A case study by Brian Lister


In this case study we will look at how a local radio service has developed and changed and relate these to various concepts within this book. This detailed case study of the development of local radio in Sunderland demonstrates how these concepts influenced and affected the development of a radio station across nearly twenty years and provides thought provoking insights in to the issues surrounding managing radio.

Sunderland's local radio service has undergone a great number of significant transformations since its launch in 1990, changing its name twice under six owners of radically different backgrounds and motivation from a community organisation to major commercial radio groups. The management styles and structures of the station have been as varied, responding to a range of commercial, managerial and regulatory challenges which might be seen as a reflection of the issues facing British local radio as a whole.

Sunderland Community Radio Association

Sunderland is the biggest city in the north east of England with a total population in excess of 280,000 (greater than the regional capital, Newcastle). Today the City of Sunderland is served by first-generation commercial radio services Metro Radio and Magic 1152, by three regional commercial stations and, in addition to all the BBC and commercial national services, by BBC Radio Newcastle. However all of these cover a considerably larger area of the North-East, serving listeners in Newcastle and the whole of Tyneside, in addition to the fiercely proud and independent population of Sunderland. It was this strong local identity that identified Sunderland as potentially fertile ground for truly local radio, particularly given the unfortunately divisive title of BBC Radio Newcastle (see section 2.8 for a discussion on station identification and names).

Today's commercial station, Sun FM, grew from roots in the Sunderland Community Radio Association (SCRA), formed by local radio enthusiasts and community groups in 1985 to apply for a proposed experimental community radio licence. The experiment was abandoned by the Home Office but the group continued to operate a low powered AM station under a Special Event Licence during the period of the annual Sunderland seafront illuminations.

The early development of the project was driven forwards by community workers Mick Catmull and Alan Fry and the Sunderland Common Ownership Enterprise Resource Centre (SCOERS), who all saw community radio as a useful tool in the regeneration of some of the more run-down areas of the town. One notable success, long before a broadcasting licence was held, was a documentary made under the guidance of the group by the Sunderland Change of Life Support Group. A group of women, concerned at the apparent lack of awareness and sympathetic treatment of the menopause among their largely male doctors set about making a radio programme on the subject, along the way recording searching and revealing interviews with health professionals. Although none of the women had had any previous broadcast experience, the resulting half-hour programme was subsequently broadcast on local commercial station Metro Radio as a precursor to a late night phone-in discussion.

By the late 1980s the Independent Broadcasting Authority was coming under considerable pressure from would-be new broadcasters to allow additional stations within existing ILR areas. Legislation did not permit the Authority to differentiate between commercial and community broadcasters, so in response, in 1989, the IBA proposed a scheme for 'incremental' licences, allowing a limited number of new stations to set up in areas already covered by established Independent Local Radio stations, provided they would widen listener choice with programming markedly different from that already available. Sunderland was identified as one of the experimental areas and the SCRA formed a company limited by guarantee, Sunderland Community Radio Association (1989) Limited, to bid for the licence. A feasibility study was commissioned from the national Community Radio Association and detailed plans were prepared. (See also Section 2.4 for details on applying for a licence)

Metro Radio, then the only local commercial radio operator accepted that it would face future competition in the Sunderland area and decided to be supportive of a truly community-based and not for profit application for the licence and lent support to the SCRA application, taking a seat on the board and paying for and installing the FM transmitter.

The board, which included representatives of major local bodies as well as directors elected by the membership, advertised for a station manager and duly appointed a dynamic, flamboyant and unconventional Australian Pieta O'Shaughessey. Drawing on 15 years of experience in campus-based community stations in Australia, Pieta introduced fresh ideas and systems and even installed Australian-made studio equipment. With the studio and office accommodation being provided by the University of Sunderland (estimated by Price Waterhouse (1992) to be saving the station 15,000 per annum), the equipment having being paid for by local development agencies and the transmission costs being met by Metro Radio, the station was able to direct all its other income towards running costs.

Wear FM

Launching as Wear FM on 5 November 1990 the station was one of the first truly community-based full-time legal stations in the UK, proudly boasting the involvement of more than 100 volunteers every week. (Section 2.4 discusses how community radio differs from the BBC and commercial radio in more depth) The stereo FM signal on 103.4 MHz covered the city and could be heard as far away as Teesside. Programming varied widely from the original and inspired to pathetic and misguided attempts to emulate existing stations.

