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I’d like to update my blog readers on the meeting that I attended with James Wharton MP and representatives of Ofcom. Firstly I’d like to restate that I have no commercial interest in this issue but as a local business operating in a media environment, as a former presenter on the station and as someone with some background in politics I have felt it my duty to express concerns. Now this is being picked up at a Westminster level I think others should step in and make a case.
Before the meeting I bumped into Ian Swales the Lib Dem MP for Redcar he was also very angry about the decision. Alex Cunningham, MP for Stockton North, has also made his opposition clear to me. This means that people from all three political parties have opposed this move to migrate programme making from TFM radio in Stockton to Metro Radio in Newcastle.
James Wharton, however, asked for and got the Ofcom meeting. He was forensic in his questioning and uncompromising in his promotion of Teesside. As it was not my meeting it would be rude to give a blow by blow account but the following is a summary of the points raised.
We started by discussing what we consider as an out of date map, which uses the North East as an approved area for relocating radio services. We pointed out that other regions of the North had been broken down into areas that respect the new LEP areas; notably the North West and Yorkshire. We realised this decision, based on a current map, could not be easily reversed but questioned the future of the map.
We attached our own map showing the results on the ground of the process and pointed out that Teesside (excluding Darlington) now only hosts one radio station – BBC Tees – and that its daytime services had been saved as a result of the BBC accepting arguments put forward by the local community last year.
We then moved on to the argument, made by TFM owners Bauer, that local programmes would be provided but from Newcastle, we wanted to know what Ofcom’s test of this was. Essentially it believes the Teesside licence confers an obligation on Bauer and that this obligation can be tested by listener complaints and monitoring. Is traffic news adequate? Are important local issues being reported? Ofcom will monitor and investigate complaints and pledged to keep a watching brief on this. I urge people to become engaged and active in this monitoring exercise. To compare leading news stories on BBC Tees and the Evening Gazette, to contrast traffic reports to observe for place names and local participants in phone-ins.
The next issue we raised was the possibility of market testing this decision by advertising a new licence. Ofcom appeared very rigid on this point at first, the instant answer was that there are no frequencies and that an analogue licence was counter to Government policy of working towards digital only. James gained some considerable traction on this issue, Ofcom agreed to look at the technical possibilities of a local FM licence and transmitter for Teesside and wanted to know where we thought it should be located. Given an MP would never represent an specific group he answered that it is up to others to suggest this – on top of a building in central Middlesbrough? At a location in Stockton? James wants to have the opportunity of a new station for Teesside; not to apply for the licence himself. Ofcom wanted to focus on digital but of course the local multiplex licence is owned by Bauer; Ofcom confirmed it would be contrary to licence conditions to unreasonably deny a new player legitimate access and that it would rigorously enforce this rule (since the meeting I have heard that operators currently operating on the regional multiplex are wanting to relocate to local multiplexes, which could take up valuable bandwidth).
When Ofcom raised the issue of general radio industry finances I countered sharply that operator finances should not really be a regulatory issue, and that a market test of the licence should determine financial matters if a station failed.
The meeting lasted around an hour and was constructive. Ofcom was left in no doubt of the strength of feeling locally and will be monitoring Bauer’s performance closely. It has promised to explore the technical possibilities of a new local licence and transmitter. They asked us a number of times if we had contacted TFM and we replied that it was the regulators job to protect the public interest and not up to politicians to lobby providers. In fact, having thought about it a bit more since I think it could be wrong of an MP to mix it up over licensing issues with an operator that will broadcast reports on his public profile.