Radio: The battle for Manchester

This week, Ofcom awards a hugely lucrative FM licence for the plum Manchester market. Ciar Byrne talks to some of the 19 bidders
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The Independent Online

ow do you choose between rock music radio, a station aimed at Asian youth and the voice of Bob the Builder? This is the question facing Ofcom this week, when it announces the winner of a new FM radio licence in Manchester.

ow do you choose between rock music radio, a station aimed at Asian youth and the voice of Bob the Builder? This is the question facing Ofcom this week, when it announces the winner of a new FM radio licence in Manchester.

The prospect of an analogue radio platform in one of the UK's biggest, most affluent cities is so attractive that the likes of Chris Tarrant, former Radio 2 chief Jim Moir, Factory Records founder Tony Wilson and former Greater Manchester police chief John Stalker are all backing bids.

Covering a population of 1.3 million and worth £20m a year in advertising, the licence for 97.7 FM has attracted 19 bids from commercial radio companies - the highest number since Ofcom took over licensing from the Radio Authority.

The regulator is charged with choosing a station that will cater to local taste while broadening the range and diversity of radio in the area. Its task is made no easier by the variety of proposals, which range from easy listening for the over-40s to radio for the under-fives.

Despite the diversity, patterns have emerged. Notably, several bidders have identified a gap in the Manchester market for rock music. At present, the city's leading radio stations provide a mainstream musical offering. Emap's Key 103, the city's largest commercial station, plays mainly contemporary chart hits from the past three years, aimed at a broad market of 15- to 44-year-olds. The second station, Galaxy 102, owned by Chrysalis, plays a mix of current and classic dance music for people in their teens and twenties, while Magic 1152, Capital Gold and Century 105 provide cheesy listening for the over-30s.

Chrysalis believes there is an untapped market for classic rock in the city and is bidding to launch an analogue version of its digital station The Arrow, playing rock music from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties for the over-40s. The chairman Chris Wright said: "In the US, classic rock is a very established, very successful format. We haven't ever had a successful rock format station in the UK, and I think the time is absolutely right. It's best to have a station like that in an urban environment where there's a rock tradition. I can't think of anywhere else that would be more perfect than Manchester. Ever since the Sixties, it's had a huge tradition of developing great rock groups."

The merged GCapMedia also proposes a popular rock station, FM 97.7 The Storm, with a playlist combining contemporary hits with pre-1990s classics. Corporate development director Matt Deegan said: "It reflects the music culture of Manchester, which has always had a cutting-edge indie and rock base."

For younger hard-rock fans, Emap has enlisted the support of bands such as the Beastie Boys, Feeder and the Stereophonics to back its proposal for a Mancunian version of Kerrang!, a rock station already running in the West Midlands, where it is about to celebrate its first birthday.

Another theme running through the bids is catering for older listeners. Jim Moir hopes to take on his former employer, Radio 2, with a new format backed by the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? creators Celador. Moir argues that if commercial radio is to redress the balance of the latest Rajar listening figures (showing that more than half of the total adult radio audience choose BBC stations), they must allow new ideas into the market. He is on the board of 97.7 The City FM, a service combining easy listening, speech and local news provided by Granada for an audience of over-35s.

Moir said: "The majority of commercial radio is targeted at the younger end of the market, and some might argue it is over-served. The competition - public service broadcasting - is mainly at the mature end of the market. So I see the possibility for expansion in the commercial radio sector as being the 40-plus market."

Original 98FM is also targeting a more mature audience of 30- to 59-year-olds, with a cooler proposition of "alternative adult" music - tracks that have not made the top 20. Local legend Tony Wilson is creative adviser to the station, which is 75 per cent owned by the Canadian company Canwest, taking advantage of the recent relaxation of rules to allow non-EU firms to control UK media.

Three bidders target the Asian market, in particular young second- and third-generation Asians. Masti Radio, backed by the Asian-specialist Sunrise Radio group, plans to broadcast predominantly in English, unlike the existing Asian Sound Radio, which broadcasts programmes in Urdu and Hindi that appeal to older listeners.

Sunrise chief executive Usha Parmar said: "Our research has shown that the youngsters are not currently listening to Asian Sound. There aren't any stations currently available for young Asians. What makes us stand out is that we are also trying to integrate the community in a subtle way. We have also got programming that is aimed at the black community."

Other bids do not fall into any category. Fun FM, owned by GWR and Hit Entertainment, the company behind the children's television characters Angelina Ballerina and Thomas the Tank Engine, is bidding to become the first children's radio station with an FM licence.

The station, which already broadcasts on digital, plans to make its money by advertising to parents and carers, while providing programmes for the under-fives during the day and for all the family at breakfast and drive time. Fun FM chief executive Gregory Watson said: "Pampers spend £26m a year on advertising, but at the moment spend none of that on radio."

Unity Radio is an independent station aimed specifically at Manchester youth, promising a platform for local talent and educational features for young people on business and communication skills.

It is vital, Jim Moir believes, that whoever wins does not simply impose an existing radio format that could be heard in any city. "Above all, if you're going to serve a city like Manchester, you have got to understand what makes it tick. It is one of the most exciting places you can be."