Meeting date: Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 22 May 2019
Agenda: Business Support Inquiry, Mental Health Services (Quality and Safety), General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Local Radio
- Business Support Inquiry
- Mental Health Services (Quality and Safety)
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Local Radio
The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-16105, in the name of George Adam, on concern for local radio content. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament expresses its concern at the changes being made within the commercial radio industry; believes that these changes in format being allowed by OFCOM will put pressure on local radio station content and news; notes reports that the remit of OFCOM in allowing these changes has been questioned, and, in light of the potential impact on people in Paisley and across the country, further notes the view that the decision should be subject to review.17:01
The debate is about how important local commercial radio stations are to our communities in Scotland. I am not a member of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, but I thank Joan McAlpine and her colleagues on the committee, who have afforded me quite a bit of time at their meetings to ask questions of witnesses who represent the radio industry.
My concern is that Ofcom, which is the regulator for the radio industry, is attacking Scottish commercial radio as I speak. It is sleeping on the job and forgetting that it represents the public with regards to the spectrum of decisions that it dishes out to radio stations on our behalf. Its recent actions have effectively created a duopoly with Global Radio and Bauer Radio, which are the two largest commercial radio operators in the United Kingdom. Using local radio licences, those operators have created a virtual national network. That has led to local news being squeezed and local music not being played; most important, presenters of shows do not come from the local areas that they serve.
It seems to me that Ofcom lacks ambition. In all the time that that trend has been happening, I have been talking to various organisations and to people who are involved in the industry, who have told me that the United Kingdom Government has tried to promote digital audio broadcasting—DAB—as the future of radio. In the main, people still access commercial radio via FM. When I spoke to Ofcom’s representatives at last week’s committee meeting, I told them that, by investing in DAB, they were backing the radio broadcasting equivalent of Betamax, given how quickly technology in the industry moves forward.
One thing that is quite strange—and concerning—about how Ofcom has dealt with the DAB licences is the fact that the multiplexes in our cities are run by the operators. For example, in my area in the west of Scotland, Bauer—effectively, Clyde 1 and Clyde 2—decides how much it costs a radio operator to buy space on the local multiplex. To me, that seems too cosy. It also goes against the idea of competition and moving the industry forward. If I was trying to start a new radio company, I would be quite concerned if one of my competitors was able to decide how much that would cost.
Over the past 10 years, only one FM licence has been given out by Ofcom. That was for 96.3 FM, which was ironically—I am not segueing into this deliberately—based in Paisley. Eventually, the licence went to various companies. It was always a problem. It was given back by one of Global’s companies, and it was put up for auction again. Nation Radio Scotland took it up, and new figures show that it has 50,000 listeners. That was its first target and shows that it can move forward and compete with the market leaders that were already there, which are, in our area, Bauer’s Clyde 1 and Clyde 2. That shows that there is a market and there are listeners who want to listen to something new.
We also have Adam Findlay, who comes from a famous commercial radio family—his father set up Radio Forth way back in the 1970s. Adam Findlay had his own company, New Wave Media Group, which had Wave 102 in Dundee, Central FM in central Scotland and Original 106 in Aberdeen. However, his problem was that he could not expand and set up more radio stations in other cities and other areas. Eventually, he had to sell his business to D C Thomson, which now operates two of the stations, and it is keeping it very local. His model was the polar opposite of the Bauer and Global model.
A couple of months ago, Global announced that its breakfast show on Capital would now be broadcast from London. That does not help us in any shape or form. It just takes away from having a Scottish voice on the radio and from Scottish people, or local people, being able to do the production and form the back-room team. It goes against the very idea of what commercial radio was originally all about.
The first commercial radio station that was set up in Scotland was Radio Clyde, which began broadcasting at 10.30 pm on Monday 31 December 1973—it is a couple of years younger than me. It made a big difference in Scotland, because that was the first time that we had heard our accents and our voices on commercial radio.
When we start to centralise commercial radio broadcasting, it also has an effect on another industry that we are important players in, which is the music industry. In the old days, with Radio Clyde, as it was, the DJ Billy Sloan went to all the gigs and would try to promote the new bands that he saw. The likes of Wet Wet Wet were massive in Glasgow before they went anywhere else in the world, and that was because they were played on Radio Clyde.
