The State of the Nation Part 1: Nation Radio

It’s been a while but there’s an obvious reason…. I’ve moved from wordpress.com to my own domain & it’s taken time to move everything across… now that’s sorted, it’s time to continue this ambient meandering stroll through the radio world.

This is the first of a week long series of posts I’m calling “The State of the Nation.” And it’s definitely not related to the new Government. But it is about radio. There’ll be a new post every day at midday – so keep checking back!

To kick off the week I’ll start with some thoughts on the radio station that inspired the title – Nation Radio.

Nation Radio is a predominantly rock orientated station based in Neath, near Swansea and broadcasts across the M4 corridor in Wales.  It’s currently owned by Town & Country Broadcasting and unless you live in or around South Wales, the chances are you won’t have heard it. It’s certainly an interesting beast, starting with the licence’s history…

Nation Radio started out life as XFM South Wales, after GCap Media submitted and won an OFCOM advertised licence for a new radio licence covering Cardiff and Swansea. Notably, OFCOM stated in their announcement of the award that BBC Radio 1 had a higher than national audience in the area and that the XFM format “would therefore extend the demographic appeal of local commercial radio in South Wales, and was well-placed to attract current BBC Radio 1 listeners to the commercial radio sector.”

It should also be noted that the application intended for the station to be targeted at the 15-34 male audience… again, that has more relevance later on.

The application, to an extent, made sense. But I held the opinion, both prior to the licence award and especially since the sale of the station, that the licence should have been awarded to the application to launch Kerrang! – simply on the basis that music tastes have changed in the Cardiff area over the last ten years. Indie bands and the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia,  The Stereophonics and the Super Furry Animals dominated the music scene and as a result, the artists playing the local pubs and clubs were of similar ilk. That’s since changed with Funeral for a Friend and the Lost Prophets becoming huge – which, in turn, would have made Kerrang! the logical choice.

Whether the Kerrang! format would have been successful is open to debate. XFM had the advantage of being owned by GCap, which already operated Red Dragon – co-locating, as proposed, undoubtedly made it far cheaper to launch.

There’s no doubt a fair amount of cash was thrown at the launch of XFM South Wales – significant poster campaigns, the hiring of Rhys and Eggsy from the GLC and the appointment of several backroom staff from Kerrang! in Birmingham clearly showed that GCap intended to hit the ground running.

I’ve already stated that, in my opinion, Kerrang! would arguably have been more suited for the licence – however, the XFM format is one I generally prefer, so I was certainly hoping for big things from XFM.  However, less than six months into the twelve year licence, GCap disposed of the station by selling the licence to its current owners, Town & Country Broadcasting.

I won’t go into the details of the sale, other than the official line that the then owners GCap were losing money on the XFM stations in Wales, Manchester and Scotland (the links are for reference, make what you want to of them – I certainly don’t agree with all the points raised but they’re still worth reading). There were also suggestions that the move was to hinder any takeover attempts by Global Radio (we all know how that turned out, but Global at the time was at the time nothing more than the radio assets of the Chrysalis Group, which it bought).

Without going into too much of a tangent, I still hold the view that OFCOM should have acted on the quick sale and remain disappointed by the lack of regulatory intervention – after all, the licence was awarded for 12 years – why should a company be able to sell it less than 1/24th of the duration into the licence, if the commitment is for TWELVE years?

Regardless, XFM South Wales was sold to the existing owners, Town & Country Broadcasting.  Before the Manchester of Scotland stations could be sold, GCap Media itself was bought by Global Radio, who have kept the Manchester licence and flipped the Scottish XFM to the Galaxy network (which, in fairness, is reasonable considering that, prior to the XFM format, the current Galaxy Scotland broadcast as Beat 106, a dance music station).

Town & Country Broadcasting, until they bought the XFM licence, only ran regional radio stations mainly for the 35-55 market, all bar one being in West Wales (with the licence in Southampton, via Play Radio, now being owned by Celador). So the purchase of the XFM licence, which covers Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, immediate made it the largest, in terms of MSA reach, the largest licence owned by Town & Country (OFCOM give the MSA as 857,000 people); albeit with restrictions on the type of music output.

As a result, the format that GCap submitted to OFCOM still stood when the purchase was complete in May 2008 and continues to this day – at least for now.

As part of the test transmissions, Nation Radio moved to a much softer format – playing the likes of Katie Tunstall on a licence that had formerly been predominantly rock oriented. Following some protests about the changes, Nation became a rock station again, taking a format similar to that of XFM – including their own take on the short-lived XU format, albeit without the listener input (Nation currently broadcasts without presenters between 10am-4pm).

