DCMS White Paper ‘Up Next’ on Future Broadcast Regulation in the UK

Originally published at: https://decentered.co.uk/dcms-white-paper-up-next-on-future-broadcast-regulation-in-the-u/

The UK Government has published its white paper on the future of Broadcasting in the UK.

Section 4.3 details the basis of consultation in 2023 on the future of community radio:

“Strengthening community radio: Community radio stations typically cover a small geographical area and are run on a not-for-profit basis. They can cater for whole communities or for different areas of interest – such as a particular ethnic group, age group or interest group. There are stations which cater for urban or experimental music, while others are aimed at younger people, religious communities or the Armed Forces and their families. Community radio has grown since its formal establishment in 2005 and has become a vibrant and increasingly mature part of the UK’s radio sector. There are now more than 300 community radio stations on air all across the UK and new digital services are planned as part of the successful development of small-scale DAB, something strongly championed by the Government.

This growth is in part thanks to the Government’s sustained support through the Community Radio Fund. Administered by Ofcom, the fund provides grants to support the development of community radio stations.Up Next: The Government’s vision for the broadcasting sector. The fund received targeted uplifts of £200,000 in both 2020/21 and 2021/22, enabling Ofcom to allocate more funding to more stations than ever before.
However, licences for the first community stations launched in 2005 are due to expire in 2025. We want to make sure that community radio has the right structure to ensure that existing stations can continue to develop their services and that new community radio stations can be developed on digital radio.

Community radio stations that operate on FM or AM are licensed for five years and the legislation allows for three further renewals (20 years in total). While we want to maintain community radio’s model of delivery through community based, not-for-profit companies or charities, we want to look again at the restrictions on advertising revenue that prevent some community radio stations from fully monetising their content. We also want to ensure that there is a much wider availability of community radio services, such as through Ofcom’s digital licensing process, as part of the Government’s broader levelling up agenda.

We therefore plan to consult in early 2023 on new proposals to champion the community radio sector and, where necessary, will bring forward changes to licensing requirements through amendments to the Community Radio Order 2004.”

And in addition the role of community radio is mentioned in relation to levelling up

“Of course, levelling up is also about supporting connected communities and fostering pride in place. Here too our broadcast sectors can contribute. As touched on above, community radio is a growing sector, staffed mainly by local volunteers and delivering numerous social impacts to regions, including fostering civic pride, increasing community participation and alleviating loneliness. Stations receiving money from the Community Radio Fund to date have helped to improve lives in their communities, for instance in the promotion of local fundraising causes, coffee mornings for socially isolated or vulnerable groups, and exercise classes. DCMS’ recently commissioned evaluation of the fund found that grants had provided a lifeline to smaller stations and boosted their growth.”

Given the deregulation process for C-DSP licences that are being implemented in the programme licencing process for SSDAB, there are concerns that the protected nature of community radio is being weakened, and the requirement for stations to demonstrate meaningful social gain objectives, such as the commitment to access, training, minimum hours, and community relevance, are being watered down.

Is market deregulation the correct model for community radio, or will groups who provide services that would not otherwise be available in the market going to find they are disadvantaged by these proposed changes?

I’m working with Better Media, to help canvas broad opinion in response to these proposals, and would welcome analysis based on the principles that our media should be open and democratic.

I’m encouraging potentially interested allies to join Better Media to get involved in this process, so that we have a broad and informed, representative sample of contributions.

We need a strong voice for community media that is democratically accountable, services the needs of people who don’t otherwise have a voice, and is recognised for community media’s essential role in a pluralistic media world.

I’m proposing issuing a statement in the name of Better Media along these lines. Radio Today may pick it up, and it would be good to get a marker down.

While the DCMS ‘Next Up’ White Paper affirms a strong role for community radio, as part of a deregulated media economy, driven by changes in technology, globalised business, and evolving expectations of consumer behaviour, Better Media is concerned that the push to digital switchover is ill advised and unlikely to achieve the levelling-up goals that are only sketchily laid out in the White Paper.

The government is proposing that analogue radio services will be switched over to digital platforms by 2030, regardless of consumer demand, producer needs, or the democratic benefit of a pluralistic model of media platform access. This policy is based on the DCMS’ flawed review of audio and media services, that failed to consider that DAB radio in countries like Norway, Sweden and Ireland, aren’t viewed as a success, and that analogue radio in these countries is still valued by listeners.

Rather than concentrating on analogue switch-off, Better Media believes that broadcast commercial and national services should be commercially viable on DAB, while local and community radio services should gain new freedoms by remaining on FM and AM. The government should pursue digital move-over rather than switch off, but only for those who want it.

Ironically, the provision of comprehensive local digital radio platforms, such as SSDAB, is adding unnecessary layers of complexity, forcing independent local and community media services to become embroiled in a complex web of third-party providers, rather than having direct access and ownership of their self-operated platforms, where they are free to engage with their communities as they wish.

The lack of explicit detail in the white paper also means that it is unclear what the specific proposals that the government is bringing forward for community media will mean, other than a vague promise to review in 2023. Based on previous reviews and consultations, many in community media will remain sceptical that their needs and wishes will be properly accounted for.

The government is proposing a comprehensive deregulation of commercial radio, removing commitments given to programme content, local relevance and approval usually needed for line-up changes, the guarantees being offered to community radio, however, such as enhanced potential to monetise content and be subsumed in complex digital networks, undermines the principals of social gain, training, access and participation in the media production process, and should be avoided.

Better Media is canvasing views on the White Paper, with the intention of submitting a full and comprehensive set of evidence-based proposals for the 2023 review. Anyone wishing to contribute to this review can join Better Media at https://bettermedia.uk/