Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2040 - 2059)

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008

Mr Andrew Harrison, Mr Mark Story and Mr Daniel Bruce

  Q2040  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Who is making the editorial decisions when it comes to deciding to run one agenda or another?

  Mr Bruce: It is ultimately the duty editor or the editor who have the responsibility for those.

  Q2041  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury: In Coventry?

  Mr Bruce: Yes. So they would have responsibility for editorial output on all of those stations. This is only our particular example, but our editors have been trained to recognise the geographical differences and nuances between the areas that they are serving. Of course you cannot guarantee that that will happen in all cases.

  Q2042  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: I suppose in that case it was made easier by the fact that the local authorities were taking rather different views and so the editors had a good lead in to differentiating between Coventry and Stratford.

  Mr Bruce: Yes, absolutely.

  Q2043  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: You would need something like that because otherwise you could not listen to every conversation.

  Mr Bruce: No. They were two very helpful calling birds in that sense. I think it would be perhaps harder in the earthquake scenario to differentiate, but again a lot of it does come down to the abilities of the first port of call in the news gathering journalist and their knowledge of their area.

  Q2044  Bishop of Manchester: The earthquake thing is quite interesting. You spoke very much in terms of the locality of the epicentre. In the early hours of this morning it was quite a frightening experience in Manchester where we are on the geological fault line. How do you come to a decision that a news item really is local, as you seemed to be describing the earthquake at the beginning, when in fact the impact is much wider than a local thing?

  Mr Harrison: I was talking from the perspective of representing all of the local commercial radio stations. That is not to say the earthquake is not a national story. Quite clearly it has been covered as a national story on the BBC this morning on television and radio.

  Q2045  Bishop of Manchester: To what extent would your local radio stations be in touch with one another so that, for example, the commercial radio stations in Manchester were in touch with what was being said and compiled on the east coast?

  Mr Story: We have two radio stations in Manchester, Q103 and Magic 1152. For both of those stations what happened, frankly, in Lincolnshire is of no interest whatsoever and they will concentrate on exactly what happened and that would be their only interest. The real differentiator for us in terms of providing local radio in Manchester is that we have a strong flavour of Manchester and the wider area and that largely comes through in our news. When it comes to providing bulletins for our listeners, we have very strict guidelines, we do a huge amount of quality control, I personally do it, where we will go through every bulletin for a day on a ten or 15-day basis and analyse how much of this is national news and how much is local news. We start by telling people what has happened and where it has happened and then, as we progress with the story, why it has happened and what the consequences are as the story builds. That is the core to our effectiveness as a commercial radio entity. That is what our listeners expect from us. If we do not provide it then they will not listen to us. We have a wonderful "call to action" every hour where they will listen to our radio station on the hour because they know that we will have the latest local news.

  Q2046  Lord Maxton: How many of the radio stations are actually talk radios as opposed to music stations? When you say you have got bulletins, they are hourly bulletins. As far as I know nobody in the commercial sector provides the Today programme or the science in Good Morning Scotland or whatever on BBC, do they? Is anybody doing that sort of thing?

  Mr Story: We operate licences which are determined by Ofcom and previously the Radio Authority. We are not licensed to provide an all speech breakfast show except for one station. We launched a station six weeks ago in Liverpool, which we think is quite innovative and will lead to a rather different kind of commercial radio, which is all speech.

  Q2047  Lord Maxton: I hope Derek Hatton is not on it.

  Mr Story: There is no Derek Hutton on this one. It is a Derek Hutton free zone!

  Q2048  Chairman: Did you say you have to be licensed?

  Mr Story: Yes. We are governed by a promise of a format which is determined by Ofcom as to exactly what we provide on those radio stations. The licences we own in our company are what are called general entertainment licences and those would include providing news provision throughout the day.

  Q2049  Lord Maxton: So why, if I want to listen to the earthquake news, do I not listen to the local BBC radio station where I am going to get at length news coverage?

  Mr Story: When there is a story—and I think the recent floods would be a good example—our radio stations generally will stop normal transmission and will concentrate entirely on that. I think that is really where we feel that we do our job particularly well.

