Video killed the radio star – or so the Buggles claimed. Try telling that to the Welsh, who are so passionate about radio that they listen to more of it than any other part of the UK. And yet hardly any of the programmes they hear are made in Wales, or focus on Welsh issues.
In a country suffering under a cultural and political deficit – where BBC Radio 2 is dominant, and two London-based stations (Heart and Capital, which are run by Global and Communicorp in different regions of the UK) hold a virtual monopoly of the commercial airwaves – it seems only right that the devolved government would be concerned.
Broadcasting is not a devolved issue, yet a Welsh Assembly committee, keen to solve what is just one part of Wales’s media problem, will be reporting on the matter later this year, having recently finished hearing evidence from the industry.
Various UK governments over the past two decades have deregulated the commercial radio sector allowing multiple licences to be held by one company, and removing the requirement for the local station to be located in the very town it broadcasts to. This led to a homogenisation of radio under brands such as Capital, and Heart. But while a competitive market still exists in most parts of the UK, Wales is a virtual monopoly, with Global and Communicorp using the Capital and Heart brands to reach a combined 1m Welsh adults a week.
Both Capital and Heart syndicate shows from London for 18 hours on weekdays, with locally produced shows at breakfast and drivetime, plus local news bulletins for half of the day. The most listened-to station in Wales, however, is BBC Radio 2, a UK-wide station which has a level of Welsh talent, content and news much lower than the pro-rata proportion of listeners it garners from the nation. Over the last decade matters have got worse – listeners in Wales are less likely to hear people talking about things happening in their communities, because the number of Wales-focused hours has fallen.
But has that been caused by stations choosing to create less content about Wales, or is it actually audience led? In other words – and more controversially – are Welsh listeners turned off by Welsh accents, Welsh news and Welsh stories? Would they rather hear music and stories from outside Wales?
Global and Communicorp believe they do represent the Welsh communities they serve and provide a “local focus through a national brand”. Speaking to the Assembly committee, Communicorp’s head of UK programming, Neil Sloan, said, “Capital in south Wales in particular is embedded in the area. If there is a major event happening, we’re a part of it”.
But with only a quarter of the company’s live output now being made locally, job opportunities for presenters, producers, journalists and sales staff have shrunk in the past decade. Previously there would have been around five local daytime shows on each of the five FM and AM outputs – there are now around two shows on three stations.
It is easy to hark back to the good old days – though no media ever should in a dynamic industry – when commercial radio in Wales was local, and the audience loved it. Capital South Wales’s predecessor, Red Dragon Radio, was a consistent market leader in the 1990s and 2000s, bringing in a third of the listeners in the area that it covered. And even later than that, when Real Radio went live in the mid 2000s, its mix of Welsh live sport, live talk and a near 24-hour newsroom in Cardiff saw it becoming the market leader.
Today, one station that continues to fly the local flag and win listeners is Swansea-based The Wave. It has held on to a quarter of its potential audience in the past year, despite increasing competition from nationals and other local stations. Meanwhile, BBC Radio Wales has reached 14-16% of its potential audience for the past two years. Both make a significant investment in local presenters and broadcast from studios in their broadcast area, as well as producing live sport commentaries.
I do not blame the commerical stations for the decisions they took in taking a commanding presence in Wales. After all, they are businesses, and in an era when people are bypassing FM radio for podcasts and streaming services, perhaps the bigger challenge is getting Welsh life onto those portals.
However, while Wales has suffered, hardly any local content has been cut in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the same Ofcom radio rules apply. Even in Cornwall, Ofcom told Global they could not syndicate so many hours over concerns about loss of local choice.
Maybe pointing the finger at the big guys is an easy way to avoid the question no one wants to ask: do people in Wales even want radio from Wales any more?