Leading Article: Mr Branson has a point on sharing FM

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The Independent Online
RICHARD BRANSON'S suggestion that his new national commercial radio station, Virgin 1215 - which makes its debut today on AM - should eventually take over Radio 4's FM frequency will strike many listeners as outrageous. Yet it is in many ways logical. Music, after all, gains a great deal more from the stereo effect available on FM than does the spoken word. Furthermore, if national commercial radio is to be given a chance to compete on even terms with the BBC, to the consumer's benefit, it should have a fair share of the best available waveband (though AM has its advantages, since its geographical coverage is less patchy).

The fault lies with the Government. Under the Broadcasting Act of 1990, the Radio Authority, which licenses and regulates independent stations, was given just three frequencies to allocate as the first national commercial radio stations (the other 120-odd are local). One was on FM; the other two were already being used on AM as additional outlets for Radios 3 and 1, which broadcast mainly on FM. One was to be allotted to a non-pop music licensee, another to a speech-based station, leaving the third open to all comers.

The Radio Authority decided that the non-pop station should be granted the FM slot. After a group calling itself Showtime Radio had mercifully failed to finalise its backing, it went to Classic FM, which has since proved hugely successful. Virgin secured the Radio 3 AM slot. Radio 1's will not be advertised until early next year, partly because the Radio Authority wants to see how much new advertising revenue the first two national stations will generate. At present, commercial radio attracts only 2 per cent of total advertising spending.

According to experts, Britain suffers from a paucity of available broadcasting frequencies compared with other European countries partly because the Government has not relinquished those it took over before the Second World War for the Ministry of Defence, police, ambulances and the like. The radio lobby also resents the loss to broadcasting in the mid-Eighties of the frequencies on which black-and-white television had been transmitted. These were ceded to private mobile radio users, such as taxi and utility companies.

Technological progress promises to ease the shortage, though it will not solve the problem permanently. Digital audio broadcasting, being developed by a European consortium, will in the short term bring CD-quality sound and convenience to radio by exploiting digital processing technology. In the longer term, it will enable more services to be be broadcast on a given spectrum. But decisions will still have to be taken on allocation of the available resources. If the Government is serious about broadening choice on national radio, the playing field will have to be levelled - at the BBC's expense.