Saturday, 29 August 2009

Buddy, can you spare half a million?

There was an interesting if depressing article on Community Radio Monday 24th in the Guardian, from Steve Buckley, one of the stalwarts of the movement. It got me thinking, and sparked some vigorous debate in the online comments. I'm posting - belatedly - because there's so much to say, not all of it cheering.

The case for governmental Community Radio funding is so clear so and simple. And yet, and yet...

I've posted several times on this blog about visiting Community stations as an interview guest. I'm a thoroughly interested observer: the vibe of a buzzing station is something I really enjoy, and I've found that exact same vibe at all levels of the industry, including at Community level. I am both genuinely impressed with some of the efforts put in at hyper-local level, and genuinely depressed at some of the output I've listened to.

I suppose the most engaging thing about Community Radio is that it truly depends on the efforts of a few people at each station putting in ridiculous amounts of time and effort to stack up a wobbly broadcast edifice against all the odds. I admire that enormously. Leaving that hard work aside, you don't set up a station for free, and a key point in Steve Buckley's article is that promised support funding has been both sparse and unevenly distributed.

But once you open up that funding discussion, things start to get hazy. As I see it, the distinction between small-scale Commercial Radio and Community Radio is getting more and more blurred. The line between the two becomes harder still to draw once Community stations are allowed to sell advertising, raise sponsorship funds, and the like. It's understandable that Commercial Radio is not about to support funding initiatives that would encourage competition from the Community sector, while at the same time seeing some of the commercial revenue they would expect to receive drifting away to the Community boys. And there is also the awkward fact that some Community operations might well be accused of being more interested in getting the funding than serving their audiences.

That said, the good side of that line-blurring is that it should remind us that Radio, like Football, does have a pyramid structure. In Radio, the current legislative structure is criticised at each level of that pyramid. Worse, it offers no defined paths for practitioners to move around. But it is a pyramid structure nonetheless, and we should acknowledge this.

I don't see a perfect solution, probably because there isn't one. Funding is needed to up-skill community stations, give a better experience to the listener, better training to station volunteers, and, vitally, ensure the stations' survival; no argument there. But I can see why the Commercial boys don't want the Community stations firing on all cylinders, and start nipping at their heels - and cash flow. But possibly, despite all the horrible compromises that external funding can bring, that's exactly how it should be.

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