Is it Possible to Develop an Alternative to Community Radio Advertising?

Liverpool Community Radio's Studio

The Problem with Advertising: Community media advocates have for many years been seeking a solution to the funding challenges of running not-for-profit media projects. Funding usually comes from many sources and is often committed to specific projects related to explicit social outcomes – so it has strings attached. Meanwhile, advertising has been repeatedly discussed and examined over the years as a potential source of independent and ongoing funding that could help community media projects, such as community radio stations, solve issues associated with their sustainability. Advertising can help community media projects, so the argument goes, to meet the core costs of running their community-led and social-gain initiatives, while at the same time embedding an economically responsive outlook in their local host communities.

The case for this approach was put forward in the Community Radio Toolkit:

“Audiences and advertisers are more readily accepting content that is closer to the source, local, and linked to the community. What once was thought to be a disadvantage – non-professional content, now becomes another clear advantage for community broadcasters over the more tightly controlled “corporate” commercial radios. Can community broadcasters take advantage of this new paradigm and convert it to value for their business advertisers? If they have an effective sales organization, the answer could be, and should be yes.”

Experience tells us, however, that while community media projects are largely run with the help of volunteers, they continually struggle to apply a consistent business or economic development mindset that is sustainable and practical. For example, balancing the needs and the practices of volunteers is very different from balancing the needs and priorities of advertisers. Community radio, for example, has often been promoted as an alternative socially-focussed and accessible media platform that maintains direct links with local audiences.

However, the business-style approach required to maintain consistent commercial activity can undermine the passion, the individuality and the determination of volunteers who want to get involved and run their own stations, make their own programmes, and share content for their own reasons. The balance that needs to be achieved is between promoting participation in media that meets the needs of the non-professional volunteers, and providing for the security of the project itself.

The perceived advantage of taking regular advertising is usually promoted as a business advantage, but it must be kept in mind that the business advantage we are talking about here is increasingly defined by a narrow set of interests. We live in a time when large-scale, global media operators are increasingly, and somewhat unrelentingly, consolidating their networks and business administration systems in their search for market profitability and shareholder value.

Many people have discussed, over the last few years, the potential for community media groups and community radio stations to take a slice of the overall advertising cake, but few have been able to come up with a workable solution. Periodically there are proposals that are floated to create a national advertising body for community radio stations. This body, it is said, could broker and licence advertisements for playout by community radio stations, who would gain revenue from a pool-system, based on a critical-mass of community radio stations that come together to generate a sizable alternative platform for local and national advertising.

In theory this is a very attractive approach. It could be possible to set this network up if a sufficient number of stations are able to commit themselves to its operation. Furthermore, if it is run by a sufficiently determined and motivated group of people, then it will achieve a level of success that will make it self-sustaining. These people would have to be willing to drive home deals and agreements with businesses who would clearly understand that they will be promoting themselves through a network of independent stations whose principle focus is to drive social benefits to the people who make up a community, rather than the commercia interests of advertisers.

The problem, however, is twofold. Firstly, the pushback against a network of alternative stations from the existing commercial companies would be considerable. We have seen this writ-large with the recent report from the Radiocentre, who argue that any further encroachment of community radio stations onto a more commercial outlook, will be met with considerable disdain and lobbying power.

The power of the commercial media corporations is considerable, and they regard their right to protect and control the radio advertising market as sacred. This might possibly be for good reasons, given the relative expense and complexity of running smaller commercial radio stations. However, this level of control over the marketplace feels somewhat out of place as commercial consolidation and shareholder value is relentlessly pursued.

Faced with the challenge of alternative media access via subscription-based music services, such as Google Play, Apple Radio, Spotify, Amazon Music, the model of advertising-based radio seems somewhat anachronistic.  It might be possible under competition policy, to argue for a break-up of the stranglehold that the major players have on the marketplace for advertising, but this will not be imminent in the foreseeable future, without a considerable political change, and because they can point to the market pressure they face from the tech-giants.

Secondly, the nature of taking advertising itself often challenges and undermines the socially inclusive role of community radio. Commercial radio is efficiently managed because it relies on rigid playout and reporting structures. This means that any editorial content has to be planned and designed in at way is amenable to the perceptions of potential advertisers. So, we get the pervasive adoption, in my view at least, of a sterile creative mindset. The narrow cultural mindset of the commercial radio ethos at its worst, is found in things such as narrow playlists, repetitive competitions, the promotion of local celebrities, charity stunts, and an appearance at street events. Surely this approach has run its course?

In adopting the most-narrow of approaches, as exemplified by some of the most formulaic commercial media programming models, runs the risk of undermining community media’s potential as a creative, innovative and pathfinding process. Community media is a movement of diverse interests. It allows a thousand flowers to bloom. One of the joys of community media is that it is a reflection of the social interests and concerns of the people involved, talking with, and not at the people who they live among. Community media provides an essential grounding for inclusivity and diversity in media practice. If community radio is too rigid, then this essential appeal gets lost.

In reality, and in my experience, the complexity and administrative burden of running an advertising-supported media operation is considerable. Any rigorous system of sales, reporting and accountability, i.e. meeting advertising standards codes, reporting back to advertisers, and ensuring that volunteers are committed to playing messages that they might fundamentally disagree with, is complex, difficult and fraught with challenges. These challenges go way beyond what most community media groups and community radio stations can realistically achieve while they are also focussed on serving their role in social sector.

