Community FM 2005
A report by Ally Fogg, author of the Community Radio Toolkit
‘The kind of questions that were asked were the kind of questions I would have expected two years from now,’ says Zane Ibrahim, founder of Bush Radio, Cape Town, and keynote speaker at Community FM 2005. ‘That’s how fast community radio has grown in the UK – the interest has grown and people are doing their homework. They are not waiting for handouts for information, they are learning for themselves.’
Over a hundred delegates from Bristol to Aberdeen converged on the spectacular Urbis museum in Manchester for the third Community FM conference, organised by Radio Regen in association with the Community Media Association, with support from the North West Regional Development Agency and Manchester College of Arts & Technology (MANCAT). They came to learn for themselves; to share information and experience; to find ideas and inspiration; to ask questions; to meet like minded souls and not least, to have a lot of fun. The conference delivered on every front, with keynote speeches, workshops, fringe meetings and a flurry of networking over coffee, meal breaks and a highly enjoyable Friday night social event.
Community radio is made possible by the politicians who provide the legislative framework and government support; by the regulators Ofcom who put that legislation into practice; and of course the community radio activists, enthusiasts and professionals who actually make it happen. All three prongs of the trident were represented at Urbis.
The event was opened by the Chief Executive of the NWDA, Steven Broomhead, who spoke of his hands-on experience of community radio when he was Principal of Warrington University College. He also spoke of the region’s emphasis on the creative industries and the role that he hoped community radio would play in the BBC’s move to Manchester.
The conference sprang further into life with the view from Westminster, brought by the Minister for Creative Industries and local MP, James Purnell. The Minister spoke fluently about the Government’s position on community radio, before officially launching the Community Radio Toolkit, which his Department has supported financially. Despite leaving many delegates with the deflating feeling that government ministers, like policemen, seem to get younger every year, Purnell impressed the gathering with his undisguised enthusiasm for radio as a medium and his thorough understanding of community radio as a force for change.
‘I don’t think it’s a great secret that when community radio was first being talked about by government, there were those who were sceptical,’ he told the conference. ‘Community radio has confounded those sceptics who said it would never work. It’s already working.’
Delegates were undoubtedly hoping that the Minister would announce that - due to an accidental oversight - a couple of zeros had been left off the total of the Community Radio Fund. This was not to be. Nevertheless there was some encouragement to be found in his assurances that come the two year review, the government would thoroughly investigate the community radio sector’s concerns over issues such as advertising revenue limitations, the protection given to small commercial stations and the role of community radio in the spectrum of public service broadcasting.
‘This conference clearly shows that community radio is taking off,’ he said later. ‘It’s not surprising that money is a big topic, it will always be people’s priority. We can’t make any clear announcements but what we can say is that we will look at this on the basis of evidence, see how the licences progress and whether anything further needs to be done.’
Watch this space.
For delegates, perhaps the most useful visitors to Community FM were the members of the Ofcom team who stayed for the full two days, not only contributing officially from the platforms, but also mingling with delegates, answering endless questions and putting very human faces to the regulatory bureaucracy.
As Soo Williams of the Ofcom community radio team explains, this is as useful to them as it is to the delegates:
‘We do sometimes deal with people on the phone or by email, but nothing beats face-to-face contact. I know that with written material, when people have to go to the website, find the right material andabsorb it all it doesn’t always really sink in. It is easier to get points across at an event like this.
‘The questions people ask, the feedback you get, it is all useful to find out what’s uppermost on people’s minds. We are coming at this from different angles – we are a regulator, these are people on the ground actually running stations. We are going to have different worldviews, but we’ve all got to make the legislation work to a common end. I can’t always see what the problems are going to be from the other end, what bits of the form people haven’t exactly understood. It is all very useful.’
Williams used the platform to offer a revealing insight into some of the reasons groups had failed in their bids for licences in the current round. Particular attention was drawn to the importance of getting the application in before the deadline, a first hurdle at which several bids had stumbled painfully. Several applications had also suffered from business plans that were either insufficiently well explained or failed to comply with the basic statutory requirements. Graciously, she acknowledged that the application form may not have been as helpful as possible in eliciting this information, and she assured the conference that Ofcom would look again at the design and wording of the form before the next round of applications, which they hope may begin in Spring 2006.
Williams was joined on stage by Kip Meek, chair of Ofcom’s Radio Licensing Committee. His address looked to the future, outlining Ofcom’s vision of a multitude of community radio stations across the expanding frontier of digital and analogue radio. The speech highlighted the possibilities of new broadcasting technologies, but also the complexities and uncertainties that remain about the various platforms and systems reaching the market. Meek left delegates in no doubt that whichever technologies become standard for UK radio, community stations would be at their heart.