The station gained widespread acclaim for its community programming and social inclusion and its finest hour came when it was named 1992 Local Radio Station of the Year in the prestigious national Sony Awards. With magazine programming throughout the day, aimed at a broad audience the evenings became home to an eclectic range of vibrant and original programming.

In a front page story the journal of the Community Radio Association (now Community Media Association) celebrated Wear FM's first birthday:
From the outset the station identified itself with the people hardest hit by the recession, and made them its prime target audience. On-air 24 hours a day, the station evolved programmes to fill gaps in existing broadcasters schedules, with others specifically aimed at gaining a substantial audience. Wear FM supports disabled trainees; a visually handicapped presenter has three regular shifts a week, which are very popular, assisted by his blind wife as producer. A daily one-hour access programme is used by community groups. Four hours of local sport are broadcast; Sikh and Chinese students present ethnic music as part of a three-hour weekly student programme.

(Airflash 1991)
Despite being named 1992 Local Radio Station of the Year financial difficulties continued to mount. The station was unable to attract the required levels of advertising and became increasingly dependent on support from the University of Sunderland who paid the station for its assistance in training media students.

In April 1992 Accountants Price Waterhouse, who had been commissioned to prepare a business plan for the station for a five-year period, concluded that Wear FM needed a new more business-oriented decision-making body, improved administrative systems and accreditation for its training programmes. They made it plain that continued investment in Wear FM was required, particularly for capital equipment (for a discussion on capital costs see Section 2.3). They asked: Will sponsors provide funding of up to 287,000 of capital expenditure? Will sponsors provide annual revenue of up to 90,000? Will the bank provide an overdraft facility of up to 130,000 in 1993? (Price Waterhouse 1992)

A survey conducted by the Corporate Planning Services of the University of Sunderland (1993) led the station to claim a weekly reach of 17 per cent, heavily skewed towards young adults (see Section 2.1 for further information concerning audience statistics and research and how these may be interepreted). But without truly independent research it was difficult to sell packages of airtime costing up to 560 per week (35 spot daytime package) to more than a few customers (Wear FM Ratecard 1994). During early 1994 monthly advertising revenue varied between 4,000 and 11,000, a level inadequate to meet even the basic salary costs of the station.

When Pieta O'Shaugnessy left to return to a broadcasting position in her native Australia in February 1993 the downside of such strong and charismatic leadership of a radio station became painfully apparent. Her departure left a considerable managerial and creative vacuum. With a need to re-apply for its licence in early 1994 and financial pressures building for over a year the station was run by a small executive committee of the board of directors, chaired by Professor Flavia Swann, head of the School of Arts and Communications of Sunderland University, assisted by an acting station manager. The executive committee had power delegated to it by the full board for executive decisions within policies agreed by the board. Understandably, the more business-minded members of the board wanted to keep much tighter control over the day-to-day operation of the company. (See section 2.2 for a discussion concerning station structure and the roles of key board members and staff and the different structures and needs of a community and a commercial station)

Wear FM launched with just five paid staff and stayed with that arrangement for some time, but managing the efforts of so many individuals new to radio, together a commitment to training new recruits and students required the employment of additional staff. By 1994 the payroll included a total of 15 posts, increasing at one point to 19, generating an annual salary bill (including National Insurance) of over 155,000. The management structure was headed by an executive committee including Chief Executive (Professor Flavia Swann from Sunderland University). Reporting directly to the Chief Executive the acting Station Manager was responsible for a full-time Head of News and Training, Deputy News Editor, Head of Sales, Sales Executive, Programme Controller, three presenters, Head of Engineering and Production, Education Producer, Commercial Producer, Station Administrator, Administration Assistant/Receptionist and a part-time Book Keeper. In addition the station provided training for 13 local long-term unemployed people placed through Wearside Training and Enterprise Council (Price Waterhouse 1992)

