Watchdog of commercial radio is determined to regain its bite

The Radio Authority, under the promising leadership of Tony Stoller, is setting about regaining its lost credibility. Nick Higham reports. Nick Higham is the BBC’s media

I first met Tony Stoller some 15 years ago, when he was the secretary of the commercial radio companies’ trade association, AIRC, based at an elegant Georgian terraced house in Bloomsbury.

In those days there were only 19 independent radio stations. Since then the industry has expanded to 180 local licences, and three national networks. Meanwhile AIRC has moved offices twice – once to a characterless Sixties block off the Edgware Road, and then to nondescript premises in that nondescript part of London that lies between Paddington Station and Notting Hill.

But while AIRC has moved progressively further west and further downmarket, commercial radio itself (after some vicissitudes) has gone from strength to strength, thus demonstrating Higham’s First Law of Trade Associations – the more insignificant the industry, the grander its association’s premises.

This works in reverse too. When ITV enjoyed an unchallenged monopoly of commercial television, its trade association occupied an unremarkable building near Oxford Circus. Now that Channel 4, Channel 5, cable and satellite television are all eroding ITV’s market position and importance, it has moved into the same glass palace in the Grays Inn Road as ITN, Reuters and Laser Sales.

These days Tony Stoller is chief executive of the Radio Authority. Before AIRC, he’d been head of radio programming at the Radio Authority’s predecessor as commercial radio’s watchdog, the IBA. After AIRC he went for a time to manage Radio 210 in Reading, and then spent ten years working for the John Lewis Partnership, most of the time spent as managing director of a department store in Southampton.

His return to broadcasting last year caused some surprise. At the Radio Authority – where he and the new chairman, Sir Peter Gibbings, have set about restoring confidence in an organisation whose credibility had suffered thanks to some wayward decisions – he is thought to have made a promising start.

He is a deft politician, clear thinking and cautious. His first months have inevitably been dominated by the Broadcasting Bill, though the Authority has also pressed busily on with advertising new radio licences at the rate of around two a month.

Where the Bill is concerned, the Authority lobbied successfully for commercial radio companies to be given a sweetener, in the form of automatic eight-year extensions to their existing licences, to encourage them to invest in digital radio – even though Stoller is so cautious about the prospects for digital taking off that it’s tempting to believe he thinks it’ll never happen.

The Authority is currently resisting efforts by its licensees to remove the ban on one company owning more than one FM licence in the same geographical area. The present chief executive of AIRC, Paul Brown, argues that listeners would benefit because a station with one FM licence already has the greatest incentive to make a second licence in the same area sound different, whereas independently-owned licensees might be tempted to ape the market leader, thus diminishing listener choice.

Stoller is adamant that competition between radio companies for listeners (and for advertising) is best served by ensuring that, for instance, Scottish Radio Holdings, which already owns most of the commercial stations north of the border, isn’t allowed to take over its only significant competitor, Scot FM.

But the irony is that Stoller has returned to the world of broadcasting regulation just at the moment its future is in question.

One of Labour’s broadcasting spokesmen, Lewis Moonie MP, is on record as saying he thinks the Radio Authority ought to be abolished once Labour has established its new super-regulator for broadcasting and tele communications, Ofcom – although Moonie apparently wrote to Stoller after making the remark, saying he’d been answering a question on the hoof, not enunciating party policy.

But the Independent Television Commission too is feeling the draught. Labour wants a single media regulator; the Department of Trade and Industry is vying with the Department of National Heritage for control of a sector which it sees as a branch of telecommunications, with broadcasting, computing and telephony converging.

In fact radio, of all the electronic media, is least likely to be involved in that convergence, which is premised on the idea that all kinds of information and entertainment will reach the consumer via cable – whereas most radio listening is done on portable trannies, part of whose appeal is that they need not be plugged into a socket in the wall.

But more generally both the Commission (which also has a new chief executive, Peter Rogers, who moved up from the number two post last month) and the Authority believe their style of regulation – concerned with the quality of a public service, not just its price, and involving the laying of positive obligations on licensees – still has a significant role to play.

But it’s an argument Stoller and Rogers, Sir Peter Gibbings and whoever succeeds Sir George Russell as chairman of the ITC, may find themselves having to put to whichever government is in power.

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