks Classic and Virgin), the Radio Authority is accepting applications for four new services - two AM, two FM.

In addition, an as yet unspecified number of FM frequencies nestling between 105-108 MHz will be available to local and community radio stations in January 1996. There are however industry concerns that in the mad dash to spoil listeners for choice, the authority is spoiling the medium itself.

Sheila Porritt, managing director of Melody Radio, the easy listening station which began broadcasting in 1990, said: 'There has been a worrying increase in the number of people not listening to radio at all in London. It's as though there's been Big Bang too soon and it could be there is confusion among listeners about what is available. Instead of tuning in to find out, they're switching off.'

RAJAR figures confirm that the numbers listening to all radio (?) across the capital fell to 88 per cent in the first quarter of this year from 92 per cent in 1992. Instead of exposing London to still more stations, Ms Porritt believes the authority would be better off concentrating on cities like Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle, where services are less developed.

'I believe in the expansion of radio but that should take into account prevailing economic conditions. The Radio Authority has tended to say we've got a spare frequency, ergo let's licence it. Of course, they will say that there is demand from companies to run the licences in London. But if you asked me if I'd like to own a Rolls Royce, I'd say 'yes' - that doesn't mean I could afford to run it.'

From 1973 until 1987 there were just two commercial stations on air in London - Capital and LBC. Today there are 15, of which 10 are capital-wide. Throw in the national networks Classic, Virgin, Talk Radio UK (due to come on air next February), and, of course, the four new licences up for grabs, and we are talking about a commercial marketplace only marginally less crowded than the Portobello Road on a sunny day.

Commercial radio's growth in London has been remarkable - it has more than doubled its share of listening hours from 25 per cent in 1987 to 57.2 today. But despite Ms Porritt's talk of 'Big Bang', it has not been the result of unfettered deregulation.

Commercial radio is a managed market. So while it has opened up to additional operators, particularly in the last four years, entry is regulated by the Radio Authority. Under its mandate to 'extend listener choice', the authority ensures that no new operator duplicates an existing service and zealously polices the programme promises made in licence pitches.

This means none of the current clutch of licence hopefuls can propose a dance music station since Kiss 100 FM is already out there. Ditto for easy listening (Melody), chart music or golden oldies (Capital FM and Gold), country and western (London Country 1035), and jazz (er, Jazz FM).

The authority insists it is merely a facilitator, leaving the job of determining whether a market exists for new channels to the prospective operators. However, it does point up the 48 applications it received last year for six existing and two new licences. With four new services being advertised this time, the authority believes the response could run to three figures.

And while there are potentially new formats floating around, the authority is obliged to play the Man from Del Monte. 'There are a lot of people out there wanting to get into London,' a spokeswoman explained. 'As long as they present healthy business plans and original programming ideas, who are we to say 'no'.'

Hoping for the big 'yes' are the proposers of a women's station, Radio Viva. Chaired by Lynne Franks and backed by the owners of Jazz FM, Golden Rose, Viva will adopt a magazine format, a sort of talking Marie Claire without the pictures.

Viva missed out last year and will once again have to beat off a stern challenge from London FM, a mixed speech and music format backed by EMAP Radio and chaired by Joan Bakewell. Liz Kerhsaw, Sarah Greene and Felicity Kendall have been signed up as non-executive directors to help fashion a station also pitched, though not exclusively, at women.

X-FM, another to bid unsuccessfully last year, is tipped to clinch an FM licence to launch an Indie station. Backed by Harvey Goldsmith, Robert Smith of the Cure, and Fiction Records, the band's label, the station has already used two restricted service licences to devote airtime to the sort of bands that regularly crop up in NME and Melody Maker.

Although London Regional Transport will not be resubmitting plans for a travel channel (so no cheap gags about no bulletins for half an hour, and then three together), consortia pitching for specialist sport, comedy and business services are sure to apply again.

But the most fevered activity is expected in the 'adult contemporary' format (or 'AC' as it is known in the trade). Which, according to one of the front-runners London 106 FM, means music that is 'highly melodic in style, does not include hard musical sounds (dance or rap), is primarily lyric based and perceived not as from a previous era.' Right.

The Radio Authority's recent decision to award an additional licence in Birmingham to an adult contemporary station - Heart FM - is exciting speculation that it will do the same in London. Good news then for Mark Story, programme director at Manchester's Piccadilly Radio and at the fledgling 106 FM. He insists there is a whole tranche of older (well 25-40) listeners 'disenfranchised' by the changes at Radio 1 who are ready to tune in to wall to wall Simply Red, Phil Collins, Chris Rea and Dire Straits.

That the suppliers are queueing up, there is no doubt. But is there a market for more commercial radio? Launched in the teeth of the deepest advertising recession, the last major wave of new stations have had mixed time since winning their licences in 1989.

Jazz FM had lost its way and strayed over the cliff marked insolvency until Golden Rose took over in 1991. Losses have been halted and listeners are holding steady at the 560,000-a-week mark. Last year, the company won a second licence to broadcast in the north west and is about to embark on a pounds 500,000 promotional push under the new name J-FM.

Melody Radio, unkindly described by someone once as 'the stereo equivalent of a flotation tank' to which you could 'turn on, tune and drop off', has regularly pulled a healthy 760,000 listeners.

In many ways, Kiss has faced the most searching examination. The former pirate has had to prove that in coming above board, it has lost nothing of the underground. The 904,000 listeners a week and 2.6 share it currently and fairly consistently commands suggests it is succeeding.

Steve Cox, a strategic planner at the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), says that rather than stealing from each other, new commercial radio stations have drawn listeners away from the BBC. In London, Radio 1 has suffered most. Since 1986, commercial radio's share of listening hours has risen to 57.2 per cent from 27.4, while Radio 1's has more than halved to 8.8 per cent.

'The evidence of recent years is that more commercial stations have meant more commercial radio listening with the BBC being squeezed. The question is how long that can continue, because at some point there will be a plateauing in commercial radio listening and new stations will begin to cannabalise each other.'

The RAB is bullish about commercial radio's earning potential. Its national share of all advertising revenue has been static at around 2 per cent. Last year it hit 3.4 per cent. By 1997, the bureau predicts it will rise to 5 per cent, which, if growth forecasts for growth in all advertising are correct, would represent pounds 384m.

'If that happens there is easily enough scope to support the growth of new stations.' Easy listening to a string of commercial radio hopefuls, heavy metal to the BBC.

(Photograph omitted)

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