Community FM 2007 Conference Report
March 23 – 24 2007 By Hazel Healy
"The hard work that goes into running a licence on a full time station makes you develop very quickly because you either sink or swim. The great thing is that in the community sector most people are swimming."Lawrie Hallett, Radio Executive, Ofcom
Community FM 2007 hums with excitement as 80 or so delegates smart-step into MANCAT College, Manchester on the Friday morning, wheelie bags in tow. Some have travelled from as far afield as Czech Republic and Malta so people waste no time getting down to business and doing what they do best: talking radio. Barely has the first gulp of coffee been swallowed before exchanges on "frequency complications" and "great jingles" can be overheard in conversation between new arrivals.
The two-day event is destined to continue apace, packed with plenaries, workshops, speeches and networking time as well as a Lancastrian sausage banquet and music from the Lonesome and Penniless Cowboys. Speakers will feature a Cabinet minister, Ofcom representatives and the indomitable Zane Ibrahim, South African community radio star.
This is the third Community FM conference, hosted by the Manchester-based community development charity Radio Regen and the Community Media Association, sponsored by North West Development Agency and Manchester College of Arts and Technology (MANCAT).
The setting is event-sponsor MANCAT's campus in Openshaw, a previously neglected neighbourhood in East Manchester undergoing rapid development and change. It is an apt setting, for one of the main themes that will emerge over the course of the conference is the unique ability of community radio to connect with, draw in and up-skill people from the UK's disadvantaged communities.
The opening plenary is presided over by Phil Korbel, Director of Radio Regen and ambassador for community radio who projects a busy-looking map of the British Isles on to the screen. Dots signalling new community radio licenses cover the length and breadth of the islands, from The Superstation in Orkney to Scilly FM.
If community radio is a battle for the airwaves, then the campaign is going well. There can be no doubt that community radio stations are a growing concern: 122 five year licenses granted and 44 stations on air.
A staggering array of stations are represented at the conference and a scan of name badges makes for an impressive roll call, which includes: Flame FM from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, Radju Koltoner from Malta, Clam Glen from Glasgow, Crescent FM from Rochdale, Seaside FM from Hull, BridgeFM from the Isle of Sheppy and Swale, Gloucester FM (in matching T-shirts), Expresit FM from Barnet in London and Canalside from Macclesfield, Cheshire.
The levels of experience brought by delegates vary as widely as their origins. Stations like Manchester's ALL FM in their 7th year rub shoulders with internet broadcasters and groups planning their first temporary stations. Airtime on these stations covers everything from black music to Lad's and Dad's Clubs' shows.
THE CONFERENCE CONTENT
Four plenaries took place over the two days, mixed with 16 workshops covering all practical aspects of setting up and maintaining community radio stations covering everything from volunteer management and funding to content programming, licensing and measuring the impact of community radio. A third strand of workshops covered community cohesion, regeneration and engagement. (Notes from all the workshops can be found at www.communityradiotoolkit.net/communities/mod/resource/index.php?id=5 )
Workshop leaders were all practitioners in their subjects, drawn in the main from Radio Regen's station Wythenshawe FM and ALL FM, with others hosted by visiting experts from Ofcom, the Community Media Association and other radio stations. They led informative, upbeat sessions, which ran without a hitch and included plenty of time for contributions from people keen to share experiences.
Ten staff and volunteers in matching Community FM T-shirts drafted in from Wythenshawe FM, ALL FM and Radio Regen shepherded delegates patiently around and stewarded the event seamlessly.
Meanwhile, in the refreshment breaks Sonifex and Clyde Broadcast peddled their wares by the tea and coffee, providing musical accompaniment while people browsed.
Despite the back-to-back schedule, workshops were still packed at 6:30pm on Friday night. This will come as no surprise to anyone running a community radio station, who will already be fully aware that that anyone involved in this game has generally got superhuman stamina.
Station management was one of the most popular workshops. People emerged looking hot and saying things like "Phew it's a lot of work" and "Hmm very enlightening". Alex Green from ALL FM who ran the session (with Christine Brennan from WFM) said that the main piece of advice was to be ready for "death threats and crushes" but not to be put off by the challenges and to focus on getting your volunteer systems right.
Finally, in case anyone was running out of things to do, there was also the ‘Toolkit Lounge’, hosted by Danielle Lowy from Radio Regen, where people enjoyed meeting each other in the flesh after cyberspace interaction on forums. The Lounge also offered drop-ins offering expert advice from technician Phil Edmonds and Bill Best from the Community Media Association.
Key Players And Speaker Highlights
Philip Graf, Deputy Chair of Ofcom, the media regulator, was one of the first up to the lectern. Ofcom were well represented with three staff attending the whole conference and running various workshops.
Graf launched a meaty session that got to the heart of the community radio concerns: regulation, funding and social gain.
He began by painting a picture of a rapidly changing environment for radio, describing how "consumers are becoming creators" and media is increasingly personalised. He talked about the challenges brought by rapid technological innovation in the form of internet radio, podcasts, digital radio and audio streaming.
At the same time, he described community radio as a thriving sector, marked out by its unique ability to bring about social gain: transformations in the lives of people who run the stations.
Community radio practitioners are never afraid to attack the mic and there was a lively debate from the floor, where a consensus emerged on social gain as the driving force of the sector and the perceived protectionist antics of commercial radio stations came under fire.
