John Whittingdale on the future of commercial radio amid BBC content shake-up

Speaking at the Radiocentre conference today (17 May), John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, discussed his views on the future of commercial radio amid a raft of sweeping reforms at the BBC.

Should commercial radio be doing more to appeal to politicians?

When we released the white paper, many MPs had a lot of questions about local radio. For MPs, getting an invitation to appear on national radio doesn’t usually happen. Local radio is a good way for an MP to reach people, so there is lots of support among MPs because it is often the only way to get on radio.

There are lot of threats to media, ad blocking etc, do you see the future of commercial media in a positive light or turning into toast?

The demise of radio has been written prematurely a number of times already . A lot of people said Spotify and streaming services would replace radio; that hasn’t happened. People will always enjoy radio and good content. Radio introduced listeners to a new band and music in an entertaining way. While great content will always have an audience, business models are changing. It is just a question of adapting. As long as radio always contains good content people will always listen to it.

The BBC this morning announced it was closing its food website; it seems like the organisation is already taking its distinctiveness very seriously?

I hope they are taking it seriously. It is not my job to tell the BBC what they can and can’t do. What I have said is that the BBC needs to be distinctive and sensitive to its market impact and should not be directly going out of its way to compete with others. In terms of online, I agree that BBC must make its content available via the iPlayer. If you want to access news it is right for a website, but once you get beyond that - and there have been complaints about soft news - that is something the BBC has taken account of and taking down the recipes is a reflection of that. Ultimately that is up to the BBC.

Do you see an issue with the content produced Radio 1, 2 etc?

Radio 1 has a really important role in introducing new bands. Whilst the station has a much bigger playlist than its commercial counterparts, a lot of new music is played outside of primetime. Radio 1 and indeed other stations have a duty to attract audiences by playing popular material but also introducing listeners to new music. That is what is making Radio 1 distinct.

Radio 5 Live shouldn’t sound like TalkSport or LBC. The BBC in that area doesn’t have to attract audiences and should just sound a little bit different.

Lets say the BBC doesn’t change, how actually can it be persuaded to do so - is it via sanctions or would Ofcom be levying fines?

The fact that Ofcom is an external regulator will make a difference. The BBC Trust was able to flag up the concerns of the BBC but nothing hugely happened as a result. Ofcom is an external regulator and is used to implementing regulation. It has a well-established precedent of telling establishments if they have failed to meet requirements and potentially to issue fines.

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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