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Dales Radio licence challenged

By James Cridland for media.info
Posted 8 January 2016, 5.15pm est

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The licence of Dales Radio, a new community radio station in the Yorkshire Dales, has been challenged by a former director of a radio station based in Kirkby Lonsdale.

In its licence application, Dales Radio argued for a wider transmission area "normally considered by Ofcom". The resulting coverage area, including Sedbergh, Hawes and Leyburn, appears to have a radius of around 24km; yet Ofcom note that the general size of a community radio licence is 5km, with a special dispensation to go larger in rural areas "where there is greater availability of suitable FM frequencies (such as parts of Scotland and Wales)". The Dales Radio coverage appears to be five times as large as Ofcom's guidelines for licence applicants would normally permit.

In a letter sent to the DCMS, Paul Broadbent draws attention to his own community radio station, Indigo 106.6, which handed its community licence back to Ofcom in January 2015 November 2014 after it was unable to enlarge its transmission area to make it more financially viable. Ofcom told the station that it had refused the request because Indigo had not originally applied for such an extension; yet Indigo claim it had merely complied with Ofcom's own Guidance Notes. Mr Broadbent claims that Ofcom is showing "a lack of parity".

Nineteen community radio stations have handed back their licence since 2010.

Dales Radio is set to launch this Monday, 11 January, on 104.9FM, 103FM and 936AM.

The letter in full

I note recent publicity given to the intended launch of Dales Community Radio station, originally awarded a licence in late 2013.

Firstly, I would seek clarification as to why it has been permitted a longer than usual period to achieve a Launch.

More importantly however, I write to question and challenge the legitimacy of the licence that it was granted on the basis that the coverage area (MCA) exceeds the criteria set down for all community radio stations in Section 5 (1) of the Notes for Guidance revised in May 2010.

In making their application, the group stated that (they) “fully understand that this proposal exceeds the transmission parameters normally considered by Ofcom for a Community Radio service. However, (they believed) that the only way to viably service this unique, sparsely populated and geographically challenging area, is with a multiple transmitter service”.

They added that; “The distance between the sites and the intervening terrain would prevent full coverage when travelling along the interconnecting roads but that distance also allows the same frequencies to be used without significant problems of interaction”.

Interestingly the OFCOM MCA list does not include that of Dales Radio, but given the eventual coverage area which ultimately has been granted to cover an area of the Yorkshire Dales national park to include “distinct” communities of Leyburn, Hawes, Sedbergh and Kirkby Stephen along with presumably other smaller yet “distinct” communities, in a geographical area far exceeding the general policy of 5Km radius, and therefore far exceeding the MCA given to the majority of community radio licencees. Nor can the intended station be described as serving a “community of interest” as described by Section 2(1) of the Order below.

I originally raised the legitimacy of this licence award with my own local MP, and now LibDem leader Tim Farron, back in 2014. I understood at that time that he took the matter up with the DCMS, but as yet, I am not aware of a response.

I therefore seek a review of the decision making process that led to the licence grant, before Dales Radio is permitted to launch, and also the legitimacy of the decision made. My conclusion is that the MCA granted is outwith what might be regarded as a reasonable extension and that therefore extraneous factors must have been taken into account. The question then is why these same criteria and extraneous factors have not been applied to other community radio applicants in similar geographically dispersed areas.

The latter point is significant because it goes to the very viability of rural community radio stations and it would appear that Dales Radio may have been given an unfair advantage of survivability simply because other station applicants did not ask the question at a time when OFCOM were being quite restrictive in their interpretation of the criteria.

Indeed in a letter dated 2nd February 2014 addressed to Ms Halstead Smith of OFCOM, and noting the arguments put forward by Dales Radio as to why it was appropriate for it to be licensed for a larger coverage area, and OFCOM’s decision, on its merits, to depart from the transmission parameters normally considered appropriate, I personally made an application for OFCOM to apply the same criteria to licence holder CR051 (INDIGO 106.6fm), the Voice Community Trust, a licence which I then held, in order similarly to depart from the transmission parameters normally considered appropriate. Ms Halstead Smith did not reply but subsequently Ms Soo Williams did make a technical response. She did not justify why Dales Radio had been permitted to exceed the 5Km radius, but justified a refusal to INDIGO on the basis that it had not originally applied for such an extension, It had not done so because it, in common with many other rural community stations, complied with the Guidance Notes, at a time when OFCOM were giving a restrictive interpretation to them.

Working within the constraints of the current geographic parameters for the six years 2008 2014, it had become increasingly clear that the constraints meant that it is not financially viable to operate the licence, and as such a CR station would not be financially viable,

It also had become clear that grants/advertising/sponsorship were simply not be obtainable and sustainable.

Therefore based on the precedent of Dales Radio accepted by OFCOM, INDIGO and the Voice Community Trust argued that it should similarly be entitled to submit for coverage of the South Lakes area, a synonymous geographic community, which is equally sparsely populated and geographically challenged.

