- Broadcasting not narrowcasting
- Understanding listeners
- Key times
- Community vs. Radio (re-visited)
- Quality of output
- Impact in the community
- Discussion and opinion shows
- Music programming
- Specialist shows
- Access vs ‘quality’
- Rotating schedules
- Station branding
- Cross trailling and promoting the station
Commercial and BBC radio stations are all engaged in an unseemly scramble for the ears, attention and loyalty of the radio audience. They justify their existence and/or make their profits by attracting the largest possible numbers of listeners. Community radio stations should have a different attitude. As we have said before (and will say again) it is not our job to be popular. It is our job to be necessary.
But for all the importance of community involvement, training and other aspects of your social gain activities, it is the quality and nature of your broadcast output that will be noticed and hopefully appreciated by the vast majority of your wider community. While it is possible to run a community radio station by opening your doors to your community and letting things run their course, we believe that to get the maximum benefit it is necessary to have programming policies. These should guide you towards the type of radio programmes that your community wants and needs.
This chapter will seek to draw your attention to the many issues that must be considered and decisions that must be made when you are planning your broadcast schedules.
You are there to serve all of your community
Broadcasting not narrowcasting
The word ‘broadcast’ literally means to scatter widely – to throw something out to the world. The overwhelming majority of radio stations don’t throw their output randomly out at the world, but instead target it very specifically at a particular demographic – people of a particular age, type, social class etc. In media jargon, they don’t broadcast, they narrowcast.
The reason for this is very simple – it is how you get the most listeners. People generally want to know what they are getting from their radio, they have a clear idea in their head of what types of music or speech they want to hear and that is what they will look for on their dial. If they keep hearing what they want to hear then they are unlikely to tune out. While there is a percentage of listeners who are open-minded, have very broad tastes or simply don’t care much what they hear so long as there is a constant murmuring noise coming out of the box in the corner, they are considerably outnumbered by those who only want to hear a particular genre of pop or type of speech.
Some community radio stations have opted to narrowcast to a greater or lesser extent, to maximise their audience. Although this can apply to any area of programming, it is most clearly seen in different stations’ approaches to their music playlist.
VOX BOX **
“We’re covering community issues, but we think it’s very important that we reach a broad audience. We originally aimed to play ordinary mainstream pop music but the Radio Authority (as was) stopped us from doing that because we trampled on [the only very local commercial station] Imagine’s territory too much. So we looked for a new musical format and decided that guitar-based music was the way to go. It appeals to a nice broad audience, and it means you don’t have people listening to you for two records and then thinking ‘oh I don’t like that’ and switching off.
We do have specialist shows in the evening and we have shows aimed at teenagers, aimed at under-13s, we have a lesbian and gay programme so we do still make an effort to hit everybody at some stage in our broadcast. But in the daytime we are aiming at a broad audience. If you’re trying to get a community message across it’s very important that there aren’t only three people listening.”
Dave Stearn, Station Manager, Pure FM, Stockport
For example, in their 2005 community licence application, Stockport’s Pure Radio specify a musical playlist of guitar-based pop and rock, judging that this is the single most popular style of music in their community and that it is poorly supplied by existing local radio stations (see VoxBox**). This is an understandable approach, but not without its issues.
According to Pure’s own research, 29% of Stockport’s population prefer this type of music. If a large number of that 29% choose to tune in to Pure, the station could attract a very healthy listenership in numbers, but how healthy is it in other respects? The most ardent fans of rock music tend to be white males in their thirties and forties. So although the listening figures might be good, do they reflect the ranges of age, gender, ethnicity and social class in their community? Are the listeners it attracts the type of listeners with the most to gain from a community radio station? Does a rock-dominated output make volunteering at the station an attractive proposition for a teenage girl of Asian origin, or an isolated pensioner? It is vital that if a station chooses to concentrate on one genre in the daytime, it makes extra efforts to reach out to other sections of the community at other times, and ensures their social gain achievements are not restricted to fans of that particular genre – something Pure FM demonstrate admirably.
The alternative approach, designing your programming and schedules so that there is something in it for everyone is of course equally problematic. In attempting to be all things to all people it is possible to become nothing much to anyone. Finding ways of persuading some listeners to switch on without causing others to switch off is a difficult, but not impossible task. The variety found on community radio stations is one of our stronger selling points, and goes a long way towards demonstrating why we are fundamentally different to our commercial and BBC equivalents. When listeners are so accustomed to strictly formatted and playlisted radio stations, some can be shocked and alienated by what they hear. Thankfully others will be thrilled to find a station that is different to all the others.
- Can be aimed at everyone (broadcasting) or at one section of the community (narrowcasting)
- Narrowcasting will probably attract the greatest number of listeners
- Broadcasting will reach a wider range of listeners.
- Variety in programming sets community radio apart from other radio stations
Making yourself relevant in some way to every member of your community is a difficult challenge, but one that we feel community radio stations should at least attempt to tackle.
Different communities have different tastes and different habits, but there are some broad rules that apply to radio listeners whoever and wherever they may be.
Listeners behave differently at home, in their cars and at work.
