View from City Road: Ownership rules leave radio in a mess

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The radio sector looks to be in an increasingly unholy mess. Witness the virtual deadlock at Chiltern Radio, where Daily Mail & General Trust appears to be doing its best to prevent anyone else gaining control, although it cannot - or will not - bid itself.

CLT of Luxembourg is offering 242p a share for Chiltern, in a bid backed by the radio group's board. But it is opposed by DMGT in alliance with European Media Associates. Together with Capital Radio, the sector giant, and GWR, the group in which both DMGT and Capital have 17 per cent cent, the antis own more than 52 per cent of the company.

DMGT would presumably like to buy Chiltern. But national newspaper owners cannot hold more than 20 per cent of local radio stations. Which is why it has jumped into bed with EMA - they have a combined holding in Chiltern of 29.99 per cent.

This arrangement has similarities to Emap's attempt to get around the limit on the number of local licences any one owner may have (perhaps unsurprisingly, since they share the same merchant bank, Schroders).

That deal is subject to judicial review and it might be that, if it gets the go-ahead, DMGT will feel able to have a go at Chiltern. In that case the lawyers' fees will mount alarmingly; a challenge from CLT would be almost inevitable.

This crazy situation has arisen because the radio ownership rules are wildly out of kilter with the aspirations of the big groups attempting to consolidate a highly fragmented but increasingly profitable sector. Even the Radio Authority wants them changed.

So it is a pity the Government is apparently unable to find room for a Broadcasting Bill in the next session. Ducking the vexed question of cross- media ownership is understandable. The danger is that regulation in all its forms will fall into disrepute, as frustrated buyers find increasingly devious ways to subvert the existing legislation.