Community Radio – an introduction
According to research by the Community Media Forum for Europe, an umbrella organisation of community media organisations across Europe, there are 2237 European community radio stations (CMFE, 2012). The UK has been a relative late-comer to community radio, legislated through the Community Radio Order (2004); in comparison, France legislated in 1982, Denmark in 1986, and the Netherlands in 1987 (Buckley, 2009).
The UK now has over 200 licenced community radio stations broadcasting full time on FM or AM (to an area of around 5KM in diameter), with a new station launched on average every 13 days since 2004 (Ofcom, 2012). The appetite for community radio in the UK has been described by the Chief Executive of Ofcom, Ed Richards, as ‘insatiable‘ (Richards, 2009 in Hallett and Wilson, 2010: 10).
Community radio in the UK has been developed through a mixture of government policy and grassroots activism, with this hybridity being in part regulated by the Office for Communications (Ofcom) and legislated for in various acts of parliament, and in part by the pragmatism of grassroots activism seeking greater local community broadcasting. A licence is granted for five years, and is awarded to the organisation not to individuals and so may not be sold for personal profit. The stations themselves must be non-profit distributing but nonetheless may be owned by shareholders and not just members.
The broadcasting remit dictated by Ofcom is for public service (termed ‘social gain’ under New Labour to align with wider government policy). An application for a licence should outline ‘social gain’ objectives and annual reports to Ofcom set out how a station is achieving this. Community radio in other countries has however been legislated to provide a voice for those not represented in the mainstream, and to offer a forum for local debate. This subtle difference has created tensions over the direction community radio has taken in the UK and may have a significant bearing on how a community radio station chooses to function. One such way is in how to fund the work required to accomplish the social gain objectives agreed under the terms of a radio licence.
Core costs are mainly met commercially through training, advertising sales, sponsorship and service level agreements and through funding grants. In 2011, competitive grant funding accounted for around 37% of income, followed by advertising (21%), local authorities (13%) and other public bodies such as Arts Councils and the national lottery (8%). The community radio fund, set up to support community radio and awarded through competitive application, accounts for 3%. In comparison, a government scheme funds 100% of community radio costs in France and 80% in New Zealand, whilst the Netherlands and Switzerland share the licence fee with community radio ( and which Sweden is also considering to support its 1000 community radio stations). Australia and the USA have broadly similar approaches to the UK .
According to Ofcom, in 2011 a community radio station cost £64,500 to run (median distribution) and the mean average income was around £74,000 (Ofcom, 2011: 14-15). However, the income of the four community radio stations, a total of £1.5 million, was equal to the poorest 74 community radio stations. Exclude these four top earning stations and the mean average income drops to £54,500. This suggests most stations operated at a loss. Staffing accounts for around 50% of the cost to run a community radio station. In 2010 an Ofcom survey found that 42 of 161 stations polled had no paid staff.
The stations therefore would not survive without their volunteers to create the broadcasts. Ofcom (2012) estimates the average station has 68 weekly volunteers giving over 1000 hours per month (op cit: 5). In the UK in 2010, community radio volunteers contribute 45,000 volunteer hours producing 15,000 hours of original radio output per week across the 200 licenced stations (Ofcom, 2011: 5) with arts-based stations reporting twice the average volunteer hours per week (ibid: 36). The appetite from volunteers has not diminished: community radio stations who have been licenced for more than five years reported the highest number of volunteer hours, on average (ibid).
Volunteers occupy positions across the organisation from governance to cleaning to broadcasting, often combining many roles. Whilst they come together as advocates for community radio, most volunteers however are solo or pairs of volunteer broadcasters who, because of the voluntary nature of coming in to broadcast on a schedule, plough their broadcast furrow at the same time each week and many over a number of years.
Working with Hillz FM
Hillz FM, located in Hillfields in Coventry, has just been awarded its second five year licence by Ofcom. The studios are located within WATCH, a charity that works in Hillfields across a range of areas, from learning to activism. Hillz FM is upstairs and uses three rooms; two studios and a small office. There is also a larger general area for training, and this is also used by WATCH. It has two part-time staff members responsible for overseeing the radio station and training the volunteers. Salaries are paid from grant funding for training.
In their initial application Hillz FM stated they will broadcast ‘music produced by local artists and musicians, and music for displaced communities in additional to specific genres…and less than 5% will be current chart’. Speech output will ‘broadcast in community languages addressing local community issues’. The station will broadcast live for 8 hours per day. The broadcasters therefore are most likely to be people from Hillfields broadcasting to and with people from Hillfields, although the transmitter reach goes far beyond the boundaries of Hillfields.
Questions I had:
- Who are the volunteers – are they local or only using the opportunity to broadcast?
- How do volunteers currently operate at the station?
- What is in place that can enable me to join in this current practise, rather than set something up within the station myself?
- What broadcast skills do the volunteers have and how may I enhance these?
- What can they contribute to thinking about the project?
- How does my work contribute to the social gain objectives of the station?
I am asking volunteers to alter what they are currently doing to include the objectives of the Imagine project, which means including interviews within their broadcasts. This will involve training in both how to prepare an interview and how to conduct an interview. Moreover, volunteers may want to pursue a particular form of interview: a group interview, or one set across the length of a programme (like Desert Island Discs). They may wish to pre-record the interview rather than live, and edit the interview. Each presents different challenges.
I presented the nature of the Imagine project at several meetings at the radio station. This is re-iterated when helping volunteers develop questions and themes for their interviews, and when discussing how my involvement may develop over the next year.
Working with volunteers requires an approach that starts where they are at, not from where I think they are; a training course would not be appropriate given the diversity amongst the volunteer cohort. Instead I will work with broadcast teams to build a list of potential interviewees and work out how best to perform the interviews. From this base we can determine where skills are needed, what format of interview is appropriate and how time needs allocating. My role will be one of support, asking questions and encouraging volunteers to find the answers for the questions that they have themselves.
To this end I have located myself at Hillz FM for one day a week. This also supports other work with WATCH, including providing support to other aspects of Imagine, including the intergenerational project with ACCOL and the imaging project with the local history group.