At home most people tend to leave their radios tuned to the same station for days or weeks on end. They are often impressively loyal to their favourite station and refuse to listen to any others. However there are keen radioheads who will actively seek out programmes that are of interest to them. Many radio stations are aware of a different group of listeners in the daytime to evenings and overnight.
- In the car people constantly hop between channels without caring much which station they are listening to.
- At work people mostly want unobtrusive background music and undemanding chat that will not take up too much of their attention.
At different times of day there are different proportions of listeners at home, driving or working. To reach as large and wide a section of your community as possible, you need to decide how you will organise your output.
- Breakfast. More people listen to the radio between 7am and 10am than at any other time of day. If you can attract listeners with your breakfast show then you should have a good chance of keeping them through the day. Your breakfast show presenters have the most important and prestigious job of all your broadcasters. Just what makes good breakfast radio is a highly debatable question however. There is a fine line between an energised and energising host, who puts smiles on faces and makes everyone glad to have got out of bed, and an irritating git who yells and giggles constantly. Finding the balance is never easy (as Radio 1’s experiences over the years have proved – one listener’s Chris Moyles is another’s migraine) but bear in mind that the role should probably go to the most talented and popular presenters you have.
- Lunchtime. Lunchtime is another switch-on time for many listeners. As at breakfast time, they mostly don’t want to be overly challenged or provoked over their sandwiches, so again a mainstream approach to your programming is probably desirable – light chat, popular tunes and a friendly attitude.
- Drive time. Although you may struggle to keep drivers tuned in for long, there are so many people listening to the radio in their cars between 4pm and 6pm that you can reach a lot of people and that is immensely important for your public profile. A good drive-time show should be a mix of the informative and the entertaining, and be designed with the listenership in mind. They will probably be listening closely to what you play and say, so there is some scope for thoughtful features and intelligent discussion, but bear in mind that listeners will be tuning in and out on a regular basis so keep everything short, snappy and varied.
- Evening and night-time. Later in the day listeners are more likely to be looking for programmes that reflect their specific tastes and interests. Listeners tend to be younger and fussier. They are also likely to be listeners who will not hear your station at other times of day. A broader range of specialist programming in the evenings will broaden your reach to your community.
This leaves plenty of hours free for the types of community programming (schools, community action, health and issues programming etc etc etc) which make up such an important part of your role as a community radio station.
- Have different habits at home, at work and in the car
- Switch on at key times of the day
It is your task to ensure that this programming is as entertaining, fascinating and useful as possible to try to keep your listeners switched on and tuned in from morning to night. Try to avoid creating ‘switch-off’ points when your scheduling lurches suddenly from mainstream pop radio to death metal hour or a serious political debate (a station broadcasting in one main language would find the same effect by switching languages). Your scheduling should flow naturally and smoothly through the day and the week.
Community v Radio (revisited)
As we note elsewhere, the relative importance of community issues and radio production issues is a continual and healthy source of tension in community radio. Radio is a wonderfully democratic medium, a presenter and producer with the most basic equipment and minimal budget can sometimes make programmes as inspiring and polished as any BBC-produced, Sony Award-winning production. Assuming the talent is at your disposal, often the only obstacle is the time and effort required for training, education, research and preparation. Of course you want your broadcasts to sound as good and professional as possible. But never let that override your other commitments. There are three aspects to your programming at a community radio station:
- Quality of process – How much benefit is there to individuals and groups who are making these programmes?
- Quality of output – How good are the radio programmes you broadcast?
- Impact in the community – How valuable are these programmes to the wider community?
Occasionally you will make programmes that excel on all three criteria, but more often there will be some kind of pay-off between them. The volunteers who will gain most from making radio may not be the volunteers who will make the slickest broadcasts. Likewise the programmes with the greatest community impact may be presented by radio veterans who have learned as much as they will ever want to learn about creating radio and for whom ‘self-improvement’ is a non-issue.
At every community radio station there will be a slightly different attitude to the relative importance of each factor, and even within stations there will be enormous differences between shows.
Quality of output
Of course you want your radio to sound as good as possible and to not care about quality altogether would be suicidal for a community radio station. Even the most sympathetic listeners have limited patience with endless stretches of dead air, whistling feedback, distortion, mumbling, shouting or any of the production disasters that can happen on air. But having said that, scrappy radio can sometimes be fantastic to listen to. Playing a record at the wrong speed or pressing the wrong CD button may be embarrassing for any radio DJ, but it never really did John Peel any harm. At a community radio station, where most listeners will be aware that presenters are amateur volunteers, audiences will be tolerant of and (to a point) amused by moments of chaos. Please note – moments of chaos.
Authenticity is something that community radio has in bucket-loads and it expresses itself in many different ways. We always come back to that saying we first heard from Andy Kershaw – if we’re faced with a programme where the production values might not be all that could be desired – would a listener say
“That’s rough but right.” ? (best said in a Rochdale accent)
Anyone coming to community radio from commercial or BBC background will have a culture shock in store. Rather than highly trained professionals creating meticulously planned, researched and scripted programming, community radio volunteers are often thrown on air after only a few hours training and a brief chat about content. To a large extent they will learn on the job. They need space to make errors without an overzealous manager pulling them off the air.
