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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Radio listener panels in vogue
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

There is an interesting experiment underway at Classic FM.

The station which made commercial radio respectable for the Radio 4-listening classes has appointed the former Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, to chair a "consumer panel".

An exercise in meaningless window-dressing? A harmless sinecure for a passed-over cabinet minister?

Maybe. But Classic FM's chief executive Roger Lewis and his boss Ralph Bernard, chairman of Classic's parent GWR, have a slightly different agenda.

Bernard has long been an advocate of greater self-regulation for commercial radio.


Smith's appointment is part of an effort to persuade the government and the wider world that commercial radio stations can regulate themselves

He resents the existence of a Radio Authority which tells him he should not be playing Britney Spears on one of his radio stations (while failing to give any industry guidance on how stations should react in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center).

Robust debate

Smith's appointment is part of an effort to persuade the government and the wider world that commercial radio stations can regulate themselves.

The idea is that Smith and a small panel of listeners recruited from on-air advertisements will meet quarterly to provide a focus for listeners' views about Classic's programmes and commercials.

Lewis, who says Classic FM already talks to 1,000 listeners a month as part of its continuing audience research programme, also says he welcomes the prospect of a "robust" debate about his station's programmes with representatives of its audience.

It is not clear quite what happens if Smith and his panel decide they profoundly dislike some aspect of the station's output (say its turgid Smooth Classics strands) which the audience research shows is highly popular.


Keeping up the momentum of such initiatives is difficult - and so is agreeing on what they should do and how they should be used

And though Lewis says the activities of Smith's panel will be publicised on Classic's website (used by some 250,000 of its six million listeners each month) and on a page in its annual report, he has stopped short of guaranteeing Smith access to Classic FM's own airwaves.

Embarrassing

But Smith points out that he can always go to the press if he is unhappy, or walk away from the whole thing.

Either could be embarrassing for the station.

Ralph Bernard says he is serious about showing that Classic FM doesn't need a Nanny Knows Best Regulator to keep it in line.

He also says the initiative could be extended beyond Classic, with its enviable audience of educated, articulate ABC1 listeners, to GWR's other (local) stations.


The idea of consumer panels is much in vogue

Listener panels have been tried by radio stations in the past.

BBC Radio 1 had a panel once, meant to keep it in touch with what the nation's yoof was thinking.

It fell into disuse some time ago (no one seems quite clear about when).

Keeping up the momentum of such initiatives is difficult - and so is agreeing on what they should do and how they should be used.

One unresolved issue at Classic is whether the panel should include some non-listeners - to give the station ideas on how it might broaden its appeal - or whether it should be made up only of members of the existing audience.

But the idea of consumer panels is much in vogue.

The National Consumer Council has campaigned for an independent body, with its own budget and secretariat, to advise the new Ofcom on matters of consumer interest (including programme content).

And GWR and the NCC are already working together in Leicester, where the NCC has been piloting a proposed nationwide "consumer network" to advise it on a whole range of issues affecting consumers.

GWR's station in Leicester is soon to start broadcasting advertisements recruiting for the local branch of the network.

See also:

07 Apr 99 | Entertainment
BBC faces Classic clash
29 Nov 98 | UK
Broadcaster Robin Ray dies
27 Sep 01 | Business
Advertising downturn hits radio
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