New City FM wins licence to take on BBC in Reading

Madejski, third from right, and Grundy, far right, celebrate their victory with the board

A licence to broadcast in Reading awarded to a group of local newspapers and broadcasters could signal a new battle for ratings with the BBC.

An eight-year licence to provide local news and sports coverage was awarded by the Radio Authority to New City FM, a group consisting of the Guardian Media Group’s Surrey and Berkshire Newspapers and Milestone Radio, which has a controlling share in Newbury’s Kick FM and Kestrel FM in Basingstoke.

The music-led station will be aimed at listeners aged 25 to 54 with one-fifth devoted to speech. News bulletins of between two and four minutes will be aired between 6am and 9pm weekdays with an extended 15-minute bulletin daily. Business and sports news will also figure in the schedules and a Saturday sports show is planned.

Shortly before the licence win was announced, the BBC unveiled plans to invest £200,000 a year in Radio Berkshire to restore the station’s editorial independence and to complete the reversal of an earlier merger with BBC Radio Oxford.

While New City FM’s licence is for Reading rather than the whole of the county, the BBC is thought to be working towards having its new service up and running by the time the commercial service goes on air in a bid to steal its thunder. A new studio is being built at the existing Reading base to accommodate the production of a new afternoon and weekend programmes.

The BBC’s decision to reinstate its Berkshire and Oxford stations has proved popular with listeners, many of whom opposed the 1996 decision to merge them into a single Radio Thames Valley.

"Every time the BBC has increased the amount of local programming, our audience figures have gone up," one insider said. "It’s no secret that the BBC wants to get the new programmes out on time for the new station, even though it’s not a service that broadcasts across the whole of our area."

New City FM will have a wire service from the Surrey and Berkshire Newspapers-owned Reading Evening Post and will draw on its resources to compete for sports audiences in the town. Reading Football Club chairman John Madejski’s Goodhead Group is also part of the consortium.

Tony Grundy, launch managing director of New City FM, said: "The unique partnership of a daily newspaper, Division One football club and successful neighbouring stations gives us great local exercise and many exciting opportunities."

But although this signals the hotting-up of competition over football, the BBC has the advantage of holding the broadcasting rights for Reading FC for the next two years.

An editor and two full-time journalists will be recruited to work for the station in new studios in Reading. Grundy said journalists working for the companies in the group have been told they can apply for the broadcast journalist jobs, without there being "any downside for their jobs".

"There’s a great determination to make the whole thing work," he added. "We are mindful that the BBC can put resources into news that we can’t. But by drawing together the group we have, I think we will be able to appear bigger than we are and be a strong player in a very competitive marketplace."

By Julie Tomlin

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