Aircheck UK - The Birth of Commercial Radio<

The start of BBC local radio

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Radio evolved in the UK during the late 1920s, a little behind it's commercial introduction in the USA.  For the first fifty years of it's life, UK radio broadcasting was controlled by the BBC as a public service, funded via licence fees, a system of funding which is still operative today for BBC television and radio services.

Independent Local (commercial) Radio was not launched until 1973.  In 1972, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) offered the first commercial radio franchises and, in October 1973, the first stations began broadcasting in London.  Independent Local Radio (ILR), like Independent Television which was launched 18 years earlier, was still conceived as public service broadcasting, but with it's funding coming from advertising revenue rather than a licence fee.

The first two ILR stations to being broadcasting in 1973 were Capital Radio, designated a 'general entertainment' station and London Broadcasting Company (LBC) designated 'news and information'.  The industry quickly expanded and, by 1976, there were 19 stations covering most cities in the UK.  The government put a brief half to this expansion whilst considering recommendations submitted by the committee led by Lord Annan which looked into the future of broadcasting in the UK.  However, in 1980, the government resumed the franchising of ILR stations, and by 1985, there were 49 stations in operation. 

In the early days, programming schedules for ILR were tightly restricted by the IBA.  Programming had to appeal to all tastes and age groups.  They had to carry a news service approved by the IBA and they had to produce programmes on religion and for children.  In addition, their services were actually broadcast by the IBA which built and owned the transmitters.  

The breadth of programming and close identification with the life of the areas each station served, meant that ILR soon began winning substantial numbers of listeners away from BBC services.  However, they found it hard to attract sufficient advertising revenue to meet their very substantial running costs.  This was compounded by the high cost of IBA rentals which, together with the cost of copyright royalties for playing music, resulted in 25% of stations income being committed before it had met any of the usual running costs of operating a business.  Thus, by the mid 1980s, more than half of the ILR stations were losing money.

In 1984, the industry's trade association CRCA (Commercial Radio Companies Association) got together and lobbied the Government for change.  The AIRC successfully forced the IBA to reduce rentals substantially and relax regulation and forced the Government to revise the 1981 Broadcasting Act and commission and independent report on the scope for de-regulating radio.  As a result of the AIRC's action, the industry began to boom.

In the late 1980's, another change was implemented when all stations, Independent and BBC were forced to end the practice of simultaneous broadcasting on FM and AM in order to make way for the creation of more local radio services.  As a result, between 1988 and 1990, all the larger ILR stations, and a number of small ones, began broadcasting two services where previously there was one.  On the whole, existing services, which were modified in order to appeal to a younger audience, were retained on FM and a new service, broadly labelled 'GOLD' and aimed at the over 35's, was started on AM.

In under two years, 'splitting' dramatically increased the number of ILR stations from 49 in 1987 to nearly 100 by the Autumn of 1990.  After this, there was incredible pressure from would-be new broadcasters to allow additional stations within existing ILR areas.  In response, the IBA came up with a scheme for 'incremental' contracts, i.e: contracts allowing a new station to set up in an area already covered by an Independent Local Radio station, on the basis that these would widen listener choice because they would be awarded to groups whose programming plans offered services markedly different from those already available.

23 new stations went on-air.  The changes resulted in London having 12 commercial stations, including two each from Capital and LBC, and new stations for jazz, dance, easy listening, black music, Greek and Asians.

By 1995, commercial radio in the UK consisted of 145 Independent Local Radio services, two independent National Services and Atlantic 252 on Long Wave.  The commercial services took over 25million adult listeners every week, and, in the third quarter of 1994, took a bigger share of all listening than the BBC for the first time in the industry's 21-year history.  

Since this time, existing radio groups have been allowed to expand, taking over smaller, and often struggling smaller groups of stations, or individual broadcasters, whilst elsewhere, new incremental services, and new services have continued to be licenced by the IBA's successor, the Radio Authority.   The Radio Authority began its licensing and regulatory role on 1 January 1991 when the Broadcasting Act 1990 came into force. It is one of three bodies which replaced the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

In their 12 year history, they have overseen the blossoming of trial services, also run commercially, called 'Restricted Service Licences' (RSLs) to trial formats, and to cover special events, the advent of Independent Regional Radio and Independent National Radio  - commercial services covering a wider area than the ILR stations, the main chunk of licensing of 'SALLIE' stations - small scale alternative local licences, or, as the IBA used to call them 'incremental stations', new ILR stations, digital radio, and also the study and trial of 'Access Radio', the forerunner of a foreseen roll-out and creation of community-radio stations, positioned lower on the radio scale, but by no means the smaller in stance.

The Radio Authority cease(d) control on January 1st 2004, when further merging of communications department is made, and all forms of it are controlled by the new legislator, The Office of Communications (OFCOM).  It remains to be seen what effect they will have, on a large scale anyway, on the commercial radio sector.  

The start of BBC local radio

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