Like the UK, commercial radio in France is delivered both nationally and locally. Category ‘C’ stations have local studios, employ local staff and are permitted by the regulator to sell local advertising and use a national brand name, as long as they produce a minimum of 3 hours per day of local programmes. Category ‘D’ stations are broadcast nationally from one central studio, have no local offices and are only allowed by the regulator to sell national advertising.
Now it seems as if some of the local radio operations of European media conglomerate Lagardere, branded RFM and Virgin Radio in France, might have to be closed. “We are in the process of looking at some of them,” said Lagardere Active chairman Didier Quillot. The objective, he told Le Monde, is to know “whether they are all profitable”. The newspaper commented: “the future looks bleak for those that are not.”
Monday 14 December 2009 was a busy day for Lagardere. In the morning, it made a detailed presentation to the CSA, France’s media regulator, about “the economic and financial situation” of its RFM and Virgin Radio local operations. In the afternoon, it repeated the presentation to the IRTS public body, trade unions and staff representatives of the two networks.
RFM is presently available from 192 transmitters across France, of which 55 are local Category ‘C’ stations. Virgin Radio is available from 228 transmitters, of which 146 are local Category ‘C’ stations. Each of the local stations employs at least one journalist and one producer (as required by the regulator) plus advertising sales staff. Lagardere insists that, for the moment, “no decision has been taken and no request has been filed with the regulator”.
A few weeks ago, the programme director of RFM and Virgin Radio, Jean Isnard, produced a study on the future of local radio. Its conclusion was that it would be more profitable to close down some local stations and centralise them in Paris. Such closures, converting Category ‘C’ to Category ‘D’ stations, are unlikely to be implemented until February or March 2010, once the regulator has approved. Lagardere has referred to this strategy as “drastic economic measures” although it has reiterated its “determination to maintain a significant local presence”.
One insider told Le Monde: “For Didier Quillot and Alexandre Bompard, CEO of Europe 1, the crisis impacting the radio sector is not cyclical but structural.” Lagardere is also trying to sell its Paris sports news station, Europe 1 Sport, which is losing 1.2m Euros per annum. It had acquired the station two years ago, intending to transform it into a national station on T-DMB digital radio. However, as Le Monde commented: it is “too expensive, too late!”
The journalist union, SNJ, has denounced Lagardere’s proposed re-structuring of RFM and Virgin Radio “in the strongest terms”. It suspects that 25 local offices would be closed and 40 jobs are threatened. It accused Lagardere of using the economic crisis and competition from new media as pretexts for a purge of local journalists.
Meanwhile, competing national radio station RTL (owned by Bertelsmann) has seen advertising revenues fall 10% year-on-year, despite being ranked #1 station in France for the last three years. On Thursday 17 December 2009, management requested 30 voluntary redundancies from the station’s 300 staff. Chief executive Christopher Baldelii told Le Figaro: “Being market leader is good, but we must not rest on our laurels. RTL has to be modernised to increase its competitiveness”. The objective is to save 20m Euros over the next three years.