There is a lot in this section and if you are new to the sector we would recommend that you read it all. If you need to jump about the section this is a clickable list;
- Getting a Group Together
- Key Partners
- Legal Matters
- Towards Your First RSL
- On Air At Last
- After The Storm
When you are new to community radio, the idea of running a full-time, licensed station with its own premises, paid staff, hundreds of volunteers and a financial turnover of up to six figures will seem like an impossible dream.
The success of the original pilot stations in the community radio sector prove that it can be done. Indeed the chances are that a station like the one you dream of has already has been created by someone very like you. It doesn’t need huge sums of money to get started. If you are good at what you do, you can find the money to do it and make that money work for you.
Over the next four chapters we will talk you through the processes involved in establishing a community radio station, pretty much from scratch. Remember there will be support and funding available from somewhere at every stage, if you find the right partners. Really this is all there is to it:
- Establish your community radio group, and be prepared to formalise/incorporate it into a social enterprise or charity
- Equip yourself with premises, resources and technical equipment.
- Conduct training, run temporary ‘RSL’ broadcasts, and begin to demonstrate your competence and worth.
- Convince OFCOM that you are the best-placed community radio group to broadcast in your area before anyone else does .
Doesn’t sound so difficult now, does it?
Getting a group together
A community radio station has to come from somewhere. While sometimes it will be the brainchild of an existing community group, very often it is dragged into being by the vision, drive and stubborn persistence of one or two enthusiasts (see box on right).
In his official evaluation of the 16 Access Radio pilots, Prof. Anthony Everitt noted that the stations were often founded or led by one charismatic and knowledgeable figure. Some of the characters he highlighted included:
Forest of Dean Radio (FODR). ‘ Roger Drury is the project’s founding figure. A community artist, with skills in circus, drama, writing, video/film and local history. He came to the Forest in 1986 and in the early 1990s heard about and researched RSLs. FODR ran the first of a series of RSLs in 1995 and,before the arrival of Access Radio, prepared a three-year business plan in the ‘vague hope’ that a long term community radio licence would eventually be achievable.
Angel Radio. ‘Tony Smith, one of the founders of Angel Radio, built his first transmitter at school: he went home during lunch and broadcast records to his fellow students. Later… he and his wife, Lorna Adlam, lived in a country area where there was no local radio service and set themselves up as pirate broadcasters. ‘Everyone knew we were pirates. The Department of Trade and Industry people only raided us on complaint. We used to leave a key in the front door for them.’
Sound Radio. ‘Lol Gellor was a song-writer, producer and musician, who later became interested in film and video. In the mid-1990s he worked for the multicultural arts promotion agency, Cultural Partnerships, for whom he produced his first RSL for the Clapton Park estate in Hackney in 1995. ‘Not coming from a radio background, I discovered what radio can be – a catalyst for the community.‘
New Voices, OFCOM 2003.
As with any such venture, a community radio station is unlikely to ever get off the ground without at least one enthusiastic ‘driver.’ But a station that leans too heavily on one individual is asking for trouble. Community radio is a group activity by its very nature. Unless the station is planted and embedded into the community by many, many roots it will become little more than an exercise in ego. Worse still, if the driving force is suddenly taken ill or is forced to withdraw from the project for other reasons, where does that leave the project?
So ask yourself about the community you are hoping to represent. Is it large enough and strong enough to sustain a radio station? Is it small enough that you can hope to serve it all? Typically, some single villages would be too small for a station, while most cities are too large and diverse to represented and helped effectively with one community station. Can your radio group claim to represent it all? Are you attempting to? What is your mission statement? Your group needs to broadly agree on these questions before you proceed any further.
In the early months or years your group may be little more than an informal association, with no more responsibilities than the local stamp collectors’ club.
Very quickly however you will wish to enter financial contracts with community partners, attract grant money, make binding promises to OFCOM and employ staff. To do so your group will have to formalise itself into some form of non-profit distributing company or charity, with named directors and a legally binding constitution (see Accountability).
The structure you choose needs to guarantee two protections:
- That the station will be managed competently, honestly and effectively.
