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Broadcasting minister criticises Arqiva in Premier radio row

By James Cridland for media.info
Posted 12 February 2015, 3.37am est

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Ed Vaizey stepped into the argument surrounding Premier Christian Radio's access to national DAB Digital Radio yesterday.

Speaking at a Commons Debate called by Stephen Timms, he strongly advised Arqiva to "do the right thing" and reach agreement with the Christian broadcaster.

Premier Christian Radio was "threatened with eviction" according to the station, who claimed that broadcast owner Arqiva had reached agreement with Global Radio to carry a pop music service, Heart Extra, instead of the Christian broadcaster.

I think that Arqiva needs to understand that there are issues that go beyond purely commercial graft, or hard grind, and that there is something called “doing the right thing”. I hope that, in this instance, Arqiva does do the right thing by Premier.

Ed Vaizey has done voluntary work for a Christian church and homeless shelter in Bedford. He is a Trustee of the National Churches Trust and is Patron of the Friends of St Mary's Church in Buckland.

According to claims in the debate, MPs were told by Ofcom that an agreement has now been put to Premier Christian Radio by Arqiva.

Stephen Timms, who called the debate, also highlighted the law regarding changes of programme provider on digital radio multiplexes, and that the proposal:

falls foul of the requirement in the 1996 Act, as the capacity to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests would be unacceptably diminished

Parliament's apparent displeasure with Arqiva could be concerning for the company. Arqiva, with broadcasters UTV and Bauer, already control 80% of the UK's digital radio multiplexes, and are shareholders in all but two; they are one of the two bidders for the second digital radio multiplex under the consortium name of Sound Digital.

The debate in full

Below is a copy of Hansard from the debate.

Stephen Timms: I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate.

Premier Christian Radio celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is a full-service, speech-based radio station for Christians on the Digital One national radio multiplex, and it provides 24-hour ministry, discussion and news from a Christian perspective to a committed audience. It has been on Digital One since 2009. Digital audio broadcasting now accounts for 61% of its audience of 600,000 to 700,000 people who listen for at least 10 hours per week.

At the end of March, in about six weeks’ time, Premier’s six-year contract with Arqiva—the owner of Digital One—will come to an end. It was due to end on 20 December, but Premier was granted an extension until 31 March. Beyond that, its continued presence on Digital One is in doubt. Premier tells me that it has been trying to initiate contract renewal since last summer, but it was made clear that it would have to come off the platform. On 10 December, Global—the media entertainment group—announced that further pop stations, including Heart Extra, would be introduced on Digital One early this year. The intention appears to be for Heart Extra—which is frankly rather similar to quite a few other stations on that multiplex—to take up the slot vacated by Premier. Premier has not been outbid; this appears to be a knock-on consequence of wider commercial manoeuvring.

I welcome the fact that yesterday, Premier received an offer from Arqiva that could provide a basis for its continued presence on Digital One. I hope that the negotiations that follow will be successful, but we shall see.

Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important topic. There is, however, some confusion, because Ofcom sent me and other Members a message this afternoon, saying that

“Digital One has been in conversation with Premier and has been offered a means of remaining on the national DAB platform until 2018”.

At that point, Premier Christian Radio did not know about it. I hope the offer is serious and will operate.

Stephen Timms: I think it is serious and hope that the discussions that follow will be successful, but I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s puzzlement about the precise timing of what happened.

Earlier this month, Ofcom announced that it has received two competing applications—from Listen2Digital and Sound Digital respectively—for the licence to run the second national radio digital multiplex from next year. Premier is listed as a station on both the bids, so it should be assured of a place on Digital Two. However, if it cannot stay on Digital One after March, it will have a very serious problem. Digital Two will not open until the second quarter of next year, so Premier would lose more than half its audience and a large chunk of advertising and other income. It does not have a big corporation standing behind it, and removal from Digital One would be an existential threat.

Gary Streeter: The right hon. Gentleman is making a great case and is right to raise this issue. It is very important that Premier maintain a presence. As it is broadcasting and will be broadcasting again from April 2016, as he has just explained, is it not clear that a solution needs to be found that suits Premier and suits Arqiva to let it continue to broadcast in the meantime?