Nevertheless there are some particular mistakes that are common and, in most cases, easily avoided with basic training:
Dead air. Broadcasting silence is the worst thing a presenter can do. Listeners will quickly retune to another station. In our experience dead air is normally caused by a faulty automation system more commonly than a faulty human being, but some presenters do need reminding that long silences must be avoided
“We had one presenter who week in, week out, would have gaps at the end of her tunes. Eventually I asked her what the problem was, why she couldn’t be on the mic, and cueing up the next record before the other one finished, and she said breezily: ‘Because I’m too busy dancing!’”
Phil Korbel, Director, Radio Regen
Quiet or loud voices. In the overwhelming majority of cases, when a presenter is speaking at the wrong volume it will be because he is not wearing headphones as he speaks. This makes it almost impossible to judge the volume of one’s own voice – headphones off is a mark of sloppiness and a vital discipline for any presenter – using your ears needs little training.
Inappropriate talk. Radio presenters, almost by definition, love the sound of their own voices. Presenters should know what an appropriate amount of talk is between records or – in speech-based shows – between planned features. Another common mistake is for co-presenters to be so amused by the banter between themselves that they forget they are making radio and make inane, boring small talk about their private lives. Or get into a furious row with each other on air and shout personal abuse across the microphones. While this might occasionally make for great radio, in practice it is best avoided.
Me Me Me. Presenters (particularly of specialist music shows) can easily forget their role as the presenter of your radio station, and think of themselves only as host on their show. They must commit themselves to station idents and other on-air branding (see Station branding). You can measure the ego of a presenter by counting the number of times they mention their own name compared to the name of the station. Also discourage presenters from talking over records (particularly vocal tracks). Even hip hop and garage MCs need to let the music breathe occasionally. Bear in mind that some listeners may love that tune and talking over it can be very annoying.
VOX BOX **
“I play late night ambient and electronica, and often I use John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy theme as a background talkover track to keep the music flowing between records. One night I got a phone call from a listener who said ‘look mate, I love these tunes you’ve been playing, but could you do me a favour? Midnight Cowboy is my favourite piece of music ever and you’ve been talking over it all night. Could you just bloody shut up and play it please?’”
Ally Fogg, aka Enchanted Gordon, Café del M12, ALL FM 96.9.
Impact in the community
The impact you have will hopefully take many forms. Your mere existence should be of considerable value to many community groups and the people they serve. You should make a significant difference to the lives of many of your trainees and volunteers. But your programming should have additional value in its own right.
Of the four key mandatory gain requirements in the Community Radio Order 2004, three refer to partially or wholly to output:
- The provision of radio services to individuals who are otherwise underserved
- The facilitation of discussion and expression of opinion
- Promoting better understanding of the community
Quality of output
- Is important but not the over-riding concern for a station
- Is important but not the over-riding concern for the listeners
- Can be significantly improved with some basic do’s and don’ts.
The first places an obligation upon you to be as diverse as your community. ‘Underserved’ individuals can take many forms depending on the nature of your community, but in a complex inner city community it is likely to include some or all of the following:
- Members of ethnic minorities.
- Non-English speakers.
- Economically marginalised people.
- People marginalised by sexuality or identity.
- People with alternative lifestyles.
- People with disabilities.
- Those whose interests and hobbies are not represented on non BBC local and national radio.
- Those whose musical tastes are not represented on non BBC local and national radio.
- Or it can be as simple as people without a non BBC station local to them, which could apply in many rural communities
The penultimate of these is, in terms of social gain, probably the least important on that list. Nobody ever lost their home or got beaten up for lack of a Throbbing Gristle record on the radio. However it will be number one priority for the vast majority of potential volunteers who approach your station.
Providing radio to underserved individual involves:
- Establishing who is actually underserved in your community
- Much more than catering for underserved musical tastes
The urge to play music is very strong, particularly among the young. But even if you have 50 people approaching you wanting to play hip hop for every one who approaches you wanting to host a disabilities magazine show, that doesn’t mean that hip hop is 50 times more important than a disabilities show. Of course you may also pick up more listeners with a non-stop banquet of whichever musical genre grabs the most attention in your area. But that should not detract from your obligations to the rest of the community.
You must balance your role as a facility – allowing people to make the radio they want to make, with your role as a provider – bringing radio to those who really need it.
Discussion and opinion shows
Generating discussion and expression of opinion is not usually a great problem for a community radio station. Usually they will take the form of:
- Studio discussion and interviews. One or more presenters plus one or more guests. Usually centred around a particular subject.
- Phone-ins. Usually one presenter and as many listeners as possible
- Debates. Larger showpiece discussions which may combine studio and phone-in formats or even outside broadcasts.
Call something a discussion show, and as soon as a presenter opens his or her mouth to speak, discussion begins. Your job is to make it as interesting as possible for the audience. Your listeners may want to hear about activities in the local area, news about health or education services and informative items about teenage pregnancy or gun crime, but they also want to hear some good music and be entertained. Community output will be unfamiliar to most people and may not immediately seem an attractive prospect. So concessions need to be made to their expectations and patience. Here are some suggestions to keep your discussion shows lively and popular.
- Break up the discussion with music. Where appropriate use songs with a suitable or matching theme. And be wary of insensitive choices. Radio folklore is filled with tales of presenters saying things like: “…and we’ll return to our discussion of traumatic adoption experiences right after the La Belle Époque classic, Black is Black, I Want My Baby Back… ”
- Make sure the presenter always has plenty of back-up questions or points of discussion in case conversation runs dry.
