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Developing a community station

By Matthew Lock
Posted 13 July 2015, 4.28pm edt
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Hi everyone, I'm a long time lurker and I'm certainly aware there are some strong personalities in this community and a mix of old school and new school people. I hope to not upset anyone!

In 2013 I started Big Time Radio. An online community station for Cardiff. With a very small team we've done pretty well building our brand and like all online stations have struggled to find the right presenters, especially being so "local". At present we have no paid advertisers and therefore no income other than donations and sponsors for special events. I'm sure a lot of people here could be critical of our product, but that's not why I'm here.
What I am asking is what process is there, realistically, for a community station to develop without someone who has cash to burn? I find it shocking that every ofcom FM application costs £600 non-refundable. How am I supposed to tell our donors that it's highly likely their money is going to ofcom for them to only say no as many times as they like? I understand there needs to be something in place or else any joe bloggs from his bedroom could apply but isn't that why ofcom regulates the licences in the first place? I don't think this figure even comes close to recognising the voluntary work put in to get a station off the ground and also to keep it running.

I see a lot of debate on here about DAB, good or bad. For DAB licences I'm seeing figures of 15k which is a drop for commercial stations but it seems ridiculous from where I'm sitting.
I guess the question is: Is this the only way to develop a community station, and if it is, is there not a better way?

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Comments

2 years, 4 months ago

Hi Matthew - it's a shame you have such trepidation to post - not many of us bite!

To be honest, in UK currently that is virtually it. One other possibility, but equally expensive is RSL - Restricted Service Licence. There is something about broadcasting on FM, if only for a short time, that energises a radio project and raises awareness. But it's not cheap - think £5k for a month to cover all expenses. But the good news is you can sell as much advertising as you like. I was involved with a station that did this for 11 successive RSL's, twice a year, but it was not easy.

There is still an application fee for RSL's, but it's "only" £200 and you are very likely to be awarded a licence outside Ramadan times. This near-certainty makes it a little easier to get financial support through grants, sponsorship etc than it would for a punt for a 5 year CR licence.

Some more advice & thoughts in our "Dummies Guide to Community Radio" (I'm not calling you a dummy!)

2 years, 4 months ago

Greetings from a Russian troll here too! (image)

You say it's online and you're somehow short of presenters?
I'm no entrepreneur, ever, but I'm thinking of something here. Do you collaborate with 1) local internet sites, 2) internet sites targetting the area? Some exchange of banners and links on your sites, stuff... Then, to target those sites' userbase (to have them visit you etc.) - do you have specialist shows? If it's no secret, what is your programming for now?
Excuse my outrageous boldness and temerity, but I reckon that could help your station to somehow evolve to the extent of much more confidence in your future OfCom applications.:)

2 years, 4 months ago

What I am asking is what process is there, realistically, for a community station to develop without someone who has cash to burn? I find it shocking that every ofcom FM application costs £600 non-refundable. How am I supposed to tell our donors that it's highly likely their money is going to ofcom for them to only say no as many times as they like?

With the best will in the world, Matthew: if you can't afford £600 for the licence application, how are you going to afford all the other things that go with running a community radio station? Premises, studio equipment, transmission gear, production, PRS fees, electricity bills, the list goes on.

As mentioned above, most community stations that I am aware of -- and indeed many commercial stations -- start off with a series of RSL broadcasts. As Glyn points out, the application process is relatively straightforward compared to a full-time licence and if you can operate successfully for 28 days, then you have taken the first steps towards proving to yourself, your sponsors and later Ofcom that you could potentially sustain a full-time service in the future.

The fee is there, as much as anything else, to make the point that applying for (and indeed running) a full-time FM licence is not something to be taken lightly. Think about it: processing those applications takes time and not inconsiderable effort on Ofcom's part. If you removed the fee, or made it nominal, you'd end up with people just dashing off applications left right and centre, and just reapplying every time they got turned down. It would cost Ofcom a fortune, and they'd grind to a halt.

In my experience, there are three key things that you need to prove in order to win a community radio licence: that your service is offering something distinctive (social gain); that you have access to the funding required to run such a service for the duration of the licence; and that as an organisation you are capable of sustaining such a service for the duration of the licence. I'm sure that others who have been more directly involved in the process of CR licencing will add to those.

If you've never run an RSL, then it's difficult to prove you can do this. You say you are "struggling to attract the right kind of presenters" -- what makes you think that this would be any different if you had a CR licence? Likewise with your funding.

Think about it from Ofcom's point of view: you've got someone applying for a licence. They've never done any broadcasting on FM, they don't have any real funding support and they're struggling to find volunteers to run their existing service.

Compare that to someone that's run an RSL every year (or twice a year) for the last three or four years, each time they've been on they've had support from local businesses and politicians and they've maintained a full live schedule 16-18 hours a day for the 28 days they've been on air.

Who sounds like a stronger candidate for the licence?

Unfortunately, running a radio station -- of any description -- is not cheap. The licence application fee, frankly, should be the least of your worries.

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