Is Ofcom smoothing the way for change?

Ofcom’s relaxation of Jazz FM’s format is seen by the industry as a sign that the regulator is sympathetic to its commercial needs, but its action has sparked fears for niche listening. By Caroline Parry

There’s nothing like jazz fans for kicking up an impassioned debate about what does and doesn’t constitute jazz music and the debate has been no less passionate over Jazz FM and what should and shouldn’t be on its playlist. The purists’ view of what should be played and what the station has actually played in its 12-year history has been a bugbear for Jazz FM and the reason it has suffered from inconsistent listening figures.

So last week’s decision by broadcast regulator Ofcom to allow the station to rearrange its schedule by moving the specialist jazz programming to the evening and playing a wider mix of blues, soul and R&B during the day is likely to stir up more controversy (MW last week).

The industry welcomes it as a positive step and an example of Ofcom’s lighter approach to regulation compared with that of its predecessor, the Radio Authority. But the move could also be seen as a shift away from the era when stations were bound by the terms of their licences to serve niche audiences and protect listeners’ choice.

There is a belief across commercial radio that this kind of flexibility is essential if the sector is to compete effectively against the BBC, which according to Rajar figures for the third quarter of 2004 has a 54.4 per cent share of total radio listening. Daniel Owen, director of regulatory and public affairs at Chrysalis Radio and formerly of the Radio Authority, says he is not surprised by Ofcom’s acknowledgement of the need for flexibility.

“It shows that Ofcom recognises the world moves on and that radio needs to change to suit listeners. Formats are not set in aspic and stations need to be able to innovate for their audience. It shows that Ofcom is more business-minded and understands that better than the Radio Authority did,” he says. It is obviously a point John Myers, chief executive at Jazz FM’s parent company Guardian Media Group Radio, agrees with. Although the London station reported 845,000 listeners in the last Rajar report, up from 833,000 on the same quarter last year, Myers says the station has never made any money. He adds: “It would be stupid to think that the format will apply for over a decade, so if you can demonstrate that a market has changed then the format should be allowed to develop. But it is important to stay in the spirit of the licence.”

But one radio industry insider points out that Jazz FM has been broadening the range of its playlist for years and that Ofcom’s decision acknowledges this process of “format creep”.

Jazz FM North West underwent a similar gradual change of its playlist, and in March this year it was rebranded Smooth FM to reflect the new sound and attract listeners who were put off by the old name. It is likely that Jazz FM will be rebranded as Smooth FM. The changes at North West have, according to Myers, delivered a four-fold increase in revenue.

Last year, this subtle change in the station’s output got GMG Radio in trouble with the Radio Authority, which rapped the station for not playing enough jazz. The insider says: “Jazz FM suffers from the fact that it plays jazz, which by its nature is an indefinable genre of music. Neither is it a good daytime proposition.”

This was the crux of Jazz FM’s argument to Ofcom and while it was clearly persuasive, Ofcom head of radio content and standards Martin Campbell is quick to point out that these changes have not been allowed simply to help GMG Radio make more money. He adds: “What we are doing is looking after the listeners, protecting their choice. If a station goes outside the format defined by the licence then it will get a yellow card and we will sit down and discuss the problem.”

But there is a feeling that format creep is in evidence across commercial radio because it is the way radio stations innovate while staying relevant to their listeners. Some observers point to TalkSport and how five years ago it shifted from being a speech station known as Talk Radio to having a sports focus. The UK’s biggest national commercial station, Classic FM, is another example of a genre- specific licensed station that, while achieving success, has softened its output, turning to movie scores to keep the sound fresh and help attract younger listeners.

GWR group operations director Steve Orchard describes format creep as a “necessary way of surviving”. He adds: “Music changes over the years but the station formats stay the same. It is a natural process that will happen in any commercial market.”

But while the stations are fighting for bigger audiences, they are also fighting for a larger share of the seven per cent of advertising that commercial radio attracts. For this reason, Orchard argues that niche stations should be run by the BBC, because it does not need to attract listeners in order to bring in advertisers.

It is a point that has occupied the minds of those in commercial radio since the BBC repositioned Radio 2 as a mainstream station with such considerable success that it has become the biggest station in the UK, delivering audiences of up to 13 million. It is also a point that the commercial radio groups will be labouring during the BBC’s charter renewal process.

The shortage of airwave space available for broadcasting in the UK means that a licence system which ensures radio offers choice to listeners is essential, says Ofcom’s Campbell. Ofcom awards its first FM licences in Edinburgh and Blackburn next month and commercial broadcasters will be watching to see what the winning formats are. But Ofcom will make its decisions based on the same criteria the Radio Authority used, devised as they were to ensure that any geographical area is served by a variety of stations.

But as radio moves into the digital age, there will be greater emphasis on national brands and less on regional ones, as well as a lighter approach to regulation. Ofcom publishes its Spectrum Trading Review this week, which proposes removing unnecessary restrictions so that licence-holders can change their use and react quickly to changing market conditions. If, in practice, this removes the constraints on station licences, there is concern that niche audiences will no longer be served. Broadcasters instead will go exclusively in pursuit of commercial gain.

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