Local Radio: A History

The story of local radio in the UK is, ironically, a story of radio becoming less and less local.

The BBC was a pioneer, but without any licence fee money to pay for it to begin with. It meant the first experiment in local stations in places such as Leicester, Merseyside and Sheffield, was funded by local authorities, tying the eventual success of these fledgling broadcasters to the local areas and ratepayers they served.

With the demise of the offshore pirate stations, a new breed of Independent Local Radio Stations (the clue to the success of which was in the name) appeared from 1973 onwards. These were locally owned, locally controlled, tightly regulated and with an emphasis on public service broadcasting.

There was no networking (where programming is shared) and every radio station was based in the area that it served.

In fact, the original legislation specifically stated that local radio stations should not: “consist of identical or similar material to an extent inconsistent with the character of services as local sound broadcasting services.” Local advisory committees were also legislated for, meaning that local voices from the communities these stations were to serve would be heard and, importantly, listened to.

Applicants competed to out-local their competitors in order to win the licence. Dedicated newsrooms were well staffed, community events were supported with more than simply lip service and local decisions were taken locally.

Since then, however, there has been a delocalisation of local radio, with the public service obligation being removed in 1990 and a gradual march of shared programming, meaning many local radio stations are no longer located in the area that they purport to serve. Indeed, the bulk of much of their output is produced many, many miles away from where listeners actually live – sometimes in another country entirely.