Applying for your licence

Few prospects in community radio are less appealing than filling in an application for a full-time community radio licence. By the time you’ve visited the Ofcom website then downloaded and printed out the document (currently 35 pages plus 20 pages of accompanying notes and 16 pages of legal appendices) you may well have lost the will to apply, if not the will to live. You really need not panic.

If you are ready to run a community radio station,then completing the form should be a straightforward (if exhausting) process.

It is worth remembering how licensed community radio came into existence in the United Kingdom. No Government minister woke up suddenly with a burning passion to initiate it. Instead there was a lengthy process of lobbying and campaigning by the community media sector. This persuaded key politicians and officials that licensing radio stations could offer sustainable social improvements at little to no cost to the Government, and without causing financial damage to the commercial radio industry.

It was community radio activists who told politicians what community radio is, and what it can do. The Radio Authority, Ofcom and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport investigated our claims and with a handful of exceptions they accepted what they were told. The licence application form reflects that lobbying process. With the notable exception of what many feel to be the onerous protection given to small commercial stations, almost everything in it is there because the community radio sector has said that it should be there.

We, as the activists and creators of community radio,need the application form to be detailed. Community radio is a precious gift and if it is to flourish we need to cherish it and protect it. We need to ensure that community radio is used properly to offer access to the excluded, diversity to the airwaves and tangible benefits to the community, rather than simply as a tool of vanity or self-interest. Community radio frequencies are too valuable a resource to be wasted on the greedy, the frivolous or the incompetent.

When Ofcom look at your form they are using it to make three decisions:

  • Does what you are proposing match the legal definition of community radio?
  • Is your group in a position to run a community radio station for five years?
  • If there are more applications for licences in an area than there are frequencies available, would yours make the best community radio project?

In other words you must prove yourself on two fronts: against the basic standards that must be met by all community radio stations, and against rival groups from your own and neighbouring geographical areas. It is the latter which is the bigger potential hurdle for applicants. You could fill in an application that is comfortably good enough for Ofcom on its own terms, but still lose out to a better bid from another group that wants to broadcast to a different community on the same wavelength. While you shouldn’t panic about your application, equally you should not take it lightly. Filling in the form could be the single most important action you ever undertake with a community radio project.

Of course, Ofcom will have to check that there is a frequency available for you.  Sadly, in September 2004 the Government announced that where there is a small commercial radio station in an area, community radio stations will either not be licensed or will only be licensed with restrictions on advertising (Factbox 3:01) Obviously you should check frequency availability before you apply – the list of nearly 100 excluded areas is on the websites of Ofcom and the CMA.

FACTBOX 3.01

No go zones for community radio

In September 2004 the Government ruled that Ofcom could not license community radio stations if the coverage area for the proposed station overlaps by 50% or more with a commercial radio station that has a population of less than 50,000 adults within its measured coverage area (MCA).

If the proposed area of coverage overlaps by 50% or more with a commercial station with an MCA containing between 50,000 and 150,000 adults, Ofcom must include conditions prohibiting commercial advertising and sponsorship. This could apply even if the community radio station was licensed before the commercial station.

If you’ve found it hard to follow the above explanations, don’t worry, you only need to refer to the list on Ofcom’s website.

Also note that some of these restrictions may change subsequent to the review of community radio licensing planned for 2007 – check www.commedia.org.uk and www.communityradiotoolkit.net for details.

It may also be worth investigating which other community radio groups are active in your area. If your fledgling radio project is going to be competing against a long-running, well-established, well funded community radio station or group, you may wish to think about how your talents and ideas could be incorporated within the bigger project (or if you could take them elsewhere), rather than wasting the £600 fee on a proposal with little realistic chance of success. If you think you are on a par with a possible rival group it has to make sense to talk to them about a partnership or merger, as it is possible that only one of you will get a licence. The application form is testing because we need to be tested, and the challenge is a fair one. It is written mostly in plain English, there are no trick questions, and there is free advice to be had.  If you are ready to run a community radio station you will certainly be ready to fill in the application. Furthermore, the form
can itself be considered a useful guide to what is expected of you as a community radio station.  If you approach the process in a sensible manner, the form should be your friend.

The frequency of frequencies

The other consideration before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard is frequency availability. The availability spectrum runs from London where things are so squeezed that there might not be any other frequencies available after this year’s application round, through the other big cities (some of which might get hit with the same moratorium), to small cities, towns and villages where frequencies are more readily available. This may be incredibly unfair on your group if you are based in a big city – if you are so affected join the CMA and lobby to increase frequency availability.

That’s not to say that every village can get a wavelength, since the distance between stations with the same frequency needs to be pretty large – the nearest other community radio group might be 50 miles away but you may still be bidding for the same frequency. Still, the less built-up your area is the higher chance you have of getting a frequency. The ‘rub’ in all of these considerations is that not even Ofcom know whether you’ll be bidding for the same frequency as your far away neighbours, or if there are two, five or ten frequencies available for your area. So, ponder these factors, stick your finger in the air and get writing.

When should I apply?

As with just about everything else in community radio, timing your application is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand you do not want to apply before you are ready. You must have an active community or radio group up and running, you must have registered yourselves as a ‘body corporate’ (or have evidence that you are in the process of doing so), and you must have gained enough experience to make your application realistic. On the other hand, in many areas of the country available frequencies are scarce.

Licences last for five years. You could easily spend many years getting your funding perfectly in place, training up your staff and volunteers and building solid bridges within your community. But in the meantime, a brash, flash project with a fraction of your credibility but enough potential to satisfy Ofcom could nip in and win a community licence uncontested. It could be five years before you could apply again, and by that time your rivals will probably have built up a solid track record of their own, with all the added advantages of being an established broadcaster. You may never get your licence.

Helpfully, Ofcom has specified that a community licence can be applied for with a starting broadcast date of up to two years after the licence is awarded. So stations awarded a five-year licence in 2005 could delay the start of broadcasting until 2007 without having to shorten their licence period i.e. their licences could be valid until 2012.  Our advice would be to use this window, run a few RSLs as quickly as you can and then get your application in at the first opportunity with a later starting date if necessary.

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