Lawrie Hallett, Radio Executive at Ofcom, works specifically in licensing community radio. He ran the Getting Your Licence Workshop, where you could have heard a pin drop. Among the helpful tips for would-be licensees, was a plea to stations to "get your grid references right", as he recounted how erroneous references had led to Ofcom receiving applications for FM licenses from the North Sea and Scottish applications from Cornwall.
Lawrie was very keen that people respond to a consultation concerning the future licensing of community radio services, due out later in the spring.
"Modifications we might make to the community radio licensing in future will largely depend on what the community sector tells us," he said.
Czech-based Californian Henry Loeser (also one of the conference's in-house bloggers) was impressed by Ofcom, saying he had never encountered such a supportive agency in the States or in Europe.
The words of Jacqui Devereux, Acting Director of the Community Media Association were more cautionary. She urged against complacency, strongly advising delegates to pay very close attention to the regulatory world.
The Politicians, The Civil Servants And The Advocates
Radio Regen delivered a sprinkle of Ministers, MP's and senior civil servants to Community FM 2007, testament to Phil Korbel's accomplished networking and good relationships with decision makers who were falling over themselves to heap praise on community radio.
The first plenary was introduced by Sarah Kemp, Head of Enterprise, Innovation and Skills at the North West Development Agency who described community radio as an unrivalled source of creative talent.
The afternoon plenary produced Hazel Blears, cabinet minister and MP for Salford who joined the ranks of cheerleaders for community radio, describing it as "social cement".
Blears said she was a fan of her local community station Seedley and Langworthy FM. She said politicians should take community radio very seriously and expressed her eagerness to promote it as an important democratic tool, even promising Zane Ibrahim she would take the South African Communications Minister to task on his behalf.
"Even our public service broadcaster the BBC, with its public service ethos and regional radio network, cannot match the enthusiasm and innovation of the community radio sector," she said.
"There's a patronising attitude you hear sometimes that community radio is a 'noddy' version of 'proper broadcasting' or a place where people can learn broadcasting skills before going to work for the BBC or commercial sector.
"That's nonsense. I think of community radio as a distinct form of media, a sector in its own right, in no-ones' shadow, with its own ethos and values."
Tony Lloyd MP for Central Manchester, and a patron of Radio Regen, also made an appearance on Friday night to introduce the pre-dinner speeches, holding up community radio proudly as a counterbalance to "Murdoch's empire".
The discussion of politics on Day Two focused down on strategic ways to enlist practical support from mainstream agencies locally, with guidance on how to make friends in high places tempered by the importance of maintaining independence.
Patrick Hanfling, Community Engagement Officer at Manchester City Council, spoke at the Saturday morning plenary. He enthusiastically endorsed community radio as a trusted means of delivering on community engagement.
Patrick called for radio stations to engage with local government structures and to sell themselves as the definitive way to help local authorities fulfil their statutory duty of community engagement.
Other tips from the floor reminded practitioners to look beyond politicians to powerful civil servants as potential allies.
The Community Radio Operators
The popular international community radio star Zane Ibrahim returned to this year's conference, travelling from the pioneering Bush Radio in Cape Town, South Africa.
He announced the creation of the Zane Ibrahim Award for Excellence in Community Broadcasting, an annual award starting in 2008. He also had a few words of wisdom to dispatch along the way.
Zane, the king of pithy sound-bites, got to the core of what community radio is all about
"For me, successful community radio is still 90% community and 10% radio," he said.
On a practical level at Bush Radio that means using their frequency to locate disoriented elderly people and missing children or to halt domestic violence but ultimately the mission of community radio is about bringing about social change.
As Zane put it: "Sure, any fool with an ego and time on their hands can play music. But not everyone has a way to empower local people to share their stories."
That night Zane also spoke regretfully of the political challenges he faces in his home country but he was overwhelmingly positive about community radio in the UK.
He said, "In most places people get so gung ho and they move so fast and they've got such great ideas until they go on air and then it falls apart. But in the UK I find that they tend to move slower and more precisely.
"In general Community Radio in the UK, is probably going to end up being a model for the rest of the world."
Back among the delegates it was clear that the conference was as useful for those just starting out as for those who had been going for years.
Veteran community radio operator Séan Óg Mac Braoin from ÚirFM, in Northern Ireland said it was always a pleasure to see Zane and to meet all the other stations.
"It recharges our batteries," he said, "You arrive here completely run down and two days at Community FM recharges you for another 12 months."
Butcher-turned-presenter PJ Liversidge from Seaside FM in Hull had been involved in radio for just one month. He found the conference very inspiring and was also impressed by the Friday night meal sampling all seven sausage varieties over dinner.
Brenda Muyama and Zahra Williams from young peoples' station Street Life from East London are broadcasting by internet and planning for their second RSL this summer. They won a Sony microphone as an award for the best contribution to the conference.
Brenda said, "I'm bursting with ideas, there's so much we can tell them about ways we can improve the station. I can't wait to have a meeting."
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
The old hands left refreshed and the newcomers left inspired, it seems Radio Regen managed to please everyone with this year's conference.
Meanwhile, it’s full steam ahead for community radio. As one delegate pointed out, community radio is fast catching up with the 300 or so commercial licenses in operation. He speculated that perhaps by the next conference, community radio would be in the lead.
On- line resources available from the Community Radio Toolkit:
Community FM lives on in the form of the Community Radio Toolkit, where conference speeches, workshop notes and ongoing discussion forums.
Notes on workshop presentations
A full transcription of Zane's speech
A full transcription of Hazel Blear's speech
Henry Loeser's conference blog