  Q2050  Chairman: If I had an entertainment licence would I need to go back to Ofcom and ask to do a talk show or a breakfast show?

  Mr Story: Yes. The amount of speech to music is strictly regulated.

  Q2051  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury: Considering how small your organisations are, Mr Bruce was saying they are one-man bands, I was wondering how you gather your news.

  Mr Bruce: There are a variety of models. I have worked in smaller commercial radio stations as a journalist and an editor where you are part of a two or two and a half person news team, if you are lucky, often serving still quite large geographical areas. Under that model it is incredibly difficult because when I was editor of our station in Stratford there were two and a half of us and we had a window of writing and in the field a news gathering opportunity in the morning after the breakfast journalists had gone home at half-past one and I had to read news bulletins in the afternoon. If an earthquake happened in Stratford at four o'clock in the afternoon I have not got a reporter to go out and cover it. Those are the real challenges faced by smaller standalone stations. The news hub model allows us to have journalists who are not committed to reading news bulletins, so they can be wherever we need them to be. Perhaps I may use Mark's example of the flooding in the summer. When something so extreme as that hits a relatively small local area you can obviously pull in resources from your other stations and you would have half a dozen reporters on the ground in order to produce an appropriate level of content for a situation like that. The nuts and bolts of news gathering vary in terms of structure. In terms of where it is coming from, which I should imagine is also of interest, in a smaller newsroom you are by definition going to be, because of time pressures and economic constraints, largely dependent on material coming in on the national news wires, but in terms of your local content, you will be, quite honestly, a very press release-led radio station. You do not do a lot of investigative journalism because there simply is not time. How much of the content that you broadcast is original is a relatively small percentage. Again, with the model that we have deployed in other stations who have bigger newsrooms and reporters who are able to be "off desk" they do have more time to investigate stories properly and spend several weeks pursuing one story to conclusion and doing a proper piece of grass-roots journalism, but that is probably a rarity. There is value in that and I think commercial radio operators such as ours realise that because in this crowded marketplace we want to stand out.

  Q2052  Baroness Scott of Needham Market: The floods and the earthquake and Coventry Airport are, to an extent, national and regional stories where you report the local impact, but there are also lots of local stories, things like whether the local hospital is performing properly and whether it has a budget, which are of huge interest to local people. Certainly when I became involved in local government in Suffolk 20 years ago I would frequently go on to local commercial radio. It does not feel to me as though that happens any more at all now, that it is only the BBC that covers what the council is doing or the hospital. I wondered whether that is a fair comment to make and whether that would be the experience anywhere in the country.

  Mr Story: That is completely untrue.

  Q2053  Baroness Scott of Needham Market: In Suffolk it is not.

  Mr Story: We do not have anything in Suffolk. Just taking up the point about the making of documentaries and enquiries into items of great interest to the local community, I listen to an awful lot of our output in my position. We make more documentaries now than we have ever made. The documentaries generally will provide us with news content as well which will lead to people listening to it later on. They are using the facility on our website where they can listen again to content. In terms of bread and butter local issues, that is absolutely the core of what we do and we do it because, frankly, there is a market for it. We do it because that is what our listeners want. They are very concerned about their local hospital. They are very concerned about whether the school is going to be turned into one thing or another. We follow those stories day in and day out and we will assign, particularly in things that are long-running stories, those stories to a particular person so that they can be really on top of it rather than just getting a superficial view of that. Certainly in all of the research we do with the public they say they listen to our stations because they feel we are from here and we have a better angle on that than the regional stations.

  Q2054  Chairman: But it is a function of scale, is it not? If you are running a small local station with only one reporter it is quite difficult to do what Baroness Scott would like you to do.

  Mr Story: We have some small stations. Moray Firth in Inverness is a good example. They will use a large number of freelance presenters and news gatherers to make sure that they have all of the information. As the stations get smaller I think local news is even more important.

  Q2055  Bishop of Manchester: I was very interested to hear what Mr Bruce and Mr Story were saying earlier on about news gathering and news provision. RadioCentre said in your submission to Ofcom, Mr Harrison, and perhaps I may quote it to you, " ... there is nothing to say that this demand for local news could not, in theory, be satisfied in areas with only a single local radio broadcaster." Presumably you had the BBC in mind to take over all news provision?