- Keep the topics moving along. If people are not interested in one topic, they may simply ignore it for a few minutes, but if the topic hasn’t changed soon you will lose them. People will stay tuned for 30 minutes on six different subjects which they are not interested in, but won’t stay tuned for 30 minutes about one subject which they are not interested in. People don’t mind being bored too much, so long as they get regular variety in their boredom.
- Get different voices on air. One-to-one chat can rarely be sustained for more than five or ten minutes by any but the most skilled and fascinating interviewer and interviewee.
- Talk naturally and intelligently. Community radio offers a wonderful chance to talk to people as they want to be talked to, not yelled at by a hyperactive brat or patronised by an old Etonian.
- Research and brief your presenters on your guests, whether celebrities or not. There are few words more guaranteed to get an interview going badly than: ‘So, it seems we have a new guest in the studio, who are you then?’
- Be ambitious with your invitations. Many celebrities, politicians, pop stars etc are happy to be interviewed at a community radio station if they are in the area and have the time – sometimes because they want to help, often because they crave publicity.
- Should be served in easily digestible chunks
- Should be should provide variety, including musical interludes
- Are not the same as monologue show
- With high-profile interviewees, particularly political guests such as the local MP, invite questions from your listeners in advance and pick out the most interesting – crediting the listener of course.
- Be prepared to let interesting discussions run. Despite earlier warnings, use your common sense if studio guests are generating a captivating discussion. Give yourself some flexibility in your programme schedule.
- Above all, remember that a discussion is a two way process at least. The worst radio you can broadcast is a monotone monologue. Never allow guests or presenters to read from a page or bring anything more than the sketchiest notes into the studio.
- The presenter’s role is to represent the listener, not to bang on about their hobby-horse, or keep putting their oar in for the sake of it.
There’s a whole section to be written on how social media will enhance all of the above – watch this space for Radio Regen’s forthcoming Social Media Toolkit.
Debates are a particular type of discussion show based around a single topic or theme. While most discussion shows will be non-confrontational – presenter and guests talking around a subject and conveying information – debates are centred on points of argument and dispute. Topics of debate are, by definition, controversial and so make great radio, but the OFCOM obligations for a radio station to be politically neutral must be your priority (see Political Impartiality). A debate can be held in a studio, with a minimum of two guests holding opposing viewpoints and one presenter/chair who must strenuously strive to be impartial and fair to both sides of the argument. The best radio debates will usually have more than two guests and will also bring in points of view from listeners or, if the debate is an outside broadcast, the live audience.
Some useful tips for hosting a debate are:
- Debates take a lot of organisation. Plan them with care. It’s better to hold debates occasionally and well than it is to hold them often and badly.
- Get an experienced or well-trained chair. Authority and impartiality are crucial if a debate is not to descend into chaos. The chair needs the strength to tell some people to stop talking and the skill to encourage others to start. They should be well informed on the subject but know when to feign ignorance.
- Make great radio.
- Make a significant contribution to your social gain achievements.
- Take a lot of organising.
- Can be as large or as small as you like
- Should be done occasionally and well, rather than often and badly.
- Topics don’t have to be local. You are promoting discussion in your community by talking about foreign policy or immigration just as much as by talking about the need for a new zebra crossing.
- If you are in a studio with only one phone line and the line gets busy, it’s often better to have someone off air taking down the callers’ points then reading them out. It gets many more people involved.
- Give out a number for SMS text messages, again to be read out,and of course via Twitter, Facebook and your social media platform of choice.
- You can host a public debate with only three microphones – one at the front table and two on ‘walkabout’ among the audience.
- Break up debates with the occasional record or interlude.
- Be prepared to clear the schedules. Sometimes the only time a showpiece debate can happen is in the evening, when your regular shows may have to step aside. Make sure all volunteers know this might happen to them some day.
Many types of discussion shows can have input from telephone callers being put through to air, but the dedicated phone-in show is a different beast. It is one of the most popular radio formats in the world, and some commercial stations broadcast little or nothing else, 24 hours a day. They can be truly compulsive listening and they can sometimes be utterly awful. The key to a good phone-in show is the presenter. If he or she has charisma, wit, intelligence and a great radio manner, a phone-in show can be a huge success. Without those gifts the show is at the mercy of the callers, who are unlikely to be uniformly witty and wise.
Community radio volunteers will sometimes include one or two who fancy themselves as Howard Stern or other (mostly American) ‘shock jocks’ who entertain their listeners by engaging their callers in a battle of wit and rudeness, with the emphasis on humiliation and point-scoring rather than healthy discussion. This is not a particularly desirable format for community radio, partly because the volunteer is unlikely to have the skill to make such radio work, but also because such programmes are likely to prove corrosive to the relationship with your listeners.
- Can make great radio.
- Can make really terrible radio.
- Need good presenters – you can’t rely on the callers.
- Require more than one line.
- Need to be hosted with sensitivity and care.
Phone-in shows should ideally be:
- Friendly and non-aggressive – although a little controversy never hurts..