The problem for any young band now is that playlists are centralised. Bauer, which owns Clyde 1 and Forth 1, centralises its playlists in Manchester, so someone in Manchester decides what the music is going to be. Since I found out how the system works, my respect for presenters has gone through the roof, because they basically have windows of two or three minutes between the music on their playlists, which are automated, to try to make the listener feel entertained and give them a bit of local content.
We must also think about how news is affected. Heart was previously Real Radio. Ten or 15 years ago, there was 30 per cent more news on Real Radio than Heart has now, and it broadcast local news that dealt with local issues. That is not happening any more. There is 30 per cent less news on Heart. If we do not draw a line under the situation now, it is going to get worse.
I am not a romantic who wants to hark back to the old days and say that it was so much better then. People have been saying that radio is going to die for decades, but it just evolves. The technology changes and people listen differently. However, for us, the most important thing is that we must still have our voices coming through whatever bits of technology we use to listen.
We need to make sure that Ofcom does its job and ensures that we still get local messages. Radio Clyde used to have a 24/7 newsroom, but it no longer has that. It has its own news up until 9.30 pm and then it buys it in from Sky, and there is no local news at the weekend. If a major incident happened in Glasgow, like the Glasgow airport terrorist attack, there would be nothing about it on our airwaves.
That is wrong. In a world in which, ironically, we have our own BBC TV channel, we have to make sure that we still have our voice on radio. Members will hear from my colleagues about the various commercial radio stations throughout Scotland. We must ensure that we do not lose this very important part of Scotland’s broadcasting history. We need to make sure that commercial radio continues.17:10
I thank George Adam for bringing this very important debate to the chamber. He managed to get Paisley in a couple of times, so that is one of his records.
I know that he has played a very active part in the committee’s deliberations on this issue. I also know that he is probably George Bowie’s greatest fan, so I hope that he has a signed photograph on his office wall.
There is a lot to say about local and community radio. It has played a huge part in my life. As members probably know, I spent many years in the media industry, and I started off my career in radio. Indeed, I started off in hospital radio, community radio and local radio, including short-term radio events, so I really get it in that respect. I also get the fact that the media landscape has changed so much over the past decade.
Like many, I progressed from radio into television. I worked on the technical side but also the commercial side of the business and I understood the commercial models and the difficulties facing small, medium and large media companies, including those that operate many services.
What is happening to local radio is really sad, but where I perhaps disagree with Mr Adam is that I do not point the finger squarely at Ofcom for that. Unfortunately, the reality of this is the direction of travel that the radio industry has been facing for a number of years, if not decades. I refer back to the days of UKRD and the consolidation of the companies that owned and operated radio stations. That is a trend that has been continuing for a number of years.
Alongside that, we have the additional problem of the fact that tech has been changing. I said problem, but it is not a problem—it has brought innovation and access to a plethora of new services for consumers. However, it has also brought challenges to the traditional model, by which I mean the traditional linear broadcast model. That is the case for both free-to-view television and free-to-listen-to radio. Live streaming and IP-delivered services are competing in this market and appealing to new and younger audiences, so commercial radio has been facing a tough time for a long time.
Indeed, the financial models that support commercial radio have been changing for many years. The consolidation of the advertising sales market—the way in which companies sell advertising, to whom they sell it and how much they can charge for it—means that things have been getting tougher as the market fragments and advertising revenues go online.
All those factors have come together to create the perfect storm of where local radio is at the moment. That is not to say that Ofcom does not have a role to play in this or that it could not have addressed it very differently, but I do not buy the argument that this consolidation has been constructed or construed through any regulatory environment. It is in fact a natural, organic direction of travel for the industry to go in.
The point now is what Ofcom can do to make life easier and better for small operators. Some of the great work that D C Thomson is doing in trying to really localise radio again should be noted. It had some concerns about the allocation of new FM licences. It is fair to say that there is still spectrum and bandwidth available. That needs to be released—the licences need to be released. FM is affordable and technically much simpler than DAB. As we heard, DAB is an extremely expensive game to play in.
Despite that, I am buoyed and positive, because when Ofcom asked for expressions of interest for small-scale DAB it got more than 700. That is a sign to me that there is still an appetite out there for people to set up and operate radio stations.
