Circles Within Circles : Nothing’s New When It Comes To Ownership

In radio, it’s said that you only have to work for two stations and you know just about everyone in the industry. Although a lot of that will depend upon the size of your anorak.

So it’s interesting to see a few familiar faces popping up this week in Exeter, where I started my professional radio career. What follows is very interesting case of history repeating itself, albeit it a roundabout way.

In 1996, I joined Gemini Radio – a fantastic station that had gone through more than its share of takeover turmoil.

Gemini radio - two stations, one name and a big two fingers up to the corporate boys

You see, Gemini had been born out of a desire to stop local radio getting any less local in south and east Devon. The previous owners of the commercial radio franchise, DevonAir Radio, had been swallowed up by the GWR Group. Networking was on the way, and there was nothing the listener could do about it. Until a locally based group, Orchard Media, won the franchise from GWR – a huge body blow to the group which had already secured control of Plymouth Sound just down the road.

Orchard’s boss was South West TV newsman David Rodgers, a respected broadcaster and a savvy businessman to boot. He knew that localness mattered.

What followed was several happy years of expansion, but with a total commitment to local programming. Nothing on Gemini was shared with Orchard’s other three stations in North Devon, Somerset and West Dorset. There was some overnight automation, but for 18 hours a day, Gemini provided not one, but two distinctive local radio services on AM and FM. On top of that there were separate breakfast and drive shows for Exeter and Torbay.

This changed in the late nineties, when the owners of Orchard Media decided to sell up – ironically back to GWR. Everything has its price.

At the time, I’d left the area, but I wrote to the local MP, Ben Bradshaw, the man who was to become Culture Secretary, pointing out that there was a real danger of localness being lost. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to care too much about this at the time, pointing out that it was very much a business decision. I found this slightly curious, since Bradshaw knew more than a little about the importance of quality journalism, having previously worked for the Today Programme.

Ben Bradshaw, The Shadow Culture Secretary

LOCALNESS RETURNS

Some years later, after Gemini had merged into the Heart network, it was interesting to see a new player on the block. Exeter FM had won a small scale licence for the city, and its owners had also secured franchises for Torbay and Plymouth. And who was at the helm? One David Rodgers.

But this time things were slightly different. Although David still ran the shop, the business was owned this time by The Litt Corporation. Under the auspices of Dr Avtar Lit, it had built up a successful network of Asian stations in London, Bradford and various other locations. So to choose largely white, somewhat conservative south west England for his next expansion project seemed a little curious to say the least.

Exeter FM brought back some of the previous presenters from Gemini who’d established their names in the area. But it struggled with listening figures – posting a 9% reach in the most recent RAJAR figures. 27 thousand listeners is reasonably respectable, but Heart still dominated the ratings. In recent months, I heard reports from within of staff wondering whether they were going to get paid.

NEW OWNERS, OLD TACTICS?

Nobody likes to see a local radio station going under, but Dr Litt was keen to sell up. And the saviours, at least for now, come in the form of SAV Media, partly run by Mark Tyler…. a former South West TV newsman. Can you see where this might be going? Mr Tyler insists :

“Paul [Nero, co owner) and I care passionately about local radio and it’s been a long-held dream to give Exeter and the surrounding area the radio station it deserves,”

SAV Media's Mark Tyler with Exeter FM Presenters Chris Dinnis and Nino Firetto

 And, it seems, the enterprise has the whole hearted backing of Ben Bradshaw :

“I’ve always been an strong advocate of local radio, and I’m delighted that Exeter FM’s new owners are passionate about giving our community a real voice. Wherever you look there seems to be a move away from local broadcasting, so it’s refreshing to see at least one station bucking the trend. I wish them every success, because Exeter deserves a radio service that we can all be proud of.”

Now don’t get me wrong here. I quite like Ben Bradshaw. Always seemed to be a decent local MP and was a good friend of Gemini during the 1997 election – where he beat off Dr Adrian Rogers, a man who believed in the nuclear family so much that he’d would have liked nothing more than to send a missile through Bradshaw’s (openly gay) lifestyle.

So I’m delighted that he appears to have changed his tune and is now supporting commercial local radio. Perhaps he’s realised that he might well need it at the next election, should the regional Heart station decide that he’s no longer important.

Let’s hope that this latest return to localness doesn’t go the same way as Gemini.

MOVING OUT (MERCIA’S SONG)

On a post script, there was news today that Orion Media has decided to co-locate its Coventry station Mercia FM into its Birmingham HQ. It’s the end of an era for some, but it seems to make good business sense – at least as far as property is concerned.

However, there’s bad news for two journalists, as the group reduces its news team from 12 to 10 – meaning people having to reapply for their own jobs.

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