There is a scene in the 1983 film ‘Local Hero’ where the Minister, Rev MacPherson, is talking to Macintyre, the American oil executive trying to buy the village, about his plans. He turns to the American quizzically and asks ‘Do you want to buy my church?’, MacIntyre replies ‘Yes, but not as a going concern’. This scene was brought to mind earlier this week when I opened an email from Bauer Media of all people.
Bauer Media, as you may know, are one of Europe’s largest media companies. They have interests in magazines, radio, TV and online, they employ thousands of people across Europe and count their turnover in billions of pounds. They are, by most business measurements, a success. Many of their stations and titles are literally household names and they have won many awards over the years. They sent an email explaining to me that from now on any radio copy we need to send to any of their stations should be sent a central point in London rather than the local station as before. This will make it easier for me, and them, to manage, apparently.

My local Bauer station is Radio Clyde. For many years Clyde was recognised as the most successful local commercial station in the UK. It had the highest listener penetration of any commercial station and it was more popular than all of the BBC stations in its footprint. It was, by most business measurements, a success. We as an agency had a close relationship with Radio Clyde, not always harmonious, but close. We relied on each other, they understood our business and we understood theirs, and together we grew ours and our clients businesses. Radio Clyde lived both parts of its name. It was heavily involved locally, it was very much a part of the local community, it took part in the local music scene, news and current affairs, and at that time its local sports coverage was unrivalled; it knew what Glaswegians wanted. Its old frequency of 261 was embedded in the subconscious of every listener, and its logo instantly recognisable, so much so that it is now available as a retro T-shirt to men of a certain age. Clyde was owned by local business men who took a chance when the first commercial licences were issued in the early 70s. This was the business model in almost every city in the UK, and on the whole it was pretty successful. Sometime during the 80s bigger stations started buying smaller ones, some time later media empires appeared and inevitably economies of scale were realised, local departments started closing or were merged, the music played became a corporate decision and homogeny seemed to become the goal of most local stations.
Today we still have a good relationship with Radio Clyde, they still employ some excellent people and the station is still successful, against stiffer competition it must be said. However, it isn’t the same local station. Its point of difference has gone. Clyde isn’t alone in this. The (Glasgow) Herald and Evening Times are very similar; their pursuit of profit has made these papers worse not better, something that can be clearly seen in their readership figures. This is a story that is being played out across the media in every part of the UK currently. STV, our local commercial television station is still independent, but for how long. It’s in the bizarre situation of being sued by its own parent body just now, and if it loses the effect will be catastrophic. This all matters. A city the size of Glasgow needs a vibrant, independent media, they provide the checks and balances on those in power, something the Daily Telegraph demonstrated very clearly this summer. The appetite for ‘local’ content is still there, even in this digital age, people still want to know what is happening locally, our habits might have changed, our access to media might have improved but has our desire for content radically altered? I don’t believe so.

I’m no impartial observer in all this. The demise of the local media directly affects my business, let’s be clear on that. It directly affects our clients business too, we need to find ways of speaking to customers, and the internet and social media are starting to provide them. That could be a problem for local media very soon.
At the end of Local Hero, MacIntyre, the Texas oil executive falls in love with the small village, he convinces his boss not to purchase and demolish the village or build an oil terminal, (something the locals were actually very keen for him to do). Instead he gets him to invest in it and build something beneficial.
I guess I’m just a sucker for happy endings.