All the weird oddities and quirks in commercial radio that may soon be gone

Published on 24 June 2024 in

Radio presenter on Radio Commonwealth in Austrlia
Chief Australian announcer Sergeant Kevin Joseph O’Donnell in the caravan broadcasting studio of ‘Radio Commonwealth’, located on the truce line in Korea.

On 24 May 2024, a bill received Royal Assent. It passed through the House of Lords just ahead of the dissolution of Parliament, meaning it would still become law following the recently announced General Election. It was the Media Bill, now the Media Act of 2024. It contains lots of things to do with the media, and one of them was to allow Ofcom to allow broadcasters to the removal of local programming from local radio stations, and change radio station formats more easily.

It won’t see the demise of all local radio in the UK. The big radio companies have been consolidating and making psuedo-national networks for years. But most of them have had to feature some element of local content for historical licencing reasons. And there’s currently quite a few quirks and oddities floating around that the Media Act will enable broadcasters to drop. But what are they? Well we’ll come onto that. But first, some history that led the UK to this moment.

A very brief history of local commercial radio in the UK.

On Monday 8 October 1973 LBC Radio launched in London.  It was Britain’s first commercial radio station.  Up until that point, all (legal) radio stations were run by the BBC.  A week later Capital Radio became the second commercial station.  By the end of the year, Radio Clyde became the third, and over the years an increasing amount of the country started to be served by local commercial radio.  Ten years later another milestone was reached when Leicester’s Centre Radio became the first to go bust.

Originally all locally owned and run, over time small radio groups began to be formed.  Smaller stations were merged, content increasingly shared.  But overall, brands and content were still mostly local.

In the 1990s, the introduction of regional radio licences saw the arrival of radio brands used in multiple area.  Century and Galaxy began to appear across the country, although still with a lot of local content.  Although also with a lot of shared content.  Then local brands began to succumb.  In January 2009 eight stations were rebranded as Heart, and more followed later in the year.

Slowly but surely, local brands were phased out across the UK.  Global Radio rolled out Heart, Smooth, and Capital across the country, taking advantage of losing of regulations that enabled them to share more content.  Rival Bauer group retained local names for longer, but in 2020 started rolling out the Greatest Hits brand.  Other stations retained their local brands, although shared programming under “The Hits Network”.  But that ended in 2024, they went too, replaced by Hits Radio.

The idea behind it all was to form quasi-national radio brands out of the ashes of a local radio network.  Today there are five big radio brands in the UK – Heart, Smooth, Hits, Greatest Hits, and Capital.  A lot of content is shared – but rules and regulations mean that there needs to be local news and content.  For local programming, the networks can get away with a mere 3 hours a day on weekdays.  But that’s not all.  Each station has its own “format”, and whilst these have been simplified and rationalised over the years, some stations still have some very specific requirements.  And then there’s the commercial decisions the radio groups have made.  The programming decisions they’ve chosen to make, purely for a specific area. 

All of which means that five of the UK’s big “national” brands all have a number of quirks and curios.  Quicks and curios like this…

Smooth Radio

Created by Guardian Media Group and originally replacing Jazz FM in the North West, Smooth’s now a national network owned by Global Radio.  Although originally based in Manchester, most of its output now comes from London.

Being built mostly on regional licences FM, the Smooth brand also took over a number of medium wave stations from Gold.  And some of them still exist.

It concentrates its local/regional programming at breakfast, between 6 and 10am.  And whilst it’s pretty straightforward really, it does have its quirks.

One is that the Smooth North West breakfast show covers the whole of the North West of England, except for the Lake District.  The Lake District instead has its own own breakfast show.  This comes about from the fact that Smooth North West is actually a franchise owned by CCUK, and Smooth Lake District is directly owned by Global after it purchased Lakeland Radio.  Rules and regulations mean that whilst CCUK can take all the networked content, it can’t share local/regional content.  Hence Smooth Lakes gets its own show.  But not its own studios.  Lakeland’s studios in Kendal closed some time ago, with Smooth Lake District coming from Manchester. 