In the 'Promise of Performance' included in the licence application Wear FM committed to a breath-taking range of programming (see also Section 2.4 Applying for a licence, and Section 2.5 for information regarding programme content):
A weekday peak-time half-hour news and current affairs programme; a regular 'community news' feature; regular employment features; local arts and entertainment information; features on local issues such as health and information matters; educative and distance learning features; experimental dramas; listener requests and dedications; competitions; interviews and/or phone-ins with celebrities and local personalities; sports reports, previews, interviews and results; traffic/travel and weather reports relevant to, and likely to be appreciated by, listeners in the area served; programmes produced and presented by local people including a weekday evening, speech and music, one-hour community access programme.
In addition to these substantial speech promises, the station committed to a considerable range of music programming including country, blues, dance, folk, indie, jazz, live music with local musicians, religious music and soul (see Section 2.5b for details of managing music programming).

It is one of the ironies of the UK radio licensing system that, still today, impecunious community broadcasters saddle themselves with programming commitments that commercial operators would never accept. Compare Wear FM's detailed programming promises with the straightforward 'Format' requirements for the same station now: Sun FM is simply required to provide "A locally oriented broad music and information station for the Sunderland area, with a strong commitment to local news". The service must be provided 24 hours a day with locally made programming for at least 10 hours a day during daytime weekdays (which must include breakfast) and at least four hours daytime Saturdays and Sundays. Local news bulletins must be included at least hourly at peaktime weekdays and weekends (Ofcom 2008).

Despite the financial concerns at board level much of the programming remained exciting and exuberant. Remembering the station on an unofficial fan-site dedicated to the Wear FM, Boogie Bass and Soul Fish show more than 14 years later (Anon 2008), one fan writes:
Wear FM was a radio station but with a huge difference!! After 7pm each night between 7 and midnight (and then some) there was a slot called Boogie Bass and Soulfish. Within this slot were different weekly shows playing different genres of underground dance music, never before heard in the north east by the masses. For the rave science you really were spoilt for choice.

For a station to covering such drug related genres such as techno and hardcore on your radio with DJ's who just didn't care was a far step away from the very stiff and super professional, shirt and collar style of Metro radio and Radio One at the time. If Boogie Bass and Soulfish came about now in 2008 it would still cause a stir but in the early 1990's it was nothing short of revolutionary. It was more like a pirate radio station and it was often confused as such.
Another big success, arguably well ahead of its time, was the Wednesday evening Gay to Gay programme presented by Michael Lumsden, better known as DJ Megasal or Sally. The programme, playing high energy disco music and reading out letters from regular listeners, was very popular among the gay community across a wide area of the north-east but also became cult listening for a broader audience, including reputedly Sunderland cab drivers. (See Sections 2.1 and 2.6 - success here was, in our opinion due to a combination of good audience research that targeted a specialist music program at a particular listener base)

Sadly none of this inventive programming brought in substantial commercial revenue, nor did it attract support from public funds, and by 1994 Wear FM's financial position had plainly become unsustainable. Not only was revenue not meeting the station's running costs but, after four years of constant use by literally hundreds of volunteers and students and despite the efforts of a full-time engineer, the two studios and news facilities were becoming dilapidated and unreliable. While similar stations embraced digital playout systems, with accompanying benefits in efficiency and simplicity, Wear FM was still in the era of vinyl records, CDs and tape cartridges (see Sections 2.10, which describes the broadcast technology, including digital playout systems, used in radio broadcast and Section 2.3 which considers the costs associated with running a radio station in more depth). Without the support of Sunderland University the station would have closed in early 1994.

In this respect Wear FM's experience highlights an issue that should be of concern to all community broadcasters. It is frequently possible to find funding from public or other grant-giving bodies for the capital expenditure to set up a new radio station with social objectives and, through training and similar initiatives, to earn from other bodies some contribution towards the ongoing overheads of a community service. It is however very rare to find a ready source of funding for the routine repair, replacement or upgrading of equipment and facilities. The organisation can become fixated on breaking even financially, it being seen, not unreasonably, as a great achievement to be able to cover all the ongoing costs from grants and commercial income. To ensure long-term survival even a not-for-profit organisation must however aim to generate a trading surplus, to build up reserves to meet future needs. (See Section 2.3)

While broadcasting legislation did not permit a public body to take more than a 5% share in a radio company the level of support from the University became substantial. From the start the four rooms occupied by Wear FM in the University's Forster Building were fully integrated with the media teaching areas, with all overheads met by the University but now the University injected further cash by buying facilities such as the record library from the station and loaning them back. SCRA Limited remained solvent purely as a result of an outstanding bank loan being guaranteed by the University.

