Local anaesthetic

As the Radio Authority prepares to get tough with local radio operators, Edwin Riddell tunes in to the BBC and its commercial rivals, and finds 'parish pump' services under increasing pressure
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Britain's local radio is a world apart. It may be the fastest- growing medium in the country, but the content is ... Well, judge for yourself. On BBC Three Counties Radio - "across Beds, Herts and Bucks with news, views and entertainment" - a woman phones in to report final success in her campaign to get a refund on her husband's air ticket. The circumstances are unusual. Before he could get on the plane, it seems, her spouse had received his final call from the great pilot in the sky. He wouldn't be able to use his ticket. Ever. Presenter Stephen Rhodes - "fighting for your rights" - took credit for intervening with the travel company.

Ah but, the lady demurs, when they sent the cheque they forgot to put a stamp on the envelope. She herself had to pay 40p excess postage. Life just isn't fair.

Three Counties, a mainly speech format, battles it out daily with Chiltern FM - "a better music mix for Herts, Beds and Bucks". Chiltern is part of the GWR commercial chain, which operates an ever-growing empire of radio stations. Chiltern has one huge advantage in the localness stakes over its BBC rival: commercials. A torrent of them. A5 Furniture of Flamstead, the Galleria Hatfield, Tempo Superstores (Bushey and Hemel), Unicorn Windows of Leighton Buzzard, even the Francis Bacon school - "grant maintained, St Albans" - to name but a few. Against this busy, lively, workaday tide, Three Counties' Stephen Rhodes is floundering. A planned follow-up to the surplus ticket situation, on making wills, dies a death. A representative from the Consumers' Association intones that more than a quarter of our testaments are incorrect. From Barratt to Stevenage you can sense gnarled hands grasping for the off switch. Is that the target audience revolving in its grave?

Still, it's soon the midday hour and a chance to show who's boss in local news and info. Three Counties leads with the Catholic Church insurance fund. There's the Labour conference, an explosion near Bristol, Mandy Allwood. Not much that's local, though - a Watford FC transfer, four men fined for counterfeiting Oasis T-shirts at Knebworth. An out-of-work Luton labourer is sought for a considered view of the Workfare scheme. "It's better than sitting around on my arse all day," he opines.

Over on Chiltern FM, the vox is even more pop. "More music less talk, that's the new sound of Chiltern FM," instructs the presenter for the nth time. Even that's not strictly true. There are so many ads that we've only heard four tracks in half an hour.

Many of the many ad breaks feature eight or nine successive commercials. On some commercial stations, it seems, the ads are the programming. As for news, at one o'clock on Chiltern there's a gobbled, derisory race through the Bristol explosion, electricity and gas prices, chicken bacteria and the Nobel prizewinner. A short item on the Jobseekers' Allowance is the only discernably local piece before "another Chiltern FM non-stop music marathon".

Does any of this matter? After all, Chiltern and the other local commercial stations regularly thrash both their BBC local rivals and Radio 1 in the ratings. Traditionally, what radio or even TV stations do as opposed to what they say they will do in their franchise applications has always been good for a laugh.

Commercial radio is now largely in the hands of a few groups - Capital, GWR and Emap. For these it makes eminent sense to roll out central programming services. "It pays to do everything as cheaply as possible," admits one station chief who asked not to be named.

There is an audience for the parish pump. Research surveys regularly cite local news and information as the top priority of listeners. And Century Radio, a commercial news and information service in the North- east, performed better than conventional music formats in other regions.

The problem is cost. To do any kind of speech radio well is expensive. BBC local radio used to provide an alternative but has been starved of cash to the point where it, too, has had to amalgamate and duplicate services. It shows. "Welcome to three hours of radio made up as we go along," says Three Counties' afternoon host Ronnie Barbour. Ronnie is about to jump off the deep end of local radio. Otherwise known as the appeal for phone- in callers. "And if it's vaguely funny that's also welcome." Ronnie has a plausible expert on phobias on the line. Before long, he's looking for "songs you can play in the dentist's chair".

Against this kind of opposition, commercial stations simply haven't had to bother. But there are signs this may be changing. Ten days ago, the Radio Authority handed down a pounds 2,000 fine to Leicester Sound for not meeting its licence "promise of performance". It is the latest in an increasing number of such penalties. On the same day, the authority published new criteria by which it will test for "plurality of ownership", local range of programming and "diversity in sources of information".

What this boils down to is an insistence that commercial local radio stations at least should be more local. The Radio Authority has said it will postpone decisions on new stations in Cambridge, the East Midlands and the sought-after 104.9 London FM franchise in order to assure itself on such matters.