West Midlands Radio Race

By The Drum, Administrator

May 28, 2003 | 9 min read

One ILR licence, 11 bidders, a potential audience of 2.3 million listeners. It is enough to whet anyone’s appetite, but there can only be one winner of the new ILR for the West Midlands and that lucky recipient will be made known in September.

Until then, the 11 groups vying for what has often been seen as a licence to print money will be trying to garner as much support, from both the public and the business community, for their bid as humanly possible, to make themselves irresistible to the Radio Authority, the regulatory body that will make the award.

So, just who are the runners and riders in this radio race to broadcast to Birmingham, Wolverhampton and parts of Warwickshire and Staffordshire, and, perhaps even more importantly, what do they all bring to the party – apart from a few scratched 45s and That’s What I Call Music 14?

It will come as no surprise that rapidly expanding GMG Radio, the radio division of Guardian Media Group, is already perhaps one of the favourites for the licence. Under the guidance of chief executive John Myers, GMG is looking to introduce Midlanders to some smooth jazz and classic soul with the further roll-out of its already successful Jazz FM station for 35- to 54-year-olds.

GMG’s radio pedigree cannot be disputed. Though still a relatively new player in the industry, the launch of three highly successful Real Radio stations in Cardiff, Scotland and Yorkshire during the last three years has shown that the group has huge ambition and the drive to expand.

Myers says: “This will be a hotly contended licence and each application will add something new to the regional radio marketplace. But GMG Radio brings longevity of ownership and substantial investment in people and programming that few could match.”

With major radio names such as the back-in-vogue Tony Blackburn and Paul Gambaccini already part of their stable of broadcasters then this could add weight to their bid.

Capital Radio wants to launch Capital Disney, a station dedicated to kids aged 8–14. Their application promises to engage young listeners with a distinctive blend of speech programming tailored to the wants of kids’ diaries, passions and inspirations.

The station also promises to give the kids of the West Midlands a voice in the region, showcasing their talents, from writing to performing to composing.

The third bidder is Absolute Radio, which, if successful, will introduce Jump FM to the airwaves, a station they describe as “ground breaking local radio with a hybrid mix of modern rock and alternative rhythmic music and intelligent news, cracking comedy and info-tainment” for want of a better buzz word.

Next in line is Kerrang! Radio, a bid from media group Emap, which is based out of Birmingham City Football Club and headed up by non-executive chairman Karren Brady.

Hoping to cash in on the already loyal readership of Emap’s rock music magazine Kerrang!, Kerrang! Radio looks to bring the brand to life on air as it is on satellite TV, with its specialist music and stimulating and distinctive talk service for the rock community in the West Midlands.

Brady says: “What really attracted me to Kerrang! Radio was Emap’s intention to pitch the station at the under-25 age group of the local population and to use the service as they do in other areas to be a real service to those young people, especially those belonging to ethnic minorities.

It wouldn’t be a radio battle without the radio industry’s outspoken, self-appointed industry guardian, Kelvin MacKenzie of The Wireless Group.

MacKenzie is heading up the bid to get Newstalk 105.2 FM on the air in the West Midlands. The proposal for the station is a 24-hour, broad-based, speech station with comprehensive regional news, sport and entertainment and involving programming reflecting the wide tastes and interests of the region.

MacKenzie’s radio credentials are well known, most of them are logged weekly in Mediaweek, but his relationships with radio regulatory and audience measurement bodies are not made in heaven, which might, if one was being sceptical, have a bearing.

Speaking at a recent head-to-head between some of the bidders, MacKenzie said: “There is so much going on in the West Midlands that the region deserves a station for people to be heard and express their views.”

Whether those views will be voiced by members of MacKenzie’s station remains to be seen.

GWR’s bid, The Storm, will be a locally originated, music-led station, appealing to a core audience of 15- to 34-year-olds. The station would aim to promote regional rock talent and provide the region’s budding Eric Claptons with information about and opportunities for entertainment and live music. It will also have a strong sports element, which will complement the lifestyle of those in the West Midlands.

