Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 278 - 299)



  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming to see us this morning. I do not believe there is sufficient public discussion about the relevance of radio and yet it impinges upon many, many millions of people. What we are trying to do today, I hope, will contribute to public knowledge, as well as enabling us to question you with great intensity and asperity. Mrs Organ.

Mrs Organ

  278. Thank you. As the Chairman has said, I too have really a very strong feeling about community radio. I have an organisation in my constituency that has been struggling for over five years now. They started off, called Cinderford FM, trying to work with a 28-day licence, going round the market towns, and they are exasperated that they cannot have a niche for the community. You suggest funding for access radio is either from the commercial sector or from the BBC licence fee. It was suggested from the Radio Authority that community radio might go into partnership with commercial companies, but they do not really want to do that because the commercial companies want to gobble them up and do their thing, do they not? I mean, where do you think the funding is going to come from? I cannot really see it coming from either. Do you have any suggestions about where funding could be for this very important area?
  (Mr Buckley) Yes. Funding is a key issue for the development of community radio. Our view, first of all, is that there needs to be a clear definition within public policy that supports the development of community radio. That then needs to be underpinned by a model which will ensure its economic viability. In practice, we believe that funding can come from a variety of sources, and that should include advertising and sponsorship. We do not think there should be substantial restrictions on that. On the other hand, we do not believe that the sector should be allowed to become an advertisement maximising sector, in which programming is driven by that element. We have experience from existing community radio groups, even those operating, like Cinderford FM, on these 28-day licences, of their ability to raise significant sums of money from their own community, from local activities, from local fundraising and funding schemes and not just from the sale of advertising and sponsorship on the air. They also demonstrate the ability to do an extraordinary amount of good quality programming on very, very low budgets. This is really a key element of the economics of community broadcasting: there is a huge amount of volunteer input, community contributions, in-kind support that really enable it to happen. That said, we would like to see a community media fund established and we have made suggestions that that could come either from the commercial sector, from part of the BBC licence fee money or from a grant from the Treasury.

  279. I wonder if we could explore that because you are mentioning the ability of local community radio to get local funds. Often, in order for them to be so successful, they are in, shall we say, more marginalised areas. This idea that they can raise the funds themselves and be some sort of self-supporting charity, I think, if they are going to do it properly and professionally, is not possible. Do you think that the commercial sector will say, "Hang on a minute, we are in the business of providing our radio, why should we have levies raised on us to fund what effectively is going to be a competitor?" As you have said, from the quality people can get from community radio, it is often a very strong competitor. It is probably the poor quality pop commercial radio which is the only other alternative.
  (Mr Buckley) I think it is reasonable to anticipate reaction against the commercial radio sector funding it. One of the questions is whether there should be any restrictions or not on the commercial revenue to the community radio sector in terms of advertising and sponsorship. If there are some constraints on that, then it would be reasonable for a quid pro quo to be some percentage of the revenue of the commercial sector to go into community radio. That is not the only model that we would suggest. There are other ways of looking at this and we would not be surprised if the commercial radio sector was opposed to such an approach. However, such an approach has worked extremely well in France and the commercial radio sector has grown to live with it.

  280. And love it?
  (Mr Buckley) Live with it.

  281. OK. You argue that there should be permanent licences for community radio. I have to say I heartily agree with that. This chomping around for little bits and pieces to try to make community radio work is a nonsense; we should have been freeing that up. But you have talked about it being for "recognisable neighbourhood and community" and this is where we get into quite a difficult area, do we not? For instance, the area that is covered in my constituency, a rural area, the Forest of Dean, with a population of 80,000. There are arguments that there should be dozens of community radios within the metropolitan area of London serving 11 million people. I wonder if you could talk about how they would differ in size and would you have different criteria for different kinds of community radio in different locations serving different groups?
  (Mr Buckley) I think that "editorially recognisable" is not too difficult to identify. It is certainly more local than existing BBC stations and most existing commercial radio stations. Probably the nearest equivalent is the coverage area of local newspapers which are distinctly more localised and there are distinctly greater numbers of them than there are radio at the moment. In the rural areas of course it could cover quite a wide area and, indeed, its viability might well depend on covering quite a wide area because of the dispersal of population, whereas in a built-up urban area you might see small neighbourhoods having their own community radio stations and indeed if frequencies can be identified—and we believe they are still there—then even in London there could be dozens, yes.