However, regulation needs to keep up. I am afraid to say that the regulatory environment that operates in the traditional old world of broadcast media has not kept up with how people consume content. The fact that I can set up a radio station right now and broadcast in a matter of minutes in an entirely unregulated market while competing against high-budget and high-end radio stations that are extremely highly regulated does not seem like a fair playing field to me.
We need to support local radio, but we need to help it to evolve, to change its financial models and to take advantage of the technical changes that make it easier to reach new younger and different audiences. We also need to help all those poor radio presenters who have just lost their jobs as a result of those changes—where they will go, I do not know.
I thank George Adam for bringing this brief but important debate to the chamber. I hope that the committee, which I sit on, will continue this discussion, and I look forward to hearing what the cabinet secretary has to say in response.17:15
I thank George Adam for securing this debate on an issue that impacts on the development of Scotland’s broadcasting talent. For many young aspiring broadcasters and technicians, local radio is the way into a career that is already a challenge to enter in Scotland, with media jobs disproportionately based in London and Manchester.
The further erosion of locally produced content that will result from Ofcom’s proposals on radio deregulation, which George Adam highlighted in his motion, will put another barrier in the way of young people who want to enter the broadcasting sector. The changes will allow more centrally produced syndicated content and a reduction in locally produced programmes.
I must declare a historical interest in local radio. I was the film reviewer for Original 106 when it launched in 2007, but I did it for fun rather than any career move. Many of the graduates of the higher national certificate radio course at North East Scotland College found their first paid work on the station, which initially had 100 per cent local content and nurtured a hotbed of local talent. With Original being bought by D C Thomson and moving into the centre of Aberdeen, right across from Aberdeen Journals Ltd, I hope that that will continue.
Over the years, the station has also provided students with a great deal of work experience, which is crucial for their CVs if they ever want to get a foot in the door of this competitive sector. Before Original moved, just along the road was Northsound Radio, which has given many Aberdonians their springboard to a successful broadcasting career since it started in the early 1980s.
I will namecheck just a few. The now household name Nicky Campbell had his first radio gig there; the new BBC Scotland channel’s Fiona Stalker was head of news at Northsound in the 1990s; and Rebecca Curran, the presenter of the new channel’s flagship news programme “The Nine”, started her career there. Bryan Burnett, who broadcasts to the whole of Scotland every weeknight on BBC Radio Scotland and has had a decades-long TV and radio career, is a Northsound alumnus. My old school friend Gary Stein started at Northsound as a 17-year-old instead of going to university. That upset his parents at the time, but I am sure that they are now very proud of him, because he is the group programme director at Bauer Radio. Parliamentarians will be familiar with the BBC’s parliamentary and corporate affairs manager Luke McCullough; when I first met Luke, he was presenting one of the best local current affairs and music shows on Northsound in the early years of the millennium. Unfortunately, that kind of format seems to have dropped out of Northsound’s programming. Members will have got my point: local radio is a nursery for talent and a springboard to lifelong careers in broadcasting.
It should be mentioned that Ofcom’s proposed changes will keep the North Scotland boundaries as they are, but the general trend of a reduction in the requirement for locally produced content is hugely damaging for the talent base in Scotland as a whole. Today, the approved areas in Scotland go from three to two, but how long before Scotland has only one?
With fewer opportunities to get that first entry experience in local radio, we will continue to see young talent having to move elsewhere for those opportunities—if they even exist elsewhere. Let us not forget that the proposals may precipitate a reduction in locally produced content across the whole UK, but worse than that, talented young broadcasters may not be able to enter the industry at all. As someone who trained broadcasting students at North East Scotland College, I know that that would be bad news for the college sector, too. If there are no jobs locally in the creative industries, those colleges may have to lose those specialisms.
George Adam has talked in depth about the effect of the changes on the listener, and I agree with his many reasons why local content is important for listeners. However, Scotland also needs to nurture and keep its broadcasting talent. We need broadcasters who understand Scotland to stay in Scotland, to keep our creative industries alive and provide quality content that speaks to local people. These proposals put that in further jeopardy.17:19
I congratulate George Adam on securing this debate. I did not intend to speak today, but I am speaking on behalf of Claire Baker, who, like a number of MSP colleagues, failed to make a flight this morning as they were returning home as part of a parliamentary delegation. I know that she was very much looking forward to contributing to the debate and talking specifically about Kingdom FM, which broadcasts in her region.
