Changes to TFM

06/04/2013

By Graham Robb

On April 5th 2013 the 22 staff who worked for the renowned commercial radio station serving Teesside, Hartlepool, Darlington South Durham and North Yorkshire will move their jobs after the owner of TFM announced it was to migrate its production to its sister station Metro Radio in Newcastle.

According to a report in the respected trade journal Radio Today: "The new TFM will launch on Monday with all programming originating from Metro Radio in Newcastle including Steve and Karen at breakfast.

Bauer Media confirms all programmes on Metro Radio will be on TFM, Steve and Karen at Breakfast, Brian Moore on mid-mornings and Stu Elmore on 3pm till 7pm, but with split adverts and news. The stations already shared off-peak programming prior to today.

Offices in Stockton will close with remaining staff moving further north from Monday. The TFM Radio name, and all on and off air branding, will be retained, as will TFM’s local news and information.

The two stations are in the same Approved Area of the North East, so permission to merge them can be given without consultation."

I write as somebody with experience in radio and a long-term involvement in politics. I started my career as a presenter on TFM (then called Radio Tees) when I interviewed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who chose the station exclusively to talk about regeneration.  I then went on to stand for Parliament twice in the local area and was the media adviser to several Conservative leaders and MPs, including Rt Hon William Hague MP. In business I am chairman of the local committee of the Institute of Directors and was one of a the local business leaders who was consulted by local politicians about  a change of the map for regional policy to introduce LEPs.

It is in this respect that I believe Ofcom might make a terrible mistake, which could be open to legal challenge, if it allows this change without consultation. My point is based on the map and my belief this decision runs counter to Government policy dealing with the economic infrastructure of Tees Valley. The area won one of the first bids for a Local Enterprise Zone and has been short listed for City Deal status to encourage its development as a recognised sub-regional entity.

The reason Ofcom could give for nodding this change through its that it takes place in an "approved area" for radio licence changes of this type. However, it should be noted that the approved area – the North East of England - was determined by Ofcom BEFORE the current Government decided to change the way the North East is governed. In this respect the approved area is severely out of date and needs amending. If it were amended to fit current Government thinking and recognised economic areas, then the approved area would no longer be valid and this change would need to go out to consultation. There is, in my opinion, a case for a review and possible legal challenge on this narrow but important point. There is certainly a moral case for Ofcom to consult the people of Tees Valley before this change is made. For decision makers who are unfamiliar with North East geography and politics, this decision is the equivalent of allowing a radio station with a licence relating to Liverpool to close its doors and be broadcast from Manchester – it runs completely contrary to the contemporary localness agenda.

TFM started life as one of the first Independent Radio Stations in the UK and its licence has been bought and sold several times since the mid 1970s. However, after each sale programmes and news were always originated locally and the station sustained significant support in terms of audience and advertising. It most recent licence was renewed in 2012 with an expiry date of 28 June 2025, the long period this licence has to run makes it worth millions. To wantonly change the structure of delivery away from the local area with so little consultation is a serious mistake by Ofcom, especially given the hard work by the business and political community in Tees Valley to establish itself as a distinct part of the UK economy.

In terms of cost reduction Bauer, the current owner, has been requesting and receiving approval to manage and originate programmes on a networked basis for its other licences. Notably, the MAGIC radio licence, for which an application was made and granted at the beginning of the year to close down local services and network its programming.

See the application here .

It should be noted that OFCOM does have the power to reject changes; the rules clearly state:

 

The holder of an analogue local commercial radio licence may apply to Ofcom to have the station’s Format amended. Any application should be made using the layout shown on this form, and should be in accordance with Ofcom’s published procedures for Format changes (available on our website at http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/broadcasting/radio/formats-content/changes/ )

Under section 106(1A) of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (as amended), Ofcom may consent to a change of a Format only if it is satisfied that at least one of the following five statutory criteria is satisfied:

(a) that the departure would not substantially alter the character of the service;  

(b) that the departure would not narrow the range of programmes available by way of relevant independent radio services to persons living the area or locality for which the service is licensed to be provided;  

(c) that the departure would be conducive to the maintenance or promotion of fair and effective competition  

(d) that there is evidence that, amongst persons living in that area or locality, there is a significant demand for, or significant support for, the change that would result from the departure; or  

(e) that (i) the departure would result from programmes included in the licensed service ceasing to be made at premises in the area or locality for which the service is provided, but (ii) those programmes would continue to be made wholly or partly at premises within the approved area (as defined in section 314 of the Communications Act 2003 (local content and character of services)).  

Only one of these five criteria need be satisfied in order for Ofcom to consent to the proposed change. However, even if Ofcom is of the opinion that the proposed change satisfies one or more of the statutory criteria, there may be reasons (depending on the particular circumstances of the case) why Ofcom may not consent to the proposed change. The additional criteria to which Ofcom will have regard when exercising this discretion can be found at here

Applicants should note that, under section 106ZA of the same Act (as amended), a proposed change that does not satisfy the first or last of these criteria (i.e. a change that Ofcom considers would or could substantially alter the character of the service, or does not relate to the origin of locally-made programmes) must, if it is to be considered further under any of the other three criteria, be consulted upon. .

In the event that Ofcom receives a request for Format change and considers that criterion (a) or (e) is not satisfied, it will seek confirmation from the applicant as to whether it wishes to proceed with the request (and, if so, whether it wishes to amend or replace its submission in light of the necessity to make it public).

 

So, those are the rules, but nobody should lose sight of the point that these airwaves belong to the people. They do not belong to Bauer Radio or Ofcom. In my opinion, Ofcom has a moral duty to ask the people before their radio services are spirited away. If Bauer, or any other group, cannot make the licence pay then it should be re-advertised. I am sure there are several competent and experienced people who could run the service along the lines the original licence was granted. Merely nodding through changes at the behest of corporate radio operators is not good enough. Ofcom has let Teesside down and needs to review its position as soon as possible.

I am sending a letter stating the main points of this blog to the following people and I encourage those who agree to do so quickly, before Ofcom goes on the record this week.

 

Ed Vaisey MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries
Department for Culture, Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street
London
SW1A 2BQ

 

Mr Peter Davies, Director of Radio Content and Broadcast Licensing
Ofcom
Riverside House
2a Southwark Bridge Road
London
SE1 9HA

Peter.davies@ofcom.org.uk



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