  282. The situation that we have now is at best you could call it confusing and at worst wholly inappropriate and it does not serve the community. Do you think it is appropriate for the Radio Authority to begin developing their "Access Radio" when it is not clear what is going happen or what Government decisions are in this area, so it leaves everyone in a state of confusion about the future?
  (Ms Dowson) Yes, I think it is appropriate for the Radio Authority to be developing this. We already have a thriving sector which is struggling, as you mentioned, with the 28-day licences which we maximise to the greatest capacity we can to get community broadcasting on the air. We do feel that there is a real interest and commitment throughout the country to community broadcasting. It is happening in Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham, the Forest of Dean. It is happening all over the country with a very, very limited system. We need the full-time licences and we really need to have some sort of pilot experiment that happens pre-legislation so that we can test these things out. There are a lot of areas that we need to work through. We are doing something which has never been done in Britain before but has been done in many, many other countries across the world. We do need that opportunity to push forward and work our way through.

  283. We are not exactly leading the field here, are we?
  (Ms Dowson) Certainly not.

  284. We are definitely "Johnny-come-latelys" in this. In other areas in digital and everything else we are absolutely leading the way but we do not seem to have got it together with community radio. I wonder if you could give us a view about the cost at the moment for community radio stations to have access and to get a licence, and whether you feel there should be differential rates set against meeting certain targets and certain "must carry" rules?
  (Ms Dowson) There has to be a third sector. There has to be a completely different sector for community radio which is ring-fenced and protected. The licences must be for non-profit distributing groups, meeting certain criteria which are agreed and defined, and by groups that cannot be taken over by commercial predators. We all know that happens in many, many situations when people set off with good intentions and then the commercial pressures take over and they find themselves down a route they never intended to go. We would want to make sure that those licences were ring-fenced and that that could not happen so that if a group was not able to make a licence work it would go back to being up for grabs, and somebody else could make that community licence work.

  285. So there have to be very clear dividing lines between the operation of a community radio and small-scale commercial radio, particularly if we are advocating the use of additional financial support for community radio by local sponsorship or local advertising. How are we going to do that because it gets fuzzy between somebody that is just interested in putting out community radio and ending up doing 24-hour rap music saying, "That is what my community really wants to hear."
  (Mr Buckley) I think the distinction is quite clear. It is one about making a structural definition of community radio. The Radio Authority have proposed that access radio stations should be de facto and de jure non-profit distributing and we agree completely with that. Provided that definition is written into the licensing framework so that it is clearly organisations whose fundamental purpose is for community objectives and public service at the local level, then we believe that appropriate programming and appropriate behaviour will follow.

  286. How do you feel the White Paper has dealt with the sector?
  (Mr Buckley) It could have gone further. We are very pleased that it has opened the debate. It has certainly indicated a strong interest from Government to move forward on this, but we would like to see that firmed up now into a clear regulatory framework which recognises the community media sector, not just radio, and establishes a sound base on which it can proceed.

Derek Wyatt

  287. Good morning. Congratulations on the work that you do. I wish you well because I think what you do is fantastic. I have an anorak person called Bernard Bibby who drives me quietly mad in my constituency because we do not have the right space on the bandwidths for commercial radio stations. Whilst we have Invicta FM and Radio Kent, what we would like is a not-for-profit community radio and that is what I would like. We cannot find the funding. You mentioned this in your evidence to us. Do you not think the simplest way is for OFCOM to take ten per cent of the licence fee and for public service people to be able to bid to OFCOM, so that you would not get the ten per cent but you might get one per cent or two per cent so that OFCOM can properly look after the public sector which the BBC does not look after?
  (Mr Buckley) We would be delighted if the Government could establish a straightforward formula that established a fund that would support the sector. Whether that is a proportion of the licence fee or a proportion of the licence fees paid back to the Treasury by the commercial radio sector, or perhaps a proportion of the spectrum auction fees, one way or another we believe a formula needs to be found that establishes a reasonably sized community media fund that will exist to underpin this sector.

