Tuned in, turned on
The innovation stations
The Radio Authority's decision to allocate a fresh batch of frequencies to independent local radio have put a host of student and community radio stations under starter's orders. Magnus Schofield joins Cambridge Community Radio for a taste of the pioneer spirit...
A quiet revolution is taking place in the previously cosy and comfortable world of local radio. All over the land, hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers and other interested parties are busily setting up community radio stations, all with the aim of providing an alternative to the staid stability of BBC local radio and the formula programming of commercial stations. At present, these stations are often short-lived affairs subject to the terms of an RSL, or Restricted Service Licence. But given time they could change the whole of pattern of local radio broadcasting in Britain - and, in time, dramatically increase the amount of airtime available not just to innovative new radio, but to innovative new music as well.
As a result of these developments, the summer season in Cambridge has a new fixture. As reliably as Christmas, Cambridge Community Radio returns to fill the vacuum between the Strawberry Fair and the Folk Festival. It's a grassroots movement whose schedules reflect Cambridge's cosmopolitan interests. From music to arts and talk programmes, the common thread is 'alternative'.
Ten years ago, the Radio Authority invited bids for a new independent commercial station for the Cambridge area. It brought together a coalition of DJs, music lovers, and community activists who decided to call themselves CCR. Rivals CNFM appropriated elements of the community radio agenda to win the licence, and for a time the station honoured its licence terms with a weekly contribution from CCR. But as commercial stations have foisted a uniform style on a passive populace, so support has grown among the independent-minded for local radio which expresses the authentic voice of the community. Enter CCR and a host of similar community radio stations.
For this, their third summer broadcast, CCR have been fortunate enough to receive grant aid from Eastern Arts, as well as Cambridge City Council and the Co-Op. The bulk of it will go to the DTI and the Radio Authority, for the £2,260 cost of a one-month RSL (restricted service licence). It sounds a lot, but a catchment area of 150,000 people offers potentially rich pickings. PRS and PPL fees will depend on the speech/music ratio, but could amount to nearly £2,000. Non-profit making they might be, but for the PRS, Cambridge Community Radio doesn't amount to a charity and won't qualify for a discount. But at least this year, studio space has come cheap: Anglia University have followed the lead of American campuses by giving over office space, in return for training facilities for their Communications Studies students.
The group's 130 members pay £5-£15 annual subscription. The technical training is optional, but the legal briefing is mandatory if you want to go on air. The Radio Authority might not have the resources to monitor every RSL, but just one complaint is enough to send your stock plunging.
Music programming inevitably depends on the talents available, but Cambridge offers enough fanatics and purists to field an eclectic team. Their shows dominate evenings and weekends, with dub and ambient meanderings occupying the 'wee small hours' of the station's ambitious 24-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. News and talk programmes fill the weekdays, taking on Radio 4 in their topical debate and arts coverage. Here, the annual Film Festival and artists' Open Studio scheme provide a rich source of material. Then there are the live links, which in previous years have come from buses and pubs, as well as regular live coverage of the Folk Festival.
From the roof of the University, the 10watt signal is relayed to a transmitter on Lime Kiln Hill, which is the closest Cambridgeshire gets to the Himalayas. This year it gave the station a top-quality FM signal.
More worryingly, the group's engineers and technicians face a Herculean task in requisitioning and deploying equipment. Only 20-30% of it belongs to the group; the remainder has to be begged, borrowed or bartered from local suppliers by a combination of good will and 'contradealing' - usually this means their company receiving a generous supply of free advertising on-air.
Cambridge boasts a number of pro-audio manufacturers and suppliers, and this year a state-of-the-art broadcast studio worth £30,000 was loaned by Harris Allied. The Orban broadcast processor was particularly effective in tweaking the signal without noticeable compression. The American Arrakis desk, devoid as it is of external EQ, had the virtue of simplicity, but fazed some with its unorthodox PFL system. Pulling the fader down to an integral click-stop made some presenters nervous at first. Elsewhere in the studio, Denon have addressed the problem of CD mistracking with a cartridge system, into which discs may be loaded and (ideally) hermetically sealed. In the absence of a central disc library and an inexhaustible supply of cartridges, DJs were of course routinely loading and unloading them, but at least it reminds you to ensure discs are spotless. Technics 1200s will always be a nuisance with their push-to-make start switches which only certain desks can remotely activate. The CCR studio had no new and exciting way around this, so if you wanted to do an old-fashioned vinyl-based show, it helped to have the physique of an orang-utang.
"If you wanted to do an old-fashioned, vinyl-based show, it helped to have the physique of an orang-utang"
A Digilink hard-disk recording system this year replaced traditional cart machines for adverts and idents. Running on a PC under Microsoft Windows, it displays a complete waveform, making pops and scratches surgically removable, and effects like echoes and flanging easily achievable. On the down side, the system required a measure of computer literacy, and not every presenter was happy to fiddle with a mouse instead of just hitting a start knob. And the memory required for files any bigger than 30 seconds made it slow-going at the recording and editing stage.
The loan of a complete broadcast studio made it possible to kit out a production facility with older equipment. Local live venue The Junction loaned a Revox PR99 mastering machine, with a vintage A77, a portable Uher Report and an old Alice desk giving the production facility a decidedly analogue backbone. The news team's roving reporters were equipped with a couple of Superscope cassette machines - hardly the leading edge of technology, but they did the job.
Regional Arts sponsorship exists for capital investment such as equipment - a fact which CCR only this year unearthed and exploited. It helps to be the first in your area, or the cake will be split more equitably. But at this rate, by the time they win a permanent licence, the CCR group may have assembled sufficient equipment of their own.
With another month of broadcasting successfully completed, other radio groups have emerged to whom CCR can hand the torch while it still burns. In common with many campuses, Cambridge University has operated a loop broadcasting system to their residences for some years, and a group known as Jam FM are set to go public in October with their own RSL. There is the prospect of a pooling of talents and resources, assuming the city's age-old 'town and gown' rivalry doesn't get in the way. Jam's charitable aims may get the thumbs up, but their music-centred 'yoof agenda makes their coalition less rainbow than monochrome. But community radio has to be a broad church, and until such time as permanent licences are granted, dovetailing RSLs with other radio groups has to be option.
Community radio groups rely almost entirely on voluntary efforts, and while this can achieve miracles, it can also make management problematic. Like an amateur dramatics group, casting is fraught with problems, demanding the skill of the diplomatic corps without the remuneration. In the prelude to curtain-up there will be backstage tantrums from those unhappy with their roles, and fractious debate of the group's democratic or co-operative principles. Sections of the membership will espouse social or political causes, with others grinding merely musical axes (Yes, there are heavy metal shows, too - Ed).
If the experience of CCR is anything to go by, then technical and management skills will be so scarce that the annual ascent of Everest will tend to fall upon a small and dedicated team. In the absence of proper recompense, their goodwill and patience will not be inexhaustible. In the face of these practical and logistical difficulties, real community access will be hard to preserve.
Sooner or later, every station will have to confront a constitutional crisis and agree the terms on which to proceed. If professionalism is required, it will have to be paid for.
"A Revox PR99, a vintage A77, a portable Uher and an old Alice desk gave the production studio a decidedly analogue backbone"
In the meantime, groups like CCR are changing the airwaves forever - and having a thoroughly enjoyable, if fraught, time in the process.
Feature by Magnus Schofield
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!