If the guests from Ofcom led the most educational session of the weekend, there can be little doubt about which was the most inspirational. On Friday afternoon, the stage was consumed by the towering physique of multiple world karate champion Geoff Thompson, and the towering charisma of Zane Ibrahim. Thompson is the founder of Youth Charter for Sport, Culture and the Arts, and he spoke passionately about the need for community radio to engage and support young people. ‘If you all bring one young person here with you next year,’ he gently ribbed delegates, ‘then we will have succeeded.’ He also provided Community FM with the catchphrase of the weekend:
‘Radio makes you think. TV only makes you blink.’
Zane Ibrahim, not for the first time at a CommunityFM conference, left inspirational thoughts imprinted on the minds of delegates.
‘Our studio is on the third floor of a building, and what I say to our volunteers is this: When you walk down the stairs at the end of your show, make sure your community is a better place than it was when you walked up the stairs. That is all you need to do.’
Speaking later, he stressed the point. ‘People often say that community radio in the UK is in its infancy. I say there is no infant yet - you haven’t even got back the results of the pregnancy test. Don’t worry about quality radio. Don’t worry about whether your mic is popping. All you want to worry about is one question: when you leave the premises after your show, is the community better off than it was before you entered the premises? That is the bottom line. That is community radio.’
Ibrahim is impressed by the progress made by the community radio sector in the UK. His final words of caution capture the importance of Community FM.
‘I was here last year and I know where you were. Where you are now is two years ahead of time. It’s fantastic, but don’t move too fast. The destination isn’t what you have to focus on. Focus on the journey because there are milestones on the journey that need your attention. Observe your lessons on the way because if you don’t, the destination will be empty.’
Workshops and Fringe Meetings
The workshop programme at CommunityFM 2005 provided the chance for community radio activists to probe and pursue the particulars of establishing and running a community radio station. The sessions, many of which were standing room only, were helpfully categorised into four groups reflecting different levels of experience and knowledge. Relative beginners; established groups who were intending to apply for a licence; successful and hopeful applicants for five-year licenses; and community radio’s partners were all offered their own programme of workshops, tailored to their requirements. Some issues such as training and funding were addressed at every level, reflecting their central importance.
What was noticeable and encouraging was the range of experience and knowledge contained within each workshop, whatever level they were aimed at. The workshop facilitators – mostly the staff of Radio Regen and their two Manchester stations, ALL FM and Wythenshawe FM, with a little help from their friends – were helped considerably by informed and thoughtful contributions from the floor in all sessions. Many delegates were impressed by the eagerness to share tips and offer a helping hand by all the conference attendees. The rapid spread of wisdom through the community radio sector is almost tangible.
Among the most fascinating workshops were those conducted by community radio’s partners from local authorities, statutory services and housing providers. These sessions gave a valuable glimpse at the value of community radio to service providers – a value that, as South Manchester’s Culture and Regeneration officer Sam McCormack told her session, deserves to be translated into financial terms. The participation of so many partners in the conference has to be a positive sign. As Patrick Hanfling of Manchester City Council’s community engagement team put it later:
‘Agencies and service providers need to learn that community radio is out there, and they need some kind of realisation of what it can be. They sometimes need to realise the skills that can develop; what a powerful thing it can be to speak on it, and how communities can develop out of it. It’s a terrific medium that covers all those types of engagements. I don’t think there’s always a realisation of what it can be - until you’ve been in it! Now we really need to spread the word.’
One welcome innovation of the weekend was the introduction of a series of Fringe Meetings, exploring a handful of issues in greater detail. These sessions, staged at a time of the afternoon when a tactical nap or retreat to the pub would have been forgivable, were again blessed with impressive numbers of attendees. The meetings were mostly masterclasses on specific topics such as technical matters, rural radio, research and advertising, led by some of British community radio’s foremost experts. A more discursive session looked at the possibilities for using community radio as a vehicle for alternative and radical political ideas and campaigning, with contributions from activists with www.indymedia.org.uk and ALL FM’s infamous Under the Pavement show.
Despite the wide variety of workshops, their different levels of complexity and participation, one problem recurred again and again – they were simply too short. The workshops and keynote sessions – and that means the whole conference - could all have run easily to twice the length. A thirst for knowledge and an enthusiasm for exchanging ideas were the prevailing currents of Community FM 2005, and they promise to swell into an unstoppable tide of progress.
See you next year.
Report by Ally Fogg