- Centred around a particular topic. Presenters sometimes think it will make great radio to just ask callers what they’ve been doing today and what’s on their mind. It rarely does, and it can be harder to generate calls that way.
- Conducted through a switchboard, or at least a couple of lines. It is almost impossible to have a nicely flowing phone-in show through only one line. You need someone off air taking the calls and queuing people up.
- Hosted by a well-trained presenter. He or she needs particularly good training in legal issues and OFCOM codes, and be prepared to cut a caller off if they are about to, for example, commit libel or spout obscenities.
News is the one form of speech broadcasting which is separate to discussion. When you call something a news programme you take on particular responsibilities within the OFCOM code (see OFCOM and ASA regulations). Your news must be accurate and impartial, and it may not carry sponsorship. Note that there is a significant difference between discussion of the news (which can be as informal and flippant as you like) and actual news broadcasting which must be formal and under strict control. That’s not to say it has to sound like the BBC, just be clear what’s a news bulletin and what’s not.
‘In one of our earlier temporary stations a very promising trainee was assigned to read the news on the Drivetime show. He took to the task of prepping, researching and scripting with the energy we’d come to expect from him but at ten minutes before the first bulletin he took me to one side and said ‘Phil, you cant expect anyone to respect the news if I read it in my accent’. The guy did have a dead strong Manchester accent but I said ‘They’d better learn to.’ and told him to get on with it. Accent snobbery has no place in community radio.
Phil Korbel, Director, Radio Regen
National and world news
Obviously a community radio station will not have the resources to run their own international news desk. Any pretence at doing so (for example by reading out stories from newspapers or the internet) is deceitful and may breach copyright (it can be a nice regular feature for breakfast presenters to discuss ‘what the papers say’, but don’t brand it as your ‘news’ spot.). In practice, if a community station wants to run full news broadcasts they must beg, buy or borrow them from elsewhere. The principle options are:
- BBC. If you have a good relationship with your local BBC station, they may be willing to let you carry their news broadcasts – providing your station doesn’t carry any spot advertising. This can have the great advantage of bringing local news with it. Keep an eye on the CMA website for news of how this relationship has been formalised across the BBC.
- Independent Radio News. The default choice for most commercial stations, it is more chatty and showbiz-based than the BBC. You can get this through a Sky Digital box and it is often possible to get permission to broadcast in return for carrying some national advertisements.
Carrying national news may please your listeners (although not all) but it plays no part in your social gain objectives. Community news will do. But be warned: if you brand a programme or item as ‘community news’ then you must assume the same authority, impartiality and accuracy is required as would be required of a national BBC bulletin. The producers and presenters of community news must be made aware of basic journalistic standards and be especially aware of libel and contempt law (see the Regulation section).
- Must be treated with care and respect.
- Cannot be sponsored and have restrictions on adjacent advertising.
- Can be piped in from other national and international news services.
- Community news should be treated with the same care and respect as national news.
While you may have roving reporters bringing you hot scoops from the street, in practice your community news is likely to be generated by your partner organisations within the community, especially schools, religious organisations, campaign groups etc. If you can persuade them to give you regular updates on their activities, that in itself can generate enough material for a snappy daily news spot or longer weekly show. Be wary of overscheduling community news however, chances are there won’t be all that much of interest happening every hour even in the most vibrant and populous communities.
While of course you will be responsible for generating most of your output yourself, the wider community radio sector offers a useful source of sometimes superb programmes. Full shows or shorter items can be borrowed from or shared with other community stations through these sources:
- The Community Media Association developed a network – GetMedia – that will allow you to pull down whole shows or clips from the web and broadcast them direct. This of course also offers a prestigious opportunity for your own volunteers to have their best work shared around the country.
- The Radio Bank – the Government’s source of material, particularly around health & safety issues and public health. Other health and social service agencies sometimes make special items for free broadcast.
- Collaboration on very occasional special broadcasts with neighbouring community stations. But don’t do it too often – OFCOM are obliged to enforce diversity on the airwaves.
- Podcasting may also prove to be a fascinating source of grass roots opinion form across the world.
In your OFCOM application you have to be clear how much shared material you’re using. As a proportion of the total it should be negligible – you are expected to be generating your own material – but used carefully, shared programmes can give real depth to your scheduling. And don’t worry if suddenly you go over the allocation in your license application – Ofcom wont fuss if its marginal and if it’s more, tell them about it and why you feel it enhances your output.
Music v Speech
In your application to OFCOM you are obliged to specify what proportion of your output will be speech and what proportion music. There are wide variations in what community licence applicants specify, but typically they promise a balance of around 70% music to 30% speech. That leaves plenty of time for all your discussion and the promotion of your community but enough music programming to attract a healthy audience. Once you have made your promise to OFCOM, nobody will count up the minutes, but they will refer back to your promise with each annual report, so if you initially promise 80% speech then arbitrarily decide to begin broadcasting 80% music, serious questions will be asked.
The music vs. speech ratio you specify:
- Can be weighted as heavily as you like in either direction, providing you meet your OFCOM obligations
- Should not be changed without OFCOM’s permission.
