Local radio, wavelengths and Radio 1 

16 September 2022 tbs.pm/75925

Ian Trethowan, Managing Director, Radio, examines the argument about local radio, wavelengths and Radio 1. The article appeared in the Listener of 7 January 1971.



Cover of "In the Public Interest"

From “In the Public Interest: a six-part explanation of BBC policy” published in January 1971

Let us first be clear what the current radio argument is not about. The BBC is not fighting to defend its monopoly, and while some people still doubt the value of local radio, there is growing evidence of its worth to the communities it serves, and there is now a wide commitment to it. The BBC was pressing for local radio back in the 1950s, Pilkington recommended it, the Labour Government started it through the BBC and now the Conservative Government plans to introduce commercial local radio.

The argument, then, narrows down to whether this new commercial system should be an addition to the existing BBC services or whether it should supplant some of them. It is, in effect, an argument between expansion and restriction, between those who believe that competition should give listeners a wider choice and those who believe that the existing choices provided by the BBC are sufficient but want one, or even two, of them handed over to commercial interests.

The restrictionists’ case rests on three main points. The first is largely phoney. They claim that, by replacing BBC local stations with commercial stations, they would be offering more choice, since for several hours a day the BBC stations rebroadcast network programmes already available on other frequencies. This is true – at eight o’clock at night, when the majority of people are watching television. But at eight o’clock in the morning, when the majority of people are listening to radio, the BBC stations are broadcasting their own programmes. At all peak listening times BBC Radio is offering a choice between five programmes – the four national networks and, where they exist, the local stations. For commercial interests to take over one, or even two, of those services would not increase choice in any way. It might, in fact, sometimes reduce choice, since the BBC services are broadly planned to contrast with one another.

Second, finance – the argument that the BBC cannot afford local radio. Far be it from me to minimise the BBC’s financial problems. This, indeed, is the point. Inflation is forcing the BBC so heavily into deficit that local radio becomes only one of a number of factors. If our local stations were closed down there would obviously be some saving, but the BBC would still need to maintain some non-metropolitan radio in England, not least to sustain the expanded News and Current Affairs output on the networks. (Those who argue that the BBC should be content to compete against commercial local stations with only its national London-based networks are very often the same people who argue in every other context that the BBC is too centralised on London.) If the BBC does not get an adequate increase in the licence fee, then the effects of inflation – for which the BBC can scarcely be blamed – will require the axe to bite far deeper than local radio, or, come to that, Radio 1.

The third point made by those who want to substitute commercial services for existing BBC services is that there are not enough frequencies to allow for both. They start from the assumption that any local station, BBC or commercial, needs to broadcast on both medium wave and VHF. The BBC stations were opened on VHF only. There were not at that time spare medium frequencies available, and anyway we believed that the public would find that VHF provides better-quality listening, particularly at night. This is still true on any long view, but experience has shown that being only on VHF seriously handicaps local radio, not least in trying to reach the car-borne audience.

Whether there are sufficient medium and VHF frequencies depends on how many stations are planned. In advance of the White Paper, one can only attempt an educated guess. The most common estimate of the number of commercial stations that would make a viable system is around fifty. If that is about the right figure, then there ought to be sufficient frequencies to satisfy everyone. The sponsors of commercial radio have claimed, on the basis of reputable technical studies, that there are sufficient to accommodate over one hundred local stations. We have made clear that there are certainly enough for fifty commercial stations and at least the first twenty BBC stations – hopefully more. This assumes that the BBC can release the medium frequencies used separately by its former English regions, and that the Government is willing to invoke the article in the Copenhagen Agreement under which it can seek to employ frequencies allocated to other countries on a non-interference basis.

There is, then, no technical barrier to a ‘mixed economy’ in local radio, and one assumes that the virile advocates of competition will scarcely have the gall to argue that the BBC’s stations should be shut down in order to give the commercial people a local monopoly. Since the threat to BBC local radio became known, there have been many public testimonies to the value placed on it by the communities it serves – including, rather strikingly, places where BBC stations have only just opened. Not all the defenders of the BBC service are opposed to commercial radio, but one finds among people of varying interests and different political affiliations a general view that to destroy the BBC stations would be a loss to the communities and a tragic waste of the devoted pioneer work by the staffs of the BBC stations.

As Mr Heath recognised in a Commons speech just over a year ago, the public would be offered contrasting services by competing BBC and commercial local stations. The programmes would clearly be different. The commercial stations would have to devote a good deal of time to popular entertainment programmes aimed at maximising their audiences. The BBC stations, by contrast, have shown that they can provide in addition a wide range of minority programmes, one of the prime functions of public service radio. Programmes for immigrants, for the blind, for the elderly, for those interested in the arts, schools programmes, adult education programmes – the BBC stations serve a diversity of minority interests, often with generous help from the relevant bodies in the communities themselves. This helps to create a sense of local participation, a feeling that the local station is not a mini-Broadcasting House but ‘our station’. Whatever commercial radio might do, the BBC stations have shown in the way that matters – on the air – that they can offer a valuable and distinctive service to their communities.

But if there can be competition in local radio, can it – and should it – be extended to national radio? The suggestion is now being heard that one of the high-power medium frequencies being used by the BBC should be taken away to create a national commercial network, even if that meant damaging the existing BBC networks. It might be technically possible to maintain the four BBC networks, but damage there would be if they had to be contracted to three. Even if it were the Radio 1 frequency which was removed, no one would presumably expect us to drop all the Radio 1 programmes. Radio 1 may not be a sacred cow, but it is certainly not a lame duck. It would be an odd way of using the licence-payers’ money if we were completely to drop the programmes the majority of them like hearing, particularly the young. If, on the other hand, even a part of the Radio 1 output had to be distributed over the remaining three networks, then other types of programme would in turn have to be cut.

It is reasonable for the Government to seek to implement its declared policy, but it is also reasonable for the BBC to take pride in its radio services, and to claim that they should be sustained, whatever other radio system might be introduced. Some of the main commercial lobbyists have publicly stated that they see their role in the same light, as providing a competitive system additional to the existing BBC services. If there is no technical need, why on earth should there be any question of scrapping existing services valued by listeners?

The Government has said that the possibilities considered in this article are purely speculative, that no decisions have been taken, and that none will be until the Cabinet has approved the White Paper. If our fears prove groundless, so much the better. The Government will then be able to claim that it has launched its commercial radio, that it has not damaged the BBC’s services and that it has provided the listening public with that ‘greater freedom of choice’ which it promised the nation at large last June.




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