On Saturday 19th November, I’m attending the UK Community Radio Network conference in Bedford. I’ve agreed to speak briefly about the proposals to deregulate community radio in the UK that have been floating about. Deregulation has been mooted in the conversations led by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport, as they plan the next round of broadcasting legislation.
It’s been suggested that the restrictions that are designed to protect community radio might be removed or watered down to introduce greater flexibility for community-focussed radio stations to operate more freely. I’m somewhat sceptical about this proposal because I’m not sure what the motivation is, and how it will affect community broadcasters who would never survive in the commercial marketplace.
Many community radio stations are set up and run because they serve a need that the market can’t provide in the first place. Either they serve people in a specific place, or people who have a specific identity, or recognise a specific interest that they are connected and bound to others through. As there are already routes freely available for establishing commercial services that aren’t bound by any protections, then it seems odd to me that deregulation is needed at all.
As analogue radio in the UK is regarded as a limited resource, broadcast radio is still controlled by the government, via Ofcom. The introduction of DAB radio has expanded capacity moderately, but the availability of the internet has grown access to radio content exponentially. It’s now possible to stream many more radio services from around the world, and to follow music tastes and topics that we don’t otherwise have access to here in the UK.
As large-scale broadcasters come off the Medium Wave frequencies, with the BBC planning to close BBC Radio Five Live from 2025 and shift the service to DAB only, much more AM spectrum is being freed up. The same may happen to FM, as national and regional services are moved to DAB, and the FM services provided by the BBC and the commercial networks are focussed around themes, brands and personalities.
The shift over to DAB really has the potential to open more space for genuinely local commercial and community services because the spectrum will no longer be scarce or so valuable. With competition from global media companies like Apple, YouTube and Spotify, many of the commercial radio services have consolidated their local radio services to follow a network and brand-led approach. The BBC is caught up in this as well, with the recent announcement that they are consolidating BBC Local Radio stations output in England.
The direction of travel is clear. There is less support for local provision. I’m staggered that Ofcom have not pushed back against this, and while the BBC certainly deserves to be interrogated for its lack of consultation and detail in its proposals for local radio, so do the commercial companies like Bauer and Global, who have been effectively given a free-pass to consolidate without any concern for the needs of local communities and places.
All of this is particularly confounding as the direction of travel for government policy has been to ‘level-up’ by trying to ensure that ‘left-behind’ places are provided opportunities to renew both their economies and their cultural identities. Levelling up, when it comes to media, such as the provision of independent local news or radio services, hasn’t been included in the discussion about the rebalancing of power and resources that is called for by most politicians of all political parties these days.
The media consolidation process, it seems, has become a fait accompli, as an inevitable result of the globalisation process for media, communications and information platforms. I don’t know why this is, but I suspect that the obvious reasons are the most accurate reasons. Political will, electoral advantage, and a lack of understanding of the alternatives. When the government is listening to the tech-giants and the media institutions, rather than citizens and consumers, then they will inevitably get a biased view of the role of local media and the provision of services that keep people informed.
Markets work in different ways, however, but we’ve suffered over many decades in the UK from the mythological conflation between the supremacy of global markets over the needs of local markets. Perhaps we are starting to see a pull-away from this mindset in other parts of the economy, and economic and cultural nationalism are not good outcomes if this process goes down the dark path towards chauvinism and isolation. Post-pandemic, we are seeing the repatriation of some parts of the global economy, but we aren’t seeing this in relation to local media yet.
Let me get to the point, then, and illustrate the conundrum in as simple a way as possible. To provide locally relevant media services, a newspaper or radio station has to invest in having people available who can produce and develop content at an acceptable standard. These people must have a place to work, and they require studios and editorial facilities that enable them to shape their content in a form that listeners or readers can engage with.
Whatever model of local media you want to set up, local infrastructure is the expensive stumbling block. Print newspapers have dealt with this by consolidating production and changing the editorial model, so there are fewer beat-reporters, and more desk-bound curators of press releases and online, social media inspired stories. Photos are taken from CCTV feeds and Google Earth, as newspapers don’t employ dedicated photographers and reporters on the ground any more.
Commercial radio has followed a similar consolidation path. With programmes produced in regional or national hubs, and networked together with separate jingles and adverts passing them off as being locally relevant, with only a handful of locally based presenters. Commercial radio now focuses on creating, in my view, a slick but otherwise generic offering.
Anyone listening to commercial radio will hear that there is plenty of high-level branding, plenty of celebrity personalities, but very little place-based content any more. Indeed, there seems to be a growing trend to try to pass-off network stations as local stations. Why this doesn’t get challenged by the regulator is a concern, yet Ofcom seem to think that notice-board type information, such as traffic reports and weather reports, is sufficient for a network station to successfully define their services as local.
Community radio, however, has dealt with these problems differently. Principally by inspiring volunteers to give up their time, expertise and energy to create, produce and share radio programmes of many different types for free. There is no single model for community radio, as programming needs are different in each place, and for each group of people who establish them.