  288. The bandwidth that you need and the costs you need, can you just tell us—I know it is impossible, it is like the length of a piece of string—how much does a community radio station 12 hours a day cost? Can you give us some idea?
  (Mr Buckley) In operating costs they do vary enormously from stations that can be turning over as little as £30,000 or £40,000 a year to ones which are turning over nearly ten times as much as that. There is quite a wide variation depending on the size of their operation, how many hours a day they are broadcasting, the size of the community they are broadcasting to, and so on. They are all operating at a relatively small level where the biggest input is the volunteer contribution and support. One would anticipate that the future turnover of a substantial community radio sector in the United Kingdom is still unlikely to be more than one per cent of the turnover of the commercial radio industry.

  289. Are any community radio stations based in secondary schools where they have very good online facilities and very good studios? I am struggling myself to see how I can do this in my community. Where does it work?
  (Mr Korbel) The current legislation allows for low power and medium wave stations in educational establishments. In Manchester, Whalley Range High School—

  Chairman: In my constituency.

Derek Wyatt

  290. Naturally, Chairman!
  (Mr Korbel) —has the first such school station, but it is constrained by current regulation to not recognise the audience outside of the school fence and it is strictly a school radio station, it is not a community station.

  291. You cannot stop the waves moving.
  (Mr Korbel) No the pick-up is huge, but the content—and I believe the Radio Authority have been quite firm on this—is strictly about the school and school affairs. They are doing a great job. It is a wonderful station.

  292. Perhaps we could visit them, Chairman. That was the point we were discussing in my constituency last week that whilst the schools would like to connect to each other and since they have got the equipment, it would be rather nice when they close at four o'clock to do a community radio in the evening. I did not realise there were those problems.
  (Mr Korbel) There is another school in the Chairman's constituency, Cedar Mount, who are bidding for a traditional RSL—

  293. RSL being?
  (Mr Korbel) Restricted service licence, excuse the acronym, but they will be able to do a community station from there and as a development organisation Radio Regen can work with them to develop their community output.

  294. That is very interesting. So if we do not do anything you are going to struggle basically if we carry on as we are? You are the poorest of the poor in this spectrum we have in communication?
  (Mr Korbel) To refer back to Diana's point, it (ie community radio) is fundamentally different in content and creation. This is made by members of the community and the organisations that exist to serve the community, no more, no less. Unlike either the BBC or commercial stations there is no self-interest there.


  295. Just following on from that, I had a mild difference of opinion earlier on with Mr Wyatt when he referred to Classic FM as a "public service", but there is no doubt that what you are doing is a public service and you are not in it for the money, you are in it to provide the service. While there can be arguments, say, with Lord Bragg's proposal that there should be a fund out of the licence for funding alleged or self-described public service programmes on commercial television, it does seem to me that there is a very, very strong argument, as Mr Wyatt has said, for some of the licence money to go to ventures such as yours, particularly since whereas with the BBC and indeed most other broadcasters (however worthy the content may be) it is from the top down, people are being talked at—and the development of the mobile phone shows there is an almost inexhaustible propensity among human beings to communicate rather than to be communicated at—and what you are doing is enabling communities to speak. Mr Korbel knows that in Longsight, for example, where he has been operating, we had a very, very deprived community which is finding itself in large numbers of ways and what Mr Korbel is doing is helping that community to find itself. So one is knocking at an open door when saying that there are strong arguments for ventures like yours getting a share of the licence. How can we structure that do you think? I read your memorandum. How can we do that in a way that will enable the Government to do it? Do you think that rather than taking it out of the licence it is a good bet for the Lottery? Do you believe that the licence is the best source for that?
  (Mr Korbel) I think what is necessary is a stable, dedicated fund, whether the source of that is brought through the Treasury, from the licence auctions, or indeed through the Lottery. Looking at our funding we can fit the Lottery Charities Board community involvement criteria very, very well. We can get into that. But that is only three years and, clump, that is it, and we will be bidding into that. Similarly, for the European funding for which we qualify and in which we have been very successful in bidding, again it is limited and it is almost as if we have to present ourselves as vocational training or social intervention.[1] As you say, especially in terms of neighbourhood renewal and tying that into the recent announcements around neighbourhood renewal, the call there is very, very strong for a dedicated fund.