I am afraid that everything that I know about the subject I have learned this afternoon, so I cannot speak with the same authority that George Adam can on these issues. However, one of the things that I have learned this afternoon is that George Adam is, indeed, a radio enthusiast and that there is very little about Clyde FM in particular that he does not know. I wonder whether, in his post-MSP life, we might see him featuring on Radio Paisley or Buddie FM. I am grateful to him for sharing his expertise in this area.
I want to make three points. One is about deregulation, one is about the charitable impact of radio and one is about radio’s community impact.
George Adam’s motion is quite negative. The concerns that he set out are quite legitimate, but I am not as pessimistic as he is, because I think that the things that he is concerned about are not going to happen. Look at, for example, the changes at Heart FM, with Robin Galloway’s breakfast show being replaced by a network show presented by Amanda Holden and Jamie Theakston. Robin Galloway has been a part of my life since he presented the birthday spot on Grampian Television in the 1980s. I find baffling the idea that people want to tune into Jamie Theakston instead. The idea of local content is not just about the news that is presented on the hour; it involves the news that is woven into everything that is heard throughout the radio day. For example, the news is part of everything that the presenters talk about on “Boogie in the Morning” on Radio Forth. That is what makes it as popular as it is. Indeed, its listenership is growing, and it is only when listenership is growing that a radio station makes the money that it needs to.
George Adam makes legitimate points about how new music and new bands break through. In the 1990s, the Hazey Janes were the school band in my school. They went on to huge success, and I remember that sense of excitement when they got their first tune played on Tay FM, and then on what became Wave 102. Now, bands have new opportunities to break through, whether that is putting their videos online or being featured on internet radio stations, which, as George Adam pointed out, remain unregulated.
On the positive side, I point to the work that journalists do on Radio Forth, in particular—that is the station that I am most familiar with. The station regularly champions charitable causes. The cabinet secretary might be aware that, on 10 May, it hosted a superhero day. From its listenership area, it raised £202,000 simply by encouraging people to go to their place of work on that day dressed as superheroes. All of that money is spent in the Lothian region, trying to advance initiatives that tackle poverty and inequality. We need to recognise the huge role that local radio stations play in communities in terms of their charitable impact.
I also want to mention that Radio Forth requires all its journalists to have a campaigning aspect to their work. I notice that most significantly in the work that Alan Smith does in this building. I have done a lot of work with the Woodburn family, who lost their son Shaun on 1 January 2017. That was a national story for a day, but it was a daily story for weeks and months on Radio Forth, because it happened on the streets that listeners walk on and outside a pub that listeners drink in. The story is part of the fabric of Edinburgh life, and it had such a strong connection to the local football club that it went on and on. As a consequence of what happened, Alan Smith has championed the rights of victims and is a leading light in the campaign for a victims commissioner, as is the station at large. I know from speaking to colleagues that Bauer journalists across the country have done similar campaigning work, not least those in Clyde FM, whose local journalists are championing the reform of dog warden and dog welfare legislation, which is important.
I again congratulate George Adam on securing this debate. I recognise and share some of his concerns, but I think that it is also important to recognise some of the wonderful radio that we already have, and some of the great local stations that we can all continue to appreciate.17:23
I congratulate my colleague George Adam on bringing this important debate to the chamber. I am pleased to have the chance to speak in it.
When I left school many moons ago, my first job was at Radio Clyde. At that time, it was an exciting new broadcaster that was new to the airwaves. I think that I might have just given my age away, but never mind. At last—as George Adam said—the west of Scotland had a voice. We could listen to presenters talk about entertainment venues that we knew, about new local bands and about experiences that we had all had in and around Glasgow. Having grown up listening to London-centric Radio 1, that was a breakthrough—and we did not even mind the adverts. I have fond memories of my time as an office junior at Radio Clyde. I guess that I was, as a teenager, a bit overawed by the DJs—as they were called then—who became my colleagues.
