Community Radio is Not Local Radio – Protecting Social Gain and Key Commitments

DCMS has started to consult on the legislative changes that will shape community radio following the passage of the Media Bill which is going through parliament this year. The Media Bill will deregulate commercial radio by freeing it from almost all requirements to produce content in a specific place, in a specific format, that addresses specific social needs outside commercial consideration. There is some limited provision for local news hubs, but the last links of local production and programming are being broken.

With the Bill going through the preliminary stages of examination by MPs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, has now started to speak with representatives of community media about what changes they would like to see in the upcoming secondary legislation. The question that’s being asked, is who are they speaking with, what are they talking about, and who gets to put other points of view into the mix?

Community Radio Deregulation
For many years, there have been a few prominent voices arguing that the restrictions placed on community radio should be lifted. These restrictions define community radio’s unique role as a ‘social gain’ focussed form of broadcasting and community communication. For some, these restrictions are too cumbersome, as they stop stations from engaging in commercial-like activity, and they have been calling for them to be removed.

Any proposals of this kind amounts to a significant upending of the established principles and values associated with community radio. They include removing the cap on income, encouraging stations to rely on advertising to monetise their content, reducing the requirement to provide and report on social gain, and allowing stations to operate as ‘local’ content providers rather than community providers.

These are important changes that need to be addressed in detail, based on full and frank consultation with everyone who will be affected by them across the community media movement, and not just a few people acting in trade associations. As Mary Dowson argued in 2015, when the principles of Key Commitments reporting for community radio was last considered by Ofcom,

“The distinguishing feature of a community radio station is social gain. The community radio legislation, which established a third sector of radio, was specifically brought in to enable the airwaves to be used for social gain. If this is diluted in any way, then there is a real danger that there will be little to distinguish the operation of a community radio from a commercial radio. It’s vital that social gain lies right at the heart of community radio, and this therefore must be specifically reflected in the key commitments of a licence holder.”

Mary’s comments remain prescient, given the deregulation that is being introduced in the Media Bill. For example, as well as commercial deregulation of formants, the Bill also introduces on-demand licencing for all services, including AM, FM, and DAB. Matt Payton of the Radio Centre accepted, when questioned at the DCMS Committee last week, that radio is now entering a post-scarcity age, which means that regulation can be relaxed. As Matt explained

“The focus of the regulations will be principally on the output of the stations, the local news, information, the important local elements that audiences value, rather than the inputs. They will sweep away some of the decades-old rules around format and local production quotas, but there will be an absolutely clear focus from the regulator and in the legislation on the continuance of local news, information and content for audiences.”

Matt went on to say that he believes there will be a mixed ecology in commercial radio,” and that national radio brands that will “retain local news and information content,” while local regional stations will “continue to be based in the community, supporting bands, presenters and providing that content as part of a mixture of public service, community, ultra-local content and commercial, which straddles the two.” The reason for this relaxation of regulation, according to Matt, stems from the shift in technology that means there is more opportunity to broadcast on different platforms and online. As Matt explained,

“I think what has changed as part of this transition in commercial radio over the last 10 or 15 years is that there is no longer a finite number of stations with access to a scarce amount of spectrum providing a full-service radio station, as you referred to, that used to exist in the 1970s and 1980s. That was at a time when there was not all of this competition, when the advertising model was very different, there was no online advertising to compete with, no digital services to compete with and consumer habits were somewhat different.”

Future Proofing Radio
In the future, and if the Media Bill passes into law, it will be possible for radio stations to change their format on request, or to close services on platforms that they no longer think are viable or suitable for their shareholders. Ofcom won’t any longer need to specify a mix of services locally, and they will only have to consider one provider on each local DAB multiplex, for example, to act as a default provider of local news. The rest will be left to the market to sort out. Given the record profitability of the commercial radio sector, it’s certain that the marketing might of the large corporate operators will appeal to different types of consumers and listeners, with their ability to compete against one another in a market defined by tastes and perceived needs.