- That the station truly represents the community it claims to represent.
Some stations will choose to combine these two functions into a single board. At others there will be some form of division into representative and operational groups. At ALL FM, for example, the representational functions are held by the Steering Group, who set the overall policies and directions of the station, while the Board of Directors take responsibility for supporting day-to-day decision making, supervision of staff and other operational matters. Different structures will suit different groups. Balancing a truly democratic structure with a truly operationally effective one is a delicate operation (see Accountability). Almost inevitably the more truly democratic and representative you are, the harder you will find it to make the type of sudden or brave decisions which are often needed to run a community radio station. Balance is all.
Running a community radio station requires many skills. Ideally your group will attract people with experience in the voluntary sector; project management; finance and accounting; company law; technical engineering; fundraising and maybe – just maybe – radio.
Your community radio group:
- Is essential – community radio cannot be made by individuals;
- Will need to give itself a legal structure;
- Needs to be representative of your community;
- Needs to ensure good management.
Of course some of these skills will (and must) be learned on your journey, but you will give yourself a huge head start if you can enthuse and involve members of your community who already have some of that knowledge. If you haven’t already got such people around (e.g. as volunteers or regular guests on your RSL’s), make a real effort to go out and find them.
Your group should also be broadly representative of your community. If you are in an ethnically diverse community this should be represented within your group. Try to get as good a mix as possible of ethnic backgrounds, social classes, faiths, and lifestyles. Even if your community is more homogenous, make sure you have a good spread of ages, gender, orientations, and disabilities – try not to forget anyone. Again, it is your responsibility to ensure they are involved, rather than their responsibility to find you.
But don’t get too carried away with the demographics, you don’t need 27% Ruritanians on the Board because there are 27% of them in the community – ‘due representation’ needn’t be mathematically correct.
As a community radio station, very few of your activities will be entirely self-contained. You will be at your most useful when you are working jointly with other groups, and other agencies and services. They may also have much to offer you, from premises or technical resources to specialist skills. The relationships you form may involve financial transactions (for example, health agencies which might pay you to broadcast their message) or they may be mutually beneficial arrangements (eg. the local theatre group with whom you can co-produce radio drama). These groups, institutions and services are what we call your ‘partners.’
How you approach them and get them involved will depend entirely on the circumstances, but often it will start off with something as simple as a phone call, explaining whom you are and what you want to do. You may be astonished at how little persuasion is required. After all, you have as much to offer them as they have to offer you. (see Dealing With Different Agencies) The other sure-fire way to get a group involved is to invite them in for an interview – there’s nothing like seeing, hearing and feeling community radio to make converts.
The nature of your partners will go a long way towards shaping the eventual nature of your radio station. In particular they will be the key factors in determining what forms your social gain will take – that is, how you will enable your community to improve itself. For example, if your radio station has committed itself to working with the elderly, you will want and need a lot of agencies, services and community groups who work with the elderly to get involved.
Whatever the nature of your community, top of the list of the partners you need is likely to be an education and training partner, typically a further education college. Ideally it should be an institution that can access funds from the Skills Funding Agency, which will enable your station to earn payments for the accredited training you will do (see Training).
High on your list should also be statutory/ mainstream services. Many of these are under the control of your local authority. Get the council on your side and doors will open. Fail to do so and you might be in for a very rough ride. Except in the most unlikely circumstances, you should not meet any council opposition. As a community radio station you have so much to offer them, your problem is more likely to be keeping them at bay and maintaining your independence. You must convince your service providers that they need you and that they don’t need to control you. (see Selling Services).
Precisely which statutory agencies you bring on board will depend on your community, but you should think of contacting education authorities; housing providers; health authorities, hospitals, health centres and health campaigns; community police service; schools, colleges, youth services and of course local regeneration and development committees. And don’t forget the less usual suspects – e.g. local utilities need to be able to communicate with their customers, chambers of commerce want an ‘in’ to members and would-be members and the business community might want to work with you to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility.