Stephen Timms: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I think we can be hopeful that such an arrangement will be found.

Premier has worked very hard over 20 years to build its audience and has a lot of very committed listeners. The issue I particularly want to raise concerns the requirements of the Broadcasting Act 1996, as it seems to me that they should apply in this case. Section 54(6) of the Act states:

“Where the licence holder applies to the Authority for the variation of any condition imposed in pursuance of subsection (1)(b) and relating to the characteristics of any of the digital sound programme services to be broadcast under the licence, the Authority shall vary the condition accordingly unless…(a) it appears to the Authority that, if the application were granted, the capacity of the digital sound programme services broadcast under the licence to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests would be unacceptably diminished”.

Jim Shannon: This is an important subject and many of us in the Chamber today have had the chance to be interviewed on Premier Christian Radio and understand its importance. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern that the national coverage of Premier Christian Radio should be changing. In 2014, it reached the largest number of listeners it had ever had, which shows its appeal and the interest it generates. Does he share my concern that every effort must be made by the Minister and by us in this House to ensure that Premier Christian Radio can continue?

Stephen Timms: Yes, I do agree.

It seems to me that the summary removal of Premier from Digital One, and its replacement with a pop music station very similar to several others, falls foul of the requirement in the 1996 Act, as the capacity to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests would be unacceptably diminished. I hope that Ofcom will take that view; I would have hoped that it might have done so already. I hope the Minister will take that view as well.

I feel strongly about this, as I was a member of the Committee on the Broadcasting Bill back in 1996, and I remember being very impressed by the diligence of the then broadcasting Minister, the late Iain Sproat, in bringing forward a regulatory framework for broadcasting that was commercially viable but also decent. That requirement to “appeal to a variety of tastes and interests” was at the heart of it.

In Committee, on 14 May 1996—I was there—Iain Sproat said:

“For digital radio, as for digital television, allowing the new technology to extend choice is a main aim of the Government.”

I hope the Minister will confirm that it still is. Iain Sproat also said that

“no more than two of the stations on the multiplex should be aimed at predominantly the same section of the listening audience”.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 14 May 1996.]

I understand that MPs are likely very soon to start receiving listeners’ postcards on the subject. As a London MP I have been on the receiving end of Premier postcard campaigns in the past, and the number of postcards is pretty impressive. Section 3 of the Communications Act 2003 also applies, with its requirement to secure

“the availability throughout the United Kingdom of a wide range of television and radio services which (taken as a whole) are both of high quality and calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.”

Premier Christian Radio is not the only Christian station on Digital One—United Christian Broadcasters is there as well—but it provides a unique and distinctive service. It is speech-led, and one of only three non-BBC stations on Digital One with 50%-plus speech content. Premier has its own news team with journalists who provide a distinctive perspective on current affairs. It has a unique Christian telephone helpline and it is a very distinctive presence on Digital One.

Premier leads on important campaigns: the RE.ACT campaign in 2011 to safeguard religious education in schools; the Safetynet campaign in 2012 to protect children from online pornography; and the Not for Sale campaign, which did important work on the Modern Slavery Bill.

Mr Streeter: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He is being very generous and is making an excellent speech. On the point about diversity and appealing to a wide range of interests, is it not the case that many of Premier’s listeners are fairly elderly and take great comfort from the ministry it provides, whereas most listeners to a pop station tend to be slightly younger?

Stephen Timms: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Last week, Premier started to ask its listeners to write in with their support. I am told that 2,000 to 3,000 a day have been writing in since then. Let me just read what one of them said, which very much echoes the hon. Gentleman’s point:

“Premier is a lifeline for me. I am registered disabled, with M.E., and unable to get to church or meet with other people. Premier helps me to connect and engage with my faith and feel part of a wider community.”

I think a large number of people who listen to Premier feel the same way. Premier Christian Radio has recently announced an annual “society Sunday” to build closer relationships between local representatives and faith groups in their area to celebrate the work of faith groups in communities. The first is due to take place on 14 June, and has been backed by the Communities Secretary. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that Premier is very important indeed for many of its listeners.