In principle Smooth Lakes could be got rid of if Global flogged Lake District to CCUK, or the two did some sort of asset swap – CCUK have three Smooth franchises – but presumably there’s not a big enough reason to do so.  At least, not at any price.  So whilst Preston, Lancaster, Liverpool and Manchester must share, Kendal and its neighbours continue to get their own bespoke breakfast show.

It’s not the only Smooth oddity.  There’s another in Wales where Smooth has its own local opt out Smooth Wales.  Not odd in itself, except that Smooth Wales takes the London breakfast show, and instead opts out between noon and 4pm.  This was a hangover from when the station was previously branded Gold.  And for whatever reason, no one has felt any need to change it.

Capital Radio

Another of Global’s networks, Capital Radio was originally a London radio station, but the brand’s now used across the UK.  It came about from the merger of several smaller networks, including dance station Galaxy. 

Its local opt-outs are weekdays drivetime, between 4 and 7pm.  Unless you’re in with Scotland which, since 2023, has been handed its own bespoke schedule between 6am and 7pm on weekdays, 12-4pm weekends.  It’s not the only network to treat Scotland with some differences.

But wait, there’s more.

Let’s start with Capital in Birmingham, who, in the early hours of Friday morning, bring you two hours of Afro-Caribbean “flavours and beats” between 2 and 4am.  This comes about from a part in their licence that states it must have

PROGRAMMES OF SPECIFIC APPEAL TO LISTENERS OF AFRICAN OR AFRO-CARIBBEAN ORIGIN

Capital Birmingham licence

This requirement dates back to its beginnings as a more a dedicated black music station, Choice FM.  The format was later changed to allow the station to be more mainstream, but the African/Afro-Caribbean requirement remains, handled by that one late night show.  Box ticked, job done.

Then there’s Capital on the North Wales Coast, who get a special Welsh language show full of Welsh music between 5 and 6am North West and Wales, six days a week (Sunday to Friday).  The schedule doesn’t include the Sunday edition, or didn’t when I looked at it.  But it was there on catch-up, so I’m not arguing.  Again it’s part of the format to include

ONE HOUR PROGRAMMES IN THE WELSH LANGUAGE AT LEAST SIX DAYS A WEEK

Capital North Wales Coast licence

But that’s nothing compared to the big whacking standout difference in the Capital World. 

And it’s also in Wales.  And, oh dudes, is it a goody.

For if you were visiting Gwynedd or Anglesey, and decided to tune into your favourite radio station, you might be in for a bit of a surprise.  For Capital Cymru is completely different.  Besides the Sunday afternoon chart show, all programming is local.  And it’s mostly in Welsh, with a fair amount of Welsh music too. 

Part of this is based on Why? Well that’s interesting.  Because the specific licence for this station states this:

A BILINGUAL MUSIC AND INFORMATION STATION CENTRING FIRMLY ON THE TASTES AND INTERESTS OF THE CAERNARFON AREA, EVENLY BLENDING BOTH ENGLISH AND WELSH THROUGHOUT ITS MUSIC AND SPEECH OUTPUT.

Capital Cymru licence

Of course, as anyone who lives in the area or who has visited knows, there’s a lot of Welsh spoken in this part of Wales.  The licence reflects that.  But Capital Cymru could be sharing at least some content with the main network every day.  Until 2019 it did.  But instead the decision was to go all in and make it its own, mostly independent service.  They don’t even share programmes overnight.  You could argue the Top 40 is a token English programme – a far cry from the token shows on the other two Capitals.

It’s probably not the most expensive station to run. And logistically it’s probably a lot easier to have a fully local station than try and blend in the national network alongside all the specific Welsh requirements.  And presumably does well enough to keep it going.

But there’s an interesting question though.  Is this really Capital?  Well, there’s a topic that’s a whole other discussion.

Heart

Starting out in the 1990s as a regional station in Birmingham, Heart was rolled out much more widely.  And in contrast to Capital and Smooth, is pretty straightforward.  Although it wasn’t always thus.  Until a frequency swap, it was Heart that was providing all that bespoke Welsh services.

But that was then.  Now is now.  Now Heart’s local and regional content is neatly parcelled into the 4-7pm slot, although in 2023 Heart Scotland also got its own daytime and weekend programmes (6am-7pm weekdays, 12-4 weekends.)

