What happens next for Harrogate's Stray FM - the story explained

If anything shows that Harrogate people truly consider Stray FM as their radio station its the town’s reaction to news last week that its multimedia conglomerate owners plan to rename it Greatest Hits Radio.

By Graham Chalmers
Friday, 5th June 2020, 3:44 pm
Updated Friday, 5th June 2020, 3:50 pm
Stray FM has been a popular media outlet for Harrogate since its first official broadcast back in 1994.
Stray FM has been a popular media outlet for Harrogate since its first official broadcast back in 1994.

As fears grew for the station which started as a labour of love for a small group of radio enthusiasts based in a portable cabin at St Aidan’s High School nearly 30 years ago, complaints flooded in from the public and politicians, the business world and the arts scene.

Long lost voices from that humble but heroic past which eventually grew into a fully-fledged commercial success reached out to the Harrogate Advertiser to say they were “gobsmacked” by the rebranding and the possible threat to jobs at the radio station.

The Harrogate Lib Dems even launched an online petition to ‘save’ Stray FM.

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"I think that they will lose many of their listeners because of the rebranding" - J Peter Wilson, one of Stray FM's original founders and presenters pictured, right, in the Harrogate radio station's early days.

In total, owners Bauer Media Group intend to rebrand 49 out of the 56 FM licences it acquired last year as part of its Radio Brand Network, adding to its national portfolio which already includes Absolute Radio, Kiss and Scala.

Martin Newton, one of Stray FM’s founding presenters and who, in the early days, opened up the daily broadcasting with the Early Riser show from Mondays through Saturdays, said: “I’m gobsmacked about the rebranding of Stray FM. It feels like 26 years of the station’s work has been washed away by big business.”

Some people fear the changes being planned for this September by the Bauer Media Group spell not only a loss of indepenedence but the imminent closure of Stray FM.

The town’s MP Andrew Jones went straight to the top, raising his concerns with the company’s chief executive, as well as writing to OFCOM seeking clarity on licence requirements for local radio should the reassurances he seeks from Bauer not be given.

Under a barrage of pressure, Bauer has attempted to clarify the picture. No, it did not plan to close Stray FM.

Yes, changes were coming but they had to be made in order to prevent stations like Harrogate’s from becoming economically unviable and disappearing altogether, a risk accelerated by the economic problems created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Group managing director of Hits Radio Brand Networks, Graham Bryce, said:“I want to personally assure listeners that these stations are not closing.

“But the changes do, unfortunately, mean that some roles will be put into consultation and freelance contracts reviewed.

“We must stay ahead of the game to ensure that our cherished local institutions can thrive into the future.”

As Bauer moves to reconfigure Stray FM as part of its moves to create the UK’s largest commercial radio network, concern in the Harrogate community remains over local news and the station’s long tradition for supporting vital local charities.

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Jones said: “Stray FM is a radio station that supports local events and charities. It’s a station that supports the community and the community repays this by supporting the station.

“The businesses that advertise on there aren’t faceless national corporations.

“They are local brands and companies who are part of the fabric of our area. I don’t want to lose any of that.”

Fiona Movley, the chair of Harrogate International Festivals, which was the first event to be covered by Stray FM in its earliest incaranation in the late 1980s, said “Stray FM has played an important part in the launch and growth of many Harrogate charities over the last 26 years. The loss of this would be felt immensely by the charitable sector in the Harrogate district.”

Despite mounting concerns, Bauer Media Group says it has no intention of scrapping local news or supporting local charities.

Mr Bryce said: “We recognise the depth of local support for these stations among loyal audiences.

“They will retain local news content, which we know is highly valued by listeners, as well as local information, traffic and travel.”

As mergers of the past have shown, such promises do not stop local news being created and broadcast from a studio in a different station in another part of the empire.

One thing is for certain. Come September, listeners will have to tune in to find out what kind of Stray FM Harrogate has got.

What one of Stray FM's original founders says about its future

One man who should have a good handle on the possible implications of Bauer’s changes at Stray FM is J Peter Wilson, one of the station’s original founders and presenters.

Now a retired broadcasting regulation consultant, Mr Wilson said: “I am surprised by Bauer Media’s decision to rebrand all stations with the same name. I think that they will lose many of their listeners.

“Bauer have already closed the studios of both TFM in Teesside and Viking FM in Hull and transferred the on-air staff to studios in Newcastle and Sheffield for the breakfast show.

“I would make sure that, at least, during the breakfast show and the drivetime show that there is a lot of local information using the local news teams based in Harrogate.

“I think it will probably mean that Bauer will need to retain both a local news team and local sales staff plus some engineering/IT staff to operate the network switching that will be required for the local/regional news slots and local advertising spots.”

What owners Bauer Media Group say about Stray FM's future

Having bought Stray FM in 2019 as part of a wave of purchases to create a new national radio network, speculation has been bubbling over Bauer Media Group’s intentions for the Harrogate radio station whose first professional broadcast was in 1994.

Last week, the German media giant revealed its hand.

Group managing director of Bauer’s Hits Radio Brand Networks, Graham Bryce said: “We are not a one-sized fits all business and refer to audience needs in every area.

“Bauer Media’s priority is to create a digital future for radio.

“Across the country, the local radio industry is adapting to significant shifts in listener behaviour towards consumption on digital platforms. We must stay ahead of these changes to ensure that our cherished local institutions can thrive into the future.

“It’s too soon to make definitive statements about individual radio shows, and we can’t discuss individual contracts while the consultation is in progress.

“We are entering a period of consultation with all presenters and staff affected by the changes. “Sadly, there will be roles that are placed ‘at risk’ as part of this process and freelance contracts will be reviewed.

“Our stations will retain local news content, which we know is highly valued by listeners, as well as local information, traffic and travel.

“They will also remain engaged in local charitable activity, retain their presence in the community and reflect the major events and stories that we agree are important to listeners.”

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