Jim Shannon: The right hon. Gentleman is being very gracious. On the impact that Premier has across the whole of the United Kingdom, I just wanted to make the point that in Northern Ireland those who listen to Premier Christian Radio enjoy it. Culturally and regionally, it brings us all together to enjoy programmes we all take great pleasure in.

Stephen Timms: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. Before it went on to Digital One, I think I am right in saying that Premier Christian Radio would not have been available in Northern Ireland, and now it is.

There are currently 14 stations on Digital One: Classic FM, Capital Xtra, Smooth Xtra, LBC, Kiss, Magic, Planet Rock, Absolute Radio, Absolute 80s, Talksport, Premier, UCB, which I mentioned, BFBS, the armed forces station, and TeamRock. LBC and Talksport have 100% speech content; Premier has 50:50 speech and music. The other 11 stations focus predominantly on music in varying proportions. The inclusion of yet another music channel at the expense of Premier would clearly harm the aim of appealing to a variety of listeners and tastes.

There is a trend of losing speech-based stations from Digital One. A number of stations were there but are not any longer: One Word, a speech-based service of plays, books and comedy; ITN, speech-based rolling news; Talk Radio; Primetime, targeted at the over 50s; The Jazz, a Jazz music station, as one would expect; NME Radio, music news; and Bloomberg, financial and market news. All of those were on Digital One but have now gone. Against that disappointing pattern, the enforced removal of Premier looks even less defensible.

Even a gap in transmission of 12 to 15 months would be a very serious blow to Premier’s listeners, to viability of the station, and to the principle of diversity set out in the Broadcasting Act 1996. Premier provides its listeners with a valued opportunity to connect to their faith, and to reflect from that starting point on what is happening in the world and on current affairs. Removing Premier Christian Radio from Digital One—I very much hope yesterday’s approach means that that will not now happen—would be unacceptable. If a request is to be made to replace Premier with a pop music station—it has not been made yet—Ofcom should reject it. I am very much hoping that the Minister will agree.

Mr Ed Vaizey: It is a great pleasure to respond to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who made his case in a characteristically forthright, clear and brief manner, getting all the right points across as succinctly as possible. I shall try to follow his lead. I am also grateful for the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has contributed to many debates in which I have taken part.

It might sound like I am going off topic, but I hope that as I speak it will become clear why I wish to talk generally about digital radio. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, Premier Christian Radio is now available in Northern Ireland thanks to digital radio. I was interested to hear him talk about the postcard campaign that Premier Christian listeners might undertake to save their radio station. I hope that we can turn this army to another purpose, because I hope that they will work with me to promote the virtues of digital radio. As he mentioned, I have been a great supporter of digital radio precisely because it promotes diversity in broadcasting.

The BBC, a laudable institution, dominates the radio airwaves, with something like two thirds of listening, and digital broadcasting is a great opportunity for a much wider platform of voices to be heard, which is why his points about whether we should have another pop music station or preserve Premier Christian Radio were so well made.

For that reason, the Government are working hard to promote digital radio, and I am pleased that figures for digital radio listening, driven in part, perhaps, by listeners of Premier Christian Radio, have risen in the last five years from about a quarter to almost 40%, and that the proportion of households with digital radios, and therefore able to receive Premier Christian Radio, has risen from about 32% when we entered office to about 50% now. It is also possible to listen to Premier Christian Radio in the car. Two thirds of new cars now have digital radios fitted as standard, although we need to do more to get cheaper car conversion kits for those of us who drive an older make of vehicle. That is all because of our digital radio action plan pushing out key improvements in digital radio infrastructure.

