The Welsh Media VI: Radio

(Title Image: Ihourahane via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-2.0)

Public Radio in Wales

There are three national BBC public service radio stations based in Wales – Radio Wales and Radio Cymru 1 & 2.

Radio Wales was established in 1978 alongside Radio Scotland as an English language public service station, based at Broadcasting House in Cardiff. It broadcasts for 20 hours a day (5am-1am), with general/mixed programming relating to Wales, Welsh arts, current affairs/news and sport….though the quality and relevance of some of the programming has been subject to criticism.

Flagship programmes include Good Morning Wales, Good Evening Wales, Eye on Wales, The Jason Mohammad Show and The Sunday Supplement. In 2017, some regional opt-outs within Wales – such as for live sports coverage – were dropped on FM radio but remained online. Many radio presenters are also utilised on BBC and S4C television, including Vaughan Roderick, Felicity Evans and Behnaz Akhgar.

Radio Cymru is a Welsh language public service station, predating Radio Wales by a year. It has a similar offer to Radio Wales but through the medium of Welsh – Post Cyntaf is an equivalent of Good Morning Wales, Taro’r Post might be considered an equivalent to the Sunday Supplement albeit with a broader remit. Radio Cymru runs from 5:30 am to midnight.

Opt-outs aimed at younger audiences called C2 and Radio Cymru Mwy were eventually turned into a permanent station, Radio Cymru 2, which launched in January 2018 as a breakfast radio opt-out. It’s presented by BBC Radio 1’s Huw Stephens and is the main vehicle for Welsh language music on national radio.

According to the latest Rajar figures, both Radio Wales and Radio Cymru serve a population (aged 15+) of just over 2.6million, with Radio Wales’ weekly audience reach at the end of 2018 being 316,000 (12%) and Radio Cymru’s being 124,000 (5%).

The trend, as you can see above, has been one of a general decline in both reach and listening hours – more pronounced at Radio Wales than Radio Cymru. However, listening hours and reach for both stations remain respectable compared to the BBC’s other regional/nation stations, particularly Radio Scotland. In fact, both stations out-perform some UK-wide stations in terms of listening hours, including Radio 1, 6 Music, Radio 3 and Radio 5 Live. So the audience is a bit smaller but those listening to the stations are generally loyal.

According to the BBC’s annual report for 2017-18 (pdf – p194), Radio Wales’ operating cost (including distribution etc.) was £20.5million and Radio Cymru’s was £19.1million – a combined total of £39.6million (£29million of that being spent on content) – this was slightly more than was spent in Scotland on the equivalent radio services (£37.7million).

As mentioned earlier, in addition to the national stations, the BBC offers a wide range of stations available across the UK funded via the licence fee. According to the Ofcom Media Nations report for Wales from 2018 (pdf – p42), BBC Radio 2 is the most popular radio station in Wales with a 37.9% weekly audience reach, closely followed by BBC Radio 1 (23.6%) and BBC Radio 4 (17.1%).

In total there are ten UK-wide network stations and “extra stations”, with Radio 6, Asian Network and three “extra” stations being digital-only.

BBC World Service is aimed at international audiences, broadcasting 24 hours a day in up to 30 different languages. It mainly broadcasts news and current affairs aimed at emigrant communities and other nationalities. It’s the largest service of its kind in the world, comparable to Deutsche Welle, Voice of Russia, Voice of America and NHK World Radio (Japan).

The total operating cost for BBC Network Radio in 2017-18 (including the national stations) was £655.6million. BBC World Service cost £338.8million, with funding coming mainly from the licence fee, topped up by a UK Foreign Office grant.

Commercial Radio in Wales

Local commercial radio stations are categorised under the umbrella “Local Independent Radio”, run similarly to ITV regional franchises but at a much more localised – usually county – level. It developed in the 1970s to break up the BBC’s near-monopoly (which led to stunts like Radio Luxembourg) as well as to counter the threat from illegal pirate radio stations.

