Listening to American radio is like walking into an ice cream parlour that offers 32 flavours and all of them vanilla. Some are more poppy, some are more rocky, but the format is so formulaic, stations achieve a degree of homogeneity that would make Unigate Dairies proud.
There are fears that further deregulation of UK commercial radio may lead to a similar situation here. In January, the Radio Authority agreed to replace its mechanism for safeguarding the character and diversity of commercial radio with a more flexible system that gives stations greater freedom to adapt their output to market needs.
Under the old system, each station was issued with a Promise of Performance (PoP) that formed part of its licence and described in detail what it would broadcast and when. PoPs frequently ran to several pages detailing the proportion of speech to music programming; the length, frequency, timing and emphasis of news bulletins and weather forecasts; the type of music played and its subcategories; and key programme features, among other things.
PoPs have been replaced with shorter, less detailed Formats, which describe the personality and direction of a station. They begin with an over-arching paragraph detailing the essential character of a service and its target audience and include core programming details. The national roll out of Formats began in London in February and the conversion will be complete by the end of the year.
The move comes after intensive lobbying by radio stations, which argued that the previous system effectively put the Radio Authority in charge of their programming. “Having lived with PoPs, I am firmly in favour of the change to formats,” says Chrysalis Radio chief executive Phil Riley. “They ended up being proscriptive.”
Riley cites news as an example. The old system specified the minimum length of news bulletins, their frequency and content of local versus national news. There is less hard news of any provenance during the summer, but the stations were locked into broadcasting local news even if the most interesting story involved a cat, a tree and a fireman.
If radio stations wanted to make even relatively minor changes to their schedules, they had to apply to the Radio Authority to change their PoPs.
Martin Campbell, head of programming and advertising at the Radio Authority, admits that stations had to seek permission to swap one three-minute news bulletin for another. Last year the Radio Authority received 151 requests to change PoPs.
“The level of detail involved in PoPs was frightening,” Riley says. They were just as restrictive for music programming: “We had to play a certain percentage of each type of music. It got to the point that you were going through the play lists with a stop watch and calculator to make sure that you were getting it right,” he recalls far from fondly. “That level of micromanagement is completely inappropriate to today’s environment.”
Many agree. Under the new system stations will be allowed to adjust their programming without authorisation as long as the changes adhere to the character, direction and spirit of the station’s output.
A spokesman for the Radio Advertising Bureau comments: “The new system seems a sensible relaxation. After all, the BBC has no effective regulation and can change a station’s output on a whim – look at BBC Radio 2 reducing its target audience overnight by 20 years. No commercial station would be allowed to make such a change. Commercial radio still has one hand tied behind its back when the BBC has both hands free, but at least the new system is better than the old one that had both hands tied.”
“Commercial radio is still quite tightly controlled and regulated,” concurs Simon Beales, managing director of specialist radio promotions company Mind’s Eye. He points out that the BBC has the best frequencies and huge budgets by comparison and moves to make commercial radio more competitive should be welcomed.
Riley agrees: “Half the nation listens to BBC radio. The move to Formats will help to make commercial radio a better and more powerful medium.”
However, there is a downside. Greater freedom to chase the largest possible audience means less incentive to target specialist and niche audiences. Inevitably there will be a blurring of the lines between stations as they are allowed to play more mainstream music.
Music is more popular than speech programming, which means the latter is bound to lose out in the rush for numbers. Mainstream music, such as chart hits and golden oldies, is more popular than new, experimental, alternative or the hardcore end of any genre. The naysayers contend that it is a short step from more mainstream to the beginning of the end of independent radio as we know it – a quick stretch of the elastic bland and we have homogenised radio, mass produced and about as distinctive as an Ikea coffee table.
Grant Levy is a director at Market Tiers, which claims to be Europe’s only full service radio consultancy. He says: “The change will prove advantageous to large radio groups, which will find it easier to format their radio stations nationwide to fall in line with their core-formatting framework. However, this will, for example, make all stations within a group sound similar as programming is centralised.
“For instance, GWR in Leicester could sound remarkably similar to one in Bristol or Swindon – does this give the listener greater choice?
“There is less choice in formatted stations. The more formatted stations are allowed to become, the more the individual spirit of the station can be lost, especially when programming is centrally directed.”
Another dissenter comments: “The other day I turned on the radio in Manchester and heard four Southern voices, some of whom mispronounced the names of towns. How local is that?” “The question is: will we end up like the US and Australia, where radio sounds the same throughout the country having been formatted beyond recognition?” asks Levy. “In some areas where radio stations do act independently it is seen as too creative and even radical so it is not listened to.”
Beales, who is in firm favour of the new Formats, concedes that “there is a feeling that stations will become more homogenised”.
Tony Ingham, a former programme director who was also one of the original launch team for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio and is now a director of Staniforth PR, states that it is “only right that commercial radio is allowed to compete more effectively” but he accuses the conversion to and content of Formats of “making a mockery of the process of bidding for radio licences”.
“Each new Format is awarded on the basis of broadening listener choice, which means that the most extreme bid wins over those with broader appeal that have been proven to work in other areas,” he says. “If you can win by putting in the most extreme bid then change it to a looser Format that puts it in the other bidder’s territory it makes a joke of the Broadcasting Act.”
Campbell at the Radio Authority dismisses Ingham’s charges: “There is no question of stations changing their fundamental character. Legislation [the Broadcasting Act] doesn’t allow for it. If a station changed without permission then sanctions are in place for Formats as for PoPs and we could revoke its licence. We are a light touch regulator but there is no way that we would allow people to change the direction of stations,” he asserts.
However, some sources suggest that the Radio Authority isn’t so much light touch as “very difficult to piss off” and it has taken a seemingly lenient line on allowing stations to change their PoPs when they have come under new ownership. XFM started out as London’s alternative indie station dedicated to playing only new music. Under Capital’s ownership (since last year) it has moved into main-stream chart, mainstream indie and older hits.
Kiss promised not only to be the first dedicated dance station but to allow specialist DJs to play their own choices and never to play anything more than three years old. Bought by EMAP in 1992, Kiss uses a playlist of mainstream chart dance music and club anthems from the last five years and has just relaunched as a mainstream youth station.
Campbell admits that there will be blurring between stations but within distinct boundaries. “If anything it has made the boundaries clearer. Yes there will be stations parading around the same piece of land with maybe six others at their boundaries, but they can’t jump over fences,” he states.
“There will be some cross over as they all push towards the middle but they will then be able to find where they sit best in the market. If there is any convergence it will be short term, the market wouldn’t stand for it. And it would make no sense for Capital for instance to cannibalise its own franchise with XFM.”
As the market for both listeners and advertisers becomes more competitive, Ingham at Staniforth believes that the differentiating factors will be marketing and promotions – how much money can be thrown at them and how creatively they can be executed. He also believes that a rates war will ensue, which is no bad thing for advertisers.
Clear Channel sales director David Salem says that Formats will be far easier for advertisers to identify with than track listings. “There is no point producing left field formats if there is little audience demand,” he says. “These measures enable us to satisfy listeners and advertisers interests. PoPs didn’t evolve with changing tastes and consumer taste is homogenising.”
Riley also points out there is nothing wrong with being popular and that commercial radio is designed to be, well, commercial. At the same time he maintains that it can be both popular and distinctive. “Leaving it more to market forces does not result in a diminution of distinctiveness,” he says. “What do advertisers want? Some 200,000 people who are living the lifestyle, or 400,000 who live it less?”
The answer to that surely depends on how tight your target is.