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The demise of the well-known local radio stations including Eagle FM, KL.FM, Minster FM, Radio Aire, Spire FM, Stray FM, Swansea Sound, Wessex FM and Yorkshire Coast Radio and their replacement by Greatest Hits Radio (GHR) was a great pity in 2020, especially for those staff members who have lost their jobs and for the many listeners who miss them. 

A similar process had previously happened when other local stations became part of the Capital, Heart and Smooth networks when the local presenters lost their jobs and local broadcast studios were closed.

However, the seeds of these changes could be seen back in the 1990s when extra local stations were licensed to broadcast formats like jazz music – Jazz FM and Christian music and speech – Premier Christian Radio in areas where local commercial radio stations already existed plus three national commercial radio stations started broadcasting including Classic FM and DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) appeared on the scene thus increasing listener choice.

When the first land-based local commercial radio stations were licensed by the Conservative Party in the mid-1970s, every area that was granted a commercial radio license had a monopoly of radio advertising in its own area apart from London where both Capital Radio and LBC were both given licences. Similarly, by the time Harrogate’s Stray FM and Yorkshire Coast Radio were given their local licenses they still had a local monopoly over radio advertising and so their financial state was solid. This enabled them to offer a wide mix of popular music alongside good local news and information that pulled-in the local listeners. Some of these stations even broadcast specialist music programmes in the evenings.

By the 2010s local stations had started to form financial groups to save money on technical and administrative work. Eventually most of the locally owned companies sold out to one of two major radio groups – Bauer Media, who own Absolute Radio, Country Hits Radio, Greatest Hits Radio, Hits Radio, Jazz FM, Kiss, Magic & Scala and Global, who own Capital, Classic FM, Gold, Heart, LBC, Radio X & Smooth. Audiences also started to prefer to listen to specific types of music and so the wide variety of music offered by the radio stations owned by the two major radio groups started to dominate listenership. 

These networked services such as Greatest Hits Radio and Heart have had to promise Ofcom to provide an enhanced news service on local transmitters in order to broadcast only three hours of regional programming each weekday.

While these changes have happened to the old stations, we have started to see the emergence of new stations, often manned by people involved with the old stations, which are broadcasting using digital smart-speakers, apps and online instead of FM or DAB. New stations such as Rombalds Radio (Ilkley, Keighley & Skipton), Stray Online (Harrogate & District) and This is the Yorkshire Coast (Bridlington, Filey, Scarborough & Whitby) will also hopefully broadcast on the new small-scale DAB (SSDAB) when it is licensed by Ofcom in their areas.

As Conservatives, we have produced legislation on broadcasting that firstly enabled commercial radio to start-up in the 1970s, thus breaking the BBC monopoly in radio, and we have been supporters of extending listener choice through the setting up of DAB in 1995 that has led to most people being able to hear over 60 stations compared to just three BBC stations and off-shore commercial radio in the mid-1960s. 

When the Conservative Party produces our next piece of broadcasting legislation we must include the commitment that all local commercial radio must increase in the amount of local and regional news in their hourly bulletins to at least 3 minutes of purely local and regional news plus some national stories during their peak hours (07:00-10:00 & 16:00-19:00). 

If we do not make such a firm commitment in legislation we could well see that across great swathes of our country the information about local members of parliament and the work of local councils as well as other local stories could easily disappear from local commercial radio leaving local news to be only supplied by BBC local radio.

So, it will be up to us as local listeners and our elected representatives to hold both Bauer and Global to their existing commitments on local news and community involvement as well as encouraging the new local digital broadcasters and existing community radio stations to provide more local news and programmes from within their local communities provided by people who know and live within their local area rather than from someone sitting in a studio in London, Liverpool or Manchester.

Peter is a retired Broadcasting Regulation Consultant, one of the founders of Harrogate’s Stray FM, and a member of Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.