Ofcom makes waves in local community radio

Bids have closed for Ofcom’s five-year community radio licences, but was it a level playing field?

This is a tale of three local radio stations – so local they could all be described as “community” stations. One is in London, one in Scotland and the other in the West Country. As bids closed last week for the coveted five-year community radio licences soon to be awarded by Ofcom, only one of the three had put its hat in the ring. Given that the community radio lobby has been battling for many years to get government backing for this “third tier” of radio – neither national nor local, neither BBC nor commercial – that may be considered surprising.

The first of the stations, Life FM, is a not-for-profit community station based on the Stonebridge Estate, in Brent, North London, an area with a reputation for crime and drugs. It’s had public funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister through the Stonebridge Action Housing Trust, as part of a wider neighbourhood renewal project. It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers and, as well as black music, it broadcasts community news and public service announcements on matters such as anti-racism marches, drugs counselling, and training courses.

Jennifer Ogole, its project director, has no doubt about the value such community stations can bring. “In terms of regeneration, it delivers on every front, providing education, positive activities for young people, and a voice for local people,” she says.

Life normally broadcasts on the internet but for the next few weeks, it can be heard on radios in the area, under a “restricted service licence” lasting 28 days. Now it’s bidding for a five-year licence under the Government’s Community Radio Order. Ogole says: “The impact of the 28-day licence is massive and if we could broadcast constantly we could do that all year round – interviews with local people, showcasing local talent, and loads more opportunities for people to volunteer and get work experience.”

Several hundred miles away, in the North-east of Scotland, Waves Radio is doing an equally fine job, serving a small fishing community in Peterhead. Its managing director Norman Spence has built up the station over seven years and his listeners regard it as a community-oriented station, even tuning in to hear the fish landings.

Yet it is funded entirely by advertising and has a normal commercial radio licence. Spence fears that if a community station came into the area, with access to grants from the Government or public agencies, Waves Radio would probably close.

Spence campaigned through the Commercial Radio Companies Association to prevent community stations being set up in lightly populated areas where there was already a commercial station. He has no regrets about doing so.

“We get no grants. We have to rely on advertising for our business and we’ve had to fight hand and fist to keep this station going,” he says. “We have to obey the rules of Ofcom. I think the community stations are going to get a freer hand and that some are being set up by people who just want to play at radio. Is there really a need for a lower tier of radio when you’ve got small stations like Waves Radio?”

This summer, Spence and the CRCA secured changes to the Community Radio Order, which sets the rules that must be enforced by Ofcom. The amendments prevented community stations applying for licences in areas that have small commercial stations and – in areas with slightly larger populations – restricted their ability to seek advertising revenue. The Community Media Association was furious, labelling the move “a licence to steal from the poor”.

Which brings us to the third station, WCR, in the Wiltshire market town of Warminster. Local tradesmen – with support from the local council – have converted an old public lavatory into a radio station, complete with well-equipped studios, offices and a kitchen. Warminster Community Radio broadcasts 24 hours a day to local hospitals and care homes and is staffed entirely by volunteers, aged from 11 to 70. In recent years, it has also had nine 28-day licences, enabling it to broadcast to the whole community.

Three years ago, partly as a result of its lobbying, the Radio Authority advertised a commercial radio licence for the town – but it was won by a better-resourced commercial group, 3TR (Three Towns Radio), which has since been sold to the Guardian Media Group.

When community radio finally got the Government’s go-ahead, WCR was hoping to be first in the queue for one of the long-term licences.

Guess what? It’s banned from doing so under the terms of the Community Radio Order because it’s in a lightly populated area that already has a commercial station! And because WCR now has no immediate prospect of a long-term licence, it could lose its financial support from the local council, which holds the lease on its studios.

Other groups will also be disappointed when Ofcom decides which of some 200 applications it can award licences to. But at least they’ll have had a chance to bid.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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