The question, then, is what will happen to the spare spectrum that is being freed-up, as Global and Bauer turn off their AM transmitters? In theory, other operators and station providers will be able to apply for licences on-demand, using any free spectrum that is available. In addition, switching licence types, with no penalty or delay imposed on stations, will become standard operating practice. Indeed, many community radio stations, who feel that they are limited by the requirement to meet their key commitments, may choose to switch from a community radio licence to a commercial licence. In the future, this will be relatively easy as the process of regulation is relaxed and freed up, and more broadcast capacity becomes available (not to mention the infinite possibility of online content).

The question this provokes, as a result, is why we should continue to regulate community radio and impose limitations on stations that serve specific communities rather than general audiences? We don’t yet know what is being discussed with DCMS, as these conversations have not yet been reported on and entered the public domain. It’s unclear who is being included in these conversations, and on what basis they are happening.

Where is the strong voice for community media and the principles of access that give people from minority communities a fair chance to run their own radio stations, represent themselves and advocate on behalf of their communities? There’s been some confusion in recent times, where community radio has been conflated with local radio. The two are not the same, and the gains that have been achieved in the ability of people from minority communities to develop their own radio platforms is put at risk if this view is allowed to go unchallenged.

Social Gain Principles
It’s worth revisiting the principles of social gain, and how important the key commitments are in protecting media that is produced by people from minority communities. Social gain is a fundamental principle of community radio, as defined by Ofcom. It refers to the benefits that community radio stations provide to their target communities, both on-air and off-air. These benefits can include providing a voice for those not served by other media, increasing the skills and confidence of those involved, and improving community cohesion. Ofcom specifies these principles in the ‘key commitments’ of each community radio station, which include a description of the community to be served, a summary of the character of service, a description of the programme service, social gain objectives, access and participation arrangements, and mechanisms to ensure accountability to the target community.

Community radio stations are required to define their ‘social gain’ activity in their key commitments. This serves as a record of purpose, outlining the station’s aims and objectives, and how it plans to deliver social gain to its target community. This includes how the station will satisfy the four mandatory social gain requirements, and any other social gain objectives of the service. This record of purpose is crucial for ensuring that the station is accountable to its target community and is delivering the benefits it has committed to.

Recently, there have been many calls for changes to the way community radio stations are regulated, with the aim of increasing flexibility and reducing administrative burdens. This includes allowing stations to react more quickly to changing community needs, focusing resources on delivering social gain, and reducing the number of complaints and change requests. However, these changes have also raised concerns about the potential increase in subjectivity and changes in record-keeping and reporting requirements.

Despite these essential principles and requirements, Ofcom no longer anticipates regular reporting by community radio stations that demonstrate that social value or social gain is being achieved. We’ve noted that Ofcom continues to police the key commitments when there are complaints or significant matters are brought to Ofcom’s attention. However, reports from stations about how they meet their key commitments are no longer required to be published by Ofcom. This makes it difficult to understand what is being achieved, what benchmarks can be applied, and what practices are comparable. This lack of reporting makes it almost impossible to assess the impact of community radio stations on an ongoing basis, and to ensure that they are fulfilling their key commitments and delivering the social gain they have promised to their target communities.

The Key Commitments of community radio stations are determined by Ofcom through a process that involves the following steps:

  • Application: When a community radio station applies for a licence, it must provide detailed information about its proposed service. This includes a description of the community it aims to serve, the character of the service, the programme service, social gain objectives, access and participation arrangements, and mechanisms to ensure accountability to the target community.
  • Assessment: Ofcom assesses each application against the criteria set out in the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Community Radio Order 2004 & 2015. This includes the ability of the applicant to maintain the proposed service, the extent to which the proposed service would cater for the tastes and interests of the target community, and the extent to which the service would deliver social gain.
  • Key Commitments: Based on this assessment, Ofcom sets out the Key Commitments for each community radio station. These Key Commitments form part of the station’s licence and set out the character of the service, including details of the programme output, the social gain objectives, and the mechanisms for community access and participation.
  • Monitoring and Enforcement: Once the licence is granted, Ofcom monitors the station’s compliance with its Key Commitments. This can involve reviewing the station’s output, requiring the station to provide regular reports on its activities, and investigating any complaints. If a station fails to comply with its Key Commitments, Ofcom can take enforcement action, which can include imposing a financial penalty or revoking the station’s licence.
  • Changes to Key Commitments: If a community radio station wishes to change its Key Commitments, it must apply to Ofcom for a variation to its licence. Ofcom will assess the proposed changes against the statutory criteria and may reject the changes if they would conflict with the character of the service or the delivery of social gain.

