Fact Sheet 3


Under the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996, the Radio Authority is tasked with licensing and regulating all Independent Radio services. These comprise national, local, restricted services, satellite, cable, national FM subcarrier services, and terrestrial Digital Audio Broadcasting services. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport appoints Members to head the Radio Authority for a period of five years. The Authority Members meet on a monthly basis to make key policy decisions, including the award of licences.

Applicants for a Radio Authority licence must be eligible to hold a licence under the terms of the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996. This means that applicants must not be disqualified persons or have convictions in the last five years for illegal broadcasting (anyone convicted of illegal broadcasting is banned from broadcasting for 5 years). Please refer to the Authority's Notes of Guidance on Ownership for full details.

The radio spectrum (the frequencies on which services are broadcast) is a scarce resource; therefore, the government has empowered the Radio Authority to plan and manage its use for the commercial radio sector. This is to ensure that the relevant frequencies are used efficiently and effectively. The Authority participates fully in the overall process of spectrum management, under the auspices of the government's Radiocommunications Agency, to protect UK commercial radio services from interference from other services (broadcast and otherwise) and vice versa.

There are more people who want to broadcast on a 'permanent' (eight year) basis than there are frequencies available. Successive governments, therefore, have concluded that the fairest way to decide who can broadcast on a 'permanent' basis is to hold a competition which is open to anyone who wants to apply for the licence. Although new digital technology will make more efficient use of the spectrum available (more services will be able to squeeze into less space), demand will still outstrip supply for the foreseeable future in most regions of the UK. Therefore, licences for the multiplexers who will co-ordinate digital services will be advertised in a similar way to analogue licences.

The information that follows describes the types of Radio Authority licences available, and gives a brief explanation on how to apply for a licence. For more detailed information please refer to the relevant guidance note, available from the Authority's Press and Information Office upon request.

National Licences

  • National licence announcements are published on the Authority's website, in an open competition.

  • Applicants must submit their proposals for national licences by the published closing date.

  • Applications must be accompanied by a cash bid.

  • These licences are awarded to the highest cash bidder providing that the applicant meets the criteria set down in the Broadcasting Acts 1990 and 1996.

  • The Authority is required to provide a diversity of national services each catering for a wide range of tastes and interests. The Broadcasting Act 1990 states that two of the three national licences must be awarded to formats prescribed by the Act. One licence must be for a 'non-pop' station (this licence was awarded to Classic FM), and one must be for a predominantly speech-based service (awarded to Talk Radio). The third licence is open to 'all-comers' and was awarded to Virgin Radio (a rock and pop service).

  • National licences are awarded for a period of eight years.

  • About eighteen months before the end of the eight year licence period, the Authority is normally required to re-advertise each licence. However, the new Broadcasting Act 1996 provides each of the three national services with a guaranteed slot on the digital national multiplex. The Act states that if a national licence holder takes up its guaranteed slot on the digital multiplex it will have its licence automatically renewed, on one occasion, for a further period of eight years from the date of renewal, without having to take part in a cash bid process.

Local Licences

  • Local licence announcements are published on the Authority's website, in an open competition.

  • The Authority publishes a working list each year of areas in which it intends to advertise new licences. New areas can be added to the list during the year if the Authority thinks it is appropriate.

  • Areas are included on the working list after the Authority has considered the following criteria:

- whether there is evidence that there is a serious potential applicant for the licence;

- whether there is a suitable frequency available (one that does not interfere with, or suffer excessive interference from, other services and can achieve the appropriate coverage for the area intended to be served);

- the other stations which are already broadcasting in the vicinity. The Authority will decide whether another service could be introduced into that area, bearing in mind that revenue is mainly obtained through advertising and sponsorship.

  • Those applying for a local licence are required to complete the appropriate Radio Authority local licence application form and submit it by the published closing date.

  • The Authority carefully assesses each application. When making a decision about the award of the licence, the Authority Members are required to consider the following:

- whether the proposed service will cater for the tastes and interests of the local community. When advertising a licence, the Authority asks for comments from the public in the area concerned to get an idea of their local needs;

- whether the proposed service will broaden listener choice;

- whether the applicant has the appropriate financial resources to sustain the service for the eight year licence period;

- and, if the licence is being applied for by an existing licensee, broadcasting in the same area on the same waveband, whether such an award would be in the public interest (see Radio Authority's notes on the radio-specific public interest test).

  • Local licences are awarded for a period of eight years.

  • There are four categories of licence ranging from the largest, Category A, to the smallest, Category D. The size of a station's coverage area (the adult population count) determines its licence category. Each category of licence is allotted a certain number of points for use in the Authority's ownership points system (see Radio Authority's ownership guidelines).

  • Under the Broadcasting Act 1990, the Authority was required to re-advertise all local licences in an open competition prior to the expiry of their eight year licence period. The 1996 Act requires the Authority to re-advertise all category A local licences in an open competition. Local licences in categories B to D may be subject to a fast-track application procedure. This requires the Authority to invite expressions of interest, supported by a cash bond, for the licence. If there is no interest expressed for the licence concerned, and the existing licensee is performing satisfactorily, the Authority may renew the licence for a further eight years.

  • In cases where a local licence operator has secured a place on a local digital multiplex, its licence will automatically be renewed, on one occasion, for a further eight years.

For more information, please refer to the Authority's Notes of Guidance for Local Licences.

Short-term Restricted Service Licences

  • Restricted service licences (RSLs) are temporary licences which are generally issued for no more than 28 days.

