When the Radio Authority in the UK (since replaced by ofcom) first started the
issuing of multiple FM licenses, the promise was that this would usher in a new era
of diversity. A decade on and how hollow that claim sounds. So what went wrong?
For a country who, for years, had only had a choice of four BBC nationals, a
smattering of talk/local news-driven BBC regionals, Capital Radio in London or Radio
Luxembourg, the emergence of scores of new stations in the early nineties seemed
like an exciting development, especially when they included specialist genre-based
channels like Choice FM (R`n`B/Hip Hop), Kiss FM (Dance/Urban), Jazz FM (Jazz/Soul), Magic FM (M.O.R.) XFM (Rock/Indie), Mean Country (Country), Classic FM (Classical) and Sunrise (Asian).
Sadly, this brave new world soon turned out to be a con. The initial blame lay
squarely with the Radio Authority for simply not making the terms of license issue
firm enough. They could easily and justifiably have stipulated a minimum number of
stations dedicated to areas of music outside the mainstream, especially in large
city areas with significant multi-cultural populations. But they didn`t.
The next problem lay with the rules on takeover. When former pirates like Kiss and
Choice went licensed, their owners clearly wanted to expand the audiences for the
music they supported. But, as soon as the genuine independents began to be swallowed up by large media conglomerates, it spelt the beginning of the end.
When Kiss laughed in its core fans` faces, abandoning its Dance/Urban commitment and entered the race to carve up the Pop mainstream, there was shock and outcry amongst aficionados of House, Garage, Techno, Trance and other club-orientated styles. But what did they expect would happen when EMAP bought the station? The sad fact is that flimsy Radio Authority license terms meant EMAP could shift all the heavy Dance genres onto its early hours broadcasting and be free to play slightly Dancey mixes of Pop all day long. After all, what is a Dance record? Kylie, Girls Aloud etc. or just Armand Van Helden, Carl Cox et al?
The purchase of Choice by Capital Radio Group is further bad news for fans of urban
music though not nearly as scandalous as ofcom`s decision to allow the highly
successful Soul City FM and the Soul/Reggae specialist Fusion 1073 to be swallowed
up into Time FM and re-invented as Pop stations.
Meanwhile Guardian Media Group has bought Jazz FM and, with ofcom`s blessing, they have first dropped all traces of "Jazz" from its normal hours schedules and then
changed its name to Smooth FM.
So it goes on. GWR, the dominant group in the regions who turned imaginative
independents like Chiltern and 2-Ten into clones of Capital have now merged with
Capital Radio Group to form G-CAP. Soon EMAP will own Scottish Radio Holdings (so
bye bye Rock specialists, Virgin!) and how long before the other large groups like
Chrysalis (Heart, Galaxy, LBC etc.), Guardian Media Group (Smooth, Real Radio etc.)
and The Wireless Group (Talksport, Valleys, The Wave etc.) begin to merge and buy
off what tiny chunks are left in genuinely "independent" hands?
We are already in a position where about 95% of UK radio stations have identical
playlists. Specialist programmes continue to disappear even from evening and weekend schedules. Stations that once boasted great diversity in their off-peak programming like Kix 96 (Coventry), Centre FM (Tamworth), Wire FM (Warrington) and others seem to have abandoned this approach and given in to the relentless chase for RAJAR ratings and advertising revenues.
It seems incredible that a country like the UK has never, amongst its hundreds of
licensed stations, commissioned a Reggae station. But it`s true. Nor has there ever
been a station specialising in Folk or Blues.
A glimmer of hope has been offered by the emergence of digital radio. Initially,
TV-based through the likes of Sky Digital, Telewest or regional Cable companies,
digital radio was at a disadvantage, most people preferring to use their televisions
to watch TV! However, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) radio now offers new choices
including Rock specialists The Arrow (owned by Chrysalis) and The Storm (G-CAP), new BBC specialists like 6 Music (adult-orientated and diverse), 1Xtra (black music
genres), Asian Network (Asian music genres) and 7 (mostly drama) and a host of Asian music stations (Club Asia, APNA, AKash, Sunrise etc.).
Even so, the takeover process continues to "dumb down". GWR turned Classic FM into the classical equivalent of Capital or Heart, only playing the most popular,
easy-listening classical works and giving literally no airtime at all to the many
groundbreaking composers whose works transformed music in the last hundred years.
Generally, it is left to the BBC and the pirate stations to be the flag-bearers for
diversity. Radio one continues to serve Indi, Rock, Urban, Dance and Alternative
genres through its nigh-time schedules. Radio Two and 6 Music play a good range of
music while regionals like BBC London and BBC Wales provide individual shows that
support specialist genres. 1Xtra is good underground Hip Hop, Urban, Dance and Ragga but still not one Reggae or Soul show, so a pretty narrow spectrum of "black music". The BBC Asian Network is well thought of but has a massive brief given the diversity that exists within the spectrum of "Asian music" and "Asian interests".
Perhaps the best hope in the future lies with internet radio. After all, unlike
TV-based stations, one can listen to internet radio while continuing to look at
other web sites. It is early days yet but it seems clear that internet radio will
grow in importance. In the meantime, don`t count on DAB radio making any real
difference to the lamentable state of UK radio. Moreover, don`t count on ofcom doing
a single thing to support diversity now or in the foreseeable future.
Author Neil March is a musician and music distribution company owner. He started Labels Enabled in late 2003 due to his own experience of paying over the odds for services in the music industry and partly because he was coming into contact with so many other labels and artists who were struggling to afford decent plugging and promotion.
March is now running a full time distribution company, Labels Enabled, and helping many musicians and bands achieve UK and world wide exposure to their music.