Key Commitments
These factors, when taken together, are meant to ensure that the Key Commitments of each community radio station are tailored to the needs of its target community and that the station is held accountable for delivering the service it has promised. However, community radio stations can deliver social gain in a variety of ways, depending on the needs and characteristics of their target communities. Here are some examples:

  • Providing a Voice for the Community: Community radio stations often serve communities that are underserved by mainstream media. This can include geographic communities in rural or deprived urban areas, or communities of interest such as ethnic minority groups, religious groups, or people with specific hobbies or interests. By providing a platform for these communities to express their views and share their experiences, community radio stations can help to give them a voice and increase their visibility.
  • Promoting Community Cohesion: Community radio stations can help to promote community cohesion by broadcasting content that is relevant to the local community, such as local news, events, and issues. This can help to foster a sense of community identity and belonging, and promote understanding and tolerance among different groups within the community.
  • Providing Education and Training: Many community radio stations provide education and training opportunities for their volunteers and listeners. This can include training in radio production and broadcasting, as well as education on a range of topics such as health, finance, and citizenship. This can help to increase the skills and confidence of individuals and contribute to community development.
  • Promoting Civic Participation and Volunteering: Community radio stations often rely on volunteers to operate, providing opportunities for individuals to get involved in their community and contribute to a local service. This can help to promote civic participation and volunteering, and can provide benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as increased skills, confidence, and social connections.
  • Supporting Local Culture and Music: Community radio stations often play a key role in supporting local culture and music, by broadcasting local artists, promoting local cultural events, and providing a platform for local cultural expression. This can help to promote cultural diversity and creativity within the community.
  • Providing a Platform for Local Services: Community radio stations can provide a platform for local services, such as health services, social services, and local authorities, to reach their target audiences. This can help to increase awareness and uptake of these services, and can provide a valuable source of local information for listeners.

 These are just a few examples of the social gain that community radio stations can deliver. The specific social gain objectives of each station will depend on the needs and characteristics of its target community.

Serving Minority Audiences
Perhaps the most sizable groups of people who benefit from community radio’s requirements for access and participation are people from ethnic-minority communities. While other groups that are defined as protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 gain some benefit from having access to community radio, people from ethnic-minority communities are perhaps the most widespread examples of community radio in actions. Community radio services multiple, and varying communities and groups of people by aiming to offer broadcast services that meet the needs of many communities, including:

  • Providing a platform for discussion and advice: Community radio stations can provide a platform for ethnic minority communities to discuss their concerns, share their experiences, and offer advice to others in the community.
  • Promoting cultural diversity: Community radio stations can promote cultural diversity by broadcasting programs that celebrate the culture, language, and traditions of ethnic minority communities.
  • Empowering local communities: Community radio stations can empower local communities by broadcasting programs that are informative, helpful, and relevant to their needs.
  • Providing employment opportunities and training: Community radio stations can provide employment opportunities, work experience, and training to equip people in the community with transferable skills to enable them to engage with the wider community.
  • Fostering social cohesion: Community radio stations can foster social cohesion by promoting understanding and respect between different communities, and by providing a platform for dialogue and exchange.
  • Addressing issues of local relevance: Community radio stations can address issues of local relevance to ethnic minority communities, such as discrimination, racism, and social exclusion.