While I was putting this speech together, I realised that I have the same affinity for local radio that I have for local newspapers, for which I also worked in the early days of my journalism career. They, too, are on their knees, thanks to centralisation. The key word is “local”—the stations are so important, whether in relation to local news, traffic or just general chat and knowledge about the area. People feel part of things when they listen to a local radio station or read a local newspaper. They feel a connection that they can never feel with a remote medium that is not based close to home.
That is why the recent decision by Ofcom to deregulate the conditions for local FM licences is baffling and—frankly—seems to be wrong. Of course, commercial radio stations are businesses, but that is what makes the decision all the more baffling, because local radio is thriving and running wonderful campaigns, as Kezia outlined. It has growing audience figures and healthy advertising revenues.
As I understand it, deregulation will mean a planned reduction in local programming from seven hours a day to just three, with a move to produce content centrally from London. That will take the broadcasting industry back decades and will have a hugely detrimental effect on media industries across the UK. As Gillian Martin said, it could reduce the number of opportunities for media students in an age when communication is key, and is evolving at mind-blowing speed.
According to the Federation of Entertainment Unions, the decision to reduce the number of locally produced programmes will result in the loss of hundreds of jobs, and the closure of 11 local studios. It said:
“In the context of cuts to journalists’ jobs and closures of local newspapers, this will add to the serious decline in local news for UK citizens.
These ill-considered changes have taken place without adequate Parliamentary scrutiny of their potential effect on local jobs”.
It is calling for
“an urgent review of the decision by Ofcom.”
I am pleased that George Adam’s motion received cross-party support, and I am grateful to him for his articulation of the business models that are involved. Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Tom Watson MP, called the move “a travesty”, and his colleague has called for a Commons debate.
The ill thought out and reckless decision by Ofcom should be reversed immediately. Let us keep our radio local, give listeners what they want, and give security to the many people who are employed in that important industry. Let us give no airtime to faceless bureaucrats with a centralising agenda, who are intent on running down our broadcast media. If we all make enough noise, they might just listen.17:27
I thank George Adam for securing the debate and bringing the important topic of concerns about local radio content to the chamber. I am happy to make a short contribution.
Centralised playlists of banging tunes are not enough—local content and news are really important. As George Adam said in his opening speech, we have to hear our own voices on the radio. It is therefore right that we are getting the opportunity to discuss those concerns here in our Scottish Parliament.
Due to new licensing regulations that have been approved by Ofcom, it is now acceptable to broadcast just three hours of content per day from within the new areas, which is not the local radio that we formerly knew. It means that 21 hours of radio a day, Monday to Friday, will be broadcast from a hub. There is no longer any requirement to broadcast at weekends from within the approved areas. Essentially, all 48 hours of programming—the entire weekend—will now come from the hub.
The first programme to be launched was the new “Capital Breakfast” show. Airing from London, it has replaced 14 breakfast programmes on the Capital network in England, Scotland and Wales. Capital is also planning to cut the number of drive-time shows from 14 to nine. I strongly believe that those cuts will have a damaging effect on local radio news and content.
Radio newsrooms are a thing of the past, with only worldwide news that is bought in from Sky being broadcast after a particular time, which leaves—as George said—no way of reporting local news. The cuts have also meant the loss of more than 100 radio jobs, with local producers and presenters being replaced by big names from elsewhere.
There is also a risk that small businesses that once relied on radio advertising to bring in business can no longer do so. Scottish communities that use radio advertising to let locals know about events—including charity events—that are taking place might have to find new ways to communicate about them. In every corner of the UK, communities are being left with no local radio station and no local voice.
However, at this point, I mention the wonderful community radio stations that still provide a great service to my community on FM—Irvine Beat FM and 3TFM—do a really good job for the folk in my area.
Although the potential loss of opportunity for our talented local musicians has already been mentioned, it bears repeating. It is really difficult for up-and-coming talents who hope to make it in the music industry to be discovered. I acknowledge that many other platforms such as Youtube and Instagram are used these days, but they are pretty saturated, and radio is still a really important way in which hopeful stars can promote themselves. Furthermore, even people who succeed have little chance of making it on to their local radio station, because—this has been mentioned before—generic centralised playlists are now used and blasted out on all radio stations. That means that the same music is broadcast all over the UK. We are losing a bit of diversity.
I acknowledge that how we consume entertainment is changing, but we still need local content and news on FM, and that content needs to reflect the diversity of all our islands.