And that’s it.  Really, that’s all there is to it.  Phew.

Greatest Hits Radio

Global (owners of Heart, Smooth, and Capital) went in quite easy rolling out quasi-national radio stations.  Their rivals in Bauer Media were slower, preferring to keep their local brands.  Indeed in 2014, their Magic network of Medium Wave stations in the North of England all got new local names based on the local FM station but with 2 at the end.  Manchester got Key 2.  Liverpool, Radio City 2.  And Lancashire ended up with the totally inaccurate Rock FM 2.  All whilst sharing programmes.

But in 2019 it was change again.  The Northern England stations became Greatest Hits Radio.  And then Bauer went on a spending spree, buying pretty much any independent radio station or radio group it could get its hands on.  Wireless Group’s local stations.  Lincs FM group.  Celador.  UKRD.  In 2020 a massive rebranding exercise started, culling local identities, merging stations, and rolling out their new flagship brands. 

More stations were bought, all swept away in favour of Greatest Hits Radio.  With the hiring of Ken Bruce in 2023, the brand was rolled out in Scotland.  And in 2024, Bauer’s hugely popular South Coast station Wave 105, and the Cornish station, Pirate FM, also were swept away (Pirate being split with the Hits.)

After a slow start, Bauer were not so much running as tearing away at supersonic speed.

That’s not to say there’s not regional differences and curios though.

For starters, whilst there are regional opt-outs 1-4pm on weekdays, the North West doesn’t have one.  The national breakfast show is broadcast from Liverpool, the network weekday afternoon show from Manchester.  And that more than ticks all the boxes needed by the UK’s rather strange localness rules when it comes to programming.  Of course there’s local news and travel, but whilst Cornwall and Yorkshire get their own shows, the North West has to share with London.  Which also doesn’t get its own local show, because – by the same rules – the fact that Ken Bruce and Simon Mayo come from London, ticks the “local” box there too.

Now about those regions.  For they’re not quite reasons.  The separate opt-outs for Cornwall, Cumbria, Lincolnshire and the South Coast don’t actually need to exist.  Cornwall could take the South West shared show.  Cumbria the ‘North West’ one.  And so on.  But the difference is that in each of those areas, Greatest Hits replaced hugely popular stations, or there was a very popular local presenter.  So they got special treatment.

Speaking of special treatment, due to the popularity of Wave 105 at its demise, the new Greatest Hits South Coast also gets its own breakfast show.  As does Scotland, which – for good measure – also gets a Sunday lunchtime opt out.  Both are in addition to the normal 1-4pm afternoon show.

Hits Radio

Hits Radio’s has had a rather convoluted history.  One that is a bit headache inducing.

On the left side, a station called The Hits was launched on DAB in January 2003.  Thus it remains for some time until 2015 when it is split.  A national station known as The Hits remains, but the same content forms the spine of a new set of ‘local’ stations – the City 3 Network.  Like what happened in the history of Greatest Hits Radio, there was Clyde 3, Key 3, Metro 3, and, of course, Rock FM 3.  Well I’m sure it made sense to someone.  Although not for very long as it was all dismantled in September 2017, with everything becoming The Hits again.

Meanwhile, Bauer’s FM stations in the North of England and Scotland began to share some programming off-peak.  In 2015 this became known as the City 1 Network, with networked mid-morning shows for the two areas. 

With it so far?  Right.  Let’s go to 2018.  At this point the decision is made to merge The Hits and Manchester station Key 103 into a new station called The Hits.  I say merge.  From The Hits they took the name.  From Key 103 they took most of the content.  With that decision, local programming in Manchester ceased.  The new Hits Radio would be a national station, based in Manchester.

So we have national Hits Radio.  And we have a batch of locally branded radio stations across the UK.  And, especially in England, with lots of networked content going out under multiple brands.  All the local stations retain their own breakfast show. 

