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Former TalkSport chief says national radio licences should be auctioned off

By | Published on Wednesday 12 February 2020

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Former TalkSport chief Kelvin Mackenzie has called on the government to put the UK’s three national analogue radio licences up for auction, handing them over to the highest bidder. Mainly so he can bid for the licence currently controlled by his former employer, in order to get the rival sports station he now runs, Love Sport Radio, onto the AM dial.

He’d also quite like to launch a news and current affairs station on Classic FM’s frequency, because he thinks there is far too much left-leaning content on the UK’s airways. Yeah, too much. Well, Mackenzie is – after all – also a former Sun editor.

The government opened a consultation late last year on what to do with the analogue radio licences currently used by TalkSport (owned by Sun publisher News UK), Classic FM (owned by Global) and Absolute Radio (owned by Bauer).

Ten years ago politicians reckoned that we’d all be switched over to digital radio platforms by now, so less attention was put on the long-term value of licences that allow broadcasters to pump out programmes on AM and FM. But with millions of people still tuning into old-school radio, and with some key AM/FM licences due to expire in 2022, ministers now need to decide what to do next.

Opening up a consultation on the matter in December, culture minister Nicky Morgan said: “Although we now live in an increasingly digital world, there are still many people that use FM and AM radio and will want to continue listening to these services. That’s why we are seeking early views on options to renew commercial radio licences in a way that benefits both the commercial stations affected and their loyal listeners”.

Media regulator OfCom, which administrate the licences, has suggested three options. First, allow the current licensees to renew their licences for five years. Second, renew them for eight years. Third, put all the licences up for tender.

Because the three big players in UK radio each currently control one of the national analogue licences, they are unlikely to want to rock the boat, and will therefore presumably support renewal. But in an op-ed piece for Radio Today, Mackenzie presents the case for allowing other broadcasters to bid for a national slot on the AM or FM dial.

Referencing current licence holders TalkSport, Classic FM and Absolute, he writes: “For reasons impossible to divine these hugely profitable stations only have to pay the treasury £10,000-a-year to reach almost every radio in the land”. This is a ridiculously low sum of money, he argues, compared to what it costs to secure a slot on a digital radio platform, and when you consider what broadcasters bid in order to secure big name on-air talent.

“In my submission to [the government]”, he goes on, “I have proposed that we throw open these stations to the highest bidder. My company and its investors would dig deep to land 1053/1089AM and extend Love Sport into the AM world”.

He then argues: “The last time these stations came up renewal back in 2017 the media regulator OfCom argued that the £10,000 fee should stay the same as there were no competitors out there and it would be too expensive to create and market a new national radio station. That is clearly no longer true, as my national station Love Sport is anxious to bid against my alma mater TalkSport and Bauer’s new station Scala is more than capable of taking on Classic. In my view market forces should dictate the value of the licence”.

Concluding, he goes on: “Global (47%), Bauer (45%) [and] News UK (6%) own 98% of all radio in the UK, so it’s hard to envisage them writing to [the government] saying they were in favour of a national free for all. However, since all three have made their fortunes over the decades by embracing and competing in the free markets, surely it’s time they were put to the test in the analogue world”.

You can read Mackenzie’s op-ed piece here.

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