Making waves

Broadcasting everything from African politics to programmes for pensioners, community radio stations have become an important feature of the media landscape.

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“This is a community radio station so listeners’ requests always get played first. Working in the studio, playing music and interviewing people is great but Phoenix Radio is also like a big family as we are all in it together and keep in touch with one another. I have benefited enormously from being involved,” says presenter Duncan Craig as he broadcasts from a small recording studio in Halifax.

Craig volunteers on three shows a week at Phoenix Radio, located in what was once the largest carpet factory in the world. His obvious passion is replicated right across the community radio sector, where the enthusiasm, commitment and skills of thousands of volunteers help create a wide range of programmes enjoyed by millions of listeners. But the future for the broadcast medium remains uncertain unless new funding streams can be found.

“I take my role seriously and ask tough questions as I’m representing the listener.”

Community radio serves localities or specific interests – or both – and is the newest of three models of radio broadcasting, the others being public service and commercial. In the UK the dominance of the public broadcaster was first challenged by pirate radio stations in the mid-1960s with some stations such as Radio Caroline broadcasting from ships in international waters. Most were forced off the air by government legislation but some sought official recognition.

The Community Radio Association was founded in 1983 to represent stations but it was not until 2002 that the Radio Authority issued 15 licences for ‘access radio stations’. In March 2005 Ofcom, the new media regulator, began to grant full licences for community radio. A fund was established by the government and today there are 246 community radio stations listed with Ofcom.

Bradford Community Broadcasting (BCB) was one of the original access stations in 2002. The multicultural station has gone from strength to strength and broadcasts 24 hours a day, locally on 106.6FM and online. Its packed schedule, including specialist music programmes and local sport, is made possible by the involvement of over 200 volunteers.

Tareck Ghonheim, a fan of Gilles Peterson, James Brown and Gil Scott-Heron, presents the music show Sticks and Stones on Friday evenings and a live music show on Saturdays. His shows blend in what Ghonheim calls conscious commentary.

“I love community radio as one of my main influences is Sly Stone and that is how he got into music,” he says. “I have worked on mainstream media but on community radio you have more freedom to express yourself and as music comes from the heart that’s important to me.”

Ann Morgan, who has volunteered at BCB for many years, does everything from outside broadcasts at Bradford Comic-Con – where she interviewed Colin Baker of Doctor Who – to presenting the Drive Show at 4pm-6pm each Tuesday.

“I enjoy a challenge,” she says. “You never know what you are going to be covering when you come in, as news changes quickly. I particularly enjoy politics. I take my role seriously and I ask tough questions as I see myself as representing the listener. I ask the questions that I feel they would like to ask of the people I am interviewing.”

Jonathan Pinfield, BCB’s broadcast manager and head of sport, co-ordinates all the schedules and works with a small paid team of staff to support the presenters. “It’s a massive challenge to keep the station running every hour of the week,” he says. “There are 84 programmes and they are only made possible through the willingness, goodwill, creativity and hard work of large numbers of active volunteers, who also have to undertake training before they start broadcasting.

“It is a testament to everyone involved that we can bring together a unique range of programmes that reflect Bradford and its diverse population. We have got people from all backgrounds, including a group of people with learning disabilities called the Radio 119 project who are broadcasting their own programmes.”

But BCB struggles to cover its running costs. It costs £50 an hour to run the live programmes on the station between 8am and 1am each day. The station currently brings in around half that figure. Like other community radio stations, BCB raises the majority of its income by providing specific broadcasting training for groups and individuals.

According to Dominic Birch, BCB’s chairman: “A lot of these funding streams, including European, local and national government grants, have declined noticeably in recent years and there is intense competition within the voluntary, charity and third sector for those grants still available.

“We have also lost our 80 per cent discretionary rate relief from Bradford Council at the same time as our rateable value has doubled to £30,000. You can see why, as the council has lost hundreds of millions in funding from central government since 2010.

“We are applying to become a registered charity as this should bring in different income streams. I am proud of all our achievements but currently we are existing on our reserves. We have no right to survive unless we bring in money.”

Located 10 miles from BCB, Phoenix Radio, just outside Halifax town centre, serves the community of Calderdale. Howard Priestley, manager since 2007, established the station and remains its mainstay. He works two days a week as a teacher and is employed for three days at Phoenix. With money tight he also does a lot of unpaid administrative work for the station.

“I set up the station because of my interest in music and community participation. We currently reach 80,000 local listeners and I believe we help break down isolation by connecting communities and letting them know what’s going on locally. We do bulletins on the arts and sports scenes and publicise events and activities that listeners can attend and get involved in.”