  • RSLs operate on a low-power basis for a limited geographical area (typically, coverage of a town, or approximately a three kilometre radius in a city).

  • RSLs are issued on a 'first come, first served' basis, at the discretion of the Authority.

  • Those applying for an RSL need to complete the Radio Authority's short standard application form and, if there is a suitable frequency and an applicant meets the Radio Authority's requirements (as set down in its RSL guidelines), a licence will be issued.

  • RSLs are sometimes applied for in order to cover a special event, e.g. arts festival, sports fixture, local carnival, charity fundraising, for educational or training purposes, or drive-in movie.

  • Others applicants use these licences for trial broadcasts so that they can demonstrate a need for and gain support for a service in their area. These applicants then lobby the Authority to add that area to its working list. A number of people who have held RSLs now have full-term local licences. However, the granting of an RSL does not guarantee that the Authority will advertise a full-term licence in that particular area.

  • A group may be granted two RSLs in an area in any twelve month period, with a four month gap between the broadcasting of the two services.

Long-term Restricted Service Licences

  • The Authority issues long-term restricted service licences (LRSLs) for radio stations wishing to serve a single establishment such as a hospital or a university campus.

  • There are three types of LRSL, each one utilising a different transmission system. Very low powered FM licences are available in pre-defined, sparsely populated, areas of the country, and allow for freely-radiating transmission on the FM waveband. Induction loop licences allow for limited coverage, usually within selected buildings only, on the AM waveband. Low powered AM licences are available anywhere in the UK apart from within the M25, and allow for freely-radiating transmission on the AM waveband.

  • For each type of LRSL, the licensee must be a permanent member of staff of the host establishment (i.e. the hospital or university being served).

  • LRSLs are issued on demand, subject to the applicant meeting basic legal and technical criteria, for a maximum period of five years, and are automatically renewable.

  • Notes of guidance and application forms are available for each type of LRSL.

Cable and Satellite Licences

  • Cable and satellite service licences are issued at the discretion of the Authority (generally on request). Grounds for refusing a licence are limited by statute.

  • Before it grants a cable or satellite licence the Authority will require the following: a broad description of programme content, transmission details and the applicant's ownership and its directors.

  • Satellite radio services require to be licensed by the Authority if they are transmitted from the UK for general reception here or if they are transmitted from outside the UK but are managed, editorially, from the UK. If a signal can be received on a domestic receiver it is for general reception even if the sender does not intend that the signal should be received in this way. It is unlikely that the Authority would regard a coded signal which is intelligible only to those on a genuine closed user group as being for general reception and thus requiring to be licensed. If the qualification for receiving a coded signal is merely a willingness to pay for the reception equipment, and any associated subscription fee, the Authority will not regard this as a genuine closed user group service.

  • Possession of an Authority satellite service licence will enable licensees to transmit their service over the UK cable system too. A cable (licensable sound programme service) licence enables the holder to distribute his/her signal on any UK cable system.

  • The Authority's local radio licensees do not need a licensable sound programme service licence to distribute their service on cable within their area.

  • Cable and satellite radio licences are normally issued for a period of five years.

For further information, please refer to the Authority's guidance note on Cable and Satellite Licences.

Digital Radio Licences

  • The Radio Authority is required under the Broadcasting Act 1996 to license national and local digital radio services. These comprise National Multiplex, Local Multiplex, and Sound Programme Service licences.

  • An applicant will need to apply for a Digital Multiplex Licence if he/she wishes to broadcast a multiplex of programme services in digital form. Those providing a programme service on a digital multiplex will be required to hold a Sound Programme Service Licence.

  • Digital multiplex provision licences will be advertised in an open competition. Sound Programme Service Licences will be awarded to the programme providers after the award of licence.

  • Applicants will be required to complete and submit the appropriate application form by the published closing date.

  • When assessing applications, Radio Authority Members will be looking to see which proposals cater for the tastes and interests of those living in the locality; the variety of programme services which the multiplex provider intends to offer; the multiplex provider's business plan; investment in infrastructure over time in order to provide services as quickly and as widely as possible across the UK, and in the case of national licences, additional investment to provide the early take-up of digital radio, particularly, to encourage the take-up of receivers.

Digital multiplex licences will be awarded for a period of twelve years. Sound Programme Service Licences are indefinite. The three national stations currently broadcasting on analogue have guaranteed places on the national digital multiplex. If a national radio station takes up this option, it can benefit from a new analogue licence automatically extended for a further eight years. Local radio stations do not have guaranteed slots on local digital radio multiplexes but if a local station successfully secures a place on a local digital multiplex it too will automatically have its analogue licence renewed for a further eight years.

Addition Service Licence

  • This licence is awarded to the person who submits the highest cash bid.

  • The Additional Service licence operator utilises the Radio Data System subcarrier of the national service operator broadcasting on the FM (VHF) waveband (Classic FM).

  • The licence is awarded for an eight year period.

Information Note

The Authority has a number of codes to which each of its licensees must adhere.

The Radio Authority is funded solely by the licence fees paid to it by each of its licensees and by application fees. For a current tariff table, or other information, please contact the Authority's Press & Information Office.

This fact sheet is for general information only. Any prospective applicant should ensure that he/she reads the appropriate Notes of Guidance before applying for a licence.


See also:

Other Fact Sheets:
The Radio Authority - what it is, what it does
How is Commercial Radio Regulated?
Digital Radio
Careers in Broadcasting
The Radio Authority's Future Licensing Plans

Related Information
Archive Publications



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