Channel 4 Claims UTV, SMG, CanWest and Disney in Digital Radio Bid

The UK’s Channel 4 TV broadcaster has won backing from SMG, UTV and possibly Emap Radio – three of the UK’s biggest radio companies – in its bid to run eight new national digital radio stations, The Guardian reports. Canadian media giant CanWest is also said to have signed up.
Media regulator Ofcom invited companies to apply by March 28 for the license to run a second over-the-air UK digital radio (DAB) multiplex. Northern Ireland-based UTV Radio, which operates the talkSPORT channel and several regional stations, was already on record as supporting Channel 4’s bid; there’s not much new there. But the arrival of Virgin Radio owner SMG and – imminently, according to the report – from Emap Radio, will be be welcomed by Channel 4.
The publicly-owned commercial TV broadcaster, which expects a £100 million annual budget shortfall by 2012 as viewers migrate to multi-channel options and ad revenue declines, has already branched out with niche movie, entertainment and documentary channels, and has used to put its audio programming in the shop window as podcasts. Ofcom has stipulated the new digital radio offerings must be “distinctive”, which aligns neatly with Channel 4’s existing TV remit, set out in the terms on which it was founded in 1982.
Though C4 would extend some of its current programming into the new space, and resurrect some extinct shows like The Tube, many stations and shows will likely be joint ventures with brand partners. C4 Director of Radio Nathalie Schwarz told this morning’s Guardian that Financial Times and New Musical Express are lined up for the new platform. This is where Emap’s experience will come in handy – the company already operates several cross-media radio ventures with magazines like Heat, Q and Mojo. “Disney is all but confirmed as an exclusive partner to develop children’s programming,” the report adds. Schwarz: “With the BBC at 55 percent market share, there needs to be a real strong credible public service alternative.”
The Telegraph newspaper in December made noises about a bid based on the talk radio format but that has since gone quiet, while current multiplex majority-stake owner GCap was also said to have formed a consortium with BT and infrastructure provider Arqiva, but so far National Grid Wireless is the only other confirmed bidder. Could The Guardian itself be positioning for carriage with the eventual license winner? It last week began stringing together its podcasts as a web-based “radio” service; parent GMG operates a handful of existing traditional channels. An Ofcom spokesperson just told me they would not reveal the identities of applicants until March 28 and that any bidders are likely to leave it to the last minute. The new spectrum is also expected to allow for new interactive radio services on mobile handsets.