The tastes, interests and cultural identities of the volunteers who get involved in community radio must be recognised as divergent in scope and practice; whereas the industrialised forms of media, such as the BBC and the commercial conglomerates, are convergent in scope. Community radio, therefore, does a number of essential things which are alien to the development of large-scale, industrial media providers, and it is these things that deregulation of community radio risks destabilising.
First, community radio provides access for members of the target community to take part both in the production of programmes and the running of each station. If someone can show me where the BBC does this, or any of the commercial providers, I’ll be pleased to see it, and note it as an exception, whereas for community radio it is the rule.
Putting this non-negotiable principle of access in context, consider who gets involved with community radio? Often it is people from non-traditional (in media terms) backgrounds. Ofcom points out in its media diversity report that many social groups are underrepresented in the media and broadcast industries. They don’t include community media in this reporting, so we have no idea of what the true picture would be if community radio was adequately represented. The next time you visit or get involved with a community radio station, take a look around the room. It won’t be perfect, but it will be different.
Crucially, one myth that needs to be dispelled, is the idea that community radio is there as a ‘talent-pool’ for the bigger broadcasters to foster and find new people to replenish their ranks. Most people I know who volunteer for community radio have no intention of seeking jobs with the BBC or Netflix. I’m not saying that’s true for everyone, but the majority of volunteers I’ve met and worked with already have jobs, as nurses, plasterers, or IT engineers, or are retired, so they are not concerned with the jobs market.
Yes, community radio is a way of gaining valuable experience that is great for work experience and building a CV, and there are some excellent stations that do training for younger people, so they can advance in the jobs market. Community radio stations, however, are generally set up to serve a variety of different needs, many of which are tied with a defined set of social gain principles that each community radio station must provide. Social cohesion, community representation, understanding, dialogue, debate, creative expression, shared heritage, and more.
As the second non-negotiable element of community radio, then, any watering down of the social gain principles used to hold community radio stations to account would be a mistake. Media can have many purposes, but community media has a specific purpose, which is self-representation, allowing people to serve their own interests and concerns, rather than having media that purports to do that for them.
Furthermore, the social gain principles are a vital indication that a community radio station does more than serve a few self-selecting people. Perhaps these people have good intentions, but they may only want to run their station as a private club. I’m concerned that if the requirements for access and inclusive involvement are diluted, then many community stations will lose their essential link with their communities, and will resort to providing media for people, and not by them. How quickly would we see a commercial-style takeover, perhaps by stealth, if we drop these requirements?
There are plenty of media services that people can choose where they get a specific service they want. Can we get involved in being part of those media services? Most often, the market will provide us with something other people think we want, but which we’ve had no meaningful say in defining? The BBC’s consultation about the consolidation of their local radio services for England has been non-existent. Community media has to work to a different accountability standard. A standard that is participative, open and democratic, and which is guaranteed to be locally based.
Finally, the level of distrust of our media generally, is partly because people with non-traditional voices are simply not being heard. To get onto a BBC programme, there are gatekeeping producers who control and determine what can be said and by whom. In an age of democratic media pluralism, this legacy mindset is being challenged by social media. The problem is that the social media platforms are even less accountable, and they actively target conflict and indignation in their algorithms to get people to click on their content, subscribe or watch adverts. This isn’t healthy.
We need an alternative approach. We need to invest in effective trusted local media institutions that can counter misinformation, not because it is vetted and filtered by distant committees and regulators, but because local people have access to, and control over, the content that they create and share. The Ofcom Broadcast Code is an example of intelligent and universal regulation that keeps every media organisation playing by the same rules. The public can expect a level of honesty and integrity from broadcasters because of the Broadcast Code.
What would reinforce this, moreover, is if people also can interact with the people who make this media because they know them because they use the same buses, GP’s, schools and shops. Accountability has to start from the bottom-up, which makes community media ever more essential in a world of misinformation, clictivism and public relations bias. If we aren’t able to tell and share our own stories, then people will have to try to find their way through additional layers of unrepresentative and distorting misinformation. Putting accountable and trusted media into the hands of the people in every local community would have a massive impact, in the same way that the devolution of power and political control would have if we ever got around to actually doing so in this country.
I’ve got three points to offer to the MPs who will be discussing the changes to BBC local radio in England. This should be seen as a further and unwelcome move down the slippery slope of laissez-faire economics, with a corresponding disregard for the social fabric of our communities, which would be anti-democratic. It would also be a missed opportunity to give local and community media a vital purpose to really level-up left-behind communities.
Finally, it would ensure that thousands of different voices are heard, not just those who go down a professional-media path, but more people with actual and real life experience – the good and the bad – who would be able to engage fellow citizens because they know that they care about where they belong, what they long for, and who they aspire to be.
Regulation of community radio should be smart, well-informed, open, dynamic and trusted because it is open and relevant to local needs. Turn away from these principles, and communities stop engaging and trusting those who are committed to building strong, independent, community-focused local media platforms.