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UK radio sector continues to call for government support to stop stations closing

By | Published on Thursday 23 April 2020

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The Community Media Association, which represents community radio stations across the UK, says that 100 such stations could close as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown unless the government steps in with support. The CMA’s warnings follow calls from the commercial radio sector, via its trade group RadioCentre, for similar action.

The radio industry has faced an interesting dilemma since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As countries went into lockdown in a bid to restrict and delay the spread of the disease, many radio stations saw their listening numbers go up as people sought extra news and information, and/or appreciated having a human voice between the music.

However, despite that increase in audience size, commercially the radio sector faces the same challenges as everyone else. For commercial broadcasters the big problem is that the advertising industry is wobbling resulting in a slump in ad sales.

Smaller independent and community stations have often been hit the hardest because they are much more likely to rely on advertising and support from small local businesses. Many of those small local businesses aren’t operating during lockdown. And even if they are, they are likely facing significant cash flow challenges, meaning any advertising spend is likely on hold.

Some community stations also rely on events and other fundraising projects to bring in money to pay for their broadcasts, and most of that activity has also been halted as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Earlier this month in Westminster, the All Party Parliamentary Group On Commercial Radio sent a letter to various government departments warning that “there is a risk that without further help that some commercial radio stations could end up being forced off-air”.

Among the support measures the APPG recommended to ministers were relief on high fixed transmission costs, an extension of current financial schemes to commercial broadcasters and an increase in spend on radio advertising by government departments.

Since then the government has actually adopted the increased ad spend option as part of measures to support the newspaper industry. A government communications campaign to get messaging out about the COVID-19 lockdown was instigated, with advertising spaces and branded content services purchased from a plethora of local and national newspapers.

Launching that campaign – which included a newspaper ad spend of between £35 million and £45 million – government minister Michael Gove said: “Newspapers are the lifeblood of our communities and we need them now more than ever. Their role as a trusted voice and their ability to reach isolated communities is especially vital at this time. With this campaign we are both saving lives by providing essential information to the public, and supporting cherished local institutions”.

But what about all those cherished local radio stations? Following the news of that support via ad spend for the newspaper sector, RadioCentre boss Siobhan Kenny called for similar support for broadcasters in a letter sent to media minister John Whittingdale last week.

She wrote: “To date sector specific support has been extremely limited, yet today your colleague Michael Gove extolled the benefits of a new multi-million pound newspaper campaign that will save lives by providing essential information to the public as well as supporting cherished local institutions”.

“Like the newspaper industry”, she went on, “commercial radio also provides an essential news service and now with even more listeners since the lockdown came into effect. I urge the Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to support substantial additional investment that will ensure a healthy and thriving radio industry for the years to come”.

Meanwhile, the Community Media Association also called on government to provide its members with support ahead of a meeting with ministers yesterday. It says that nearly a third of the UK’s community radio stations could shut down as a result of COVID-19.

According to Radio Today, the CMA’s Chair Danny Lawrence said: “We are extremely concerned that the government will allow up to one-third, by our own estimates, of the UK’s 296 community radio stations to fail”.

Also noting the government’s support for newspapers, Lawrence went on: “Talks so far have centred around using the existing Community Radio Fund worth £400,000 to support up to 296 Ofcom-licensed stations. This is in the light of the £45 million support package offered to the newspaper industry only last week”.

With that in mind, he concluded: “A relatively small amount of additional funding for the community radio sector will go a long way to support stations keeping their communities connected and informed during the crisis”.