Value of Empowerment
Overall, community radio stations can serve ethnic minority communities by providing a voice for their concerns, promoting their culture and interests, and empowering them to engage with the wider community. Community radio in the UK serves the interests of people from ethnic minority communities in several ways, all of which need to be recognised as of absolute value in the discussions about the Community Radio Order. This includes:

  • Representation: Community radio stations often serve specific communities, including ethnic minority communities. These stations provide a platform for these communities to express their views, share their experiences, and hear their languages on air. This representation can help to give these communities a voice and increase their visibility in the media.
  • Cultural Preservation and Promotion: Community radio stations can play a key role in preserving and promoting the cultures of ethnic minority communities. This can include broadcasting music from these cultures, discussing cultural traditions and issues, and celebrating cultural events. This can help to promote cultural diversity and understanding within the wider community.
  • Community Cohesion: By broadcasting content that is relevant to ethnic minority communities, community radio stations can help to foster a sense of community identity and belonging. They can also promote understanding and tolerance between different ethnic groups by providing a platform for intercultural dialogue.
  • Information and Education: Community radio stations can provide valuable information and education for ethnic minority communities. This can include information about local services, health information, legal advice, and education on a range of topics. This can be particularly valuable for communities where English is not the first language, as the information can be provided in their language.
  • Training and Skills Development: Many community radio stations provide training and skills development opportunities for their volunteers. This can provide valuable opportunities for individuals from ethnic minority communities to gain new skills, increase their confidence, and potentially improve their employment prospects.
  • Advocacy: Community radio can serve as a platform for advocacy on issues that are important to ethnic minority communities. This can include raising awareness of discrimination or inequality, promoting social justice, and campaigning for change.

 Value of Equality
In these ways, community radio in the UK can play a vital role in serving the interests of people from ethnic minority communities, promoting diversity and inclusion, and contributing to social cohesion.  Ofcom considers several factors as priorities when it comes to community radio serving people from ethnic minority communities:

  • Diversity of Cultures and Interests: Ofcom recognizes that community radio stations reflect a diverse mix of cultures and interests. They can cater to different areas of interest, such as a particular ethnic group, age group, or interest group. This diversity is seen as a key strength of community radio.
  • Locally-Produced Content: Community radio stations are expected to provide a rich mix of mostly locally produced content. This can include news, information, and discussion relevant to the local community, including ethnic minority communities.
  • Community Benefits: Ofcom sees community radio stations as not just broadcasters, but also as providers of community benefits. This can include training opportunities, community news, and platforms for community discussion. These benefits can be particularly valuable for ethnic minority communities, who may be underserved by the mainstream media.
  • Extension of Coverage and Improvement of Reception: Ofcom has worked to extend the coverage of community radio stations and improve their reception. This means that more people, including those from ethnic minority communities, can access community radio.
  • Volunteer Input: Community radio stations are often run by volunteers, and Ofcom recognizes the value of this volunteer input. Volunteers can bring a wide range of perspectives and experiences to the station, including those of ethnic minority communities.
  • Future Licensing: Ofcom has been working to licence new local digital radio stations using small-scale DAB technology. And while this platform provides some opportunities for community radio stations who serve ethnic minority communities to get established, it’s much more limited in practice than the hyperbole has suggested.

Overcoming Inequality
We need to ensure that we have sustainable and resilient ethnic-minority community radio stations in the UK that can face several key challenges, and address several long-standing forms of discriminations and inequality, including:

  • Lack of diversity in the UK radio industry: Ethnic minorities are significantly underrepresented in the UK radio industry, making up only 6% of staff. This lack of diversity can make it difficult for ethnic-minority community radio stations to recruit staff and volunteers who reflect the diversity of their target communities.
  • Funding and sustainability: Community radio stations in the UK are largely dependent on grants and donations to fund their operations. Ethnic-minority community radio stations may face additional challenges in securing funding and ensuring their long-term sustainability.
  • Audience engagement: Ethnic-minority community radio stations may struggle to engage with their target audiences, particularly if they are serving communities with diverse languages and cultures. This can make it difficult to attract and retain listeners, which can impact the station’s sustainability.
  • Representation and inclusion: Ethnic-minority community radio stations may face challenges in representing and including all members of their target communities, particularly if some groups are marginalized or underrepresented. This can make it difficult to ensure that the station is serving the needs of all members of the community.
  • Regulatory compliance: Community radio stations in the UK are required to comply with a range of regulations, including those related to content, advertising, and community engagement. Ethnic-minority community radio stations may face additional challenges in complying with these regulations, particularly if they are serving communities with diverse languages and cultures.