The idea seems – to the outsider – to be obvious.  To eventually rebrand all the local FM stations under the Hits Radio brand, testing the waters with Manchester.  But the new networked breakfast show seems to land badly, and gets replaced within a year.  And not much else seems to happen.  At least until 2020 when Bauer goes on its massive spending spree buying as many radio stations as it can.  One of its purchases is Celador which owns The Breeze Network of stations, mostly under the The Breeze name but not all of them.

Most of the Breeze Network gets folded into Greatest Hits, but some of the stations on the South Coast get rebranded as Hits Radio South Coast.  Which gets the network (i.e. Manchester) breakfast show with a local drivetime show.  A year later, Fire Radio in Bournemouth gets rebranded as Hits Radio, also taking the South Coast drivetime show.   At the same time Bristol based Sam FM also becomes Hits Radio and gets its own drivetime show.  In 2023 these opt outs are moved to the morning show instead.  The South Coast show also arrives in Oxfordshire on the purchase of the Jack FM stations in 2023. 

So a recap.

We have one network of stations, going out in multiple brands.  Where a local brand is used, there’s a local breakfast show.  And where Hits Radio is used, there’s a local morning show.  And in many areas on digital radio, both versions are available.  Which means that listeners have the choice of listening to Mike Toolan presenting the same show but with different jingles.

All that remained until April 2024 when all the local brands were thrown away and everything became Hits Radio.  A whopping six years after the process appeared to have started.

So now everything’s Hits Radio, it’s all fine, yeah?

Not quite.  For there’s still essentially two different sets of Hits Radios.  There’s the Hits Radios that have local breakfast shows, and the Hits Radios that have local morning shows.  And, of course, Hits Radio Manchester that provides the spine for the whole thing and so has no local show at all.  Yep, if you’re listening in Cornwall, Newcastle, or Bristol, you get local shows.  If you’re in Manchester, nothing.  The sheer fact that most of the networked content comes from Manchester means they can tick the local content box.

But that’s not all, because over in Lincolnshire there’s something even more interesting.  For Lincolnshire gets its own Sunday breakfast opt out.  Weekday breakfast presenter Joseph Begley pops up for an hour at 6am, before giving way to something even more curious.

See Hits Radio Lincolnshire was originally Lincs FM.  And every Sunday morning Lincs FM broadcast a Farming Programme.  All the latest news and views from the agricultural world.  And when Lincs FM got taken off FM and made digital only, it remained there.  As it did when Lincs FM’s local schedule mostly ended in 2023. And in 2024 when Lincs FM was rebranded Hits Radio, the farming show remained.  Which means that at 7am there’s a break in the “biggest hits and the biggest throwbacks” for Steve Orchard to keep you “updated on the news in the agricultural world.”  Half an hour later, Joseph’s back for another hour and a half of local programming, before the station returns to the network schedule at 9am.

There’s no obvious regulatory reason for it.  Because the station’s digital only in Lincolnshire, there’s no one forcing this show to exist.  It can only remain – presumably – for commercial reasons.  Presumably that half hour of programming is more than valuable enough to remain in the schedules.

Yes, Lincolnshire remains a truly special case in the Hits Radio network.

What’s the future of all this?

So with the new laws in place, what happens next? The answer immediately is nothing. Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has no plans to change anything until 2025. But from 2025 there will be the chance to apply to remove some of the licence conditions behind many of these quirks and oddities. Some will inevitably go. Let’s face it. That hour of Welsh music on Capital North West that’s on at 5am, ain’t going to last. And if Capital Radio really wanted that Caribbean music programme, they’d put it out nationwide and not just at 2am in Birmingham.

But others may stay. Hits Radio has absolutely no need at all to keep a farming programme on on a Sunday morning. They could axe it tomorrow. Yet it’s still there. It must be worthwhile. Ditto Capital and Heart have extra Scottish programmes not for regulatory reasons but because someone thinks it makes good business sense.

The questions are, what will stay and what will go. Will Hits Radio keep its local breakfast shows? Will Smooth Lakes remain? And as for Capital Cymru… Well that’s one I am hoping will stay. Because that’s basically something special. A Welsh language commercial radio service can’t be found anywhere else. That would be a real loss.

Which inevitably is the problem with the changes in regulation. We are going to lose out on local radio. But then, across most of the UK, the cuts have been so severe already, many may never even notice.