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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Radio for the people
Britain has a new kind of radio station: small scale, neighbourhood affairs, run by and for local people with (in theory at least) a quite different ethos from either the BBC or conventional commercial radio.
In the past few months all but one of 16 "access radio" stations licensed under a pilot scheme by the Radio Authority have gone on air.
There's a station for the over-60s in Havant, one for children in Leicester, one for Christians in Stoke-on-Trent and one for Asian listeners in Nottingham.
There are stations serving Wythenshawe in Greater Manchester, Pontypridd and Belfast.
The last three to go on air are typical of the range: Forest of Dean Community Radio in Gloucestershire, Sound Radio for east London and New Style Radio for the black community in Birmingham.
All are meant to be non-profit-making, locally controlled and locally run (mainly by volunteers) and financed by a mixture of advertising, grants and fund-raising from listeners.
They are just the kind of community stations for which a small band of idealists and enthusiasts have been lobbying for years.
Since this is an experiment, the Radio Authority has recruited an evaluator to assess it and report early next year.
Anthony Everitt is a former secretary-general of the Arts Council, and is already hugely enthusiastic about what he has seen after visiting all 15 of the stations on air.
He expected, he says, to meet a lot of anoraks. Instead he found most of the stations had empowered individuals and groups in their local communities.
Most, he says, sit at the centre of a complex web of relationships within the community; most have more volunteers wanting to help than they expected (more, in some cases, than they can handle); and many have produced good programme ideas.
The station broadcasts round the clock: overnight the programming is automated, but there is always one volunteer on the station to take calls from elderly listeners who may be lonely.
At Radio Wythenshawe they found a way to provide early morning traffic news without spending any money: an enterprising 12-year old cycles to a local motorway bridge and counts the cars.
Many of the projects are run by people who cut their teeth and gained valuable experience running temporary stations under the Radio Authority's RSL - restricted service licence - scheme.
The experiment has not been without its problems. Many stations took longer than expected to come on air because the Radio Authority had difficulty getting permission to use the frequencies or because of delays getting planning permission for transmitters.
Several discovered the hard way that setting up a radio station is not as easy as it looks.
The latest edition of Airflash, the newsletter of the Community Media Association, includes a rueful account by Andrew Jones of GTFM in Pontypridd of the unexpected problems his station encountered.
It grew out of the residents' association on the Glyntaff council estate and teamed up with the local university, intending to broadcast from one studio on the estate and one on the campus.
But the launch date had to be delayed three times because of differences with the university, technical problems and the need to raise funds.
For a time it proved impossible to broadcast live from the studio on the estate because it couldn't be linked to the transmitter.
"We didn't realise how many things could potentially go wrong," he writes.
There are also questions about the future of these stations. Will the initial enthusiasm last? Will stations be able to find funds and develop the skills needed to broadcast over the long term?
Tony Stoller, chief executive of the Radio Authority, acknowledges another issue.
The stations have been licensed by the authority, under a government-sanctioned scheme meant to run for only one year. But if they are successful, it seems a shame to shut them down.
Stoller will not say whether that will happen or not.
But there is a suggestion that when the year ends the licences should be extended temporarily until such time as the new Ofcom is up and running, when the existing stations will be invited to compete for new, permanent licences along with the rest of the 200 groups who originally expressed interest.
But for that to happen the Communications Bill setting up Ofcom would need to have passed its second reading, with the clauses establishing access radio and a special fund to help pay for it still intact.
That is likely, but not guaranteed. These pioneering community radio stations must hope the government keeps to its legislative timetable.
If it does not, all their hard work may come to nothing.
A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.
Contact Nick Higham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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