Community radio is a greedy beast. However many resources – financial, material or human – you may have at your disposal, a community radio project will swallow them up, burp and ask for seconds.
Managing on low resources
A 24 hour commercial radio station might typically employ 30-40 full-time staff. A community station is attempting to produce a similar volume of output with many more broadcasters to manage, not to mention a host of additional social and pastoral responsibilities, with perhaps 10% of that number of paid staff. The demands for equipment, facilities and marketing resources are endless. What’s more, community outreach work, education, training, volunteer development and other social gainrelated activities tend to be self-generating – the better you are at doing them, the more people will seek your help. Sooner or later you have to draw a line under your spending. The question is how you can get the best results from the least expense.
Look at the big picture
While good management of a well-designed project can sometimes generate miraculous results from minimal resources, it is important that you give yourself a realistic chance. The overwhelming majority of station costs are entirely predictable. Hypothetically, if a station has an annual turnover of
£100,000, as much as £95,000 of the costs may be predicted in advance.
Expenditure can be categorised as ‘fixed’ or ‘variable’:
- Fixed costs – whatever you cannot change: rent, business rates, insurance etc.;
- Variable costs – some bills (especially telephone), emergency repairs, special events, stationery, marketing etc.
Staff costs are fixed when your employees are on permanent contracts, but will be variable if you have staff as freelancers or on temporary contracts. Like your expenditure, your income can also be described in different ways:
- General income – money which can be spent as you see fit. This may come from general fundraising, business activities (e.g. selling advertising or services) or general donations;
- Core funding – money you are given to keep your station running to cover the basic costs of staff salaries, premises etc.;
- Project funding – money which is provided for a particular purpose, such as running a community drama project or conducting outreach work with a specific section of the population.
While the vast bulk of your station income will go on staff salaries and fixed costs, it is often the apparently trivial budgets that cause most anguish. When a studio CD player breaks and there isn’t £100 spare to repair it, the stress and inconvenience caused can be out of all proportion to the money involved. We will return shortly to the larger picture of budget management, but first we’ll consider ways to keep your variable costs down.
Look after the pennies …
With several over-worked members of staff and dozens of enthusiastic volunteers coming and going at your station, it is incredibly easy for the petty cash supply to be eaten up, whether literally in the shape of chocolate-covered Hob Nobs, or metaphorically with a ready supply of blank minidiscs or stamps. At Radio Regen we try to avoid the use of petty cash altogether – maybe it’s just us but it never adds up at the end, and the time and aggro expended in trying to track down that missing receipt for teabags is just not worth the sums involved. Instead we use an expenses system which is pump primed by giving an expenses advance to those staff who buy a lot of teabags.
Someone at the station needs to make themselves deeply unpopular with their unashamed stinginess. While you really should supply your volunteers with a sack of teabags from the cash and carry, if they want to drink Lapsang Souchong they can bring their own. Keep an eye on the itemised bills and try to instil a culture of cost-awareness at the station – small details such as switching off lights and equipment in empty rooms or not filling the kettle to the top every time it is boiled will actually make a noticeable difference to the year’s electricity bills and will be a constant reminder to everyone at the station that money is tight (plus maybe saving an inch or two of the polar ice cap). There’s nothing as sobering as explaining that replacement ‘pop’ shields can’t be bought because the station spent too much on bottled water.
Make sure that all volunteers understand that if equipment is lost or damaged, it cannot always be replaced. Focus people’s minds on the need to treat every microphone and every machine with the utmost care and respect. And keep a very tight eye on your phone bill. This is one expense that can suddenly rocket if someone at the station – whether thoughtlessly or selfishly – makes some long calls to a mobile phone or overseas (our record at Radio Regen to date is a £54 call made to the Congo). You may want to consider blocking calls to such numbers on the station phone, if you can.
Never pay for anything you can get for free
One of the great strengths of community radio is that people want to help. A station manager needs to be utterly shameless in asking for favours, donations or freebies – just remember “It’s for charidee!” If your team of volunteers includes a joiner and you have a broken door, just ask (see Voxbox 6.01). If the volunteer is happy to use their skills to help you out, that’s fantastic. But always be gracious with refusals – it isn’t fair to pressurise someone into working for you for nothing, even if they do get a show once a month.
