FM's 'small men' square up to Virgin

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Radio Authority will tomorrow lay bare its vision for the future of the medium when it announces the results of its 15-month consultation on how the only remaining FM frequency, 105-108 MHz, should be allocated.

In the blue corner the might of Richard Branson, desperate to switch his crackly Virgin AM service to crisp FM, and most of the advertising industry, all of whom have lobbied hard for a single national FM station.

In the red corner, Brian Thomas from Dagenham - 26, a full-time foreign exchange dealer, part-time radio buff and co-founder of Active FM, sometime community radio station in the Barking/Havering area.

The prize? The chance to compete for a share in a sector that could be worth pounds 450m in advertising revenue by 2000.

Mr Thomas and a host of other community radio services have petitioned the authority to ignore the many calls for a new national music station in favour of a lattice of small-scale services, ranging from stations covering a radius of 10 km to wider regional franchises. 'Everybody seems to coming out for Branson and no one is thinking about the small man.'

Mr Thomas, needless to say, considers himself a 'small man'. 'If the Radio Authority goes for another national station, that will totally restrict the future development of commercial radio in Britain. And when people say that's what they'd like to hear, I don't think they realise how many smaller stations there are.'

Mr Thomas set up Active FM in 1990 with three friends - Colin Bartlett, who owns a record shop; Lee Stephens, an electrician, and a third personwho would rather his employers did not find out what he is up to.

They have so far broadcast for a total of six weeks on two restricted service licences.

With a third restricted licence this August, they will add another month to their experience, from a shopping centre in Romford. Each stint on air has cost them around pounds 4,000, mostly financed through local sponsorship. 'We'd always been interested in radio and felt that the existing commercial stations were not providing the service.'

Should Active make it to the 105-108 band, the station will continue to play music from the 70s and 80s and provide a forum for local groups - from Christian Fellowship to council representatives. 'Every piece of information given out will be immediately relevant to the people listening. From the business point of view, we want to offer small companies who can't afford ILR rates the chance to advertise. We'll be community styled, but commercially viable.'

And popular, Mr Thomas maintains. 'A dipstick survey in Romford market after our broadcast last year showed that one in four people had heard of or listened to Active FM.'

Frequencies being used by BT, British Gas and stag hunters in Scotland become available in January 1996. According to research by James Walker,

associate director at the Henley Centre for Forecasting, two-thirds of all adults favour a national rock and pop station.

In April, the tender for a national medium wave talk-based licence attracted six bids, the highest an astonishing pounds 3.8m from Talk Radio UK.

(Photograph omitted)

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