There are several successful digital radio music stations that have shown how viable this platform is. For example, Radio 6 Music was another station threatened with closure, not by being thrown off the mux it was broadcasting on, but by the decision of BBC bureaucrats. It might interest the right hon. Gentleman to know that I personally intervened, and although I would be too humble to claim credit for 6 Music’s survival, I hope that when the history of that station is written, I will earn a small footnote. In fact, 6 Music is now more popular than BBC Radio 3.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned pop music stations. Before concentrating on the virtues of Premier Christian Radio, it is worth saying that pop music stations do also have some virtues. Absolute 80s draws 1.5 million listeners every week, making Bauer the first radio group where more than 50% of its listeners now listen on digital radio. There is further good news for those devoted to these new digital radio stations. The construction of 182 new digital transmitters across the UK—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I have given the Minister a free rein, but, in fairness, I think there are a few Members here who would like him to concentrate on the debate. All this good news is welcome, but the debate is more about Premier Christian Radio than the success of pop stations.

Mr Vaizey: I take your point, Mr Deputy Speaker. In fact, on the next page of my brief, it says, “This brings us on to the crux of the issue and debate today”, so I had better start reading from there.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, Premier Christian Radio started broadcasting on D1 in 2009. We are in a period of transition—I will come to that in a minute—but there is an opportunity for Premier Christian Radio arising from our announcement of another national multiplex—the imaginatively name D2, to go alongside the equally imaginatively named D1. The good news is that Premier Christian Radio is part of both bidding consortiums for D2. So Premier Christian Radio should and, I expect, will have a great future when the D2 multiplex is launched, which we expect to take place in the spring of 2016.

Now, let us get back to where we were with Premier Christian Radio on D1. It had a five-year contract, which was due to end at Christmas, as the right hon. Gentleman said. That was extended until the end of March. Since Christmas, additional capacity has become available on D1. As either my hon. Friend the. Member for South West Devon or the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned, there have been discussions with Premier about taking up this capacity. Those were on commercial terms, but in order to take up that capacity, Premier Christian Radio would have to transmit on D1 until 2018. Clearly, if Premier Christian Radio wants to move to D2 in mid-2016, it does not want to have a slot on D1 that runs until 2018. Furthermore, the D1 slot on offer is at 80 kilobits rather than the 64 kilobits that Premier, primarily a speech service, uses at the moment.

These are important matters. Technically, I should not intervene in these discussions, which are commercial, so it is not for me to influence them, but this is an important radio station—one I support wholeheartedly—and I spoke to its managing director, Peter Kerridge, this afternoon to ascertain the situation. I hope a solution can be found. I am pleased with some of the progress made. As I understand it, Arqiva is going to see if it can re-purpose some other spare capacity on D1 to create a 64 kilobit stream for Premier Christian to take over. For that to work, there would need to be some give and take on all sides.

It is important, and, I think, good news for Premier, that even if for the sake argument the contract came to an end on 31 March, Arqiva would still need to apply to Ofcom to change services and until a decision is made by Ofcom, Arqiva will need to meet the current format requirements for the slot. That would allow Premier to continue to broadcast potentially beyond 31 March. As the right hon. Gentleman noted, Ofcom would need to consider whether the multiplex was still catering to the variety of tastes and services required under the original licence. Ofcom cannot intervene in that respect or in the commercial negotiations until any application is made by Arqiva to change the current line-up of services.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that D1 carries another Christian station, UCB, which will continue to cater for other Christian listeners, and listeners to Premier can listen to it on tablets, smartphones and, of course, on Freeview until D2 comes on stream. It is available on medium wave in some areas. I want to urge both parties to continue their discussions and to negotiate in good faith. Premier was an early adopter of digital radio. When it was on the D1 multiplex, there were only three other stations on the national commercial multiplex. It is a matter of good faith, shall we say, to recognise the stations that had faith in digital radio at an early stage, which were part and parcel of the success that digital radio is now, and therefore part and parcel of the success that Arqiva is enjoying by being a broadcaster.

I think that there is an opportunity for a solution to emerge. It seems to me pretty obvious that Arqiva should come to the table, sit down with Premier, negotiate a solution for a 64 kilobit service that runs until the spring of 2016 and then allow Premier to move seamlessly to D2. I am not influencing the outcome of the D2 bidding process, because, as I said earlier, Premier is part of both bids, so it should be on the D2 service regardless of who wins.

