Lantern extinguished

Friday 27th August: The day the station formerly known as Lantern FM was finally killed off. Outside of North Devon it's doubtful any tears were shed, but it's just one of a number of Global FM stations that are disappearing off the map. It's a subject I've returned to often and one I have an avowed interest in. Lantern were one of the first stations to give me freelance shifts. I can't say my reporting was that great (North Devon's never been an area I've ever been overly familiar with) but the station got by.

One thing always struck me though: just how much pride North Devon took in their station. Mention you worked for Lantern and you were treated like royalty.

Lantern may have been a very small station in comparison to its sister stations and the news was often less than scintillating, but it knew its target audience and its target audience appreciated with plenty of love and respect.

In many ways North Devon was one of the more unusual patches a station could have to deal with. It's not uncommon for local stations to be based around one major town or city and cover the surrounding rural area, but Lantern was almost completely rural, with several towns but none of them quite big enough to get top billing.

To the Lantern FM audience, Exeter was a world away and Plymouth may as well have been a different planet. Hyperlocal mattered more to North Devonians than the rest of the county, even if the word hyperlocal hadn't really been coined back then.

Lantern, so we were frequently told, was a profitable station (I guess local advertising was a pretty good way to reach a high dispersed audience). It was well loved. The RAJARs were decent. But it wasn't exactly a sexy or enticing station.

So, as part of Global Radio's plans to make local radio more profitable, Lantern was rebranded Heart FM and had more networked programming inserted into it. A small part of Lantern's soul died, but listeners could still wake up to breakfast DJs Hopps and Chapple and find out where the roadworks were and if any schools were closed, and any of the other day-to-day essentials.

Then, as part of Global's plans to make local radio more profitable, it was announced that the station formerly known as Lantern would be closing, along with other stations in Plymouth and the South Hams, and one Devon wide superstation would be created, based in Exeter.

Hopps will be departing, as will Chapple. Plenty of other talented local DJs across the Devon Heart network who live in and love their communities are also departing. There's more networked programming. Listeners in Ilfracombe will probably, rightly, wonder what the hell this new station has to do with their area and when, or if, their northerly coastal town will ever get a mention on air.

Although it's dangerous to interpret Facebook groups as a general popular groundswell, there's currently 3,410 members of three separate groups to save Lantern FM. Not bad for a part of the country where internet usage is lower than the average.

There's a demand for local radio in a place like, for sure. How to get it to pay for itself is another question completely. Former Lantern DJ Ian Starling has set up his own limited reach community station. It will be interesting to see if this continues to grow as disenfranchised listeners turn elsewhere for their local fix.

It's a situation that's being repeated across the country as local radio fans protest about Global's decision to axe several stations. It's unlikely these protests will have much effect.

As somebody who's worked for plenty of local radio stations it's heartbreaking to see what's being done to once-loved local institutions.

I won't disagree that local radio occasionally needs a shake up, nor that they may not always be profitable. But the continuing cuts are straight out of the manual of how to lose and alienate local audiences.

In an age of increased listening choice, local, more than ever, is a USP. More networked shows covering a wider area with little relevance to specific communities isn't the most inspiring recipe for success.

It's easy to sneer at the music, but this has never been the important bit of local radio. As long as there are familiar and catchy songs then people will listen. What really hooks them in is a good DJ talking about how much fun they had in Bideford a couple of days ago. Or a great ice cream they scoffed at Westward Ho!

A local councillor once told me that the local commercial radio stations were they first places she called when she wanted to highlight a campaign - because we'd talk to the audience in language they understood and could make it feel important to them, locally, she'd always see a huge rise in phone calls the next day from members of the public.

That was several years ago. I doubt if she gets the same response now.

Hopefully something will spring up to replace Lantern FM. And other local radio stations. And other local newspapers, that are also suffering, through a mixture of shifting readership and management incompetency.

Local media is much-maligned. It's also the lifeblood of a large section of the community. And well loved too. I'm sad to see Lantern's demise but not, I suspect, half as sad as a good number of people in North Devon.