This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about how community radio is defined by each station’s key commitments, and what this means for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Community radio is ‘access’ radio, and is the only form of regulated media in the UK to have this requirement. How, then, do community radio stations serve specific people in each area, who might be defined by their identity, their place and their interests? What does community radio offer that goes beyond programming for audiences, and instead includes people from their target communities in the making of programmes, the operation of the stations and the governance and management of the stations? How do we ensure that access is meaningful and for the benefit of the communities that are being served?
Community radio is unique in regulated media in the UK because to win a broadcast licence, there has to be a clear commitment to service a specific group of people as a defined community within a specific place. These ‘key commitments’ are what define each community radio stations’ characteristics, both as a broadcast service, and as a volunteer-led service that enables members of the public can take part in running the station.
No other form of media in the UK has this legal requirement to serve audiences through participation as well as representation in programming. This makes community radio unique, given that stations are defined principally by the needs and expectations of the communities they serve, as both listeners and participants. The BBC, for example, rightly has a commitment to employing a diverse workforce, however, there is no guarantee that BBC radio services must be made by people from those communities.
Community radio stations, uniquely it seems, must be able to demonstrate that they are providing opportunities for the people from the target community to get involved with programme making and running the station. Volunteers have to be able to get involved, not just in the making of programmes, but also in the operations, management and governance of the stations. This is an exceptional and often overlooked feature of community radio, which was established in the Everitt Report, that ‘access’ radio is as important for community engagement, development and representation, as producer-led media is.
To qualify for a licence, each community radio station has to specify who the people are that they are intending to service. Ofcom finds this easier to differentiate when the purpose of a community radio station can be expressed as a community of identity or place. It is less easy to a community when this is defined by the interests of that community. So, community radio stations tend to serve a combination of identity, place and some interests, for example music.
An example would be Punjabi-speaking people in a town where there is an interest in news and information about Punjabi related culture. This assumes that people who share social characteristics, also share cultural characteristics, which might not always be the case, and becomes more difficult as age-related experiences are factored into the dynamic of community identity. Ofcom takes the view, however, that it is up to communities to organise and represent themselves, and if they are competent, and there is spectrum available, then they may be licenced to broadcast.
Ofcom doesn’t have a preference as to what community is served, as long as the proposal is to serve an underrepresented audience, and the offer of additional ‘social gain’ for that community is clear. This means that community radio is related to specific social groups, though the emphasis tends to be placed on those groups that have limited representation elsewhere. This maps to the protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010, such as race, religion, disability, and so on. The expectation by Ofcom is that under-represented communities can gain access to broadcasting in a specific place, town or city, with a focus on the needs of that community, and the desire they have to provide their own broadcast services, and make their own broadcast content.
The limiting factor is the availability of clear frequencies in each area. FM frequencies are in high-demand, hence the roll-out of the Small-Scale DAB platforms, which is aiming to provide additional capacity for both community and commercial services where there is high demand. Each area that has been designated to receive these multiplex services will be able to carry between ten and twenty reasonable quality digital stations. More stations can be squeezed on to a multiplex, but that usually lowers the audio quality.
Alternatively, community radio stations are now looking to take advantage of the availability of usable frequencies on the AM frequencies. Recently, AM has become less constrained, as the large international broadcasters shut down their services. In the UK, Absolute Radio closed down its 1215 service only last week. Community radio has been confined in the past by the relative scarcity of broadcast frequencies, though with the shift in the availability of additional spectrum, it means that communities can anticipate using the additional space that is being freed up.
What this potentially means, then, is that more community radio stations can come online and start to broadcast. There is still a perceived benefit for many communities to being licenced by Ofcom, as a form of state approval that the radio services that are being provided are trustworthy and viable. There has been a huge increase in the number of online radio stations recently, with many younger media makers setting up outside the broadcast radio networks. This enabled them to focus on community identities that are not covered in mainstream media, and to open-up opportunities for people to get involved who would not want to be part of the BBC, Bauer or Global media conglomerates.
The question of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, isn’t just about ticking boxes, it’s also about doing things in ways that are different. Providing safe and trusted spaces for people to come together and make media doesn’t work in the same way and for the same reasons that professional or commercial media works. The commitment of community radio to be different, and do things in different ways, is essential to making sure that there is a range of voices taking part in our media. It’s no good trying to replicate what is already done in the mainstream media industries, though, things have to be done in different ways so that people feel valued and trusted for their contributions and their creativity. This is why community radio is exciting because it’s about people coming together to represent themselves in many ways to promote the sharing of different experiences and stories.