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Tuned in, turned on

Community Radio

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...

This is Cambridge calling: a CCR programme session in full flow, complete with borrowed gear and the obligatory crowded pinboard

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'.

A rack full of processors and pro-CD machines, plus all-important DJ fodder

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.

Station manager John Lawton hob-nobs with a digital waveform

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.

That summer schedule in full
(Click image for higher resolution version)

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.

Auntie Alice is put out to grass in the production studio

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.

Cue lights, music and new-style action with Arrakis

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.

CCR (Cookie Crow Radio) studio layout '94

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.

From committees to cables: the how and why of frequency allocation...

Pity the poor Radio Authority. A cornucopia of community groups clamouring for recognition, an avalanche of licence applications from a newly-bullish commercial sector, and the usual posse of pirates trying to rock whatever boat they and the government decide to push out.

The ecology of Britain, argues the Authority's David Vick, resists comparison with that of America or Australia, whose public radio enjoys a freedom British operators only dream about. The population density and distribution of Britain put all things at a premium, from advertising revenue to wavelength availability. Our 'minority interests' are less homogeneous or area-specific, our 'wide-open spaces' barely merit the description, and the People's Republic of Rutland enjoys somewhat less devolution than the State of Tennessee.

Nor has the cable mentality taken root, whatever the condition of our pavements. For as long as 'terrestrial' services sustain their high standards, subscribing to cable remains an elective act, and will not achieve the status of a public utility which is connected as routinely as gas or electricity. In these circumstances, radio channels have little value for cable operators except to take up surplus capacity. It is questionable how many subscribers are even aware of their presence. Radio groups to whom the Authority suggests this route will be nonplussed, and pressure on the airwaves is unlikely to diminish. Like most modern evils, it looks as if we have Rupert Murdoch to thank. Until he slashes Sky's cover price to 20p a day, of course.

But a handful of those precious frequencies are shortly to become available. 105 to 108MHz, those wilder shores of the FM band familiar only to police and emergency services, criminals and nosey parkers, are about to be reacquainted with your tuning circuits (dust and cobwebs permitting).

Anticipating a battle royal, the Radio Authority last year commissioned a 'consultative exercise'. It proposed four broad policy options. Giving over the frequencies to a new national independent would give Radio 1 a run for its money, and appease those thousands of Virgin listeners who'd answered Richard Branson's call to petition for a FM frequency. It wouldn't give him Virgin FM on a plate, but he'd be well placed for a bid. Option two amounted to a general expansion of local independent radio, without any sea-change of licence terms or revenue sources. Option three also sought to develop ILR, but at the same time to rationalise it. With the boldest of brush strokes, a latticework of equal-sized geographical portions would be drawn up. Competition for licences might swing as wildly as population and socioeconomic profile, but the market would soon find its own level. It's easy to understand how the virtue of simplicity might appeal to an overworked DTI and Radio Authority.

After analysis of 450 replies from interested parties, a fourth option was eventually chosen. This recognised the case for a broader base of independent services in more populous areas. It also went some way toward acknowledging the need for a species of public radio which embraces student, hospital, and community groups, but does not distinguish it philosophically from existing commercial services.

The Radio Authority's hands are ultimately tied by the Broadcasting Act. While it makes no explicit rejection of public radio, it isn't about to sponsor its development with public money or any preferential licence fees. To do so would risk undermining the terms on which its commercial rivals operate and sell themselves to advertisers and shareholders. So, the most the Radio Authority is likely to be able to do is to increase the availability of licences in a given area. Whether they go to Radio Bland or Radio Fab FM will be less to do with their constitution than their standards of management and professionalism. And whatever sort of shoestring budget they might operate on. whether it comes from advertising revenue, council grants or public subscription, it will need to be sustainable over the eight-year term of a licence.

"Support has grown for local radio which expresses the authentic voice of the community"

Hence the Authority's polite correction of our sloppy use of the terms 'commercial' and 'community'. No longer are they mutually exclusive. The politically correct now talk of 'small scale radio', and in this brave new world, for community radio there is no free lunch. Community stations in Alton, Hants, and Pitlochry, Scotland, have arisen by the orthodox route of bidding for a commercial licence. For a station to achieve the same thing in central London is not impossible, and for as long as they rely on voluntary efforts, and their PPL and PRS fees are calculated as a percentage of their income, they will score over big-budget commercial rivals.

They will, however, need to provide evidence of local demand; Section 105 of the Broadcasting Act insists upon it. At present, community groups can broadcast only as often as they can finance the cost of a one-month RSL. But being able to raise as much as £2,260 (10 watts, FM) on a regular basis demonstrates a certain support base.

The Community Radio Association monitors groups' success and is expected to make recommendations to the Radio Authority when the 105-108MHz spectrum of the FM band becomes available a year from now. So if your group hasn't already established a track record, now's the time to start.

Even if you can't raise the licence fee, try talking to cable operators in your area. If you can demonstrate the necessary professionalism, they might take your programmes. Then any advertising you might sell can go towards buying your gear!

CCR studio equipment list

Arrakis 12000 mixing console
Arrakis Digilink 11-600 hard-disk recorder with VDU and mouse
Audiometrics CD 10 CD players x 3
Audiometrics 51900 mic arm
Shure SM7 microphone
Air Corp Pro Announcer 500 microphone processor
AEQ TH-02EX two-line hybrid telephone processor
Orban 8200/E3S broadcast processor
Denon CD cartridges x 20
Cabasse Galiote monitor speakers x 2
Cabasse AMC100 power amps x 2

Points of contact

- Community Radio Association, (Contact Details)
- The Radio Authority, (Contact Details)
- Cambridge Community Radio, (Contact Details)

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from Jams to James

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Penny from heaven

The Mix - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


The Mix - Sep 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session

Feature by Magnus Schofield

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> from Jams to James

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