Check whether there is any form of LETS (Local Exchange Trading Scheme) operating in your area. These schemes allow individuals and groups to trade skills and services for tokens instead of cash, and as a radio station, you have a lot to offer. You could, for example, run a regular slot about services needed and offered on the scheme on your community programmes, in return for an agreed number of tokens which could be traded in for maintenance work or other basic favours.
Some newcomers to radio imagine that buying records and CDs is a major cost for radio stations. In fact there should be no need to spend a single penny on them. Record companies employ publicists (either on their own payroll or contracted specialists, called ‘pluggers’ in the trade) specifically to send new releases to radio stations. At present, some record labels are more willing than others to include community radio stations on their mail-out of new music. Some are yet to be convinced that a community station is anything more than a hobby project or pirate. As the sector grows in volume and profile we would hope this should change. One significant development is the arrival of free download services specifically aimed at the radio industry such as www.musicpointuk.com, which allow record labels to get their music to you without even the cost of postage. Small independent and specialist labels might not routinely send out promotional music, but they also tend to be flexible if your station is offering to publicise their music for free. As ever, if you don’t ask you don’t get.
“The building we are in now was an old boatshed that we renovated. When we first came in there were no partitions, no doors, no floorboards in some places. It was horrendous. We had a lot of help – many of our volunteers are tradesmen, plumbers, joiners and so on. They helped us, and we give them some advertising, so it benefits them as well as us.” Kathleen MacIver, Station Co-ordinator, Isles FM, Stornoway
Never do something for free if you can get paid
With your place at the very heart of your community, you will regularly be approached by other groups, agencies, businesses, charities etc. wanting you to do things for them, whether it’s broadcast a message, publicise an event, or borrow your facilities. There is always a temptation to say yes, especially to well-intentioned community projects or charities. But don’t assume that these groups are completely cash-strapped. Their staff have probably read a similar book to this one and are following the maxim above: ‘never pay for anything you can get for free.’ Don’t be embarrassed to ask them if they have a budget available for publicity or hire of facilities. If they have, then you are entitled to your share. If they haven’t, you may well end up agreeing as a favour anyway, but try to get an assurance that the favour will be returned in some way at a later date. If you are offering a service to another group you may wish to try a pilot scheme first for a minimal or zero charge, but be clear what is being offered and for how long. If the arrangement is to continue, then
you are entitled to be asking for payment.
Asking for payment from like-minded groups shouldn’t trouble you – they can always say no, and you’ll be no good to them if you go belly up by being too generous with your services. Even if nothing comes back to you, the request is a way of placing value on the services you offer.
Help each other out …
The nature of a community radio station is that everyone tends to muck in together. If you save money by not hiring a cleaner, it is incumbent on everyone to do some cleaning occasionally (Voxbox 6.02). More seriously, a large number of the tasks required to run a station fall outside the remit of any one particular member of staff. The words ‘someone else’s problem’ or ‘more than my job’s worth’ should never be uttered at a community radio station, everyone needs to support everyone else and one person’s problem is everyone’s problem.
“A woman from a funding agency visited the station for a meeting early one morning, and when she arrived I was doing the hoovering. My colleague introduced us and we chatted for a bit. Then she asked me what my job was and I told her ‘station manager’. She looked really puzzled, and asked ‘so why are you doing the hoovering?’ I answered, ‘because the floor was dirty.’ Alex Green, Station Manager, ALL FM, Manchester
… but not too much
It is very easy for staff members to get sucked into a tornado of minor tasks – nailing down loose carpets, hoovering (!), settling personal squabbles, undertaking lengthy face-to-face support with troubled volunteers etc. It is crucial that paid staff remember what it is they are being paid to do. Your station will thrive or struggle according to your performance in your key tasks. If an employee is being paid to conduct outreach work and liaison with other community groups, then that is what he should spend his time doing. If he can do that well, and still have time left over to help a volunteer make a jingle then so much the better, but the work must be prioritised.