There was a time when, if you wanted to be on the wireless, you were fairly limited in your options. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a gig on your local BBC or ILR station, it was pretty much a narrow choice between hospital/student radio or – if you wer really lucky – a Restricted Service Licence (RSL); a small scale temporary licence serving a particular community or special event.
All of which changed a few years ago when OFCOM allowed community radio stations to apply for licences for up to four years. Since 1994, the regulator has issued 228 licences, of which 181 are currently broadcasting. So you might think that the sector was in relatively rude health.
Unfortunately that’s not always the case. The latest station that looks like failing is Boundary Sound, a community station for Newark in Nottinghamshire. It’s been found to be in breach of its licence after the service went off the air at the end of June.
It’s something of a shame, but it seems that Boundary Sound received a visit from the bailiffs, suggesting that all was not well with its finances. Yet whatever the individual circumstances, its story is by no means unique.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that OFCOM only allows community stations to generate up to 50% of their income from advertising – the most traditional and direct way of financing a private radio enterprise. In some cases, where commercial competition is fierce, stations aren’t even allowed to do that.
And another factor is where the rest of that funding comes from. When community radio first started, local councils and various arts organisations were rich with finances for social enterprise projects. The reality today is that harsh cuts means there’s no cash for such luxuries as community radio.
OFCOM’s own stance on the situation seems decidedly woolly. In this article from Radio Today the regulator trots out this issue-dodging quote
“The current restriction on advertising income for community radio is that (most) stations can take up to 50% of their annual income from the sale of on-air advertising and sponsorship, a minimum of 25% must come from other sources, and a further 25% can be made up of the value of volunteer input. This 50% limit is enshrined in legislation, and is therefore a matter for Government, rather than Ofcom.”
I’m not quite sure how “the value of volunteer input” can be translated into hard cash – though doubtless the regulator would argue that costs associated with running a full time radio station can be – and should be substantially reduced in the voluntary sector.
But the reality is that broadcasting – via traditional FM means at least – remains an expensive business to run. Yet, interestingly (and maybe ambitiously), OFCOM has already published a timetable for a third round of community radio licences. The first of the regions to be advertised – the South West and Wales – has already attracted a number of interested applicants. How many get to air remains to be seen,