- Will alter the type of listeners you attract
In setting your ratio of speech to music, it’s worth bearing in mind that in very general terms the more music you play, the younger your listenership will be. Older people tend to prefer speech broadcasts, younger people prefer music (although Angel Radio in Havant and the Isle of Wight would beg to differ on this point). In our view the best community radio is a hybrid of speech and music rather than, for example, only hosting speech in the daytime and only playing music at night.
One factor to bare in mind is that speech is generally more resource hungry – the time it takes to make any well constructed hour of speech far exceeds the same programme length of music. So don’t just make your planned ratio what you want it to be – be sure that you can deliver.
The music you play will alter the audience you pick up, so think carefully about what the typical playlist at your station will be . If you want it to reflect your whole community, it will probably have to be quite varied. At ALL FM, for example, the playlist was divided between ‘Gold’ (classics), ‘Community’ (representing the full range of nationalities and ethnic origins in the area) and ‘Choice’ (current hits plus the presenter’s or listeners’ picks). But if you are trying to keep large numbers of listeners in the daytime you need to find some consistency and routine. By concentrating much of the non-Western music in specialist shows (which will pick up healthy audiences in their own right) it is possible to have a varied and lively daytime playlist which is mainstream enough not to alienate listeners but still incorporates the occasional African, West Indian, Asian or Irish tune, for example, giving the station a unique and we hope attractive musical identity. When you consider that the most listened to radio station in the country, BBC Radio 2, has a musical policy which is in its own way even more eclectic than that (comfortably spanning Oasis or Doves at one end and Lionel Richie or Frank Sinatra at the other), this is unlikely to be too much of a stretch for listeners, once they get used to it anyhow.
It is up to you how authoritarian you want to be with regard to your playlist. Many BBC and commercial radio stations will prescribe exactly which records presenters must play, or give them a very narrow list to choose from. This is certainly the easiest way to ensure the music played at your station matches your policies and give the listener a consistent station sound. But it is likely to lead to frustration for presenters and listeners alike. The best approach is to have a small number of station favourites from the current hits at any given time and encourage the presenters to play them regularly between their own choices. You might choose these records because:
- They are by a local artist.
- They are part of a local scene.
- They are popular records with your listeners.
- They are by an artist who has supported your station
- They fit perfectly with your station identity (For example, Panjabi MC’s ‘Mundian To Bach Ke,’ a blend of Asian vocals and urban dance beats, was a regular feature of ALL FM’s daytime schedule a full year before it hit the pop charts.)
- They have a message or spirit which is in keeping with your station ethos
- They have been pressed upon you by your volunteers – who may have their ear closer to the ground than you.
- They have a ‘killer hook’ – that melody that wont get out of your skull
- They simply sound great to you.
- Should reflect your station
- Should please your listeners
- Shouldn’t stifle the choices of your volunteers
- Will help you get listeners and should be part of the everyday set up for volunteers – not an optional add-on
It is important that the person picking out records for a daytime show has a good ear for a tune. If you have an otherwise brilliant presenter with the musical taste of a dung beetle, you may have to diplomatically steer them towards a more suitable selection. If ever there was a place to leave your ego at the door, music programming is it – you choose for the station not yourself. Getting the flow of music right is important too, you wouldn’t normally want to crash straight from Chris de Burgh into Motorhead, but if you want to keep fans of both tuned in, you will have to find space for each somewhere in the schedule. Take some chances too; in community radio you do have the editorial leeway to give a tune that you are convinced will grow on the audience the time to do that growing. The shareholders won’t be there telling you to clear your desk for trying to broaden music horizons. That said, for every daring tune play a safe one.
A good tip for increasing daytime presenter’s ‘buy in’ to the playlist is to involve them in its construction.
In the vast majority of cases, the presenters of specialist music shows will have complete control over their playlist. The role of the station is not to choose the right music but to find the right presenters. You want people who:
- Are willing to learn radio skills as well as turn up and play records.
- Are willing to contribute their time to the station, beyond turning up and playing.
- Have a genuine passion for their musical speciality. If someone only has 50 records they will soon begin to repeat themselves or wander off their remit.
- Will link you to local music and club scenes. This is good for your reputation and profile and will help attract celebrity guests.
But specialist presenters often bring their own problems. These include:
- DJs who forget they are on the radio. Many specialist DJs have a club background and the concept of talking into a mic or playing station idents, jingles or ads is alien to them. You should agree how many consecutive records they can play before back-announcing the names of records, repeating the station name, frequency, phone number etc. There’s also a very different dynamic to a ‘club mix’ than to a radio playlist. A radio presenter is unlikely to have the time to build though ten tracks to an immaculate peak that has the punters bouncing off the ceiling and your listeners are more likely to be sober than those in a club. So select your radio tunes to stand on their own, at normal volume and to appeal to the un-intoxicated.
- DJs who forget they are in public. For some specialist presenters there might be little in the way of instant feedback, so the only people she knows are listening are a small group of friends. This is dangerous because it is easy to slip into in-jokes and bad broadcasting habits, including a dismissive attitude towards the OFCOM code. Don’t spy on your broadcasters, but listen in to all your specialist shows occasionally and a casual mention of your attentiveness (“Hi it’s me, just wanted to say the show sounded great last night”) is a useful preventive/supportive measure.
