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Community Radio: On the wavelength of hopeless dreams

New players crowd in to set up hobbyist stations

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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. ®

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