Community Radio opinion piece: The current regulation system helps nobody

Former commercial radio executive and Alfred founder Keri Jones says a change is needed when it comes to regulation over community radio.

He writes:

“Community radio regulation needs to change to a fairer, flexible regulatory regime. But there’s much room for improvement within stations. And I’d argue for a changed focus on quality and meeting the community’s needs, rather obsessing on hours delivered and where programme content comes from. The current system of marking the hours and minutes that were offered up for listeners, or were missing, helps nobody.

The recent debacle over Ribble FM appalled me. Community stations are poorly resourced financially, and in terms of volunteer time. They didn’t need the grief of having to successfully argue that the presenter was within the MCA because of. A ‘technical change’ to the coverage map. The presenter was ten miles from Clitheroe, Ribble FM HQ. Does it even matter? Because you could get someone sitting in front of a mic, reading out the phone book. They’d be compliant. It would be local- but dreadful.

However, if you did an hour with your local MP at The Commons, it wouldn’t meet your produced within your MCA target. It’s madness because listeners neither know nor care.

And all that quibbling over Ribble FM not delivering an hour or two of local programming at the weekend. It still offered much more than most commercial services!

I’d suggest there needs to be a looser format, a statement of intent. Stations commit to broadly what they’re going to be doing but don’t get bogged down in the finer details and the niggling points about hours, whether things were recorded locally or not. It’s what comes out of the speaker and its relevance to the audience that matters, surely?

Radio is essentially a commodity. Like a shop. If I go into Pret, and on that occasion there isn’t my favourite cheese and pickle sandwich, I’m disappointed. But I don’t complain. There’s no regulator. I can’t raise it with OfBap. I broadly know what else is on offer from that brand.

Sometimes there’s a salmon and cream cheese thing or a falafel wrap. Like an eatery—and I’ve never used that word before—a community radio station should just set out what kind of outlet it is, a sense of what it offers, why it’s different to Costa FM or Subway FM. And then give the approximation of ‘opening hours’, which can vary. Because I’ve seen Pret shops shut early due to staff shortages too.

There are no longer the small independent commercial stations to protect. Chances are, if you’re on air, the community radio is the only local service. Keep the not-for-profit element. I get that it’s important. And every station already finds a way to a deliver social gain – so retain that. But it’s time-wasting paperwork over the minutiae of not-delivering agreed hours that wastes human resources and demotivates already-exhausted volunteers. That needs addressing. The regulator needs to know it’s bloody tough running a community radio station.

This won’t go down well, but I’d bring in an alternative regulatory approach. Like Pret managers expecting their food hygiene standards to be graded out of five, community stations should be encouraged to focus on what comes out of listeners’ speakers. Ok, a regulator needs to regulate.

Maybe they could instead pay attention to how stations have thought through what they have done on-air- with stations explaining relevance in relation to their proposition. Give them marks, like food ratings – or an Ofsted. Encourage better standards. Because in the time when other media has been eroded, strong community media is important. There are great examples of community radio, there’s a lot more rubbish out there. But it is compliant under the tickbox system.

I listened to one hour of a West Country community radio station at 11 am on a Sunday playing back-to-back music. There’s nothing wrong with jockless sequences, per se. It’s how you do it. Some stations make them into an art form. Remember the original Jack in Bristol or the former Manchester DAB service Max, where the liners provided engaging content? But a totally random jukebox with songs nobody would want to hear is a waste of spectrum. I hear this so often. But clearly, the champions of the sector never seem to pick up on it.

On a Sunday morning, the population of a tiny West Country town were treated to an early ’00s unidentified rave track fading into ‘Bright Eyes’ by Art Garfunkel, a voiceover that sounded like Playschool’s Brian Cant, some flamenco music, the film score of ‘Bear Necessities,’ a piece of vintage bluegrass that sounded like it was from a 78 record, and then ‘No Milk Today’ by Herman’s Hermits. Terrible. Who is this for?

And nothing local. It’s this lack of attention, care or understanding that Ofcom doesn’t measure. Somebody should. Because it’s worse than only doing eleven hours local instead of twelve on a Sunday!

Every time a song is played, an interview arranged, an item read out, presenters and management should consider how it serves their chosen target audience. Why don’t they get this?

When I hear brilliance, I tweet about it. Only last weekend, I was enchanted by Marlow FM’s quality and relevant local speech and magazine content. The food show was superb. Compliments to the chef. Or PC.

Maybe there needs to be more strategic support and help in dealing with presentation and formats, as seen in the community radio sector in Australia. Perhaps some cash could be levied to do this. Come on Ofcom. Offer some help because we need more Marlows.

All in all, all is not well within the local sector. There needs to be a rethink, more support, and empowerment – if community radio is going to fill the local media gap more widely than a few beacon examples of stations that do get it right.

Keri is appearing at the CMA’s 40th anniversary Community Media Festival 2023 in the City of Leicester to talk about the future of local radio, on October 28th. See more here.