Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


14.  Memorandum submitted by the Radio Authority

SUMMARY

  Technical considerations mean coverage of Welsh issues by the three national commercial radio stations is (and will be) governed by editorial judgement of their interest to a UK-wide audience.

  Local and regional commercial radio stations operate within a Promise of Performance and the Radio Authority's Codes concerning due impartiality in news and election coverage.

  Past experience points to efforts being made by the stations to cover debates and issues emanating from the Assembly of particular interest to each audience.

  The Radio Authority will look sympathetically on any request by operators to cover Assembly affairs and/or live coverage of the Assembly in session.

  The introduction of Digital Radio offers great opportunities for improved reception and additional programme and data services but its success will depend upon consumer take-up which is difficult to forecast.

  The inability to broadcast nationally licensed services to Wales alone is equally applicable to the forthcoming National Digital Radio Multiplex.

  Radio Authority plans for Local Digital Radio Multiplexes include a service for the Newport and Cardiff area.

  The Radio Authority is happy to co-operate with the Assembly if it chooses to find ways of articulating an interest in broadcasting matters.

THE ROLE OF THE RADIO AUTHORITY

  1.  The Radio Authority was set up by the Broadcasting Act 1990. It took responsibility for the regulation and licensing of Independent Radio throughout the UK in succession to the former Independent Broadcasting Authority. The Radio Authority's tasks are threefold: (i) to plan and allocate frequencies for radio broadcasts within spectrum assigned to it by Government: (ii) to select and appoint licensees to operate radio services on those frequencies, and to supervise matters such as the statutory ownership rules affecting inter alia who may hold licences and how many licences may be in single ownership; and (iii) to regulate the programming and advertising output on the basis of a series of statutory codes established by the Authority under the broadcasting legislation. The 1996 Broadcasting Act gave the Authority additional responsibility including for establishing Digital Radio (using Digital Audio Broadcasting technology) in the independent sector.

  2.  The Authority has currently issued 224 Independent Local Radio licences (ILR), three Independent National Radio licences (INR) and is currently awarding new ILR licences at the rate of about two a month. The Authority also has 22 cable radio licensees and 44 satellite radio licensees as well as licensing one additional service for data which operates within a sub-carrier of the INR FM frequency allocation. In addition, the Authority issues between 300 and 350 Restricted Service Licences (RSLs) each year; these are mostly of not more than 28 days duration and are run either as trial services or for the coverage of special events.

  3.  The Authority was set up to be a "light-touch" regulator. It does not prescribe, either generally or in detail, the range of programming to be provided by licensees. However, the programming proposals of a successful applicant are encapsulated, with some precision, in a "Promise of Performance" from which the licensee must not deviate (though variations can be negotiated). The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport appoints the Chairman and Members of the Authority. There is a permanent staff of 37. Together they are responsible for regulating more than 30,000 hours of programming each week.

  4.  RA licensees broadcasting to all or part of Wales are listed in the Annex, with a brief indication of area covered and programming style. They comprise: the three INR (ie all-UK) services, and local/regional services. With the exception of Talk Radio (one of the INRs) these are all music-based stations, though in all cases their programming includes some local/regional news and other information. Stations whose output includes some Welsh language are noted in the Annex.

ASSEMBLY ELECTION COVERAGE

  5.  As regards coverage of Welsh Assembly elections and the proceedings of the Assembly, and Welsh public affairs generally:

    (i)  The three all-UK services do not have the capacity to "split" programming so as to provide output different in Wales from elsewhere in the UK. It follows that coverage by these stations of Welsh affairs is likely to be governed by editorial judgement of their interest to the UK-wide audience.

    (ii)  The local/regional stations would be likely to give some coverage to Assembly matters (including elections) as part of their commitment to provide local news and other speech-based material likely to appeal to the local audience. How, and how much, they did this would be primarily up to them, within the individual Promises of Performance and the requirements of the Authority's Codes (as regards impartial coverage of elections and news).

    (iii)  Codes and advice concerning the coverage of Westminster and other political issues are generally within Advertising and Programming and News codes. The election to the Welsh assembly and the Assembly business will attract similar codes and advice, as will the election to the Scottish Parliament and its business. If a station wished to devote more time to Assembly affairs than its current Promise of Performance envisaged, the Radio Authority would be sympathetic to any request for variation.