Without a full-time manager the station was effectively run as a number of separate fiefdoms. As a result the station had become very like an impenetrable private club with no opportunities for new talent or new ideas. There was little overall leadership and tension between management, staff, students and volunteers at the station increased with station staff voicing concern over what they regarded as a takeover of the station by the university. Staff and volunteers held a one-day strike at the beginning of March 1994 to protest over how the station was being run. (For a consideration of managing staff, see Section 2.10)

Against this background Wear FM had been required to reapply for the Sunderland local radio licence, the initial incremental licences were issued only for a trial period. A rival bid came from a group of disgruntled local broadcasters who formed the Wearside Broadcasting Company and considerable Wear FM management time was devoted to preparing the licence application, with the help of Mike Gaston, by then MD of community station BCR in Belfast and a former deputy manager of Wear FM. Attempting to strengthen both the station's business acumen and its relationship with key pillars of the local community representatives of both Sunderland Football Club and the local brewers Vaux were invited onto the board, together with the Programme Director of Tyne Tees Television, and management oversight by the executive committee increased. Despite being re-awarded the licence, with a new, eight year term to start in January 1995, Wear FM did not however become any easier to manage.

The executive committee gradually discovered that the financial position of the station was far worse than had been suspected. A number of debts were unrecorded in the accounts and expenditure was still running way ahead of income. After temporary and freelance contracts were not renewed, notably among the clique which had taken control of all the evening dance programmes, and some staff were made redundant, a wave of adverse publicity followed, particularly in the local evening paper the Sunderland Echo (1994a):
Members of Wear FM's parent body are threatening to pull the plug on the station's management. They say Sunderland Community Radio Association (SCRA), which owns Wear FM's broadcasting licence, could break away from Sunderland University, which owns the studio and equipment. The licence would then be attached to a new station. Some SCRA members are unhappy with the way Wear FM has been run since the university bought the station's assets.
Disgruntled individuals rang and wrote to the Radio Authority who were reported in the local press as holding an enquiry into show the station was being run (see Section 2.9 for information concerning the legal requirements of Ofcom's Broadcast Code). Having only recently re-awarded the licence to Wear FM the Radio Authority moved quickly to quash any such suggestion (Sunderland Echo 1994b). Separately, following the discovery of what were termed "financial irregularities" in the station, the executive committee called in the police to investigate. Four former or current members of staff were arrested, papers were taken away from the station but despite a long investigation no charges ensued (Radio Magazine 1994: 9)

At an extraordinary general meeting on 30 June 1994 attended by some 50 members, the board were required to defend the changes introduced since the licence was renewed. Although the Board overwhelmingly won a vote of confidence some individuals affected by the changes took the opportunity to voice their disquiet and the meeting did nothing to stop the flow of bad publicity. This reached national proportions when the Sunday Mirror (1994) carried accusations against the News Editor, suggesting sexual impropriety away from the station. Although cleared after a police investigation he was suspended from his role in the radio station (Journal 1994) and subsequently resigned.

Further accusations of dishonesty led to the dismissal of other senior staff during the summer and the station administrator and acting manager resigned in September 1994 after protracted period of sick leave, claiming constructive dismissal. Executive Committee meetings were increasingly dominated by employment tribunals and staff legal issues.

The post of Station Manager was finally filled in August 1994, some 17 months after the departure of Pieta O'Shangnessy, by Roy Leonard, a former presenter and programme manager in the Metro Radio Group, BBC local radio and elsewhere. Roy set about re-establishing sensible structures and systems in the station, including proper contracts of employment and an employment handbook. An attractive innovation for the start of the 1994 soccer season was Roker Radio. Broadcast live from the home of Sunderland Football Club before and during every Saturday home game the programme was jointly produced and funded by the club. The new manager reduced costs where possible but by the end of 1994, with no further overdraft available and a desperate need for new facilities, it was plain that the station needed a considerable injection of cash to survive.

