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Local radio to become less local under new plans

How local should commercial radio be? Ofcom has opened up a consultation on how local radio is defined in the future.

Most local stations now operate as part of a national network, with stations offering local versions of breakfast and drivetime on different frequencies.

But in the first major change to the rules governing local radio since 2010, Ofcom says it wants to revise the minimum number of hours that stations have to broadcast from the local area, which would enable, for example, stations such as Heart to network their main breakfast show across the UK, instead of broadcasting separate shows in different areas.

FM stations that broadcast hourly local news throughout the day would only need to broadcast three hours of local programming at some point between 6am and 7pm each weekday, while stations that only carry news at breakfast and drivetime would need to commit to six hours of local programming each weekday between 6am and 7pm.

The number of local shows in each region could also be reduced under the new rules, as Ofcom prepares to redefine local areas in line with ITV regions, with one or two exceptions for places like the Westcountry and Border region.

For example, under the plans, a commercial radio station with a Midlands-wide presence could broadcast a single drivetime show across the ITV Central region and still be classed as local. Under current rules, separate shows are needed for the East Midlands, Wolverhampton and Shropshire, Birmingham and Warwickshire, Stoke and South West Midlands areas. Likewise, a national station with local versions in East Anglia would only need to broadcast a single show for the whole region, instead of separate shows for Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk/ Suffolk.

In proposing the changes, Ofcom says it is reacting to increased competition facing local radio stations from music streaming services like Spotify and the ever increasing number of internet / digital radio stations that are gaining in popularity. The regulator also notes more listeners are switching to national services thanks to the increase in the number of DAB stations.

Commercial radio groups have welcomed the proposals.

Ofcom's consultation can be read here and is open until 3rd August 2018.