Concerns About the Deregulation of Community Radio?

Originally published at:

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 increasingly 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 come to be seen as a fait accompli, and an inevitable result of the globalisation of media, communications and information platforms. I don’t know why this is either, and 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, and we’ve suffered over many decades in the UK from the conflation of the needs of global markets over the needs of local markets. Perhaps we are starting to see a pull-away from this mindset in other forms of the 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 providing the people to produce and develop content. These people must have a place to work, and they will require studios and editorial facilities 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 any more.

Commercial radio has followed a similar consolidation path. With programmes produced in a regional or national hub, and networked with separate jingles and adverts, and a few locally based presenters, in an otherwise generic offering. Listening to commercial radio and there is plenty of branding, plenty of celebrity personalities, but very little place-based content. Indeed, passing of stations as local doesn’t get challenged by the regulator who regards notice-board type information provision, such as traffic reports and weather reports, to be sufficient to define a service 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 that a community radio station is established.

The tastes, interests and cultural identities of the volunteers who get involved in community radio are 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 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 the 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 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 is, other than to look around the room when we visit community radio stations.

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 fill their ranks. Most people I know who have volunteered for community radio have no intention of seeking jobs in 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, or they are out of the jobs market altogether.

Yes, community radio is a way of gaining valuable experience, and there are some excellent stations that do training for younger people so they can advance in the jobs market. Buy community radio stations are there to serve different needs, which are tied in with the social gain principles that each community radio station must provide.

As the second non-negotiable element of community radio, any watering down of the social gain principles would be a mistake. Media can have many purposes, but community media has a specific purpose, which is to allow people to serve their own interests and concerns, rather than having media that purports to do that for them.

The social gain principles are vital as an indication that the station does more than serve a few people, perhaps with good intentions, but who really only want to run their station as a club. I’m concerned that if this requirement is 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 by stealth if we drop these requirements?

There are plenty of media services that people can choose from where they get a specific service they want, can we get involved in being part of that service though, or are we simply going to be given something that we’ve had no say in defining? The BBC’s consultation on their changes to the 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 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.

We need effective trusted 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 regulation that keeps everyone playing by the same rules. The public can expect a level of honesty and integrity from their broadcasters because of the code. What would reinforce this, is if people know the people who make their local media 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 figure their way through additional layers of unrepresentative and distorting stories. Putting media into the hands of the people in every local community would have a massive impact, in the same way that devolution of power and political control would have.

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 and a 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 local media platforms.