Community Radio: On the wavelength of hopeless dreams
New players crowd in to set up hobbyist stations
Community radio stations are having a tough time. They are restricted in their advertising and dependent on rapidly diminishing grants, but that's not stopped another 30 from applying for licences.
All of the applications are in for round three of the Community Radio licences, from groups which reckon they can make a go of running a local radio station – despite the fact that existing stations are having a hard time keeping their airwaves filled.
Community Radio broadcasts at low power over an area around 10km across. They aren't allowed to take more than half their revenue from advertising, or run any advertising at all if the area has a competing commercial operation. That makes them entirely reliant on volunteers, grants and charity, all of which are in short supply these days.
Ofcom lists 209 such stations currently operating in the UK, though that list includes Wayland Radio, which will be going off the air Saturday evening having run out of cash. Wayland has been on the air for the last half-decade, but: "Over the last few months we have found it impossible to get revenue grants to support our project – a sign of the times," the station told RadioToday, which puts the number of currently broadcasting stations at just under 200.
Some stations are entirely reliant on grants and charitable gifts, as they operate within the coverage of a commercial station. Takeover Radio – which covers Sutton-in-Ashfield and isn't permitted to run any adverts at all – reckons it has applied for more than £100,000 in grants but has only received £1,300, from the local Country Council, which isn't enough to keep it on the air.
These stations don't attract large audiences, in fact they try to avoid counting listeners at all as this rarely helps in conversations with potential advertisers.
"Advertisers spend money on community radio because they believe it’s an investment in their community, an investment that will improve the quality of life for their customers and employees," suggests Community Radio consultant Henry Loeser, though it seems businesses are increasingly reluctant to think in the long term these days.
The UK government does provide some cash, awarded by Ofcom as the Community Radio Fund. This year the first round saw 67 applications, of which 16 got an average of £15,000 each and the rest got nothing: there'll be a second round in November, of a similar scale. Ofcom only decides who gets the cash, the money is supplied by the Ministry of Fun who decides how much to spend.
It's not a lot of money, and Ofcom admits it is impressed that anyone manages to run a station at all, but reminded RadioToday that the 50 per cent cap on funding from advertising is a Parliamentary matter and therefore not something the regulator can change.
The reality is that many Community Radio stations are run as clubs for people who want to make radio rather than services of value to the community, and as a result deserve little in the way of government funding. They present an interesting model of what Local TV might be like in another decade or so. ®
Protecting the big against the small
Imagine the outcry if there was legislation limiting the competition small corner shops could make to Tesco. This is clearly discriminatory legislation, protecting the big commercial stations against small local ones.
Fail to see the point
I can't see anything that can be done by community radio that can't be achieved in any number of other ways that are far easier to set up and run, and are almost invariably more entertaining. I shrink in terror at the day the land is stalked by (rather 70s) anorak clad Kevins stalking the land with video as well as sound equipment, getting visually outraged at everything from squirrel infestations to precariously laden rubbish bins.
The obsession with community everything for the last few years just emphasises the fact that anything worthy of the name is long, long departed, and impossible to recreate. People make communities, not radio stations.
Good examples of community radio. Local TV might be superfluous in multimedia age.
"The reality is that many Community Radio stations are run as clubs for people who want to make radio rather than services of value to the community"
A sweeping overgeneralisation. From my experience being involved in three still running and thriving community radio stations that began around 2006 (below) I would disagree because they are all examples that have done some good in their respective communities, in many ways.
Here's some examples of that good:
1. Express FM 93.7 Portsmouth: many projects, for example many many live outside broadcasts championing local events and causes, Radio For Change a volunteering project to encourage local people to make programmes about matters that affect them, supported by national VInvolved; a soap opera akin to The Archers involving local people as players, building self-esteem, giving creative input; Wired For Work, a series on case studies of those with disabilities and long-term-illnesses finding work and starting businesses (this programme I produced); various local live music programmes; a programme about Volunteering in the community (a programme I produced and co-presented). Credit to everyone else involved.
2. Skyline 102.5 FM Hedge End, near Southampton
Helped many young people find construction jobs through on-air promotions, helped raised awareness of local charitable causes.
3. Unity 101.1 FM Southampton
Several series discussing the cultures of various ethnic groups in the City: clothes, food and festivals.
What of people who like doing radio for its own sake? I would agree that any station can have its share of that type, but if they are good at what they do then they add value to a station by attracting listeners and advertisers from elsewhere. Some people may see the experience as a stepping stone to professional radio - certainly the case for a few involved in the 3 stations above, people there have gone on to work nationally and locally for the BBC and other stations. And what's the problem with that? It's an opportunity for someone, we all need opportunities. I think the key is in balance and having a good mix of people with different personal agendas at a station.
Hopeless dreams? If one doesn't base their entire self esteem on being successful in radio then no, not hopeless at all, and if they see radio as a tool for the toolbox achieve something meaningful, and not for its own sake. If someone presenting a radio show offers something that listeners cannot get for themselves or elsewhere, then this is the foundation to success.
rinse.fm is another community radio station that is thriving, previously an urban pirate station, now legal, it has a track record of developing original artists, for example Katy B. This station is a great story for that reason, no Simon Cowell in sight, or the artificial system of fame in the X factor, these artists developed organically. The station is authentic and true to its roots, rather than 1Xtra reflecting similar genres which although very good, wouldn't exist if the pirates covering the genre existed first. History tells us that a state broadcaster can't necessary develop original talent, think Radio Caroline and then the reaction of the BBC in launching radio 1. But now they are here to stay, those BBC outlets provide worthwhile output and in some cases items that the market alone cannot provide.
"They present an interesting model of what Local TV might be like in another decade or so."
Not so, radio and TV are different mediums: one can do something else while listening to the radio and radio requires much less technical resource to work well. With TV, lighting, sets, makeup are all required. Because TV is a captive medium, the need to grab attention constantly is much higher and demanding - something I fear is not attainable on the proposed new wave of local TV. The other reason why local TV may not work is lack of cross promotion, something which the major broadcasters, particularly the BBC, enjoy. So if ITV and BBC regional TV had to, by law, go into partnership with and carry promotions of local non-profit TV then it may work.
That said, I'm surprised that a distinction is still made in media organisations in the age of convergence. A radio station should think of itself as a multimedia organisation, with a website, a youtube channel, facebook and twitter pages. That way it can reach the largest audience and justify its relevence. With that, the wave of local TV perhaps becomes irrelevant because existing outlets can already do it.