Community Media Zoom Drop-In – Deregulating Community Radio?

Originally published at:

This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about the future of community radio broadcasting here in the UK. The government is consulting on its broadcasting bill, which will change the way that community radio fits in the broadcasting ecology, and if the talk of deregulation is to be believed, then the prospect of maintaining a sustainable community-based broadcasting approach is at risk.

This week is an open session. Sign up via Eventbrite, and join the conversation 6-8pm on Thursday 28th July.

Join us for our regular discussion by signing up on Patreon for as little as £2.50 per month.

Consultations are taking place between national broadcast organisation and the Department for Media Culture and Sport, about what will be in the promised Broadcasting Bill 2023. Based on the White Paper that was published in April 2022, Up Next, and founded on Digital Audio Review of 2021. These conversations are at an advanced stage, and are aimed at setting the scope and scale of the legislation that will change UK broadcasting for a generation.

A number of issues are being considered that will significantly impact Community Radio as an independent tier of broadcasting in the UK, especially stations that deliver social gain-based services for people with protected social characteristics, such as serving minority audiences, offering access and participation for people from minority communities, and ensuring that the forms of media we have across the UK are democratic, pluralistic, and have a significant level of independent and community input and consent.

The Community Media Association chairman, Don Chambers, has stated on Facebook this week that he is sitting on a number of DCMS committees feeding into the prospective Media Bill. Chambers describes that his “priority is generally deregulatory and losing the revenue restriction in particular.” As noted elsewhere, this deregulation agenda for commercial radio includes:

  • Removing outdated character of service requirements (such as music formats).
  • Reforming rules on where local radio programmes are produced.
  • Strengthening requirements relating to local news and local information services (including the protection of local news on digital platforms).
  • Updating legislation to “help encourage the ongoing transition towards digital radio.”

Each of these concerns will have a significant impact on the status of Community Radio here in the UK. While the DCMS Digital Audio Review promised that the government would continue to look at ways to “expand radio and audio services for under-served groups,” and would “continue to work with industry accordingly,” there has been no call-out for civic society groups and organisations to contribute to these planning discussions. While DCMS accepted that this would include “diversity in representation from across the United Kingdom, and diversity of thought,” there has been no published list of attendees or contributors who are part of these discussions. Who is feeding into this process, and why isn’t the wider voice of civic society being heard?

It matters that we know who is taking part in these conversations. Research by DCMS shows that “ethnic minority audiences are more likely to agree with the statement ‘I don’t think radio is for people like me’ than White audiences.” Concluding that people from ethnic minorities feel that “national stations in particular are less likely to cater for them and do not adequately represent them.” Ethnic minority audiences, by contrast according to DCMS, “over-index for listening to community radio, and non-UK based stations and pirate radio.” If minority audience don’t find representation in mainstream commercial and public service media, then community radio is the only legal route for being on-air.

Additionally, while the provision of local news and information through community radio remains a respected contribution to civic life across the UK, DCMS also promised to continue to support ways for people across the country, and in many different places, to hear local news that is trusted and valued, “especially in areas where there is no other local station, or if nearby stations cover wider areas.” As was indicated in the recent report by the Charitable Journalism Project into News Deserts, in many places in the UK there is an absence of a local newspaper, which means that “community radio may be the only source of regular local news updates.”

If there is no inclusion of public authorities and civic society organisations from across the UK in the planning for future regulations for broadcasting, then support for local news would clearly fail the tests set out in the UK Governments own Levelling Up White Paper, whereby government will seek to realise the

“Potential of every place and every person across the UK, building on their unique strengths, spreading opportunities for individuals and businesses, and celebrating every single city, town and village’s culture. This will make the economy stronger, more equal and more resilient, and lengthen and improve people’s lives.”

One of the major challenges facing community radio in the UK is the question of funding, and how a sustainable network of independent community organisations and creators can sustain their services in an increasingly competitive global media marketplace. One proposal that DCMS promised that they would consider would be to extend support for community radio by expanding the Community Radio Fund, and to consider in addition a new local news fund for radio might help to strengthen small local commercial and community stations. As the December 2021 report into the Community Radio Fund commissioned by DCMS stated, the CRF fund has been able to expand “community outreach activities” by many community radio stations, and has helped stations to “develop new volunteer roles thus broadening the appeal of the sector to more than a core of radio enthusiasts.”

