Practical problems for rural community radio

The distant spread of a rural community doesn’t just bring problems with transmission and reception, it also creates problems with participation. Volunteering on a project is a much less practical prospect if it is many miles away, particularly for those without a car. If a station is to be truly accessible to everyone in the community, it must make extra efforts to make participation possible for everyone, no matter which part of the area they live in. Possible solutions include:

  • Multiple studios. This is not a cheap option, but establishing additional studios brings your station closer to more distant parts of the community. Different studios could host different shows, or whole days or evenings. Ideally there would be a part-time worker (at least) based in each, conducting local outreach work and community development. Forest of Dean Radio has no fewer than five studios, reflecting the unusual population spread of the area.
  • Outreach work. Even if your facilities can’t extend to full extra studios, it would still be useful to have link workers with responsibility for outreach in other towns or villages, encouraging local involvement. Paid workers would be the preferred option but trusted volunteers could also take the role.
  • Encouraging volunteers to pre-record items and shows from their homes or in the community. With a lap-top or a mini-disc recording and editing kit, it is possible to make a radio show without going near a studio. Pre-recorded output could be transferred by broadband or ISDN if facilities exist, or courier, post or carrier pigeon if they don’t.
  • Use the phone. Radio production convention discourages the use of phoned-in features, except for public phone-ins and urgent breaking news. It’s true the sound quality can be poor, but the advantages to a community station definitely outweigh such purist concerns. Volunteers from remote areas can be trained in news gathering, reporting, scripting and broadcasting, then phone in their own village news to ‘Round the Region’ type shows.
  • Invest in outside broadcast equipment. There are a variety of encoder/decoder (codec, in the jargon) systems on offer that can allow you to take your studio to the community, whether that’s in a field or at a village fête. POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is a relatively inexpensive system that allows you to send a live broadcast direct across a simple telephone line (even a mobile) and can be powered by a car battery.

Even if all these steps and more are taken to involve the whole community, there will be other problems:

  • It is harder to offer support and assistance to your volunteers if you rarely see them. It is easy, but a mistake, to think that just because a volunteer records a brilliant show once a week and never complains, everything is automatically rosy. You may need to make extra efforts to see every volunteer face to face occasionally.
  • There may not be such a ‘family’ feel to your station if many of the volunteers never meet or see their colleagues. Regular meetings and social events are essential to bring the group together.
  • Local rivalries may remain. If your station is based in Village A, you can be sure some residents of Village B will be slightly distrustful and be more reluctant to get involved. Extra efforts must be taken to establish a sense of ownership across the whole of your community.
  • Sections of your community may remain elusive. However hard you try, it is never possible to engage with every member of any community. This can be especially true in the countryside where some of the people who could benefit most from hearing or making community radio may be literally out of sight and out of mind. Establish partnerships or friendly relationships with all agencies, groups and services in the area, and always look for new ways to reach the further corners of your community.

Funding and finance

Rural community radio stations face the same perennial problems in raising cash as their urban cousins, and of course will find similar solutions (see Chapters 13, 14 and 15). Rural stations will mostly survive through a combination of:

  • Grant funding;
  • Service contracts;
  • Advertising and sponsorship;
  • Training revenue;
  • Donations and community fundraising.

In each case, there are some marked differences in availability for rural stations compared to cities. Grants

There are some streams of funding that are appropriate for rural areas. These include:

  • Regional regeneration funds. There are four statutory rural development plans, one for each country of the UK. Each is devolved to regional funding programmes. At a more local level, every rural regional authority should have a Rural Renaissance Partnership in operation, which will also have some grant-awarding powers.
  • Arts Council(s). The Arts Council of England and other UK equivalents have an obligation to ‘rural proofing’ – demonstrating that they are supporting arts and culture in rural areas. This opens possibilities for rural stations, not just for creative projects (drama, music etc.) but also for support for arts-based discussion, debate and listings shows. But before you get too excited, the Arts Council still shows a remarkable reluctance to fund community radio itself – make sure your idea is an ‘arts’ idea that happens on community radio rather than just plain old community radio.
  • National Lottery Heritage Fund. This has a wide remit and many community radio projects in rural areas are well placed to support their aims of preserving the ‘buildings, objects and environment of the United Kingdom.’ This is particularly true in National Parks and other protected regions. Before proceeding with any bid to this pot, do find out exactly how much core funding they will provide – it is our understanding that the Heritage Lottery Fund are currently reluctant to offer much.
  • Agricultural support organisations. From the NFU to the Soil Association, there are many farming-related organisations with much to gain from community radio.

And don’t forget all the options discussed in Chapter 14 above.

Service contracts

If anything, the possibilities for contracts and service level agreements are probably better in rural areas than urban. Statutory agencies are typically more remote from their clients, have greater practical problems with service provision and giving out information, and very often there will be far fewer community groups and social enterprises tendering for contracts.

As anywhere, it is worth building strong relationships with other voluntary sector organisations and statutory agencies, which may involve offering free involvement – whether presenting shows or just reading press releases – as a way of demonstrating your usefulness in the early days. Build partnerships but be wary of selling yourself short. Always remember that your broadcasts have a tangible value in enabling agencies to do their job better.

Advertising and sponsorship

In urban areas, companies and agencies benefit from a concentration of listeners, allowing them to reach thousands of potential customers within walking distance of their business. If the station serves a community of interest – for example members of a particular ethnic group – then the potential for advertising revenue is very strong. In rural areas, a particular trader may operate many miles away from most listeners and would see the benefits of advertising as being limited – probably quite rightly.

The experience of rural community radio thus far seems to have been that advertising will never bring in more than a useful top-up income. It is unlikely to ever become a viable route to financial stability. However, businesses in rural areas have a vested interest in supporting the social and economic regeneration of their community. Corporate social responsibility applies to small local companies as well as multinationals. It makes sound business sense for companies to invest in projects that are helping to improve the quality of life and economic prospects for their customers, and of course it is good for a firm’s public image to be seen to be supporting community efforts – especially in small tight-knit communities where word of mouth travels fast – good news fast, bad news faster. Small scale sponsorship of a show or broadcast strand can be inexpensive by itself, but if say twenty local businesses were to commit themselves to just £20 a week, that would raise enough to employ an extra member of staff.

Education, training and access to technology As with any community radio station, training income is likely to be a vital part of the revenue mix. In cities there will usually be several local colleges and countless independent projects offering various courses in ICT, media studies, sound engineering, audio production etc., all of which compete for the attendance of local trainees.

In rural areas, a community radio station is likely to have far fewer rivals for its training provision. It is worth establishing what types of courses are already provided in your area, and tailoring your training to fit the gaps. This may mean offering training not only in radio production and broadcasting, but in other related skills, from literacy and numeracy to basic ICT. Of course this is dependent on their being enough local people wishing to train. Stations in small rural communities may struggle to recruit enough trainees to make a training regime viable.

Similarly, your capacity for raising additional income through audio production services and the like will be assisted if you are the only project in the area with the capability to offer such services.

Community fundraising

Your ability to raise money in your community will probably depend upon two principle factors:

  1. The usefulness of your station – if you make yourself essential to your community through your activities and broadcasting, then donations will flow;
  2. The affluence of your community. Whilst some of the residents of your rural area may be economically disadvantaged, there may be a broader mix of lifestyles and income brackets compared to an inner city area like Moss Side or Hackney.The usual fund-raising rules apply.

Common sense would suggest that rural stations may have better prospects for benefit events, membership schemes, ‘friends of’ clubs and the like (see Voxbox 16.02), although only more time – and more rural community radio stations – will confirm whether this is true in practice.