This sector has seen some of the biggest changes in Wales since I last wrote about this in 2013. Several stations have closed in recent years including Radio Ceredigion, Radio Hafren (Powys & Borders), Point FM (Conwy & Denbighshire), Valley Radio and XS (Neath Port Talbot).

National and local commercial radio stations serving an exclusively Welsh audience are now owned by just three companies: Nation Broadcasting (formerly Town & Country Broadcasting) which owns seven stations; Communicorp (formerly Global Radio) which owns two stations split into four regional opt-outs; and Bauer Group which own two stations in the Swansea area.

Nation Broadcasting is the only parent company headquartered in Wales (its registered office being St Hillary in the Vale of Glamorgan). Bauer Media is headquartered in Hamburg, Communicorp is headquartered in Dublin with a UK office in Manchester.

While the general trend in listener hours has been downward- like BBC Radio – the commercial stations with the most consistently “loyal” listeners are Swansea Sound, Heart (South Wales) and Bridge FM (Bridgend). Heart (South Wales) also has the biggest weekly reach at 463,000 and according to Ofcom (pdf – p42) was the third most popular station in Cardiff – the only commercial station to make a top 3 list.

The only genuinely national commercial radio station – as in not broadcast regionally or locally in Wales – is Nation Broadcasting’s Dragon Radio, which launched in 2017. However, its weekly reach was just 35,000 at the end of 2018.

Nearly all of the stations are adult contemporary and broadcast in English with occasional local news bulletins, though the only commercial station which broadcast at least partly in Welsh, Radio Ceredigion, ceased broadcasting during March 2019 and is now a relay of Nation Radio.

In February 2019, locally-produced programming on Communicorp’s Capital Radio stations in Wales was removed and all operations were centralised in London – though Capital Cymru, a smaller sister station which broadcasts in Gwynedd & Anglesey, increased its local output as of May 2019.

In terms of pan-UK commercial radio, other major stations include the Absolute brand (formerly Virgin Radio), which broadcasts mostly mainstream contemporary music, and UTV Radio’s Talksport, which focuses on sports commentary and discussion. Leading Britain’s Conversation (LBC) is the largest commercial talk radio station in the UK.

Many other commercial stations are digital-only, catering to specific music genres. It’s pretty obvious from the station names which genres in particular – Gold (classic hits), Planet Rock, Classic FM, Jazz FM, Smooth Radio, Kiss (RnB/urban) etc. Along with many smaller internet-based radio stations.

According to Ofcom, Welsh/local commercial radio stations have a slightly higher share of listening hours (23% in total) than UK-wide commercial stations (18%).

Community Radio in Wales

In addition to the commercial offerings above, there are several community/community service stations. They could be compared to “hyperlocal media” mentioned in Part V, and are often run on a light commercial basis as not-for-profits, or via volunteers.

There are currently nine community radio stations in Wales: BGFM (Blaenau Gwent), Bro Radio (Vale of Glamorgan), Calon FM (Wrexham), GTFM (Pontypridd/RCT), Môn FM (Anglesey), Radio Cardiff, Radio City (Swansea), Radio Tircoed (Lliw Valley) and Tudno FM (Llandudno). The coverage, particularly in terms of local news, is often as good if not better than some commercial radio stations and in many cases you can’t tell the difference in quality between a community radio station and a local commercial station. Many of the stations have introduced things like smartphone apps and their websites are often de facto hyperlocal news websites.

As well as hospital radio stations, many of Wales’ colleges and universities run their own stations too: Xpress Radio (Cardiff), Storm FM (Bangor), Xtreme Radio (Swansea) and Bay Radio (Aberystwyth).

While some community stations provide some Welsh language programming, Radio Beca – which would’ve been an entirely Welsh language radio station – successfully applied for an Ofcom broadcasting licence in 2012 to serve the former county of Dyfed (Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion) but was never launched and has since moved online-only.

There are also many internet-only radio stations in Wales including Ceredigion FM, Dapper FM (Cynon Valley), Heat Radio (Swansea), NH Sound (Abergavenny/Monmouthshire), Newport City Radio and Gwent Radio (Newport).

