In My Opinion: Dave Miller: Ofcom ‘must act’ as local radio stations collapse

WITH a number of local commercial radio stations having gone into administration recently, it’s vital that broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, act to allow much greater flexibility in how both local commercial radio stations and community radio stations operate, if they are to survive.

At the moment, most small stations are in financial meltdown and, from my experience of running community station, The Super Station Orkney, help and funding is inconsistent at best: Sometimes funding is available, sometimes it is not and commercial revenue becomes the sole source of income, while the next funding application awaits approval. It’s an inefficient and bureaucratic system set up by the government, which Ofcom then has to implement.

On a turnover of £100k or less, there is no profit to be made when running a full service, whether commercial or community. Both provide valued and dedicated local services and should be better supported in times of need.

If a more flexible system of support were allowed, then a small commercial station like Pennine FM in Huddersfield might have had a chance of survival. Pennine was still serving the community regardless of its operating status, yet because it was classed as commercial it was ineligible for any kind of additional financial help. Consequently, Pennine tragically went bust.

The current situation is both ridiculous and unfair. If a local newspaper wants to charge for its publication, or become a free sheet solely reliant on advertising, is it restricted? No, it simply does what it needs to do to stay in business whilst still providing exactly the same local news it always did. Why is radio treated so punitively by comparison? With greater funding flexibility, small commercial stations could stop competing for a relatively small pool of local advertisers and get on with the job of providing a unique local service.

I know from experience that The Super Station Orkney would not make any more money if it went commercial than it currently does as a community station.

In a small locality there is a finite number of advertisers, and therefore an obvious ceiling on what can be earned. Of course, because of the potential additional funding available, the only option for Orkney is to be classed as a community station. Whilst being a commercial station is theoretically more attractive in terms of potential profit, it simply does not follow that this will be the reality. Both end products would be identical, yet one potentially has more chance of surviving than the other.

But classing oneself as a community station is by no means a guarantee of survival.

The Super Station Orkney secured lottery funding between March last year until last month. Part of the agreement to secure the funding was for us to operate training programmes for local people in order to get more locals on the air.

Training local people is something we are passionate about, but that shouldn’t mean we arbitrarily put them on air regardless of their talent and appeal just because a clause stipulates it. If we did, we’d hemorrhage listeners.

Fortunately, our training courses have proved hugely rewarding to those who took part, and helped consolidate our position in the community. It is only a matter of time (and further funding) before true local talent does emerge through further training to take over The Super Station airwaves.

Unfortunately, though, now that March is behind us, we are back to square one, funding wise, until the next batch of awards in June.

That’s three months where we have been effectively abandoned to either sink or swim. We can survive on commercial revenue alone and I have consequently made necessary cutbacks to cover the interim period of the shortfall.

Some of our service is currently voice tracked, which has led to us being criticised for sounding like a commercial station rather than a locally broadcast community one. But a paired down professional, and highly listenable, service is better than no service at all.

I certainly think the former listeners of Pennine FM would agree. And thank goodness The Super Station Orkney does sound as terrific as it does, and that people want to listen and advertise with us. Without that revenue, given the aforementioned funding inconsistency, we would cease to exist and nobody, local or otherwise would be on the air.

So how much longer must we endure these two sets of statuses, along with two sets of rules and regulations, and the inevitable two sets of bureaucratic red tape to wade through? It is time to free things up and allow small stations whether commercial or community to adapt according to the current economic climate, and get on with the job of broadcasting.

Dave Miller is managing director of The Super Station Orkney. A version of this appeared in the eNewsletter of RadioToday.co.uk