Community Radio Consultation - Focusing on Social Gain

Originally published at:

DCMS, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has launched a consultation on analogue community radio licensing.[i] The purpose of the consultation is to review the legislative framework for analogue community radio licensing, as analogue community radio licences will begin to expire from October 2025.[ii] The consultation seeks views on whether and for how long to legislate to enable licenses to be extended again.[iii] The current restrictions on the capacity of stations to raise money through advertising and sponsorship are also being reviewed, and views on this matter are welcomed.[iv] The consultation will close at 5 pm on 31 January 2024.[v]

This consultation is described as a ‘key step’ in shaping the future framework for community radio stations operating on the FM and AM bands across the UK. The primary focus is to explore the potential for extending the duration of these licences, which are currently limited to a maximum of five years, and to defining the terms under which these stations will operate in the future.

Key aspects of the DCMS consultation include:

  1. Extension of Licence Duration: The consultation is considering extending the maximum duration of community radio licences beyond the current five-year term. This could provide greater stability and planning security for stations.

Or it might lock-out new entrants from wanting to start and develop stations for different purposes.

  1. Implications for Stations and Communities: The impact of any changes on the stations themselves and their ability to serve their local communities is a central concern. The consultation seeks to understand how longer licences might affect the stations’ operations, community engagement, and financial planning.

What is not yet understood is how the media landscape will be controlled if the Media Bill is passed.

  1. Future of Analogue Broadcasting: As the media landscape evolves with digital technologies, the role of analogue broadcasting in community media remains significant. The consultation addresses how these changes interact with the needs and capabilities of community radio stations.

The lack of certainty for AM and FM broadcasters is being exacerbated by proposals for a digital switch-off being endlessly dragged out.

  1. Feedback from Stakeholders: The consultation invites feedback from a broad range of stakeholders, including existing community radio licensees, potential applicants, industry bodies, and members of the public. This inclusive approach ensures a wide range of perspectives are considered.

It is not clear if this consultation will include other government services, such as housing, health, education, local government, levelling-up, and more, who each might have something essential to expect from community media in its capacity to provide social gain outcomes.

  1. Policy Development: The insights gained from this consultation will inform the government’s policy decisions regarding the licensing of community radio stations. It represents an opportunity to align licensing practices with the current and future needs of the community radio sector.

It is not clear if the policy decisions are being advanced based on social need, inclusion, citizenship or media plurality, or if they are being advanced to suit the needs of providers.

For those of us engaged in developing community media, this consultation offers an important opportunity to influence the regulatory environment. Participating in the consultation can help ensure that the needs and aspirations of community radio stations, and other forms of community media, who are not adequately represented or consulted when it comes to future licensing arrangements. The outcome of this consultation will have long-standing implications for the sustainability and growth of community radio across the UK, including the plurality of voices heard in our media, the ownership, and access communities have to platforms, and the independence they have to self-determine their priorities.

The current restrictions on the capacity of community radio stations to raise money through advertising and sponsorship are being reviewed as part of the consultation.[vi] Since 2015, community radio stations have been able to raise at least £15,000 per year from commercial sources.[vii] The restrictions preventing community radio stations from taking more than 50% of their annual income from on-air advertising and sponsorship were lifted in 2015.[viii],[ix] There are still restrictions on community radio stations’ ability to raise income via advertising and sponsorship given the nature of the audiences that they serve.[x] The consultation seeks views on whether the current restrictions on community radio stations’ ability to raise revenue through advertising and sponsorship should be removed, and if so, whether any safeguards are needed.[xi] The government wants to ensure that community radio has the freedom to develop its local services while maintaining its core character, including the requirement to deliver social gain.[xii]

My question is, what happens with stations and services that are never going to survive by monetizing their content through advertising and commercial services? There is no evidence that a local market in advertising even exists, given the consolidation of the national corporate stations, who have centralised their advertising operations. If a community radio station wants to run as if it is a commercial entity, then there should be the option for them to convert to an independent licence, which will serve their needs. The only caution being that there is enough free spectrum to allow this and not block any community groups from developing their services by other means, through social engagement funding.