Platforms for Community Cohesion
Overall, ethnic-minority community radio stations in the UK face several key challenges related to diversity, funding, audience engagement, representation and inclusion, and regulatory compliance. Addressing these challenges will be critical to ensuring that these stations can continue to serve their target communities and deliver social gain. Ethnic-minority community radio stations in the UK are also a vital platform for addressing issues of representation and diversity through their programming in several ways, including:

Providing programming that reflects the diversity of their target communities: Community radio stations can provide programming that reflects the diversity of their target communities, including programming in different languages, music from different cultures, and discussions of issues that are relevant to different groups within the community.

  • Engaging with their target communities: Community radio stations can engage with their target communities to understand their needs and interests, and to ensure that their programming reflects the diversity of the community. This can involve working with community groups, conducting surveys, and soliciting feedback from listeners.
  • Providing training and support to volunteers: Community radio stations can provide training and support to volunteers to ensure that they are equipped to produce programming that reflects the diversity of the community. This can include training in language skills, cultural awareness, and media production.
  • Collaborating with other organizations: Community radio stations can collaborate with other organizations, such as community groups, cultural organizations, and local businesses, to ensure that their programming reflects the diversity of the community. This can involve co-producing programming, sharing resources, and promoting each other’s work.
  • Advocating for diversity in the radio industry: Community radio stations can advocate for greater diversity in the radio industry, including greater representation of ethnic minorities in staffing and programming roles. This can involve working with industry organizations, lobbying policymakers, and raising awareness of the issue among the public.

 Overall, ethnic-minority community radio stations in the UK address issues of representation and diversity in their programming by providing programming that reflects the diversity of their target communities, engaging with their target communities, providing training and support to volunteers, collaborating with other organizations, and advocating for greater diversity in the radio industry.

Voices To Be Heard
Those of us who continue to advocate for community media as an inclusive and accessible, independent form of democratic media, based on human rights and the need to advance social understanding and community cohesion, really need to be asking questions in our representative groups and organisations about what exactly is being planned in the upcoming Community Radio Order:

  • Who is having regular meetings with DCMS to shape what the next Community Radio Order looks like, and where are the records of these conversations in the public domain?
  • What is being lobbied for? As Mary Dowson warns, are we going to be landed with proposals that are suited for commercial radio, but which don’t suit community radio’s needs?
  • Are we going to see endless and ongoing licences, with no oversight to check if stations are delivering for their communities?
  • Will the caps on advertising-based income going to be removed, and what effect will that have on the already fragile minority stations that depend on donations, grants and other forms of non-commercial funding?
  • Will social gain be downgraded? We’ve already seen that C-DSP licences only need to meet ‘some’ social gain, and not the higher standard of ‘significant’ social gain set for analogue community radio stations.
  • How will funder’s be able to verify that any community radio station is delivering social gain and social value if there is no benchmark or quality comparison to evaluate and demonstrate what is being achieved?
  • How will community radio stations be required to ensure that they are meeting the needs of their core community and audience? If they drift away over time, and start to serve audiences that funding dictates, then what happens to the people who are no longer being served?
  • How can we ensure that is if stations can’t any longer serve their original remit, then it’s possible to re-advertise the licence to see if another group can provide that service?
  • If there is ample FM and AM spectrum available, combined with SSDAB, then we can start to think about serving communities across wider geographic areas, and not just as defined in specific places.
  • If the income caps are removed, surely the argument for the community radio fund goes? The community radio fund is there because not all stations can survive by ‘monetising’ their on-air content. Once a community radio station adopts a more commercial approach, much is lost.
  • In the new media bill, “on demand” licensing has been introduced. For these community stations who want to be free from the key commitments and funding restrictions, they will be able to easily convert to a commercial licence that has none of these restrictions.

Clearly, there are many questions and issues that need to be discussed before decisions are confirmed by DCMS on what to put into the Community Radio Order. What is at stake is the whole structure and security that has been built-up to support minority communities, and it appears that this could be lost without so much as a murmur. We need to ensure equality in access to broadcasting and media provision, and the only way to do this is by encouraging open and transparent debate. DCMS can’t keep talking to private trade bodies who are looking after their interests, but must invite other groups into the conversation as well.


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