  Mr Harrison: I cannot recall exactly what part of our response on "Future of Radio" that quote was taken from.

  Q2056  Bishop of Manchester: Paragraph 7, part 24.

  Mr Harrison: Thank you. I assume the context was around the fact that there is already the BBC in the every local market. The question then is whether you require two different local commercial radio operators in the same market by law or whether one additional provider alongside the BBC is sufficient. It would not have meant one alone; it would have been one in addition to the BBC.

  Q2057  Bishop of Manchester: Can you give a particular example of an area where you feel it would be an improvement for the provision of commercial news for that to be made into one rather than more than that?

  Mr Harrison: Without knowing the specifics of the stations and the ownership --- I think the comment on Suffolk is interesting in this context. Our contention at the moment is the different licences for radio services in Suffolk are granted around different market towns and there is then a separate additional layer of ownership regulation that would require different owners of those different stations. That actually means in practice the provision in Suffolk is very small stations probably run by ten people with scope for one or, at most, two journalists. That means in practice there is a limit as to how much we can cover, particularly compared to a BBC operation which can access its national resources whenever it needs to or mobilise neighbouring local services. If those stations are required to be under separate ownership you structurally cannot get any economy of scale to provide better news provision. If the three stations in Suffolk were allowed to be under the same ownership then our contention would be that you would still have plenty of plurality in that specific neighbourhood because you already have BBC Radio, you have all of the local press, all of the online and all of the national services coming into Suffolk, but specifically for commercial radio provision in Suffolk, rather than having three small local stations each barely profitable, each only able to employ one journalist, you may have the opportunity to have a hub under common ownership and the ability to scale a little bit and employ sufficient resource to give better coverage to listeners. Coming back to Mr Story's comment, this is axiomatic ultimately for the commercial sector. Our business model is predicated upon local licences and being able to sell advertising revenue locally because we have got local listeners on the basis of those licences. If we do not cover the local stories well there is plenty of provision either locally from the BBC or nationally from the BBC for listeners to go elsewhere. It is axiomatic, we have to provide the coverage to get the listeners and without the listeners the business model falls over. The difficulty we are trying to bridge in all of this is the combination of quite prescriptive formats and quite onerous ownership obligations which rather constraint us to deliver the service that we believe the listeners in Suffolk or wherever would enjoy, and we think there is a way through this without actually compromising plurality in a multimedia world.

  Q2058  Bishop of Manchester: What I hear you saying at the moment is that as you see it there is currently a weakness in the way in which commercial radio stations are able to gather news and provide it when you compare yourselves to the BBC, with the vast resources the BBC has both for informative views and investigative journalism. How are you actually going to get this improved in the terms that you have described? You have just given a wish-list. What power do you have within your own organisations to be able to improve news coverage in the way you have described?

  Mr Harrison: The power we have within the individual companies is entirely to do with the individual company's abilities to have a business model that enables them to operate profitably while serving the needs of those local communities. At the moment all the local radio stations are structured as they best feel able within the constraints of the legislation to run their business. If we could free up a little this onerous ownership burden each of the individual groups would then naturally work and the market would naturally work to provide better coverage. If you owned two or three stations in an area your business model would require you to serve those local listeners because if you did not your business model would be even more vulnerable because your listeners would go to the BBC or elsewhere. So I think the market would then naturally work. At the moment, because of the combination of format regulations through Ofcom and ownership regulations through legislation, the room for manoeuvre is very constrained and it is very constrained against both our direct competitive set, which is the BBC, which has a virtual monopoly on national spectrum and resources locally which we do not enjoy and against all the other local news providers that do not have any of the sector specific regulation. So all of the on-line sites, all of the local press, all of the regional press, free or weekly, none of this has any of this additional layer. They have competition rules in the normal course of things but they do not have this specific additional burden. In today's world it seems that is an unnecessary burden on a small sector.

  Q2059  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury: Can I just confirm that you believe that consolidation of ownership is a positive thing from the point of view of the quality and diversity of the news that can be provided?

  Mr Story: Absolutely.


 
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