  (Mr Buckley) The key thing for us is that it should come from a new source rather than existing sources like the Lottery. Our sector does apply for and successfully gain funds from a wide range of existing public funding sources, but what we are looking for is a strategic underpinning of a sector that recognises its fundamental core objectives, and that should come from a new fund which could be a proportion of the licence fee or some other source which the Government might identify and that should be administered in a way which is at arm's length from regulation or from any of the existing broadcasters.

Mr Fearn

  296. Could I follow on, Mr Chairman, to what Mr Korbel was saying. It is interesting to hear about the schools but in your submission, you make quite a thing of it really, you highlight the benefits of community radio in deprived areas.
  (Mr Korbel) Very much.

  297. For a reason no doubt. But should priority be given to deprived areas or should indeed it be throughout the whole country as the Community Media Association would say?
  (Mr Korbel) I think in an ideal word access and creation of a nationwide sector would be fantastic, there is no reason against it, but if there are scarce resources (I am really talking about money there) we should be looking at priority for neighbourhood renewal where there is most need, where a community does not have the wherewithal or the self-esteem to give itself a voice. It is a view of Radio Regen not of the Community Media Association, but it is from need. It is as simple as that. We have seen it work. The amount of people that have moved on even with the temporary licences we have achieved thus far can be multiplied hugely through full-time licences.

  298. It is a big shout together to say these areas need it and need it quickly?
  (Mr Korbel) Very much and thus we push for no delay in at least piloting and quantifying the benefits. With temporary licences we can only scrape the surface and show certain benefits but to have a long licence with full, accredited evaluation from an independent body that can be done and we can proceed with that, it is my understanding, through the current temporary licence legislation.
  (Mr Blissett) Many so-called deprived areas have large Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. In terms of mainstream broadcasting, commercial stations and the BBC do not cater adequately for these communities and what community radio would do is give these communities a voice. For example, I am from Birmingham and we did have a so-called black station some time ago, Choice Birmingham, which did not really provide a black service, the black service was a fringe service which was provided during off-peak hours. Choice was taken over by the Chrysalis Group, they were bought out. The crazy thing is they were set up for about a quarter of million pounds and less than four years later they were sold for £6 million. That is a commercial station gobbling up what might have turned out to be a good black station in Birmingham. I think in terms of arts culture, in terms of music (I speak in terms of the Caribbean community) they made quite a massive contribution in terms of the culture of the country but in terms of broadcasting there is no reciprocal arrangement in terms of what we get and as a result you find that like the commercial stations or the predecessors to the commercial stations currently a lot of the kids have become pirates. We did an application against Choice FM in 1994 for the local licence and we would have made a community station in Birmingham had we got the licence because we were not driven by financial reward, we were driven by the fact that we needed to enable the community. When we carried out our market research we found that in Birmingham the listenership to pirate radio was equal to that of the commercial radio stations, if you took it in the round. I think what community radio is doing and should do is revolutionising broadcasting to some extent, in a way very similar to what the pirates on the North Sea did with commercial radio because had it not been for those guys there possibly would not be any commercial radio broadcasting. We feel that large sectors of the community were totally missing out in terms of radio. One of the other benefits that community radio derives, apart from the cultural input, the speech, the diversity that community radio brings to radio, is we also bring new skills into radio. We do training in Birmingham and in about 1995 we trained up some people who went to work for one of the local commercial stations which was just set up. There was nobody on the station who could do things like digital editing or use a Marantz to go out and carry out an interview because these people in commercial stations were used to using the desk but not being trained in terms of some of the other technical aspects. One of the things community radio does also is it brings into the commercial sector and the BBC sector new skills because when we do a broadcast we do not talk in terms of six, seven, eight people in the station all being the main presenters. You are talking about 50 or 60 people being involved in radio. So community radio has brought radio, like some of the modern digital technology has brought technology to everybody, everybody has access to technology, most people edit films, most people can do lots of things. What community radio has also done is it has brought radio to people.

  299. Can I ask why your bid for Choice failed? Was it because of commercial reasons or resources? Who turned it down?
  (Mr Blissett) We have moved on from there, I think.

1   Note by Witness: My point is that there is no stable, long-term funding for community radio on its own merits. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 23 February 2001