A number of plans were considered but there was no way to attract a sufficient cash injection from the public sector, the only way forward being to open the company to commercial investment. The station held an Independent Local Radio licence that was in every respect, other than the programme promises, identical to that held by every other commercial radio company. There was no limitation on commercial revenue or ownership. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, the rules governing ownership of commercial broadcasters actually prohibited the control of any licence by a publicly-funded body - effectively forcing such companies into private hands if they were to raise substantial capital.

In early 1995, with the University unwilling or unable to offer further financial support, the directors of Wear FM were faced with three take-over offers for the company. these came from: The Minster Sound Radio Limited, who operated commercial stations in Yorkshire; Sunderland businessman Peter Vardy, head of the Sunderland- based national motor group Reg Vardy which backed his bid; Prospect Media, headed by Bob Price one of the former Wear FM members who previously challenged Wear FM for the licence; and a management buy-out headed by station manager Roy Leonard and the author, backed by three separate commercial radio companies including the local Metro Radio Group.

The regional daily newspaper The Northern Echo focussed on the Reg Vardy bid:
It is understood Vardy is planning a radical re-launch for the station, which has struggled financially despite critical acclaim. The name is likely to change, while Vardy will invest in new studios, probably at city centre premises the group already owns.
Under Radio Authority rules any new owner will have to cover all of Wear's debt before it is allowed to take over. The debts, plus the cost of re-equipping and re-launching the station, would be likely to set the new owner back at least 300,000

(Northern Echo 1995a)
Meanwhile the Sunderland Echo highlighted the reduced role of the University in any future station:
Mike Brunning, who has been involved with Wear FM since it went on air in November 1990, said he thought the moves would improve the station's role in the community. "I feel it would be a good thing for the station to move from the university. It was originally set up as a radio station for Sunderland, run by the people of Sunderland, and I would like to see a return to that."

(Sunderland Echo 1995)
Faced with mounting debts to suppliers and the University, and a large bank overdraft, the directors had to look for a figure in excess of 100,000 in order to wind up the Sunderland Community Radio Association in a solvent condition. Beyond this essential pre-condition the board felt obliged to select the proposal that seemed to offer the best hope of retaining the initial promise of Wear FM. The Minster Radio team, despite offering an unashamedly commercial future, added undertakings to make a 50,000 scholarship grant to the University (Northern Echo 1995) and, the University by this stage chairing and having considerable effective control over the board, the Minster offer was accepted.

Minster formed a new company, Sunderland City Radio Limited, to take over the licence and appointed their own directors, with two from the University of Sunderland including the then Vice-Chancellor. Hugh Morgan Williams, a director of Minster and of broadcast equipment supplier Canford Audio, was installed as Chairman. He told the local press: 'We went for it because we think we can make money out of it. That's the top and bottom of it.' (Northern Echo 1995b)

Sun City FM

The station was rapidly re-branded as Sun City 103.4. The title, which raised many eyebrows among previous supporters of the station in view of the then reputation of South Africa's Sun City in relation to apartheid, was intended to reflect Sunderland's recently gained city status (see Section 2.6 concerning a station's image). Minster put new management and staff into the station, largely seconded from Minster FM in York, and lost no time in moving the station out of the University into a small converted shop unit in the city centre, previously home to the Sunderland studio and offices of BBC Radio Newcastle (Radio Newcastle had retreated to a small anonymous room in a new office development outside the city centre).

With the change of location most of the former employees were dismissed and all connection with the University severed. The station now operated as a small commercial station based on the model of the successful and profitable Yorkshire Coast Radio in Scarborough, also owned and overseen by Minster. All pretence of community involvement was lost and the station was operated by a small professional team with automated output outside peak hours, for a time under the management of Bruce Davidson, today Group Technical Director for Global Radio. Reporting to Bruce were a Sales Director and four sales executives, a Head of Presentation, two full time and several part-time presenters, three journalists, a receptionist and a sales administrator.

A digital audio system was installed and enabled the station to automate overnight and off-peak programming and, in an innovative move, the news operation was moved to the offices of the daily evening newspaper the Sunderland Echo. Live news bulletins were supplied by the newspaper under contract via an ISDN link to the Sun City studio some miles away across the city, the arrangement costing the station almost 60,000 a year.