“When we first got involved in Wythenshawe FM I thought it might be a great way of letting people know what’s going on in the school, and what a busy active school we are. You might think that nobody listens to small community radio stations but then our children went over there and did a short show made up of interviews with local people, people from the school and so on. The next day I went to the bank and I met someone who’d been listening to it, and then I met a parent who works in a local factory and they’d had it on in there. You reach a lot more people than you think.
The children were writing down scripts, having to do a lot of research, devising interview questions, it is all good for their communications skills. And it makes a huge difference to their confidence to confront a different world of ICT and mass communications.”
John Gretton, Head teacher, St Anthony’s RC Primary School, Wythenshawe.
You may also want to think about involving the great and the good of your community. This may include MPs, councillors, ethnic and religious community leaders, and the other big players in local civic life. But be very careful whom you are involving yourself with. You should know your community well enough to find out the local political and personal rivalries. Avoid finding yourself becoming a political football or battlefield. In some circumstances it may be wiser to avoid the traditional ‘gatekeepers of the community’, find your own alternative routes and go to the movers and shakers when you have something to offer them – such as a 10km wide soap-box.. Politicians can also be held at bay, if need be, by the OFCOM rules about involvement of political parties in running stations
Be prepared for some complex community politics. In areas of large and complex cultural and ethnic diversity, be ready for delicate political and cultural rivalries between, and even within particular ethnic or religious groups. Within ALL FM’s area for example, there is a population of some 24,000 people purely of Pakistani origin. Just within that community there are many smaller social groups based on religious, class, political or geographical bonds, and these groups won’t always agree.
Faith representation in your community group is a controversial issue. Some radio groups are based almost entirely upon religious faith. Others forbid religious involvement altogether. There is no right or wrong approach. However, working relationships with churches, mosques, synagogues and temples can form powerful bonds with large sections of the community, both as listeners and volunteers. They can be a valuable resource for even the most secularly-minded project. A happy medium may be to allow faith groups to participate, but with a firm ‘no preaching’ rule (see Working With Religious Communities)
Local business should be considered and represented, although the nature of your station will probably determine whether that is in the shape of the local shopkeeper or the Chamber of Commerce. Think about relationships with the major local employers. Local trades union branches are likely to be very supportive, and can be financially generous. Tenants groups are another important link to the community.
Perhaps the most useful partners for any community radio station are local schools. Not only can you offer them enormous benefits, which are reflected in your social gain achievements but also they are an enormously satisfying way to use community radio. The benefits are fast and obvious to see. Moreover they are a fantastic way to reach new listeners. For every school with its own radio show, that is hundreds of children urging their parents to tune the family radio to your frequency.
And the benefits are mutual. Schools are now obliged to pursue broader community development. A community radio station makes a perfect arena for them to do so.
With so many agencies wishing to become involved in your station, there is a danger you might lose your own identity. This is yet another balancing act you need to perform. In all dealings with potential partners, you have to be clear that they are entering into a partnership to make community radio; they are not simply buying your airtime or resources as a platform for their propaganda. If they wish to buy advertising or airtime, that is one thing, but if they are to be true partners it is much better that they join in with the work and the fun.
Your key partners:
- Should include a training partner such as college;
- May also include council departments, public service providers, support agencies, community groups, schools, businesses and anyone else with whom you can form a important working relationships;
- Should play an active part in your station;
- Must recognise that your strength is in being you and so must not try to take over.
They should get their hands dirty at the station, just like every other participant. If the local community police officers want a radio show, for example, they should use it as an arena for community discussion and debate, not just for public information – ‘CommunityFM’ not ‘CopFM’. If they need persuading, ask them to consider which show would get more response. . They should also train, prepare and work hard to make it the best radio show they can, exactly as would be expected of any other volunteer.
And in particular beware of becoming overwhelmed by statutory services. You could easily find yourself becoming ‘Town Hall FM’, which would be in no one’s interest. One of the best pieces of advice we ever received was from a senior council officer, a good friend and supporter of Radio Regen, who is as well known for his sharp mind as he is for is his earthy vocabulary. As we were preparing to go on air with a project he commissioned, he said this:
‘Whatever you do, don’t make it sound like the #^%ing council.’
He, like anyone with common sense, knew that such a station sound would have listeners tuning out in droves.