It’s an interesting idea – I’ve previously blogged about XU and my opinions have changed significantly in the last 3 years since I wrote it but I still take the view that FM/AM stations require presenters – particularly a station that, apart from music policy, is pretty much like the majority of commercial stations in the UK. Networking – the practice of having a single presenter on several stations – is something that, in the current radio climate, makes sense from a business point of view and the argument made by Ashley Tabor (CEO of Global Radio) at the Student Radio Conference 2009 that “there simply aren’t enough good mid-morning presenters” – again, that’s a decent argument.

However, dropping presenters completely isn’t necessarily the right way to go. Jack FM can get away with it as it’s part of its USP. Nation, on the other hand, can’t – and, I believe, needs a strong presenter line-up to compensate.

More recently, in December Town & Country submitted a format request change to OFCOM – something that any radio operator can do with any licence at any time if they want to significantly change the station format in any way (the link contains pdfs of the original request, responses and decision). However, they can’t do so until OFCOM have consulted the public (should it be considered a substantial change of format) and any interested parties on the format request and made a decision as to whether it should be allowed or otherwise.

Only one individual responded to the Nation Radio format change – and there’s no prizes for guessing who that was…

..and whilst my response, in hindsight, doesn’t use the exact words that perhaps it should have, my main concern was that the format change would make Nation Radio, to quote the proposed format:

“A NEW MUSIC STATION FOR SOUTH WALES, PLAYING PREDOMINANTLY MODERN ROCK, WITH AND OTHER GENRES OF APPEAL TO THE STATION’S TARGET AUDIENCE OF 15-34 YEAR OLDS. OUTPUT WILL ORIGINATE FROM SOUTH WALES AND WILL INCLUDE COVERAGE OF LOCAL ARTISTS.” (sic)

The emphasis is my own – and highlights my main concern, format creep – using successive format changes to ultimately change the station into something completely different.

It seems that OFCOM understood me to be against the proposals (which I wasn’t) – but my thoughts were that the change should be approved if OFCOM were satisfied that “other genres of appeal” wouldn’t include a significant increase of additional genres of music. Kiss 101 more than supplies that…

Only two radio groups responded – GMG (the owners of Real Radio South Wales) and UTV, who applied for the licence by proposing a talk station format, allTalk FM Wales). I’m surprised that the GMG response was very similar, if significantly better in its wording, to my own in that we both flagged up the same concerns with the change requested by Nation but were happy for OFCOM to approve the format request should they decide to do so. UTV, perhaps unsurprisingly, were heavily opposed and submitted what I can only describe as a huge response (running to some 25 pages – GMGs, in comparison, is just 5). I assume the UTV opposition was to prevent Nation from changing to a contemporary hit format that would challenge 96.4 The Wave in Swansea.

Ultimately, I’m pleased with the outcome – OFCOM partially approved the format, with certain changes and effectively provided the radio station I wanted. Having re-read the decision, it seems that my response was actually seriously considered by the radio regulator and as such they revised the wording based on my concerns, whilst still providing Town & Country with the ability to have a competitive offering. I can’t say fairer than that.

On the other hand, Nation launched on the Severn Estuary DAB multiplex on March 1st – naturally a good day to do something new in Wales. It’s taken the slot that belonged to XFM, which in turn displaced The Arrow (which is now not available on DAB in the Cardiff & Newport area).

Interestingly, the move makes Nation Radio available in the Bristol and Bath area. Of note is the original advertisement of the licence, which made it pretty obvious that location creep northwards into the Welsh Valleys and Brecon would be considered, but similar requests into England would almost certainly be rejected (at least on FM). So I’m a bit surprised that by the move – Nation for intentionally moving to a multiplex that’s outside of it’s legal FM remit (admittedly Nation can comfortably be heard in Bristol on FM), especially as the Cardiff & Newport multiplex is very empty.

The one sad part about Nation is that it is impossible to judge how well it is doing compared to the old XFM, as XFM didn’t last long enough for RAJAR figures to be published – on the plus side, the audience figures for Nation have been growing every quarter since its launch 2 years ago and isn’t far off 90,000 – impressive stuff.

Which leaves the future of the station looking fairly healthy. I’m pleased that Nation Radio is sticking to targeting Radio 1 listeners – certainly not the business choice. And it certainly came into its own 4 weeks ago when the legend that was Stuart Cable passed away – the coverage on Nation was fantastic, which included playing out highlights of a recent interview and playing Stereophonics tracks at least 5 times an hour (helped by the presenters covering the aforementioned computerised daytime schedule to read out text messages and emails).

I just wish they would spend more money on branding – their own format request implied that it was in Wales, for Wales – yet the on-air branding doesn’t highlight that, even though their format request change certainly made a big deal out of it. The majority of the on-air imaging uses the words “This is Nation Radio” with the frequent plug to become a fan on Facebook and follow on Twitter – without incentivising either. Regardless, I’ll certainly be keeping my ears on 106.8 for a while yet… and on DAB.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the recent deregulation by OFCOM on regional stations and the recent co-location announcements and massive changes we’ve seen announced by pretty much everyone.

1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>