- Presenters who don’t feel part of the family. If a volunteer only comes into the station on Mondays at midnight and sees nobody else, he may feel alienated from the rest of the team. He may have un-addressed needs and feel unsupported, or he may be more slapdash with station rules and property. Have some form of regular supervision session with all your volunteers. Attendance at station meetings and social gatherings should be strongly encouraged.
Your specialist shows:
- Will reach different audiences.
- Will be presented by volunteers with different issues to your daytime folk.
- Should be as professional and polished as possible.
- Should be as varied as possible.
A community radio station could easily have 50 or even 100 different specialist music shows on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly rotation. That is a fantastic opportunity to put unlikely things on the air (as London’s Resonance FM demonstrate on an hourly basis) so there is no excuse for predictable programming. If there’s a fan of Himalayan nose flute music among your volunteers then let him have a monthly show. You might be surprised how many other nose flute fans there are out there. Specialist shows are a fantastic way of reaching out to sections of the community who would not normally be interested in your station, and a handful of flagship specialist shows can work wonders for a community radio station’s reputation. Use them well and they will form one of your strongest hands.
Access versus quality
Community radio stations are obliged to open the airwaves to members of the community. As a general rule, the more people you get on air, the harder it will be to keep the quality high –
Balancing access and quality
- Is unavoidable. More of one means less of the other.
- Can be eased with smart scheduling and programming policies
simply because the training, support and most importantly broadcasting experience you can offer will be more thinly spread. Wide access will mean more people have a stake in your station and more will have friends, neighbours or family involved – but on the other hand you may keep fewer regular listeners as specialist audiences often take time to grow. There is no perfect balance: some stations may have a ‘come hither come all’ policy where the broadcasting hours are allocated as widely as is practically possible. Others will have daily presenters on flagship shows and weekly spots elsewhere, meaning as few as 20 or 30 volunteers could dominate the schedule. There are some scheduling tactics and tricks that will help you find the right balance for your station.
- You don’t need to give everyone their own show. Give newer volunteers a role on another programme – co-presenting with a regular host or presenting short features or segments within magazine shows.
- Don’t put new recruits in high-profile time-slots (Breakfast, Drivetime etc). It’s not fair on them or the listeners. The potential switch-off points (for example after the Breakfast or Lunchtime shows) should be treated with caution too.
- Encourage DJ double acts and teams.
- Your specialist music shows can double (or quadruple) up on one time slot, so you may have four different heavy metal shows but the listener won’t really notice or care. Metal fans will learn that they can always tune in between 10pm and midnight on a Wednesday and hear their favourite sounds.
The easiest way to increase your access is to rotate your schedules regularly. If there is a large demand for access to your station you are morally obliged to accommodate that demand. A schedule rotation is not the same as a schedule shuffle. It unfortunately means telling some or even all of your volunteer presenters that they cannot continue with their show (at least for a certain time) because someone else needs their timeslot. Just how you do it doesn’t really matter, but it is crucial that the volunteers know exactly where they stand, and they do not think that they personally are being victimised because suddenly they are taken off the air. That means making sure everyone knows what the rules are for schedule rotation, and that you don’t break them. Volunteers must understand that there is more demand than there is availability, so a show on community radio is a privilege not a right. Either of the following approaches is reasonable:
- Running rotation. Whenever someone starts a new show they are given a fixed term (perhaps 6 months or a year) after which they will automatically finish.
- Preset rescheduling points. Once or twice a year you throw out the entire schedule and start again with a new one.
Whichever approach you take, it is unlikely that you will have such a constant stream of brilliant, ready-trained new volunteers that you can regularly take all the old faces out and bring only new faces in. In practice you will probably want to give some of your existing volunteers different shows or timeslots; keep others where they are; and drop some of your less successful shows and volunteers who have shown less commitment and application. You will also find that redrawing the schedules is a frustrating and time-consuming process, trying to fit different shows into timeslots that suit everyone, like pieces in a three-dimensional jigsaw. You really won’t want to do it more than once or twice a year.
Probably the best approach to a total reschedule is an application system, where every existing or potential volunteer presenter is required to apply or re-apply for a show. Let them know what grounds you are deciding on. They may include:
- Demand. If you have a long queue of experienced and talented volunteers all desperate to present your Breakfast show or a Saturday night hip hop show, then it is not fair to let just one hog that spot forever. But if only one volunteer is keen to present between 1am and 3am on a Tuesday, then it is pointless to take her off.
- Dedication. The process of making community radio is more important than the output (see p**). If a presenter reaches a certain level of competence then loses interest in training and self-improvement, it is reasonable to prefer another presenter who may be less competent now, but is showing real dedication and progress.
- Commitment. It is entirely fair to reward commitment to your station. If a volunteer is willing to mentor other volunteers, come in to make tea, wash dishes, attend meetings, do some filing .or lock up at 3 am it is entirely reasonable to take that into consideration when handing out the shows. It can make a significant difference to the amount of help you get from your volunteers too.
- Is often essential for a community radio station
- Can be done continuously but is easier to manage in one go.
- Should take into account the value of the show to the presenter, the value of the presenter to the station and the value of the show to its listeners.
- Places a responsibility on you to offer support to those who have to move aside.
- Might not be necessary if your volunteer pool is small
- Behaviour. If you have had regular problems with a presenter not turning up say, or smoking in the studio or being abusive to staff and other volunteers, of course you can take that into consideration. It is a good incentive for good behaviour.