I remind members to use colleagues’ full names for the Official Report and anyone who is listening in, please.17:30
I am pleased to take part in this members’ business debate, and I congratulate George Adam on bringing it to the chamber.
I, too, am highly concerned about the changes that are currently being made in the commercial radio industry and sector. Those changes, which are being waved through by Ofcom, have put further pressure on local radio stations’ content and news bulletins.
In a recent Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee meeting, I had the opportunity to ask Ofcom why it was making the changes, and about its remit. Ofcom says that the changes are due to increased competition and changed listening habits across the radio sector, but I questioned whether its action has been proportionate. I said about local radio:
“most of the industry believes that you are ripping the heart out of it”.—[Official Report, Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, 16 May 2019; c 9.]
However, Ofcom still believes that the alterations are proportionate. It says that it is doing a huge amount of work to ensure that the radio workforce is diverse and better reflects the make-up of the UK. Ofcom believes that the changes will enhance diversity and reflect the make-up of the United Kingdom; I suggest that its actions will achieve exactly the opposite.
Local radio does a fantastic job. We have already heard that from members who understand its local power and what is happening. Local radio highlights local talent and gives it a platform and the opportunity to get exposure. Removing some of that provision constrains opportunities and does not give local talent the same chances that others have. As hours and opportunities are squeezed, so will the content be.
When Radio Caroline was founded in 1964, it was seen as trying to get round control of popular music in broadcasting throughout the United Kingdom as well as the monopoly of the BBC. It is difficult to imagine where many of Radio Caroline’s broadcasters, DJs and artists would be now without the opportunity of having had that exposure. We need to think long and hard about what we are achieving and what we are trying to achieve.
We have heard about the Scottish playlist that is being removed and eroded, and about the news content that will no longer exist. We all know what that local content can mean to individuals in our local regions or constituencies. It reassures them about what is taking place in and around their local area.
We have seen changes. Many members have mentioned that. Jamie Greene talked about how things have evolved in the industry. We know that six million people listen to podcasts each week in the UK. There is an argument about whether things will be shrunk or moved forward that may well mean that people will change their minds and do different things.
Localism works at every level. Whether we are talking about local knowledge, local artists or local entrepreneurs, we have to think about how things are managed.
The committee took evidence from D C Thomson, which gave us a huge insight into what it is trying to do in the industry. Today, we have heard about the commercial side of things, and about advertisers and community events that will now not be given the opportunity to broadcast.
In conclusion, I firmly believe that the further stifling of local radio content will erode many opportunities for individuals. The shrinking of the market might well mean an acceleration of precisely the trends that Ofcom and others are trying their best avoid. We must protect local radio stations. They are a lifeline for individuals and our communities, and they deserve our respect and support.17:34
I, too, thank George Adam for securing this important debate.
As we have heard from members, local commercial radio makes a valuable contribution to Scotland and remains an important part of our lives. That is clear, given that Ofcom’s figures show that, in early 2018, more Scots listened to local commercial radio than to BBC stations. Therefore, it is surprising that the characteristics of local commercial radio that people value, such as its local voice and the way in which it connects communities, are now at risk following Ofcom’s recent decisions.
The Scottish Government is disappointed with Ofcom’s decisions to permit a reduction in the amount of locally made radio programming in Scotland, and to fail to protect the distinct character of Scotland’s east and west by creating a single area for production across our central belt. As Ofcom’s localness guidelines set out, content on our local radio stations should give listeners
“a feel for an area ... and ... confidence that matters of local importance, relevance or interest ... will be broadcast”.
The Scottish Government does not believe that having one area covering the central belt delivers on those requirements for listeners.
Ofcom has said that its decisions on localness will
“strengthen the ability of local commercial radio stations to deliver the locally-relevant services that listeners expect”.
However, that reasoning does not fit with the expectations of listeners to hear local voices and issues or, as Kezia Dugdale pointed out, local charity and campaigning initiatives.
By making such decisions, Ofcom is opening the door to change but not change that we welcome. The likely result will be that our commercial radio stations will gradually lose their distinctive identities, including the familiar sounds of Glasgow patter or Edinburgh chatter about the things that happen around us. Things that really matter to communities and to people in their daily lives will be lost. George Adam rightly identified the effect of local music talent being unable to access the airwaves. We risk losing that local identity because Ofcom is not putting the interests of audiences at the centre of its decisions.
