In My Opinion: Greg Russell: What now for local radio?

ONCE upon a time, when Independent Local Radio was alive and kicking, you could drive across different parts of the country and pick up a flavour of your current locality by tuning into the area’s ILR station.

There, you could find out why you were stuck in the five-mile traffic jam you’d just driven into. You could listen to local presenters who were allowed to chat on air – some of them even had live guests (who were not necessarily celebs). You could listen to a fairly extensive playlist, the make-up of which changed according to your locale. And you had a good mix of local, national and international news.

Make the same trip now and the (centralised) traffic report might not mention your traffic jam because it hasn’t yet been reported; your (voice-tracked) presenter will make the same dull statements between songs – “This is [insert station ID] … your number one station for music in the [insert location] area”; the (narrow) playlists at opposite ends of the country will be virtually identical (with very few exceptions). You’ll still have the news – but that might be broadcast from a hundred-odd miles away. And it will be shorter than in the past.

Sound familiar?

ILR used to (according to its mission statement) set out to entertain and inform, and, for many years it worked, despite the regulatory obstacles put in its way by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

Now, with few exceptions, these ILR basics have all but disappeared from commercial radio and are firmly ensconced in the domain of the BBC. And, unless something is done about it, they’ll stay there.

Last month, I made my last broadcast for an ILR station I helped set up nearly 30 years ago. I devoted around 20 seconds to a criticism of the station’s owners and management for the destruction of something with which I have a close affinity – something that used to be valued by its growing audience.

I’m not doing to dwell on the rights or wrongs of that broadcast. My intention was to open up the debate about independent radio – where it’s going, what it’s doing, who’s listening, what listeners want.

Judging by what I’ve heard and read in the way of reaction to that broadcast, there are widely varying answers to those questions.

There are some who would replace commercial radio presenters with jingles or voice-tracked drop-ins: “I think in reality listeners just want pure non-stop music, with the occasional well placed adverts throughout the hour …“, from a contributor on the Digital Spy website forum, who was not (I hope) entirely serious.

So what do local radio listeners want?

If I had all the answers I wouldn’t be writing this.

But I do think that commercial radio owners and operators should repeat the old mantra ‘localness, localness, localness’ and try to re-engage their audiences.

They can wring their hands and say “we can’t afford to produce local programmes … falling revenue … recession …” and the like – but they should be taking the longer view. By investing in local programming now, they’ll reap the rewards when the economy finally turns. Local programmes don’t have to be expensive.

Networking and programme sharing might be easier now, with [broadcasting regulators] Ofcom having opened the door to it, but ignoring local audiences now will make it more difficult to win them back in the future. Sure, there is a place for networking – but too much of it will cause audiences to go elsewhere. If people want a national sound, they’ll go to a BBC national or regional station, or listen to digital or go online.

There are many other factors that will have a bearing on the future of ‘commercial radio’ (formerly ILR), but it would take a treatise to adequately explore them all.

Suffice it to say, the debate will continue for years to come.

Greg Russell is a freelance broadcaster and journalist and has been involved in the media for over 30 years. He has worked for Independent Radio and the BBC; and for various publishers, including DC Thomson, The Scotsman Group and The Herald. He has also been involved in training journalists in print and broadcast journalism.