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A new era for radio as Ofcom relaxes local radio rules

Ofcom has today paved the way for a revolution in commercial radio, reducing the amount of programming that needs to be from local areas.

Many of the UK's most popular commercial radio networks are in fact a patchwork of regional and local services, dating back to the 1980s and 90s. As a result, a proportion of programming every day has had to be produced in each region, with the remainder networked across the UK, usually from London.

Changes to the guidelines mean that broadcasters will be able to network all but three hours of programming a day, providing radio stations broadcast hourly local news bulletins.

The move would allow stations to replace local breakfast shows with a single national breakfast show: with live radio listening peaking in the morning, the breakfast shows often attract the most high-profile presenters. But stations, such as Heart, Capital and Smooth will need to continue to broadcast three hours of locally produced programming each day, before 7pm on their local FM frequencies.

Networks that choose not to broadcast hourly local news bulletins will be required instead to broadcast six hours of locally produced programmes in each of their broadcast areas.

At the same time, the definition of locally produced programming is also being changed. In England and Northern Ireland, local programmes can be replaced a single regionally produced programme from within one of the following regions, which in some cases are larger than the old ITV regions.

Image: Ofcom

Ofcom is still consulting over region boundaries in Wales and Scotland.

Case study: possible scenario
For example, Capital FM, which broadcasts in the East and West Midlands with separate breakfast and drivetime shows, will be able to broadcast a single three hour show for the entire Midlands at some point between 6am and 7pm, as a long as it provides hourly local news programmes during the day. Consequently, the number of local presenter roles can be cut from four to just one, with the remaining broadcast hours coming from London.

The full set of rules have been published on the Ofcom website.

Ofcom has made the changes following an industry consultation, in light of increased competition from new digital radio operators and streaming services. The rules were last relaxed in 2010, when stations such as Heart and Capital were taking over former independent local radio stations.

Broadcasters can now request to have their formats changed in line with the new rules.

Listeners shouldn't be surprised if they start hearing someone new in the mornings on their local commercial station in the next few months.