Sun City entered into commercial promotional deals with major companies ranging from local brewery Vaux and do-it-yourself superstore Dickens, to local outlets of MacDonalds. With better cash flow the station was able to take advertising on bus shelters, taxis, bus sides and in the local press and, needing to justify its share of national and regional advertising, Sun City joined the industry standard Rajar survey at a cost of some 8,000 per year, something which Wear FM could never justify. By the end of 1995 monthly sales figures were averaging between 40,000 and 50,000, three or four times the level of income obtained a year earlier by Wear FM.

Not everything ran smoothly for the new slimmed-down operation. The station was disciplined by the Radio Authority for not producing speech content required by the promise of performance and, later, breakfast presenter Phil Holmes appeared in most of the UK's daily newspapers and was fired after allegedly falling asleep during his show, after being out the night before gigging for the station in a nightclub. The news arrangement with the Sunderland Echo, although often giving the station access to a far wider range of material, was not universally regarded as a great success. In particular the different timescales and deadlines for daily press and hourly radio bulletins created tensions and misunderstandings between the two teams, not least if it was felt the radio might break a story ahead of the evening papers first edition. (See Section 3 Marketing Case Study 'Creating Publicity' for more detail on why tensions may develop between daily press and radio news and Section 2.7 for details on news programming)

In the financial year ending September 1996 Sunderland City Radio Limited reported total turnover of over 623,443, but with annual costs amounting to 730,000 the station was still running at a loss. However the decision to invest in Rajar research was vindicated by figures for the second quarter of 1996 showing Sun City as reaching 27% of the 241,000 adult population, each listening for a creditable 10.5 hours.

In another innovative initiative, from October 1996 management responsibility for the station was outsourced. GWR was at the time the largest radio group in the UK (measured by number of stations) and included a great deal of managerial expertise. A minority shareholder in the Minster group, GWR agreed to take on the management of their stations for a fixed fee. Effectively another change of control for the Sunderland station, this left the local staff reporting to senior programming and sales managers at GWR. Within a short period the sales manager and head of news left Sun City. Morale within the station was said to be very low, with staff receiving different instructions and guidance from GWR, Minster FM in York, and Sun City's local board of directors.

Following the change of control to GWR it became clear that the revenue figures for the next year were likely to be considerably reduced, partly as a result of pre-selling. This involves selling contracts for future advertising - often for as much as 12 months ahead - but including the entire value of the sale in the current month's accounts. Although there is nothing improper about this, it is frowned upon by broadcasting industry auditors as distorting the monthly trading position of the station. It is more usual to include advertising or sponsorship revenue in the management accounts for the month in which the airtime is broadcast, regardless of when a contract was signed. (See also Section 2.3 'Income Projections'.)

Against the backdrop of a worsening financial position an offer to purchase Sun City arrived in December 1996. Border Radio Holdings, a subsidiary of Border Television, already owned the successful north-east regional station Century Radio and were shortly to launch the Century brand in the north-west. They felt that the Sunderland station was under-performing and their offer of 1.2 million in cash, in addition to repayment of loans of around 500,000 (Broadcast 1996), represented a significant increase in valuation when compared to the 100,000 price tag of Wear FM.

The sale to Border was subject to a Radio Authority public interest test as it involved the company owning two FM licences in the same area. Permission came in February 1997 on the condition that Border observed undertakings to keep separate the management and news gathering arrangements of Sun FM and Century Radio.

Sun FM

Given the statutory requirement to operate the stations separately and with their experience of running larger regional stations, Border was determined to turn the Sunderland service into a viable commercial proposition in its own right. Under group Managing Director John Myers a new local Managing Director Jon Hewson re- launched the station as Sun FM and moved it again to a new business innovation centre on the edge of the city. New studios were built using top-of-the-range RCS computer systems, new presenters were recruited, the news room brought back in- house and the sales operation was extensively overhauled.

