Selection of ILR areas and companies 

25 April 2022 tbs.pm/75029

 

Cover of Television & Radio 1978

From Television & Radio 1978

Of the original plan for 60 or so Independent Local Radio stations there are so far only nineteen, in eighteen centres (two ILR stations operate in London). Further development of local radio was halted by the Government pending the report of the Committee on the Future of Broadcasting under the chairmanship of Lord Annan. The Committee’s report in March 1977 recommended that local radio services should be extended, and the Government is at present considering how this development should take place. The Independent Broadcasting Authority believes that it is a matter of urgency to proceed with local radio; and that the IBA should be asked to undertake straightaway the extension of the service recommended by the Committee.

THE FIRST PHASE OF ILR

The first nineteen ILR franchises were chosen to meet two main criteria. First, the IBA wanted to provide local radio in the form envisaged in the White Paper and the IBA Act, to as many people as possible at the most economical cost. Each station was to serve a distinct locality or set of communities. Second, in order to gain the widest experience of local radio throughout the United Kingdom, the early stations were chosen to provide considerable variety and, as the 1971 White Paper has urged, to include some experimental stations.

A basic tenet of the idea behind ILR is that the service should become entirely self-financing. Apart from a loan of £2m from the Government to the IBA to help set up the new radio service (which has to be paid back in full with interest), the Authority must meet all its capital and operating costs from rentals charged to the programme companies. The IBA Act at present specifically prohibits any cross-subsidy from ITV. It was therefore clear from the outset that many of the early stations would need to be in more populous areas, since the Authority, fixing its rental charges initially broadly in terms of the population covered by each station, would need sufficient income to initiate and develop the ILR network. The planned system of rentals, by which smaller stations (such as those in Swansea, Plymouth, Ipswich and Reading) would be made more viable, also required that the Authority should be receiving higher rentals from large localities from the very start.

 

 

In addition, from the time of the White Paper it was planned by the Government that a central news company would be set up to supply a service of national and international news. The decision was taken to link this company with the London news station franchise, so it was essential that this company should be the first to be established. Thus LBC, in London, was the first ILR station to begin broadcasting, at 6 a.m. on Monday 8th October 1973, and with it began Independent Radio News (IRN).

ILR soon offered substantial coverage of major parts of the country. The two London stations were followed by services for Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and other metropolitan areas. However, the first phase of stations also reflects the variety which the IBA was seeking. There is a huge range in population coverage from 8½ million people in the London franchise area and 2½ million in Greater Manchester, to 200,000 in the Ipswich vhf area. The success of the small stations (four have population coverages under 400,000) shows that their size of area, considered experimental at the time the stations were established, may be fully able to sustain a self-financing ILR service.

There is also considerable geographical diversity. ILR stations are established in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with rural as well as urban coverage. They show considerable differences in company and management structure and above all in the type of programmes they broadcast. Most stations are mainly locally owned, locally financed and locally controlled. As a result, each has a unique local flavour which cannot really be exported or imported, and which ensures a considerable degree of diversity.

 

The Queen in a car passing Radio Orwell's studios

The Queen on her Jubilee visit to Ipswich.

 

CHOOSING NEW AREAS

If self-financing local radio is to be expanded throughout the UK, this will probably need to be on a phased basis. To make the most sensible use of resources – and to allow engineers, planners, and all the others involved to cope cost-effectively – it is likely that a batch of new stations would be opened each year. Significant centres of population, of which there are perhaps 30-40 currently unserved by ILR, would be brought into the phased development.

Choosing which places shall come highest on any list of new franchises needs to be with reference to a wide range of criteria. Among these are the size of population to be served; the availability of transmitter sites and frequencies; how well the locality is served by the existing media, whether radio and television or the press; the particular social needs of an area; how far a radio station makes sense in commercial and marketing terms and whether the area is likely to be able to support a radio franchise; and the degree of interest in ILR which is shown spontaneously by local people.

Although much of the mainstream development of ILR – if it is authorised by Government – will aim for the steady expansion of coverage of the UK, there will also be room for local initiative and experiment. It may be, for example, that local groups could press for a station in their area, or for an opportunity to experiment with particular forms of local broadcasting.

With this potential, the future for ILR will be a very exciting one. As people in eighteen areas can already demonstrate, ILR stations can make a worthwhile and entertaining contribution to local life and help the community to develop its potential. There is likely to be significant demand in all unserved areas and the embryo groups are already forming.

 

 

SELECTING THE PROGRAMME COMPANIES

Once it has been decided – with Government approval – to set up an ILR station for an area, what happens next? While the IBA’s staff set about building the transmitters and providing technical links, the selection process starts to choose the company which will provide the programmes and run the station.

Having taken initial steps to ensure the feasibility of a particular franchise, the IBA advertises for applications from groups. Once these are received – and the closing date is usually two to three months later – they are analysed in detail by the IBA.

Members of the Authority then visit the area in question. Among other contacts, a public meeting is held at which local people are given the opportunity to express opinions, direct to the Authority, about the kind of local radio service they would like established. The Members then interview, confidentially, each of the applicant groups.

Following a second interview for selected applicants in London with the full Authority, a consortium is then offered the franchise. There may well be conditions in the offer about staffing, premises, local representation or other points, and on occasions the IBA may seek to incorporate elements from an unsuccessful group into the winning consortium.

 

 

At the time of advertising a franchise, the IBA publishes a detailed contract specification, setting out the qualifications and qualities it will be looking for in the applications, together with extensive notes for information. Following through this policy of maximum openness – within the inevitable constraints of competition for franchises – when a company starts broadcasting the IBA publishes in full the programme proposals made by the group in its application, as well as information on shareholding and control of the company.

Over the three years or so when ILR was being set up, the IBA has gained unrivalled experience in the complex and subtle processes involved in selecting programme companies. If there is to be an expansion of ILR, under the IBA, the Authority would bring this specialist knowledge to bear on an expanding system.

In the selection of radio companies, as in their regulation, and in setting the technical standards of local radio, the IBA has both practical experience and the will to continue its responsibilities. As soon as the Government gives the word, a start can be made to expand local radio coverage in the UK. Whatever is to be done, the object will be to ensure that ILR works well, and that its regulation is open to public scrutiny and wholly in the public interest. The fusion in ILR between private initiative and public interest characterises the medium and is a fundamental reason for its success and wide popularity. ILR is now poised and ready for the expansion which would bring worthwhile and entertaining local radio on a self-financing basis to other parts of the United Kingdom.

 

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