Rural programming

Of course no two rural communities are identical, and different stations must find a programming schedule that provides what the community wants and needs. However, a big clue to your programming policy will come from Ofcom’s insistence that a community radio station should offer programming that is not supplied by existing local non-BBC broadcasters. With fewer commercial stations on rural airwaves, this means many gaps to be filled. A community station’s priorities are likely to include:

  • Local news. A community radio station may be the only media source that covers local developments with the care and concern which rural residents would like. The national and regional media may arrive in force when a pig escapes from a slaughterhouse (yes, Forest of Dean again), but are utterly disinterested in stories of real concern to local people, such as the closure of a primary school or the opening of a new health facility. It has been the experience of rural community radio in Australia that the ‘merger-mania’ that has swept commercial radio has often left them the only station in town. As ownership liberalisation takes hold in the UK expect a similar effect here. Recent Ofcom changes mean that even if there is a local commercial station, it is less likely to have a local newsroom, so a community station’s role in this field is even more vital.
  • The weather. In agricultural and inaccessible areas, weather forecasts take on an importance that is alien to city-dwellers. And of course British people everywhere love talking about the weather.
  • What’s on and listings. Scattered communities will often find it difficult to keep each other informed about events, concerts, fêtes and other occasions that can do so much for community cohesion and quality of life. This must be a cornerstone of rural radio.
  • Sports features. Local sports teams and clubs play an important part in community life in many areas, and if they aren’t competing in professional national leagues they are usually ignored – even by the regional media. You can be sure that any weekend programmes following local leagues will be very popular.
  • Local interest features. These can be about issues of serious importance, such as the affordability of housing, environmental issues such as quarrying, forestry, wind farming or GM crops in the area, or issues of particular local interest in public health and social welfare (such as teenage pregnancy rates or lack of provision for the elderly). There will also be issues which look trivial to outsiders, but that are hotly debated topics in the local pub or the letters page of the local paper. Should sheep roam free or be fenced in their fields? You decide.
  • Cultural heritage. As our countryside changes, many rural communities feel that their local heritage is being lost and forgotten. There’s a value (and of course great interest) in programming based around local dialects, local history, myth and legend and other aspects of cultural wealth that would once have been passed down through word of mouth in closely-knit families. One of the highlights of Radio Regen’s only rural RSL, in the Lancashire village of Chipping, was discovering that a local tenant farmer and farmers’ spokesman was also an accomplished poet.
  • Local arts and culture. Musicians, performers and artists may have few available outlets in their home territory. With few galleries, theatres or live music venues in the area, a community radio station may have an additional role to play in nurturing, supporting and publicising local talent.
  • The community’s place in the wider world. Never forget that rural areas have their part in the national and international picture. People from all areas attend national demonstrations or pop festivals, travel abroad as aid workers, get elected to parliament, or otherwise contribute their own shards to the daily mosaic of global events. There will be a local angle to any major news story – and you can highlight that without resorting to the approach of the (sadly apocryphal) local newspaper headline after the Titanic sank: Aberdeen Butcher Lost At Sea.

Marketing and branding

It is difficult for any community radio station to get itself noticed, particularly in the early days. That task is even harder across a wider area. Some useful steps include:

  • Going out and about. There is no substitute for getting out and meeting people face to face. A new community radio group should have a stall at every village fête and school fair, or anywhere large numbers of people are assembled.
  • Promotional events. Organising concerts and social evenings can be a useful fund-raising policy, but can be equally useful in raising awareness of your station and creating an identity for yourself.
  • Posters and notices. These need to be placed across the relevant area, in shops, pubs, village halls etc. It’s not enough to blitz the major market town and assume everyone will see your publicity eventually. They may do, but the impression you will give will be of a centralised project that is excluding remote residents. If you can persuade supportive landowners to let you erect posters or placards in strategic roadside locations then so much the better.
  • Use the power of partner schools
  • A ‘supporters club’ could come into its own in a rural context – as supporters display promotional material and deploy that most awesome of marketing weapons – word of mouth.

Of course all the usual advice about publicity materials, on-air branding, media relations and so on holds just as true in rural areas as anywhere else.

Further reading and links:

Rural development resources

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