Social Investment Communications: What, then, is the alternative? I’d like to propose a model of Social Investment Communication in which businesses and sponsors, funders and partners, are able to contribute to the building of a community media organisations capacity and sustainability, primarily for social value purposes. When I spoke with Steve Faragher at Liverpool Community Radio, he used this phrase. Rather than asking local businesses to place spot adverts on the soon to be launched community radio station, Steve suggested that they will be asked to invest in the work of the station. Investment that would promote the social impact goals and aims of Liverpool Community Radio, which will allow the station to build its capability and to enable it to flourish as a community development project.

Rather than carrying adverting per-se, the support that is given to the station through a Social Investment Communication model would be for training, editorial content production and discussion. In return the business or supporting organisation would be acknowledged and thanked for its support for a social project, and could use the programme as a way of demonstrating its corporate and social responsibilities. It might be that a designated Social Investment Communication designation is applied to company reports when they account for their social responsibilities? Could this be recognised by the Office for Civil Society and the Charities Commission? Would it benefit from special designation by the Advertising Standards Authority and Ofcom?

Communication for a social purpose is nothing new. Charities and civic groups have been doing this kind of thing for many years. Asking donors to support projects that increase the capability of the organisation to deliver on its charitable or social-gain objectives has a long history. In the United States this is a much more common practice than it is in the UK. We have some catching-up to do.

It is important to note, however, that there is a tide that community media groups could catch, if they are able and willing, in the form of the Social Value Act and the requirements that are now being placed on business who supply services to local councils and other non-governmental, and governmental organisations, to support local social and civic groups. An obligation is being placed in developers and business to go further than simply designating community amenities. Instead the Social Value Act will require service commissioners and businesses to invest in the life-blood community activities that are vital for the enrichment of our community lives.

The UK government recently launched its Civil Society Strategy, with the aim of identifying “how the government will work to support and to strengthen civil society, without compromising its independence.” The government aims to “build a partnership with charities and social enterprises, with volunteers, community groups and faith groups, with public service mutuals, socially responsible businesses and investors, and with the institutions which bring sports, arts, heritage, and culture to our communities.”

Clearly, there is a strong case for community media organisations to play a role in this process, and to be recognised as a vital contributor to the wellbeing of our civil society. As the government states in its strategy

“Civil society can help us make good on the promise of the 21st century: a more connected society, in which everyone can play their part. Civil society can also help us tackle a range of burning injustices and entrenched social challenges, such as poverty, obesity, mental ill-health, youth disengagement, reoffending, homelessness, isolation, and loneliness, and the challenges of community integration.”

While we might not all agree with changes to social and civic policy, because of their party-political flavour, the broader aim of bringing together civic groups to work with public sector organisations and private sector organisations and businesses, if applied pragmatically, has some positive potential for good.

Community media is the one part of our media landscape that is truly independent. There is no centralised bureaucracy that determines a set of national objectives. There is no single model of how community media should be undertaken. There is no single model to make it pay and make it sustainable. Instead, there are a set of values and ideas that bring people together for the benefit of communities and social groups who are underrepresented and who don’t have access to professionalised and corporate media platforms.

Many socially-minded organisations already work in this area. The Media Trust, Radio Regen, The Community Media Association, Internews, and many others. Each tries to compliment the other, but we are not served by not being included in a national conversation with government about the ongoing challenges of socially-led and participant-based social communication. [Disclosure – I’m a member of the council and an unpaid director of the CMA].

Social Investment Communications, as an alternative model of media engagement, would need to be clearly defined by its social purpose and social value. It would also need to be accountable to the communities that it represents and serves, while also being accountable for its social impact and social gain objectives.

Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication leads on some of these potentially wide-ranging issues. Their philosophy is to acknowledge the “level of effort it takes to create measurable–and sustaining–social impact,” while understanding that the “problems we seek to solve are too complex for one sector to tackle, or one functional area to own.”

The Centre for Social Impact Communication recognises the need to ‘leverage’ the collective power of different socially-minded organisations, whose aims recognise that to achieve “effective social impact” we have to adopt an “adaptable mindset.” This mindset then builds on new collaborative skills to support the process.” It is worth reading at length how this thinking is developed:

“To say that the social impact sector is rapidly evolving is putting it mildly. Despite–or perhaps because of–the large intractable issues our society faces, from global warming to hunger and more, we’re living in a time with an increasing moral conscience. The purpose revolution is here and it’s growing. We’re under no illusions that the world is perfect. Far from it. But there are tremendous hope spots where individuals and the organizations they represent are creating sustainable social impact. People are leading their lives differently with alternative definitions of traditional success. For many of us, money is not a chief motivator nor a creator of fulfilment. We desire to create lives with deeper meaning and purpose, at home and work. It’s no surprise that organizations of every type–not only non-profits and foundations, but also businesses, social enterprises, associations and governments–are reflecting this same trend. After all, organizations are simply groups of people working together toward shared goals.”

The Social Investment Communication model obviously needs to be thought through in much more detail interrogation. I am speculating here and floating only half an idea. But Social Investment Communication could clearly be complementary to the civic engagement aims of both government, businesses and communities.

The principles for its foundation would have to include a detailed integration of any participants social responsibility obligations, i.e. what we put back into communities, and what support we give to those who would otherwise be excluded from playing a role in all forms of media.

The starting point, though, as the Centre for Social Impact Communication points out, is to offer training and education for “socially responsible marketers, communicators, fundraisers and journalists who are dedicated to creating social impact as individuals and within organizations.” Combined with the practical experience of community media advocates and practitioners, and by working across functional media platforms, as well across the social sector, the role of Social impact Communication could be to championing leadership, advocacy, governance and accountability in socially focussed and socially responsible communications, in a creative, and socially inclusive manner.

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