I think I can speak on behalf of all its delegates when I say that this year’s Radio Festival was a resounding success. From star turn outs like Chris Evans, Timmy Mallet, Jeremy Vine, Richard Bacon, Colin Murray and Graham Norton to the big leaders like Andy Parfitt, Bob Shennan and Ashley Tabor; who seldom appears at events like this. Two rooms saw sessions cover topics like radio as a business, creativity in the 80’s and intimate one-to-ones with the industry’s big names and bosses. One session I made an extra effort to attend was titled ‘What Happened to Local Radio?’ at which several well placed speakers, including the head of BBC Regions and a couple of IRL bosses, reflected on the various reasons why stations were networking and losing local identity; a debate that’s becoming as exhausted as that of DAB. One intriguing panellist was the head of a community radio project, Radio Re-gen, Phil Korbel.
We all know and understand the reasons big companies turn to networking, and maybe the argument that audiences aren’t that interested in local content anymore stands tall – the positive reaction from the audience to the controversial Heart rebrand certainly provided good evidence for this – but it inevitably leaves a rather large market waiting to be filled. A natural market for community radio, you might argue, and as the director of a community radio station in my hometown of Bolton I’d be inclined to agree. However, there is a problem, something holding it back. Community radio has a reputation of being a largely unprofessional environment and the unsurprisingly transfers on air. If it is to truly grasp this amazing opportunity to provide true community radio then it must stop accepting itself as a drop in centre. If that’s what we want then lets open one and install a mixing desk and some CD players rather than wasting precious bandwidth and air time. We have something that can reach deep into the community and be a force for good, provide something different and break new talent; but this doesn’t mean quality need be compromised. Quite simply, if an audience can be built then social gain can be delivered on a wider scale.
We must shrug off this crippling belief that the community benefit has to be confined to the studio walls; it doesn’t. As the public purse is squeezed, getting investment is set to become near impossible. If things don’t change we’ll lose literally hundreds of community stations over the coming years, unable to sustain themselves financially. We simply have to turn to the private sector for investment and that won’t come unless we can demonstrate some level of value. That’s not to say that it will become a commercial station, the cap 50-50 cap on investment from any one sector, private and public, will remain to prevent this. But if community radio is to achieve the substantial social gain to a wide listening audience and attract this investment then it needs to provide a strong and palatable output. It needs leaders who can pull the industry together to act as one in our interest, gaining backing from the government, the commercial sector and the BBC.
It sounds harsh but I do believe community radio can fill the gap and become true local radio and deliver first class social gain too. It firstly needs to change its business plan and accept the inevitable changes, not just to reach this goal but to simply survive.