Phoenix has around 85 volunteers who, according to Priestley “improve their confidence and communication skills, fulfil some of their ambitions to make and broadcast programmes, and have lots of fun”.

Volunteer Duncan Craig, who was once homeless for two years in Manchester, says: “I am an alcoholic who lives one day at a time. Doing this is part of a number of goals I want to achieve, including writing my autobiography.

“Working in the studio, interviewing people and playing music is great. But Phoenix Radio is also like a big family as we are all in it together and keep in touch with one another locally.”

On the day Big Issue North visits, Craig interviews local singer-songwriter Rachel Adams. “I was chatting about my songs, some of which Duncan broadcast,” she says. “I enjoyed it and it helps publicise my live shows.”

Like BCB, ALL FM (Ardwick, Longsight, Levenshulme FM) in south Manchester was one of the original access stations in 2002. The wide variety of programmes includes shows in Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and Punjabi. There is also an African politics discussion show, which is listened to online in parts of Africa where open political discussion is suppressed. There is also a Friday afternoon show for young African women who are often overlooked by major commercial or public radio stations.

The Chilled Out programme on Thursdays is presented by three local women. Natalie Singh, who has a performing arts background and has always been interested in radio, had previously been unable to attend ALL FM’s training programme for new volunteers after her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“The station is very well known locally and it really does champion local events and people,” she says. “I did the training in June 2016 and then began developing a show with my colleagues, neither of whom I knew previously. I do the what’s on guide and play some music, including Louis Armstrong.”

One of Singh’s co-presenters, Ruth O’Reilly, began listening to ALL FM when her mother, who she cared for full time for 15 years, became too ill to watch TV and switched to listening to radio. “‘My mam was Irish and she listened to the Irish Show. When she died and the opportunity to be trained arose I took the chance to get involved and I have not regretted it. The training is very thorough and it covers the technical side, how to work out your content and any legal issues.”

Like all community radio stations, ALL FM must ensure that no one presenting a programme says anything that might bring the station into disrepute. Community radio stations are expected to remain politically neutral, although political discussions are not banned and many stations held studio debates last year in the lead-up to the EU referendum.

Jason Cooke, ALL FM’s trainer and volunteer support worker, says: “We have a 7-8 per cent share of the radio listening figures for south and east Manchester. We attract good numbers because we have always had a high bar on what gets broadcast. Anyone who gets involved appreciates this and wants to match it by producing quality shows. We help them make the step-up by providing 30 hours of top-class quality training.”

Don Berry, a retired teacher who was highly impressed when he undertook the training three years ago, co-produces a weekly show, Vintage Radio, for older people. “There was a real mix of groups involved, including ethnic minority groups, who are often unable to have their voices heard on radio,” he says.

ALL FM’s Clem Monaghan, Moz Walsh and Fabz Khan plan their forthcoming shows. Photos: Rebecca Lupton

“If you listen to ALL FM you will hear an immense range of voices as the station really is embedded in the local community. It also highlights the really good things going on rather than what you often hear about the area in other media outlets, which largely feature crime incidents.”

ALL FM is now looking to make its training more commercially attractive to the business community. Station manager Ed Connole is hoping that this will help bridge the gap between income and expenditure that has widened because of the decline in training grants.

“We have already run training for, among others, Pixel 8, a brand marketing company, and Coffee Cranks, a workers’ co-operative. Company employees arrive around 11am and the programme they make goes live at 4pm.

“Achieving this is a brilliant way of getting a team of people to effectively work together. It crystallises roles and responsibilities.

“We generally work with two trainers, with one team learning the technical side in the studio and the other planning the show by writing little scripts, interviewing one another and organising discussions. Then we swap roles. Broadcasting the work is also part of our commitment to giving people access to the airwaves.

“We cannot afford to sit back. Community radio stations like ours are loved by many and we have a responsibility to our listeners that requires us to develop new funding streams. I am confident we – and other stations – can do that.”

A mark of the popularity of community radio was Salford City Radio’s recent success in hitting a £10,000 crowdfunding target, in order to meet Ofcom’s strict rules on renewing the broadcast licence, with time to spare. The money raised will help secure the station’s future after the loss of grants threatened to take it off air.

But Gerry Sutcliffe, former Labour culture minister and Bradford South MP – who in 2007-2010 had responsibility for overseeing community radio – remains concerned. “Community radio stations, which really give local people a chance to develop their skills, may find it very difficult to survive. I think a similar fund to that which was established in 2005 to help make community radio stations possible may need to be considered.”

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