Issues & Challenges facing Radio in Wales

See also: Senedd Home – Call for more Welsh news on radio stations serving Wales

Commercial radio revenues – According to Ofcom’s Media Nations Report 2018 (pdf – p43), Welsh (analogue) commercial radio stations raised £6.33-per-head in 2017, which is the lowest rate of any of the home nations and slightly below the all-UK average. It works out at about £19.6million (not including digital income) . This doesn’t seem to be an exclusively Welsh problem though, with commercial revenues falling sharper in England year-on-year than anywhere else; English per-listener revenues were just 17p higher than Wales.

Commercial revenues are generally directly proportional to the popularity of local commercial radio. In Northern Ireland and Scotland – where local commercial radio is significantly more popular than UK commercial networks – they raised £7.59 and £8.16-per-head respectively.

DAB switchover: timings, cost and impact on local services – As mentioned several times in previous parts, there’ll almost certainly be a digital radio switchover in the future. It’s unclear precisely when it’ll happen. The apparent triggers for a switchover are 50% of all radio listening being via digital and 90% reach. The 50% figure was likely to have been met in 2018, while Wales still falls short of the 90% coverage figure.

There’s a big question as to whether a DAB platform can be provided for local and community radio. Ofcom has supported what they describe as “small-scale DAB” which is a software-based solution to the issue – but does come at a stated cost of around £9,000. The Senedd’s Culture Committee has supported calls for a community radio grant scheme – based on one which ran between 2008-2014 – to be re-introduced.

Station ownership & plurality – Plurality is only an issue at national level. At the local and regional level, there are plenty of stations to choose from. The issue is who owns those stations, with Nation Broadcasting being particularly dominant. That could simply be because it makes economic sense to run several stations under a single umbrella in Wales due to the sparse population. But with few truly independent stand-alone stations, is this approach putting some stations at risk?

The Competition Commission ordered Global Radio to sell off services (such as Capital and Heart) in Cardiff and North & Mid Wales back in 2013. When big companies own multiple stations in any given areas, it could in the medium to long-term result in less choice for Welsh radio audiences because those owners have become “too big” for the Competition Commission’s liking.

Artist royalties – Unless a station covers live events/news or is made up of talk shows, they’re going to need music. It’s probably never been easier to find music despite the avenues for artists to make money getting squeezed. If you’re an artist in some fringe genres (metal, certain types of dance music, folk etc.), unless you’re an established name, you’re unlikely to get big royalties on the radio – the mere exposure is probably considered payment enough.

This is a particularly touchy issue with Welsh language musicians, though the situation has improved since a dispute between Eos agency artists and Radio Cymru during the 2011-2013 period, which resulted in the BBC paying £100,000-a-year in royalties – just 7% of what they wanted – increasing to £120,000-a-year in 2015.

Also, with the rise of things like Spotify, VEVO (Youtube), iTunes, Soundcloud, Deezer etc. people can effectively build their custom radio stations and might lose patience with pre-selected playlists and prefer to pay small sums directly, meaning artist royalties for radio broadcasting might face downward pressure.

Welsh language obligations on commercial stations – Some local independent stations have Welsh language obligations in their licences. That ranges from 50-50 or more in parts of Y Fro Gymraeg, to just a few hours a week outside Y Fro – if any at all. Some local stations have attempted to reduce their Welsh language outputs, or even been withdrawn completely (in the case of Radio Ceredigion).

Many stations might not broadcast enough Welsh language output to match the Welsh-speaking population in their catchment area. That could simply be because they would rather pump out popular English-language music to draw in more listeners, or they’re – disappointingly – deliberately trying to run down their Welsh-language content to gauge the public reaction, intending to reduce it in future licence applications.

Welsh news on UK network radio – There’s currently no obligation for commercial radio stations to broadcast news relevant to Welsh audiences, and that also extends to UK-wide public services stations. There are plans to further relax/deregulate broadcasting obligations for “local” content on commercial radio stations – though these are opposed by Ofcom’s Welsh Committee and the Senedd’s Culture Committee. The BBC also claims that Wales-only opt-outs for news on widely listened-to stations like BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2 were “technically unfeasible”.

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