Border took a different view to Minster of the ideal corporate structure for their local and regional stations, seeing no need for independent local boards. At Century they had simply appointed a local Chairman who was independent of the group and well known in the transmission area. All other places on the local board were occupied by directors of the parent group. Border replicated this structure in Sunderland, inviting prominent local businessman John Anderson to become Chairman of the licence- holding company. Active in a number of other bodies, including the Sunderland Business and Innovation Centre and Sunderland Training and Enterprise Council, the new chairman set about rebuilding the relationship of the station with leaders of the local community.

Although trading profitably by 2000 Sun FM's future remained uncertain. It was consolidation in the commercial television industry that instigated the next change of control of the Sunderland service. The large Century stations were very attractive to both Scottish Radio Holdings and the Capital Radio Group. In April, after a bidding war with SRH, Capital gained control of Border Television group for 146 million and promptly sold the television business to Granada for 50 million. Capital had won control of the Century stations - with the incidental purchase of Sun FM seen as a minor and almost irrelevant addition to their group.

Under Programme Controller Ricky Durkin, and more recently Simon Grundy, the station steadily increased its share of listening, finally overtaking Metro Radio to become the most listened-to station in the Sunderland area. Weekly reach peaked at 92,000 adults (38 per cent) in 2000 and again in 2002. Market share (the proportion of all radio listening hours in the area going to Sun FM) reaching a peak of 20.2 per cent in 2004. As is generally the case since 2004 the increase in media competition has seen a reduction in share for individual local services, the most recent Rajar at the time of writing (Period ending March 2009) gave Sun FM a 23 per cent weekly reach with average weekly listening hours of 9.7, giving a share of listening of 12.3 per cent.

Sun FM did not really fit in the Capital Radio portfolio of big city and regional stations and within months Sun FM was sold, together with a another smaller station Mix 96 in Aylesbury, to a growing group of smaller stations, Radio Investments Limited (RIL), a company ironically itself now partly owned by former Sun FM proprietors Border Television and the GWR Group. In a further twist of fate, having earlier purchased the York-based outfit, RIL now also included Sun's former owner Minster FM.

Reporting that Capital's sale of three smaller stations, which also included the sale of a station in Wolverhampton to another group, had netted Capital 9.5 million, the Sunderland Echo quoted Capital as saying the deal was "part of the group's strategy to focus on large stations operating in major metropolitan areas." (Sunderland Echo 2001)

With the end of the station's eight year licence (previously granted to Wear FM in 1995) on the horizon, the Radio Authority were required to re-advertise the opportunity. This time there were no other takers, the only application received was from the existing licence-holder Sun FM.

It appeared that the commercial and programming success of the service deterred others from attempting to take the licence from Sun FM. The station's re-application document was studded with glowing statements of support from pillars of the local community, including council leaders, prominent business people, voluntary and arts bodies, the football club and the university. (Sun 2001)

A further change of ownership came when the Local Radio Company plc (TLRC) was formed to purchase the entire share capital of Radio Investments Ltd in May 2004. In common with all its other stations, the TLRC group introduced nationally networked evening and weekend programming to Sun FM, together with a daily networked late- night phone-in called "North South Divided" which was presented jointly from Sun FM's studios and those of TLRC operated Isle of Wight Radio.

Sun FM grew to become one of the top-performing stations in the TLRC group of 22 radio services. According to TLRC statement on joining the London Stock Exchange in May 2004: 'Revenue grew in FY 2002 for 20 of the 22 stations and for all 22 stations in FY 2003, including Minster FM in York, Stray FM in Harrogate and Sun FM in Sunderland, which each had revenues of over 1 million.' (TLRC 2004). By 2007, in preliminary results for the year ended 30 September, TLRC were able to report: 'One of our larger stations, Sun FM, achieved its best ever performance with 1.2 million in revenue' (TLRC 2007). (Section 2.12 considers how the performance of a radio station may be evaluated by financial and other indicators. Section 2.1 also details how performance may be evaluated with respect to audience figures)

With the 2005 addition of new station Durham FM, covering an area adjoining the Sun FM area and bridging the gap between it and Alpha Radio in Darlington, the TLRC group was able to introduce a greater degree of regional management. Matters ranging from sales management to music scheduling could be handled across the three stations, or even extended to include the group's Yorkshire stations in York, Scarborough and Harrogate. While the group has not yet confirmed plans to co-locate the north-east stations a number of staff operate across more than one service, notably in news and management roles. Sun FM now shares its station manager and Programme Controller with neighbouring Durham FM. Such economies have gone some way to ensuring continuing viability of the services in a tougher economic climate with greater media competition.