- Representation. You will want as many different sections of your community as possible to be represented on air. If you have only one or two disabled applicants, you will probably want to consider that in your decisions. Likewise ethnic minorities, sexualities, music types etc.
- Ability. Last, and probably also least, is how good the presenter is at making radio. It is often not fair to judge on quality, partly because it is subjective and your opinion might be coloured by your personal relationship with the presenter, but more because it is unfair on newcomers who haven’t had the same experiences. For all that, we’d be dishonest if we didn’t acknowledge that some shows could be just too good to lose.
After your decisions are made, you should make clear exactly why your decisions have been reached, especially with those who have not been given a show. An appeals procedure must be in place if a volunteer feels unfairly treated. Unsuccessful applicants should be given every opportunity to keep training and volunteering off air (or as part of another programme team), and be given the greatest possible amount of support and guidance towards making a successful application next time round.
Giving your station output a recognisable brand identity is a great way of bonding with your listeners, improving the station’s image, team-building and helping the flow and coherency of your programming. It is also relatively cheap and easy to do.
Many presenters, particularly in marginal timeslots, may not think of their shows as being one small part in a larger picture, but as a self-contained bubble. They may not mention your station name and frequency at all, and never think of playing a station jingle or trailer for another show. This is an abuse of your hospitality as station facilitators. While any mention of branding can induce anti-corporate revulsion in some community activists and volunteers, it’s a simple fact that your station will develop a public image and identity whether you like it or not. Branding is one way in which you can steer and shape that to your own ends and the benefit of your community. And if they’re still not listening a gentle reminder that more listeners for the station means more listeners for their show too should do the trick.
Ways you can improve your on-air branding include:
- Regular name/frequency checks. It is vital that listeners know what station and frequency they are listening to, or they might not be able to find you next time (it is also an OFCOM regulation). There is nothing simpler for a presenter than saying ‘you’re listening to Anytown FM on 96.2’ every time he opens his mouth. Nevertheless, too many presenters can go for hours without doing so. Remind them and cajole them into it if you need to.
- Is needed to let casual listeners know who you are.
- Is needed to let casual listeners know what you are.
- Need not be too tacky or intrusive.
- Should be appropriate to the nature of your programming.
- Should help to give your broadcasts a familiar, friendly feel.
Common features and style to your jingles. It is very useful to have a single slogan or catchphrase that goes on every sting, trailer or jingle. Likewise there should be some common features to all your jingles, whether it’s the same five note melody singing ‘Anytown FM’ at the beginning or end, or just a simple musical chord or sound effect. Your individual shows should make their own jingles, but give them one or two small elements to incorporate. Or use ‘donut’ jingles where the beginning and end remain unchanged and the volunteer can change the ‘filling.’
- Make a varied range of jingles available for different times of day and different types of show – but all must be instantly recognisable as an ‘Anytown FM’ jingle.
- Keep stressing what it is you do. Casual listeners or those who find you by accident on the dial need to be told regularly that you are a community station, making radio by, for and from this community. It will change their appreciation of what they are hearing.
- Collect celebrity station idents whenever you do an interview or have a special guest. ‘Hello, I’m Judy Finnegan. You are listening to Anytown FM on 96.2.’ Instant Tinseltown glamour. Or something.
Cross trailing and promoting the station
Like branding, cross trailing and promotion is easily ignored by volunteers and forgotten about by busy managers. With a vast body of volunteers who rarely see each other or interact, they’ll often turn up, do a show and go home. But a radio station has endless opportunity to promote and advertise itself. You want listeners who find your station through a late-night music show to be attracted back the next evening and the morning after. Cross trailing is the best way to sell yourself to your listeners.
The programming manager must insist that volunteers understand that one of their principle duties – even one of the criteria for keeping their show – is promoting other shows on the schedule and other activities at the station.
Cross trailing and promotion:
- Strengthens your station identity.
- Increases the number of listeners you will get.
- Should be the duty of every presenter.
- Will only work if all presenters feel and act as part of a team.
You should expect your presenters to:
- Listen to the station in their own time. Otherwise they won’t know what they are talking about
- Refer to the shows before and after theirs. It is simple good manners for presenters to thank and credit the show that has just preceded them when they come on air. More importantly they should encourage listeners to stay tuned for the show after. If a presenter arrives at the studio 30 minutes before his show, he should immediately pop into the studio and say what is coming up on the next show.
- Refer to shows elsewhere in the schedule. If a daytime presenter plays a rock tune, it’s worth saying ‘if you liked that tune check out The Riff Raff Rock Show on Wednesday at midnight.’ Or playing a trailer for that show.
- Talk about the station. If presenters are short of things to say, chatting about other programmes or the community activities of the station is the best use of that airtime. Have a clipboard or noticeboard in the studio with suitable announcements and news.
- Play community announcements and adverts. Presenters have received a wonderful gift of a radio show. It is the least they can do to devote a few moments to the things that keep the station afloat.
- Never say goodbye. Listeners will take a terminal ‘goodbye’ as a cue to switch off. A better turn of phrase would be something like ‘I’ll be back next week but until then here is DJ Next with…’