The Scottish Government is concerned because it seems that Ofcom did not fully take into account the interests of the Scottish listeners who responded to its consultation. Most responses from audiences wanted to protect distinctiveness, and we simply do not think that the audience research in Scotland was as complete as it should have been to reflect—as Ofcom’s advisory committee in Scotland pointed out—our nation’s unique circumstances. Alexander Stewart questioned whether Ofcom’s decisions have been “proportionate”.
Worryingly, it seems that Ofcom’s decisions are already having a detrimental effect on Scottish listeners. Global Radio has announced that it will launch UK-wide breakfast shows, so distinct local breakfast programmes across Scotland will be lost, which will take some Scotland-based presenters off air. I am concerned that other operators might follow suit by reducing the amount of locally made programming in Scotland, which will mean that we will lose more local voices and jobs, as Rona Mackay pointed out. Ruth Maguire also referred to the cuts at Capital. The concern is that the loosening of localness requirements might lead to a greater concentration of production activity in major centres, which could diminish career opportunities in the regions. Gillian Martin talked about the talent pipeline for broadcasting being lost.
We believe that Ofcom should seek to establish a sustainable system that provides greater opportunities for people across Scotland. Although the Scottish Government recognises that listeners have more choice than ever, community radio and digital streaming services are by no means substitutes for local commercial radio. There are a number of opportunities for the radio sector, and we want the interests of Scotland and our distinct local communities to be taken fully into account. Although we understand, as set out by Jamie Greene, the genuine challenges in the local commercial radio sector, particularly in an increasingly competitive market, it is clear that many people in Scotland consider the loss of localness to be a key concern.
Within public service broadcasting, it is difficult to correlate the regulator’s position on local commercial radio with the very different direction that is taken in television. In TV broadcasting, it seems that a much greater value is placed on encouraging distinct local creative identities and industries and on the representation and portrayal of communities across the nations.
Ofcom is reconsidering its out-of-London guidance. We have seen the launch of the new BBC Scotland channel, and Channel Four has taken steps to establish a creative hub in Glasgow and has committed to moving a far greater share of production to the nations and regions.
We have made our views known to Ofcom throughout the consultation, and I will continue to press our case and take every opportunity to work with broadcasters and with the regulator, Ofcom, to ensure that they recognise Scotland’s national needs.
When I met Bob Downes, Ofcom board member for Scotland, earlier this month, I expressed my disappointment with the decisions, and I have also written to Ofcom’s chief executive Sharon White to outline our concerns about the decisions and the potential impact on Scotland. At the very least, Ofcom should monitor performance very closely to ensure that the public value offered by localness is not reduced in Scotland.
Is it not the reality, though, that audiences will vote with their fingers on this issue? If they are not happy with the new network content or with the voices and playlist coming from London or elsewhere, they will simply switch. These stations need the advertising revenue that comes with audiences and, as they told the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee last week, they will reverse some of these decisions if they find that they need to make changes. I was quite buoyed by that. They need the audiences, because they need the advertising revenue.
That is the argument that is being made: the market is king and, with deregulation, the audience will vote with their feet. The problem is this: who will they switch to, if we have lost that alternative? At that point, we will have lost the talent and the pipeline. That is why I think that there is a genuine opportunity for Ofcom to pause and consider the different options.
Of course, regulation of broadcasting is reserved to Westminster. If we had greater responsibilities for broadcasting, proportionate decisions could be taken that recognise the local requirements and wishes of viewers and listeners in Scotland. That would ensure that both public service and commercial broadcasting would be equipped to deliver the best possible output for the people of Scotland.
This constructive and engaging debate has rightly brought the concerns and challenges in the sector to the fore, and it has also highlighted the valuable role that radio continues to have in our communities, our constituencies and our lives. Listening to the contributions, I think that there is clearly broad agreement on the importance of localness in our local commercial radio and the need to protect public interests. However, I also think that everybody has been quite realistic about the challenges that are being faced, and there is certainly a wider and continuing debate to be had on the matter.
In closing, I also undertake to send the Official Report of the debate to Ofcom for its consideration.Meeting closed at 17:42.