As you progress, you will increasingly find yourself in need of resources. While you may be able to begin your training using the facilities of your partner college, for example, sooner or later you are going to need your own material resources. These include basic radio equipment which can be used to conduct your own training and which you can use on your first temporary stations or RSLs (see Your First RSL).
Eventually you will want to be the proud owner of an Aladdin’s Cave of technology (see Technical Matters). But for now you will probably have to scrabble your equipment together. Be shameless, ask local schools, colleges, recording studios, audio shops, musicians, professional DJs etc for spare equipment they have lying around, and you could soon find yourself with a
Your group will need:
- shameless blagging skills;
- studio and transmission equipment;
- premises, office equipment and a kettle.
basic set up of mixer, turntables, CD players and microphones, enough for your initial training and your first RSL. Sooner or later you will also have to buy your own transmitter. Other studio equipment can be cobbled together, but a transmitter must be dependable and not put you in danger of inadvertently breaching the OFCOM engineering code. (see Regulation) It is a worthwhile investment.
The bigger challenge is finding premises. You need an office, and if possible a training studio too. Preferably it should be somewhere volunteers can come and go at will, so definitely not in someone’s private residence. If you can find somewhere suitable to hold a broadcast studio, then so much the better, but that shouldn’t be your priority yet. You will also need some basic office equipment – computer, phone and don’t forget the kettle.
As a voluntary organisation, whether or not you are employing staff, you have a number of legal obligations that must be met. The laws are mostly there to protect your volunteers and staff, so you have not only legal obligations but moral ones too. Your most immediate concerns should be:
- Equal Opportunities in employment practices (including recruiting volunteers)
- Equal opportunities in provision of services
- Employment law
- Health and safety
- Insurance (especially public liability and employer’s liability insurance)
We are not legal experts, and it would be irresponsible of us to offer legal advice here. We strongly recommend seeking professional legal advice on every aspect of your start-up procedures. At the very least study the excellent advice in Sandy Adirondack’s Voluntary Sector Legal Handbook and the other references provided at the end of this section.
With the caveat that this is not legal but practical advice, we will however pay passing regard to perhaps the most important of these issues: health and safety.
Health and Safety
As soon as you have premises, whether temporary or permanent, you need to instigate a health and safety policy. This is not dry pedantry, it’s about stopping people getting hurt and suing you. The correct procedure to establish such a policy is as follows:
Your legal obligations:
- Are wide-ranging and must never be overlooked
- Should be explained to you by a lawyer, not by us.
- Include your health and safety practices.
- Carry out a risk assessment to identify risks to employees, volunteers, members of the public and anyone else who may enter your premises
- Use the results of your assessment to design a strategy to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety.
- Formalise this strategy into a health and safety policy
- If there are employees or volunteers below the age of 18, a specific risk assessment must be conducted.
- Display a Health and Safety Information poster in a prominent place.
- Register your organisation with the local authority environmental health department.
The Health and Safety Executive publishes a vast number of pamphlets and other sources of guidance towards good health and safety practices.
Please also look at our section on Law, Regulation & Policies
Towards your first RSL
Planning, preparation and organisation are all necessary, but let’s remember why we are doing this. Getting your community broadcasting to your community is what it is all about.
Getting on air is surprisingly easy. All you need to do is go to OFCOM’s website, download an application form for a Restricted Service Licence and you are away. RSLs are a close relative of community radio licences. They are granted to organisations to broadcast for up to 28 days with very localised transmissions, and are often used for special events – eg cultural festivals. Their other specific purpose is to allow groups who may wish to apply for another type of licence (either commercial or community) to have a trial period, either for training or market research purposes. In other words, RSLs are meant for people just like you. They can be booked up to a year in advance, and except at rare busy times (notably Ramadan) they are allocated on the basis of first-come first-served.
The fees involved in all the necessary licences will vary from broadcast to broadcast, but including copyright payments, they are normally somewhere in excess of £4,200 for the full 28 days. A shorter broadcast period is proportionately less expensive, so the cost is somewhere in the region of £150 per day. As we shall explain later in this chapter, RSLs are exhausting, and we would strongly advise that your first RSL periods should only be for three or four days. As your skills, confidence and experience grow, gradually build up the length of your licences.