One worrying aspect of the present discussions being held with DCMS, moreover, and which have not been held publicly, with no minutes shared in the public domain, is the suggestion that the economic protections for community radio, which help to safeguard the social gain activities of community radio stations, may be removed. The White Papers suggests that there is some potential for the increased ‘monetisation’ of programme content by community radio, over and above the limits that are presently set in place by Ofcom. As I’ve previously noted,

“There seems to be a misunderstanding expressed in the White Paper, that community radio stations are unable to maximise their income from all possible sources of revenue that they generate, such as public project funding, support for training, charitable work, enhanced social access for people who are otherwise unable to gain access in mainstream media.”

According to Ofcom, in the “Community Radio (Amendment) Order 2015 changes were made to the rules regarding income from the sale of remunerated on-air advertising and sponsorship. In summary these are:

  • Each station is allowed a ‘fixed revenue allowance’ of £15,000 per financial year from paid for on-air advertising and sponsorship;
  • Some stations may also be allowed up to 50% of their total relevant income per financial year (i.e. disregarding the ‘fixed revenue allowance’) from paid-for on-air advertising and sponsorship, if certain qualifications apply.”

This means that Ofcom’s rules have previously been modified “in relation to how much income licensees need to seek from sources other than on-air advertising and sponsorship, and the value of volunteer inputs.” For example, and according to Ofcom, licensees that “receive up to £15,000 per annum from on-air advertising and sponsorship do NOT need to match this income with funding from other sources.” However, for licensees whose “licence allows them to take more than £15,000 per annum from on-air advertising and sponsorship the following key rule applies:

  • After taking into account the annual ‘fixed revenue allowance’ of £15,000, a minimum of 25% of remaining annual operational income must come from sources other than on-air commercial funding and the value of volunteer inputs.”

In other words, as Ofcom specifies, with “regard to on-air advertising and sponsorship income above £15,000, rule 2 states that stations claiming the in-kind value of volunteer inputs, are thereby able to generate further income from on-air commercial sources, though they must always generate at least 25% of this remaining income from other sources (grants, donations, service level agreements, the value of non-volunteer in-kind support etc).”

Effectively, this rule allows community radio stations to maximise their income from volunteer contributions and other sources. It’s a match-funding model that puts no limit on the potential for monetisation of on-air content, as long as at least 25% of a stations’ income is generated from these other sources. Does this seem like a restraint on community radio stations to raise income from a variety of sources?

However, there are some essential question that still need to be considered. How likely would the removal and deregulation of financial constraints on community radio stations affect the services that they have built up? If the limitations on commercial activity are removed, what happens to the potential social value funding and volunteer input? Who would seek to serve niche and minority interest and communities, if the economic incentive is small and marginal at best? Would this not result in the opposite effect, and lead to the closure of many stations, rather than making them more sustainable?

It is clear, as with commercial radio, that any deregulation will result in community radio stations repositioning their service operations towards commercially monetised business models, with all the resulting dynamics of competitive on-air advertising and sponsorship, employee contracts and commercial decision making. Clearly this would result in them moving away from volunteer access and participation. We would see access-based stations weakened and marginalised, while the stations that remain would be placed it in the hands of a small cabal of paid producers and presenters, intent on running a ‘local’ service on an ILR hybrid model, but without the community input or accountability?

There are a number of reasonable questions to be asked about deregulation of community radio:

  • What will happen to the social gain principles that are embedded in broadcasting legislation which founded Community Radio?
  • Are we at risk of giving up the core principles and values of public benefit by deregulating, based largely on the subjective opinions of a few people who are seeking to serve narrow expediency?

Crucially, if any community radio stations wish to change their licence status, and operate freely in the commercial marketplace, they should consider transitioning to an ILR licence (or DSP). It is not unreasonable to ask people operating as a commercial entity, in a deregulated market to develop a sustainable commercial business plan. However, if they follow this path and forgoing any social gain commitments, that they should lose any protected carriage, any discounted licences for PPL/PRS, any preferential WTA fees, and any access to social and charitable funding.

Talk of deregulating community radio in the UK is concerning, and needs to be counterbalanced by the voices of people committed to the social gain principles of access, involvement and accountability.