It is not helpful for such an important broadcaster with such a devoted and enthusiastic audience to be subject to this level of uncertainty. I think that Arqiva needs to understand that there are issues that go beyond purely commercial graft, or hard grind, and that there is something called “doing the right thing”. I hope that, in this instance, Arqiva does do the right thing by Premier.

It is important to remember that, although the MuxCo operators must comply with the licence from Ofcom, they act as gatekeepers to a certain extent. They are subject to Ofcom oversight, but as more radio listening becomes digital and demand for capacity increases, it may be necessary to ensure that Ofcom has the appropriate powers to intervene if necessary, and we may need to think about that in the next Parliament.

I think that the right hon. Member for East Ham, and those who have intervened in the debate, have put the most forceful case possible for Premier Christian Radio. I hope and intend to see an end to the negotiations in short order, and a secure future for Premier on D1. As I have said several times tonight, I trust that it will take only 12 to 18 months to secure that future. Let us all work together to ensure that we achieve the right result.

Hansard: © Parliamentary Copyright

More information

James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.
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Comments

2 years, 7 months ago

As much as I support nearly everything that Premier stands for as a broadcaster and believe that to allow them to continue broadcasting on digital is something of a no-brainer, I feel it should be noted that they are not entirely the victims they are being painted as, at least not when it comes to Premier's management. Under Peter Kerridge, the station has lurched from one disaster to the next for the past 20 years, leaving its faithful listeners to mop up via an endless series of postcards and appeals. Last year I became the latest member of Premier's staff to be bullied out simply for having high standards.

[We have removed personal allegations made here.]

Staff, listeners and associates all deserve better. Premier deserves to be much further down the road by now.

2 years, 7 months ago

It is not helpful for such an important broadcaster with such a devoted and enthusiastic audience

Why is this particular service so important, when there are other Christian radio broadcasters such as UCB, Cross Rhythms and various local stations? Is it because it's London-based and close to the corridors of power, perhaps?

This is a commercial marketplace and that's how it's been set up. One of my preferred stations, Jazz FM, disappeared from the multiplex a while ago and I don't remember there being an outcry and a Parliamentary debate on the subject. The same goes for any of the numerous other outfits that have been removed from D1 for various reasons over the years. Amazing Radio, NME, Primetime, Oneword and others have been and gone - why is Premier so special?

2 years, 7 months ago

Alice, the other services you mention chose to end their carriage on DAB for their own reasons. Premier wants to continue to be carried on the national DAB multiplex but is finding itself being forced off, which is morally wrong for one thing and may be against OfCom and Broadcasting Act rules, hence why it was debated in parliament.

2 years, 7 months ago

I agree with Art. The reason the matter was raised in parliament was because of Premier being forced off D1 and it would appear that the plans were to replace it with yet another pop music station when Premier has over 50% of its output is speech-based.

It should be noted that the other Christian station on D1 is UCB UK and it is a mainly a CCM music station. Alice also mentioned Cross Rhythms and this station broadcasts only on low-power community FM in Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Teesside.

As Stephen Timms MP said in the debate, "Premier tells me that it has been trying to initiate contract renewal since last summer, but it was made clear that it would have to come off the platform. On 10 December, Global—the media entertainment group—announced that further pop stations, including Heart Extra, would be introduced on Digital One early this year. The intention appears to be for Heart Extra—which is frankly rather similar to quite a few other stations on that multiplex—to take up the slot vacated by Premier. Premier has not been outbid; this appears to be a knock-on consequence of wider commercial manoeuvring."

I trust that the Arqiva and Premier will be able to come to an agreement so that, as the Christian Broadcasting Council suggested in its press release on 4 February (2015-02-04), that said, " As PREMIER CHRISTIAN RADIO is listed as a programme service on both applications for the Digital 2 multiplex this would enable PREMIER CHRISTIAN RADIO to stay as a national broadcaster on Digital 1 until they transfer to Digital 2."

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Premier has not been outbid; this appears to be a knock-on consequence of wider commercial manoeuvring.

If true, then the requirement of "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" access in the Broadcasting Act isn't being followed, it would seem to me.

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