At this unprecedented time, as the coronavirus challenges our established routines, and our grip on day-to-day life seems fragile, it’s essential that we have a trustworthy and responsible media that can provide news, information and allow public discussion across multiple platforms.
The job of the BBC as the national broadcaster is clear. The BBC must provide people, across the whole of the British Isles, and from every walk of life, with a universal media service that is accessible, accurate and up to date. The BBC is obliged to provide a universal service that is based on well-informed and legitimate sources. The BBC also has a role to play in holding those in power to account for the measures that are being taken by government and public authorities. The BBC has to ask the questions that the public might not be able to ask for themselves. Only the BBC can play this role at this time, because only the BBC has the infrastructure, and the expertise, to make it happen.
The job of commercial media is slightly different. Commercial media is designed to serve people in alternative ways, by keeping people entertained. There is a chance, it is hoped, that we can keep people well-informed if we also keep them amused. The commercial approach isn’t driven by a universal idea of public service and national identity, like the BBC. Instead, it is driven by commercial efficiencies and profitability. But it can make programming that is entertaining, accessible and engaging, and thereby help to keep more people informed, no matter how gloomy the outlook feels.
There is another tier of media, however, which is often neglected, and that is community media. However, the role of community media isn’t so clear cut. Indeed, community media tends to be the orphan sector of the media economy in the UK. But while community media is different, it is no less important.
Lacking the resources of the major broadcast and news corporations, community media might, at first glance, be judged to be irrelevant to the alleviation of our present problems. This would be an unfortunate error and a missed opportunity. If we are to provide extra depth to the media support that people will need in coming months, we need to invest in our community media services.
Community radio, for example, has the potential to play a vital role in helping people adjust to the extreme social circumstances we face. Community radio can do this by facilitating and empowering different voices from across our communities. If you hear someone you can relate to, who can share their experiences of coping with their anxieties, but is a person who shares similar life experiences to you, or talks in a language similar to you, and with voice that is recognisable to you, then community radio has a powerful role to play in bringing people together.
Community radio can add an additional dimension of emotional intelligence that other media organisations can’t. For example, most community radio stations are limited to a specific, local catchment area. This can be a town, a city, part of a city, a county, or even a neighbourhood. The volunteers who offer their services to keep community radio stations running are usually based in those neighbourhoods. They know their communities. They speak their languages. They know the characters and the idiosyncrasies of what it means to belong to each specific local place.
As we mobilise civic and community organisations across the whole of the social sector, to help provide an additional layer of support to the public services and government provision, we shouldn’t forget that community media is part of the civic and community infrastructure. Community radio stations can facilitate and support local information. They can host and share conversations and discussions about the experiences of people in each place, directly addressing and listening to the people who feel they belong to that place and their concerns.
The problem, however, is that there has been little investment in the processes that supports and helps community radio stations coordinate their activities, both locally and nationally. The level of funding for community radio in the UK is derisory. Stations compete for tiny scraps of support from a patchwork of different funding organisations. Each requiring a different set of measurement and evaluation criteria. You can get funding for employability training, but you can’t use it to pay for heating and lighting your studios.
What we need, then, are some quick actions that can help coordinate and support community radio stations across the country. We need community media groups to be brought into the existing local and national networks and the conversations that are taking place with other civic and community support agencies.
We need a national organisation that can facilitate and manage the civic and social communications process, and link established networks of community, civic and charity groups with the networks of community media services that are already in place.
We need information and advice to be given to community media groups by government, public authorities and major charities, so that they feel part of an established network of collaborative, civic and community partners. Information is being produced by government departments to facilitate civic contingencies, but how much of this is directed towards community media organisations?
Community media groups also need information and editorial content. Community radio was shut out of the BBC Local News Partnership because of self-defined quality thresholds imposed by the BBC and the commercial news organisations. At a time like this, community radio needs access to these editorial resources, so they can inform programme making, discussion and information delivery.
There also needs to be an immediate allocation of funds given to each community radio station. This can be done as a one-off stipend lasting for the next two years. It would allow each community radio station to immediately employ a station manager and a content producer, and would allow them to speed-up, check and maintain a voluntary service that is relevant to the needs of the local communities they serve.
Ofcom and the DCMS also need to take the reins of a campaign to introduce the public and public bodies to community radio and other community media services. If they have the public endorsement of the national regulator, this would go a long way to opening more doors for them.
Community radio stations broadcast with a licence from Ofcom. They are obliged to follow the Broadcast Code in the same way that the BBC and the commercial stations do. This needs to be recognised and championed. The credibility that would be lent to community radio if Ofcom and DCMS publicly supported and promoted their work, would be transformational. If Ofcom and the DCMS take the lead in backing community radio, other public bodies will follow suit.
We also need people to get behind their local community media groups, whatever their format, and whoever they may have been supported by in the past. Many people want to see reform of our national media, but too often reform minded activists won’t roll their sleeves up. We need people with media experience and skills to help train people to make their own media. It’s said a lot, but if you want better media, you have to make it yourself.
The alternative is that we leave people to fend for themselves, to search Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and to deal with fake news, clickbait and the inevitable expression of mass-indignation that will warp and twist the stories we are being told. This is a time for social solidarity, but it needs government, both local and national, to make it happen. We need public bodies, both small and large, we need commercial companies and charities, both local and national, to help secure a path for community media to play its role. We need to show how local media content, made by people in their own communities, for their own communities, can add an extra dimension to our understanding of the changed world we are now living in.