The application was not granted and ultimately the licence for INDIGO, a regionally award winning station, was handed back in common with many other rural community stations in the past and others currently facing financial viability problems because of lack of parity exercised by OFCOM.

I understand that this is not sufficient justification to question a licence, but I do believe that some form of judicial review should be undertaken of OFCOM’s decision making and interpretation process with regard to the grant of Dales Radio licence and that until such time it should be prevented from launching as the ground for the grant of the licence is unsafe.

Yours faithfully,
Paul Broadbent LLB(Hons) MA(Econ).MA
Formerly director of Indigo 106.6fm - the first community radio station in the South Lakes

Interpretation
2(1) In this Order "the 1990 Act" means the Broadcasting Act 1990; "the 2003 Act" means the Communications Act 2003; "community" means (a) the persons who live or work or undergo education or training in a particular area or locality, or (b) persons who (whether or not they fall within paragraph (a)) have one or more interests or characteristics in common;

More information

Dales Radio
Yorkshire Dales
James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.
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Comments

1 year, 4 months ago

Maybe more accurate to say Dales Radio coverage is roughly 23 times bigger than Ofcom Guidelines (area proportional to radius squared)....

PRO1 year, 4 months ago

You make a good point. The radius is five times as large.

1 year, 4 months ago

Then what about Nevis Radio ..... or even Speysound? The Superstation in Orkney certainly didn't cover a mere 5KM radius either when it was on air.

Where should the line be drawn between too much coverage for a supposed community radio station and not enough for a station broadcasting to an area of grassland with more sheep than humans?

How's this for a killer idea? How about disposing of that stupid rule and awarding frequencies, transmission powers and coverage areas on the merits of each licence application?

You're right. Those clueless wonders in Little England make up these rules that may be great for London but are as good as useless in many other places.

1 year, 4 months ago

I don't see what Ofcom have done wrong granting Dales Radio a licence.

Even in Ofcom's own guidance notes refer to what they 'generally' do. Nothing in the notes says 5km is absolute. They say... (my bold)

Community radio stations on FM in urban areas will generally be licensed for a coverage radius of up to 5km

Generally licensed. Not a maximum of 5km, not a minimum of 5km - general.

In rural areas where there is greater availability of suitable FM frequencies (such as parts of Scotland and Wales) and a coverage radius of more than 5km is proposed (because of the dispersed population, for example), we may license such services on FM"

Well Dales Radio ticks that part of the guidance.

Sorry, but I don't think Ofcom have done wrong here.

1 year, 4 months ago

In this instance they probably haven't done anything wrong but the fact that another (former) radio group are rattled suggests that the "general" rule, which has been applied previously, is not always suitable and is probably quite unfair. Also, if it's not a rule at all - then why is it mentioned? And why has OfCom given such low power allocations at around the same wattage in the vast majority of instances?

In my opinion it has always been a stupid rule, even for urban areas. Not every geographical community is defined by a 5KM radius (Bradley Stoke & Stoke Gifford in North Bristol, for example). It's also unfair for community stations that want to serve niche audiences and communities of interest, who would do better by being able to serve much larger areas for their thinly spread potential audiences - but instead some of them have been given a 25 watt wick that barely covers a single area of a city, when many more of their intended listeners live outwith their signal.

Apparently it's due to "lack of frequencies," although the frequencies that were given in my area have always been clear and are not used (nor would cause interference levels) for any station within 50 miles or more - Scotland's topography ensures that.

These one-size-fits-all rules have been applied in other instances (not for community radio) and they have spectacularly failed. One of the finest examples was the small-scale licence award for Clan FM in Lanarkshire. Whilst the principal of sticking up a 100 watt transmitter and getting a station to serve a very large town on mainly flat plains in England is probably quite sound in many instances - here in Lanarkshire it definitely wasn't. One of the main reasons why Clan FM failed so badly was because people weren't picking up the signal.

In slight fairness to OfCom it wasn't just because of a 100 watt transmitter, which would otherwise have been quite adequate in many other parts of the UK - but it was because they tried to apply that rule in a county where people would have had to be educated in how to pick up the signal for their supposed local station.

Half a million people live in Lanarkshire - but more than 300,000 of those people live on the doorstep of a transmitter mast that pumps out some of the most high powered radio transmissions in the UK. Consequently, almost all of those 300,000 people or so did not - ever - have to extend an aerial on their trannies (or use one on their hi-fi's) for picking up any radio station that transmitted from Black Hill - not even for Clyde 1 or Scot FM/Real Radio. Sadly for Clan FM, the need to extend an aerial to pick up their piddley powered station was absolutely necessary - but those people working in a posh office in London would not have fully understood that.

1 year, 4 months ago

It seems to me that Indigo in the South Lakes did not read the application rules or speak to Ofcom before putting in their licence application. Dales Radio, on the other hand, clearly put in their application what they wished to do and they were granted their licence based on multiple low-powered FM transmitters covering small towns and an AM transmitter to cover the area between these towns.
Well done Dales Radio and I wish them all the best for their project. It should be noted that a number of their team were previously involved with Stray FM and the Skipton-based Fresh Radio.

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