In retrospect it was inevitable that the 'incremental' stations like Wear FM were going to either fail or become wholly commercial. Not only was there little knowledge or experience of managing voluntary effort in full-time community radio services in the UK but the regulatory regime, insisting that 95 percent of the funding should come from sources other than publicly-funded bodies, was a wholly impractical framework for socially purposive broadcasting. It is likely that Wear FM, had it been set up today under the more realistic provisions of the Community Radio Order (HMSO 2004), could have provided a lasting viable model for successful local community radio.

In a final twist, Sunderland University is now home to another full-time radio service. In September 2007 the University won a community radio licence for the Sunderland area. Based in the University's Media Centre Spark FM, which came on-air in 2009, is operated by and for students at the University of Sunderland and young people in the wider city of Sunderland. The licence application promised that programming will focus on 'new music' with support for local and regional artists and also include material on local culture, education, training and social inclusion. (Ofcom 2007)

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Airflash (1991) 'Wear FM: a success to celebrate', Airflash. Journal of the Community Media Association, 42. December 1991.

Anon (2008) An unofficial fan-site dedicated to the Wear FM, Boogie Bass and Soul Fish show, known as The Blackout. http://www.blackedoutfm.co.uk/ Accessed 20 November 2008.

Broadcast (1996) 'Sun City deal prompts RA inquiry', Broadcast 13 December 1996

HMSO (2004) The Community Radio Order 2004, Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 1944. London:HMSO. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2004/20041944.htm . Accessed 10 December 2008.

Journal (1994), 'Radio boss cleared of child sex film scheme allegations'. The Newcastle Journal. 11 August 1994.

Northern Echo (1995a), 'Vardy rides to the rescue of crippled radio station',. The Northern Echo. 13 April 1995.

Northern Echo (1995b), 'Minster pips rivals to win Wear battle',. The Northern Echo. 28 April 1995.

Ofcom (2007), Four community radio licence awards: September 2007. Ofcom. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/radio/ifi/rbl/commun_radio/tlproc/awards/sept07/ . Accessed 10 December 2008.

Ofcom (2008). Commercial Radio Station Format. Sun FM. Ofcom. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/static/radiolicensing/formats/al055-3.doc . Accessed 30 November 2008.

Price Waterhouse (1992) Wear FM Business Plan, Price Waterhouse Chartered Accountants, Newcastle Upon Tyne, April 1992.

Radio Authority (2000) Radio Authority announces public interest determination for acquisition of Border Radio Holdings ltd by Capital Radio plc. News Release. Radio Authority, 9 May 2000.

Radio Magazine (2004) 'Arrests', The Radio Magazine, 116. 2 July 1994.

Sun (2001) Application for the Independent Local Radio licence for Sunderland. Sun FM Limited. October 2001.

Sunday Mirror (1994), 'We expose school chief's sick child-sex plot', Sunday Mirror 17 July 1994.

Sunderland Echo (1994a), 'New row hits radio station', Sunderland Echo. 30 June 1994

Sunderland Echo (1994b),. 'No complaints on Wear FM. Letter from Tracey Mullins', Sunderland Echo 24 May 1994.

Sunderland Echo (1995), 'Studio action stations!' Sunderland Echo. 23 February 1995.

Sunderland Echo (2001), 'Sun FM is sold - again', Sunderland Echo. 9 March 2001.

TLRC (2004) Admission to AIM on the London Stock Exchange. The Local Radio Company plc. 23 May 2004. http://www.thelocalradiocompany.com/?p=126< /A> Accessed 30 November 2008.

TLRC (2007) Preliminary results for the year ended 30 September 2007. The Local Radio Company plc. 5 December 2007.
http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS67098+05-Dec- 2007+RNS20071205 . Accessed 30 November2008.

University of Sunderland (1993) Wear FM Audience Survey . Corporate Planning Services. University of Sunderland..

Section updated:
20 May 2009. Latest Sun FM Rajar data.
19 June 2009. New station name Spark FM
8 January 2010. Spark FM on-air