“We had so many mad moments doing RSLs. I remember we had an MC-type presenter who swore all the time when he spoke. I kept saying to him look, when you go out on air, you cannot swear, and he promised me over and over that he’d be all right.
So when we go on air, we give him the mic, and he says:
‘Yo this is MC Sugar, welcome to Wythenshawe FM community radio on 87 point XXXXing 9.’
And although obviously you can’t have the swearing, it’s those kinds of personalities who make community radio what it is. If you try to make your station sound like another commercial station it will lose that, those personalities that you won’t find anywhere else.”
Christine Brennan, Project Manager, Wythenshawe FM
One unfortunate consequence of the granting of community licences is that there will now be fewer frequencies available for RSLs. That said OFCOM are committed to the principle of RSLs however, and promise to continue offering as many as they can. Availability will differ from area to area and on the time of year.
Your RSL broadcasts will serve three main purposes:
- To raise the profile of your station and attract more partners and volunteers;
- To give your group experience on and off air;
- To give your group motivation and achievements.
You will need to find a suitable location to broadcast from. While you may have space in your office, it is highly advisable for you to be as visible as possible. The ideal studio for a community group’s RSL is in the biggest shop window on the busiest street corner of your community. You want thousands of passers-by to see you are there, see what you are doing, and rush home to tune in their radios. Even better, you want them to rush in off the street and ask how they join in.
Make sure the venue you choose is not only visible but also accessible (especially for those with disabilities – you might be legally obliged to make provision). It must also have excellent public transport links. In multicultural communities it should be culturally sensitive – maybe not above a butcher’s shop, betting shop, massage parlour or pub, for example. Radio Regen’s many RSL broadcasts have been held with varying success in very different locations. Among the lessons we have learned are that:
- charity shops and cafes may let you sit in their windows;
- theatre foyers are good;
- libraries are great until the shushing starts;
- leisure centres can be good;
- leisure centres with a bar and snooker table can be bad.
Currently, a group can hold an RSL twice in any one year, plus a third time if it is to cover a specific event and doesn’t sound like your other two stations . So you could in theory be broadcasting for three months of the year before you need to even think about applying for your community radio licence.
To organise an RSL you need:
- To get through a simple application process and pay ‘the man’;
- To find suitable premises to broadcast from;
- Lots of advance publicity.
Make sure your broadcasts are well publicised. If you are only on air for a few days you can’t hope people will just find you on the dial. Organise leaflets and flyers. Aim for coverage in your local newspapers (and make sure they write about you before you broadcast, not just after). Use all the marketing and public relation skills you can muster. (see Managing Your Station)
Also, remember, please, that this is not just about radio. To get a full time licence you have to be able to prove that you can deliver social gain. Your first RSL might deliver stacks of it but if you’ve neglected to gather the evidence that you trained twelve refugees, three primary schools and a ball room dancing team, then you might as well have not bothered. The regulator and the funders can only support what you can proveyou have done so design those monitoring forms and ensure that someone is there to get them filled in and signed from Day 1.
On air at last
Maybe your first RSL broadcast will be the very model of project management. Perhaps it will be planned to the finest detail, weeks in advance, rehearsed to perfection and pulled off without a hitch. Perhaps all your organisers and volunteers will drift through the days on air in a state of Zen-like calm. Perhaps. But we doubt it.
In our experience the weeks leading up to your first RSL broadcast will be marked by a state of rising excitement as contributors frantically plan, abandon and totally redesign their output. Community partners will be pestering you about their shows and pre-recorded messages. The agencies which ignored your letters six months ago will begin to realise what they are missing out on and suddenly start phoning and demanding airtime. Civic dignitaries are sniffing around with a combination of curiosity and suspicion. As the adrenaline begins pumping you’ll be sleeping too little and drinking too much, while your friends and family haven’t seen you for so long they’ve sent out a St Bernard.
