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Big changes at Bauer Radio after CMA approval

Following the acquisition of several station groups last year, Bauer has recently announced they are merging those with their existing network of stations to create the “largest commercial radio network in the UK” called the Hits Radio Brand. But what does that mean? Are we going to get a brand-new national station called Hits in the same vein as Capital or Heart? Well, not quite…

First a quick recap of how we got here. In 2019, Bauer bought four main radio groups: Celador, Lincs FM, Wireless local stations and UKRD, plus several independent radio groups across the country. As part of this purchase, they also acquired 50% ownership of First Radio Sales (FRS), which provides representation to multiple smaller local stations on a national level. These purchases were then referred to the CMA, for what turned out to be a rather lengthy process of review. The solution is that Bauer has now taken full ownership of FRS and is essentially selling airtime not only for their stations but also all the ones FRS represented as well.

So, back to the announcement the other week on this big new radio network. Unlike Global, who for many years, had the approach of having a single branded network of stations (Heart, Capital, Smooth, etc), Bauer has often been rather piecemeal about how they run theirs. Not wanting to lose the heritage brand names of stations such as Clyde, Free Radio, Hallam et al, meant that although many of these are in the current ‘Hits Brand’ network already, no one listening to them would be able to tell. Now, however, with this announcement, it seemed that was all going to change. But in classic Bauer style, it isn’t as simple as that.

Of all the Bauer stations currently in the Hits network, the only one to be called Hits is the old Key 103 in Manchester. Under the new setup, none of the new stations will be called Hits either. Ironically, the only new station to be called Hits will be The Breeze South Coast, under a licencing agreement with Nation Broadcasting.

What will be happening though, is that 49 out of the 56 FM licences acquired, will be rebranded as Greatest Hits Radio from early September. Four stations, Pulse 1 in Bradford, Signal 1 in Stoke, The Wave 96.4 in Swansea and Fire Radio in Bournemouth will keep their names but become part of the Hits Radio network. What this means in practice is that there will be a network of stations that jointly will make up the Hits Radio Brand, but it does not mean there will be one consistent voice across the whole group.

All Response Media viewpoint
Despite the headline-grabbing announcement, this looks to be a less than a simple transition of station branding. While Greatest Hits looks to be a solid way forward, the mishmash of other Hits stations dilutes the initial statement to one of merely being a way of buying a group of stations.

This isn’t new territory for Bauer either, as for years they have looked to package up their stations in multiple ways, nervous it seems of making a bold decision to drop the heritage names of stations and override them with one consistent national identity. Global came under a lot of criticism last year when they networked their breakfast and drivetime shows for Capital, Heart and Smooth. Lots of people lost their jobs as local offices were closed and listeners complained about losing their favourite presenters. However, 12 months later and the stations are still attracting strong audiences, indicating that perhaps listeners aren’t as concerned about a national voice as they originally expressed.

Bauer, however, seems to lack the conviction to do the same and perhaps are trying to have their cake and eat it. The lack of a single national identity could potentially impact sales, as listeners will struggle to see this translate to their user experience, and instead, this just becomes another technical sales mechanic.

More concerning though, is how this will affect the other independent stations FRS used to represent. Many of these stations were packaged together into large regional macro’s, this meant clients benefitted from extremely competitive prices and good coverage, but also smaller stations that would normally struggle to get onto client plans managed to earn revenue. With around 50% of these stations now owned by Bauer, it’s unclear how they intend to maintain these regional macros to a sufficiently large enough size to make them worth buying. We will need to wait and see.

That all being said, while not exactly the clean new change many were expecting, generally, we feel this is a strong development for the Bauer offering. It presents more choice for clients, filling in gaps of national coverage Bauer had previously while helping them to compete more effectively against Global Radio, which in turn could lead to better pricing.

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