The talk of the town

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The last clutch of Greater London licences awarded by the Radio Authority was in October 1994. Not long afterwards, its highest-profile choice, the women's station Viva! 963, collapsed amid transmission problems, financial losses, and slatings from the critics.

On Thursday the Radio Authority is to announce the recipient of the last available FM licence for Greater London, and it seems reasonable to assume that it will play safer this time round. After all, another licence awarded that October went to Premier Radio, the Christian radio station forced to relaunch and slash its budget last year after listenership plummeted.

So, partly because it is the last FM licence likely to come up, and partly because commercial radio is undergoing a renaissance, the battle for the 104.9 frequency once used by Melody FM has been hotly fought. The Radio Authority received 25 applications by its July 9 deadline, many highlighting the gaps which remain in the independent London radio sector: for a specialist business and sports station, a reggae station, a rock station, a children's station, a station for over-fifties, an Irish station, an Asian station, an alternative music station, a French-language station.

Some stand out. The application which attracted most media attention is for The Edge, largely because it is backed by Michael Caine, the actor, and the Radio 1 DJ Chris Evans's Ginger Group, and because it has been promoted so heavily. But it is highly credible: it proposes to start the country's "first" radio station targeting 15- to 24-year-olds, playing new and untried music, an area only rivalled by the new-look Radio 1 and, perhaps, Capital.

This pounds 8m bid is obviously a strong contender, even if it remains unclear whether The Edge's chief asset, Chris Evans himself, has not queered the pitch by the reprimands he has earned from regulators, or whether he would be a presenter on the station (he is under contract to Radio 1 until the end of this year).

XFM is also a runner. The bidders previously applied for the FM licence which went to Virgin 1215 in 1994; it considered, but did not go through with, a judicial review over the RA's decision. This time round its bid has been partially underwritten by Harvey Goldsmith, the concert promoter behind the likes of The Three Tenors and Bruce Springsteen. There is support for its plans to provide a "specialist alternative rock music station whose service will be influential in the lives of its 15- to 34-year-old target audience", and many in the industry tip it as likely to win.

Meanwhile there are other bidders with equally powerful, if different, strengths which the Radio Authority has been pondering. One is London Children's Radio, a bid conceived by two London mothers after they became annoyed at the lack of a radio station to keep their young ones entertained on car rides to Tesco.

At first sight the idea of a children's radio station may appear unappealing, but examination dispels doubts, although perhaps not enough persuade the RA to stick its neck out. Jane Curzon and Rikki Waller, backed by the Trocadero organisation, want to set up the equivalent of Children's TV on radio: a service which will entertain (and, very much in second place, educate) children with stories, readings of new works by up-and-coming authors, quizzes, interviews, child presenters and singalong music (the Spice Girls, Monty Python).

Here, the danger is that LCR will be seen as a vehicle to flog Noddy and the Famous Five, following the Trocadero's purchase of the rights to the Enid Blyton estate a year ago. But a rival bid to set up a station for children, from Buzz FM, may be perceived as too American-biased; its backers include Radio Aahs, which broadcasts children's radio in the US.

On the other hand, Buzz FM's plans and patrons are impressive, as are its ideas for homework phone-ins, the broadcast of new and classic drama, programmes in which parents can swap childcare tips and live broadcasts from Disneyland. And as the managing director, Andy Shaw, forcefully points out, "Twenty per cent of the population are children."

What else is on offer? Well, Capital wants to snaffle the old Melody frequency so it can shift its Capital Gold service ("the most popular hits from the Sixties to the Eighties, presented by some of the UK's most famous broadcasters") on to it from AM. This, as with a similar bid from Atlantic 252, is a cast-iron application with a proven track record; the difficulty for the Radio Authority will be whether it can pass - or be seen to pass - the new public-interest test of increasing "plurality and diversity".

There is an argument that both Capital and Atlantic would do this, of course, by reaching an FM audience for the first time. Both would offer guaranteed security from the problems which beset Viva! in its short and troubled life (it is now reborn as Liberty 963 under the ownership of Mohamed al-Fayed, who is also applying for the FM licence for Rocket FM, a rock station). But they are almost too safe a choice when there are so many worthy applications.

Admittedly some of the bidders may not be adequately financed or organised. The three separate applications for an Asian station (Sangeet FM, Sunrise Radio and Super FM) are certainly wild cards although there is a good argument that the estimated 750,000-strong potential audience in Greater London deserve their own service.

But what about a gay service as proposed by G104.9 FM? Here, too, the statistics are persuasive: estimates suggest there are more than 500,000 gays and lesbians in Greater London, none of whom have a specialist radio station at present, many of whom may feel isolated, or be in need of health advice. G104.9 FM can also offer impressive backers, including Elton John, Colin Bell, MD of London Records, Matthew Parris, writer and broadcaster, and Planet 24. The station is after the pink pound, convinced it will be forthcoming in the shape of advertising for restaurants, clubs, grooming products, music releases, and new films; but others want the grey pound. Saga has applied for the licence to provide "a high-quality speech and music service aimed at people over the age of 50" - and this, too, must win a second look from a Radio Authority aware that older listeners are barely deferred to at present in the commercial sector.

It is impossible to describe all the bids in a short space, but the others not mentioned so far include Nomad 104.9, new alternative music for a young audience; Sakthi Radio, for the Tamil community; Soul 104.9 FM, soul and Motown; Choice FM, music for Afro-Caribbeans; Energy, new young music; and Festival, indie music and listings.

Which will win the chance to broadcast to a potential audience of 5.9 million adults? Well, here's my shortlist, in descending order: The Edge, XFM, Capital, Buzz FM, Atlantic. But don't hold me to it. The Radio Authority could yet surprise us alln