Gregory Watson, GWR’s head of corporate development outside London, commented: “The West Midlands licence is hugely significant. It is the second major market outside London and, for GWR, it is a major goal for getting into the major metropolitan areas outside London.

Many Asian radio listeners will no doubt be backing the bid being made by Sunrise Radio, the station that would bring wider listening choice to the West Midlands Asian population, primarily for the 15-54 age group.

Sunrise Radio West Midlands’ content will be similar to that of the station that already broadcasts across London and on a number of digital platforms across the UK.

The station currently reaches around 430,000 adult listeners per week. However, the Radio Authority and Sunrise are not “great mates” to coin a radio cliché, after Sunrise was fined £10,000 in 2001 after its owner Dr Avar Lit expressed some political views during his election candidacy.

And, from the sounds of the Far East, we move to the Wild West; that is, if 3C’s owners, Scottish Radio Holdings, have their own way. Country music station 3C has been broadcasting on the DAB digital platform for three years in Scotland and has enjoyed great success so far. In each of its three years it has won awards at the New York Radio Festival and was named Best Country Station in the World last year, beating the US stations hands down because, as 3C MD Pat Geary says, it is not tied in to any deal with record companies that dictate their playlist.

Geary adds: “The biggest thing for me, if we do manage to win the West Midlands FM licence, is we will get to compete with other stations in the Rajar figures. That will give us a real chance to compare the success of this station format with that of others. The feedback we get at the moment is great, but we can only estimate how well we are doing from that feedback.”

West Midlands-born rock legends Ozzy Osbourne and Robert Plant have already been signed-up to support the rock music bid being made by Virgin Radio.

Despite its court wranglings with former Virgin owner, Chris Evans, Virgin’s current owner, SMG, is still keen to roll out a regional format of the brand, with the same station aiming to capture the ILR licence up for grabs in Glasgow. The station pledges that all shows will be broadcast from the West Midlands and local DJs will form the on-air team, continuing to follow Virgin’s rock ethos.

Speaking of SMG’s bid radio development director, Bobby Hain, said: “Rock music is the UK’s number one genre, yet no station reflects the vibrant, buzzing rock scene. Virgin Radio West Midlands will redress the balance. We are overwhelmed by the support we have had. To have received letters of support from legends such as Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Plant and Judas Priest is phenomenal and adds credence to the research we have done that shows the West Midlands is the home of rock in the UK.

Challenging MacKenzie’s Newstalk bid is Chrysalis Radio’s WBC, a station that is being billed as a truly distinctive all-speech station that will be essential listening for anyone wanting news, information, in-depth analysis and discussion on the burning issues of the day. Spokesman Stuart Liddell says that, if successful, WBC will be the forum for listeners across the region to discuss and debate the things that are important to people living in that region.

Last, but not least, is the bid being put together by TV production giant Celador, WMMA, a station that looks to appeal primarily to males aged between 35 and 54. Again WMMA’s musical output will be rock-based with a concise local news service for the West Midlands area.

That bid is also being supported by former ITV chief executive Richard Eyre, which just goes to show that this battle will not be for the faint-hearted.

So, the big guns are being rolled out as non-exec directors are appointed to front bids, which shows how desperately all the bidders want this licence. Now they have just three months to prove their case to the eight-strong Radio Authority that will decide. Game on.

The recipe for success

The four criteria that will be taken into account before the Radio Authority makes a decision are:

ï The winning radio station must be able to display that it will be financially viable for the entire duration of the licence, in this case eight years from commencement of the service.

ï The new operator must be able to demonstrate that its service will extend choice for listeners in the area it is serving. The bidder must ensure that the service will offer the population something different from what is already available from the commercial radio sector broadcasting in that area.

ï The new service must cater for the tastes and needs of the area that it will be broadcasting to. This is where public support for the station can make a real difference to the eventual decision as to where the licence goes.

ï The bidder must be able to demonstrate that it has the support of the area that it is going to broadcast to. That support must be from both the public and the business community.


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