    (iv)  Because these are music-based stations, with modest-sized newsrooms, it seems unlikely to us that they would be offering any extended live coverage of Assembly business. On the other hand, experience of ILR coverage of Parliament and local authority business suggests that efforts would be made to cover debates and other events of salient interest to their audiences.

DIGITAL BROADCASTING

The Future

  6.  Under the 1996 Broadcasting Act the Radio Authority has responsibility for facilitating the introduction of commercial Digital Radio multiplexes to provide both national and local services. Digital Radio offers significant advantages to the listener in terms of a higher quality of reception of all services, including mobile services, robust signal reception and greater ease of tuning. Even with the present relatively limited frequency availability, the opportunity exists to introduce many more new services, perhaps doubling the existing analogue numbers, and to provide data transmitted with the digital audio signal giving information related to programming output and discrete data streams.

  7.  However, there is still some uncertainty about the consumer take-up of Digital Radio and consequently of its commercial potential. It is not yet clear to what extent radio set manufacturers are prepared to make the necessary investment in production and marketing to convince the public to buy Digital Radio sets, and to bring down the price to the level where digital can begin to replace analogue as the favoured means of reception. A few car radios are now available with domestic receivers coming on to the market perhaps in significant numbers during 1999. Given that there is an average of five analogue radio sets per household, excluding existing analogue car radios, the transition from analogue and digital is likely to take many years. The most optimistic estimate suggests that 40 per cent of homes may have a Digital Radio set within ten years but it is clear that the prospect of digital replacing analogue is a distant one and it is not realistic for Government to consider any reliable timescale for switching off analogue in order to re-use the analogue spectrum. The limited frequency resource currently allocated for Digital Radio means that the Authority will not be able to bring Digital Radio into all locations currently served by analogue local radio stations. Even within areas that become served by Digital Radio it may well be that analogue FM will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future in order to meet the demand for small scale radio and possibly also as the best transmission medium for highly localised services.

The Timeframe

  8.  The Radio Authority advertised the national commercial radio multiplex in March 1998 (24.3.98). The advertisement invited applications from those interested in operating the multiplex for its twelve-year licence term. The licence is intended to cover England, Wales and Scotland (but coverage of GB will not be complete, or close to complete, for some time). The Authority has received one application, from Digital One. The Authority hopes to make an announcement about the award of this licence in the very near future.

  9.  Once the outcome of the national multiplex award is known the Authority will begin advertising local multiplexes. These will be advertised in batches of three, although each will be awarded separately. In the early years, the Authority will concentrate upon the main population centres within the UK, facilitating a local, then a regional multiplex in each of three main conurbations, apart from in Greater London where an additional multiplex should be available. This pace of progress, together with the services on the national commercial radio multiplex could bring listeners in major areas up to 24 digital radio services (London 32), plus a further selection (6-8) on the BBC's own separate national multiplex. Licensing criteria will be similar to those used for the national commercial multiplex, although local support and the addressing of local tastes and interests will be more of a specific factor than promoting digital radio or encouraging the purchase of new radio sets.

  10.  The Authority's plans for digital radio touch on Wales in two obvious respects in the short term. The national multiplex licence provides for a common service, across the whole transmission map. The Authority, in advertising this licence, made no minimum coverage requirement, since extent of coverage is one of the differentiating factors in choosing between competing licence applications. In the event, just one application was received, from Digital One Limited, which is still under consideration by the Authority at the time of writing. Digital One's application includes a commitment to provide coverage of the M4/M48 corridor within South Wales, including Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. Beyond this, further coverage would be a matter for the commercial judgement of the licensee.

  11.  The Authority's published plans for local digital radio multiplexes include a service for the Newport and Cardiff area, due to be advertised in the Summer of 1999, and the advertisement in October 2000 of a regional licence in South Wales. Capacity would (as required by the Act) be reserved on these local radio multiplexes for BBC services (presumably Radio Wales and Radio Cymru).

ROLE OF THE ASSEMBLY

  12.  The legislation establishing the Assembly left unaltered the responsibility of the UK parliament in broadcasting matters. Given the nature of the relationship between Parliament, broadcasting authorities andbroadcasters themselves, the Radio Authority has no quarrel with that. However, if the Assembly found ways of articulating an interest in broadcasting matters, the Radio Authority would, naturally, extend all proper co-operation to it.

The Radio Authority

30 September 1998


 
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