Community radio stations in the UK typically raise funds through a mixed economy of funding sources.[xiii] While community radio stations are allowed to receive a fixed revenue allowance of £15,000 from advertising and sponsorship, with the majority of stations also able to raise up to 50% of their annual revenue beyond this allowance from the same sources. Therefore, community radio stations often rely on other sources of funding, such as local fundraising events, crowdfunding, grants and donations, contracts for services.[xiv] Local fundraising events serve a dual purpose of raising money and increasing the sense of ownership within the community, but it is less common in the UK to raise money in this way.[xv] Crowdfunding is a popular way for community radio stations to raise funds, with individuals choosing an amount to donate in return for a reward.[xvi] Social media can is sometimes used to raise revenue, with community radio stations periodically running pledge drives or fundraising campaigns to raise money directly from their listeners and supporters.[xvii]

  Community radio stations in the UK often turn to various social and charitable sources for funding. Some of these sources include:

  • Grants from trusts, charities, local, regional, national, and (in the past) European government pots, and innumerable other funders who may be willing to grant small or large amounts in return for agreed outcomes.[xviii]
  • The government’s Community Radio Fund, which exists to provide core funding for community radio stations, but is generally agreed to be insufficient to cover the core costs of stations.[xix]
  • It is increasingly difficult to find local authorities that can maintain specific core-funding budgets for voluntary organisations.[xx]
  • Local fundraising events, such as garage sales, charity shops, and benefit nights, which serve a dual purpose of raising money and increasing the sense of ownership within the community.[xxi]
  • Crowdfunding, which is a popular way for community radio stations to raise funds, with individuals choosing an amount to donate in return for a reward.[xxii]
  • Social media, which can be used to raise revenue, with community radio stations periodically running pledge drives or fundraising campaigns to raise money directly from their listeners and supporters.[xxiii]
  • It would be good for there to be clear recognition of the benefits of community radio, so that charitable organisations and foundations could more clearly support community media, though too often funding goes to specific projects and not to core station costs.

These sources of funding allow community radio stations to maintain their core character and deliver social gain while providing a voice to all charity fundraising initiatives, small and large.

The fundamental problem results from the way both Ofcom and DCMS have sidelined community radio as a minor-part of the broadcasting economy. Rather than seeing community media as an integral part of the social economy, and capable of providing enhanced social value and social gain, the repertoire, and tradition of radio broadcasting has not been tested, evaluated or challenged to demonstrate that it makes a difference. Why is community radio not part of the levelling-up process? Why is community media not part of the devolution and social renewal agenda?

There are signs that different parts of the UK view community radio in a different light, with the Welsh Affairs Committee recently reporting that Welsh language broadcasting is integral to Welsh culture and identity, but that the commercial sector failing to supply sufficient content that serves the needs of Welsh people. For a consultation on the future of community radio to be relevant, it must seek to understand what difference is made to the lives of people in different communities across the country, based on their social needs, not on their position in the marketplace to sell advertising.

The question is – who is in the room to discuss the needs and purpose of community radio? Should this be limited to the people already involved in the stations, or should DCMS show leadership and foresight by inviting a broad range of stakeholders together from across civil society, who have people’s development requirements at heart, and who don’t just want to play at running radio stations for the sake of running radio stations.

We don’t yet know what the media landscape will look like in six months’ time. If the Media Bill passes, and the threat of a digital switch off is removed because additional frequencies are made available on FM and AM, then this conversation may feel quite unfamiliar. We also don’t know what the priorities of a future Labour government might be in this respect. We do know that Labour intends to pursue a devolution agenda that is pro-growth. This probably will include introducing measures to improve market flexibility for the media economy, while testing any public spending against value for money and the social gain it achieves in practice. This is where our attention needs to be focussed.