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Ofcom puts another nail in local radio's coffin

OfcomCommercial radio broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic are no doubt praising the United Kingdom’s move to allow licensed stations to cut down on their news and local fare.

“Changes in the advertising market, greater competition for audiences’ attention and technological developments mean that the radio industry is facing significant challenges and is having to change,” the UK’s regulatory agency Ofcom declared this week.  “So the way it is regulated also needs to adapt.”

Among other provisions, Ofcom will allow FM stations to “co-locate and share” their programming.  “This will allow the stations to merge to form larger, more financially viable stations.” And: “Stations may request to reduce the number of locally made programme hours from 10 a day to 7 a day, if they commit to providing local news bulletins throughout weekday daytime.”

Nick Clegg of the UK's Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg of the UK's Liberal Democrats

The move was authorized by the UK’s controversial Digital Economy Bill, and goes into effect in June, unless the UK’s Liberal Democratic Party wins enough seats in the upcoming election to repeal the law.

As far as I can tell, even with these provisions UK commercial stations will still be much more locally oriented than their equivalents in the United States. But it’s the thought that counts. The cross Atlantic assumption seems to be that local broadcasting is an intolerable burden on commercial radio.

Here in the San Francisco Bay area, there are some commercial radio stations that, with the implicit approval of our Federal Communications Commission, offer almost no local coverage at all. For example, I’ve logged in many hours listening to Channel 92.3 FM, the Bay Area’s self-proclaimed alternative rock station, which supposedly loves indie rock so much that it almost never identifies the names of the songs. As for the Bay Area local scene, I rarely hear a live someone say anything substantial on the station, much less offer day time coverage of the region’s doings.

So the question is when we’re going to have a serious discussion not about how to relieve commercial radio stations of having anything to do with their immediate environment, but how to create the system of incentives and requirements that make local broadcasting on all platforms more viable.

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