In the few days before the broadcast, tempers will begin to fray and panic set in as fuses blow in equipment and personnel alike. Someone will drop a CD player while taking it out of the van. Two of your most valuable group members will have an enormous argument about who ate the last Jaffa Cake and one will storm out in a barrage of obscenity just as the vicar drops by to say hello.
Then right at the point when you think it can’t get any worse, the clock ticks down to the big moment, the red light switches on, and the words ON AIR light up your studio. At which point things start to get really hairy.
Your RSL should:
- involve as much of the community as possible
- be exhausting, exhilarating and inspiring
- end with you handing out anti-depressants to the team to cope with the ‘downer’
The speech and music you are broadcasting will of course depend on your community, but look for programming that will give you maximum contact with the largest chunk of your community. Get schools involved. Conduct vox pop interviews on the street, making yourself as visible as possible. Hold debates about controversial community issues. Get a local celebrity along if you can. Be as ambitious as your imaginations, resources and budgets allow. When you are only on air for a short time, you will find your schedules fill up amazingly easily. Use every possible gap between records to mention your station name and tell people what you do. Your RSL is your showcase to your community. Use it as effectively as you can.
All the time you are on air will flash by in a blur. You will be surrounded by enthusiastic, energetic characters who are all bubbling with excitement, and you will find it hard to leave the studio. You may well end up sleeping on the floor of the studio, if you sleep at all. You will experience moments of wild elation and a sense of rare accomplishment.
Most community radio veterans will agree that RSLs offer more laughter, fun and sheer thrills than any other part of the community radio experience. The time limits focus everyone’s attention and knowing that it will soon end makes it feel extra special while it is happening. The most difficult part of running an RSL broadcast is maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm in the days and weeks afterwards.
It is well worth holding a de-briefing session a week or so after you go off air. You’ll probably be feeling the post-RSL slump, a combination of exhaustion and anti-climax. It may be hard to want to think about going to another meeting. So make it fun. Lay on cakes. Indulge in some rampant backslapping. Tell everyone how brilliant they were. Take stock of your achievements and congratulate yourselves.
If need be you should review what went wrong, but ensure it is done without any finger pointing or blame. If there’s been some kind of disaster, try to work out where your systems went wrong, not the individuals.
Ask yourself how well your RSL reflected and represented your community. How well did you involve the community? Did you read out an announcement about the Women’s Institute ‘Bring & Buy’ Sale, or did you get the ladies from the WI to learn how to edit their own report? Did you report on the community, from the community or as the community?
And most importantly, you need to remind yourself of your targets as a group. What are you going to do next? Are you going to plan for your full time licence or run another RSL? You don’t want to dally too long or you might miss your chance. Let everyone discuss it. In the meantime you can plan other activities that the volunteers can undertake with their new skills. They could prepare audio newsletter on CD every month, for example. Away from the studio there is fundraising, promotional events, administration, training, professional development for staff or potential staff – there is no shortage of tasks for your group to be getting on with.
After your successful RSL you should:
- get some sleep
- take stock, congratulate yourselves, plan your next move;
- offer your volunteers continuing support and development;
- keep busy;
- begin to operate as if you are a full time station.
One popular option is to run an Internet radio station. While you may not catch many listeners, it does have the huge advantage that your station will run more or less exactly as it would if it were broadcasting on an FM frequency, allowing you to set up the perfect structures for a successful community radio station. Ryedale and Drystone Radio are two good examples.
Whatever you do, you should have more than half an eye on the OFCOM regulations for a full-time community radio station. When you come to apply for your full time licence they will want to see your track record. So if you are going to claim you will create social gain, then you’ll need to have started making that happen. If you want to be a community radio station then you’ll need to behave like one. In other words look at the mandatory obligations for social gain (p **), work out how you can fulfil them and prove that you have done so.
Some community radio groups will be happy to run an occasional RSL, and have no great wish to expand beyond that. We wish them luck,.. But our experience is that groups which start as the pet project of a single enthusiast can soon gather their own momentum. As volunteers pick up experience and enthusiasm, as they see the benefits a station could bring to their communities. Persuading the genie to get back in the bottle is never an easy task.