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24 April 2007

Community Radio and Television

Westminster Hall

Speaking in a debate at Westminster, John Barrett MP called on the Government to accept that community radio and television deserved support to survive and thrive, commenting: "The salary of one Radio 1 DJ is more than the annual Dept. of Culture, Media and Sport support to every community radio station in the country."

Full speech

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD) : Community broadcasting is often seen as a poor relation in the world of television and radio, but it is one area of communications of which we should all be more aware and which we should encourage to grow. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on triggering this debate, which raises an important subject, and on giving us an excellent introduction. I hope that the debate will help to keep the issue on the agenda and will let those who are listening and watching, or who will read the report of our proceedings, know that their parliamentarians are aware of this important dimension of the media, which is thriving in many communities up and down the country.

I should like to go into some detail about what is happening in one such community—South Queensferry—in my constituency. Before I do, however, I should like to put on the record the background to the issue, which resulted in my own awareness of the importance of community involvement in radio and television production.

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to attend Telford college in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)—although at that time it was in my constituency—to study radio and video production. After that I spent two summers at Cornell university in New York state, developing that work. The lessons that I learned then have stuck with me to this day, in two different ways. First, I saw how even in the developing world, where access to conventional media was very restricted, people could change their lives and tackle the problems of the community in a way that would provide hope to many who had given up, whether that was through dealing with social problems or alcoholism, educating people to improve their health, or tackling political injustices. Secondly, I experienced at first hand how, with access to community broadcasting and the skills that facilitate good production values, important messages could be spread to the wider community and to those with the power to make decisions affecting the lives of those involved. Real change could result.

I was involved through such work with the homeless, and a shelter that was set for closure because of lack of funding. When the people in the shelter were asked what they would do if they were given the tools to enable them to communicate with the authorities and others who knew nothing of the homeless, they agreed that they wanted to tell those in power how important the shelter was to the many young people who would otherwise end up on the street, where they would be at risk of violence or worse, where girls would be more likely to move into prostitution, and where there was the attraction of dealing in drugs to make money. Their story was told and the shelter stayed open, and that was possibly the best example I have ever seen of involvement in community radio and television.

Nearer to my home in my constituency, much is going on in Queensferry. South Queensferry in Edinburgh, West is home to two local community broadcast services: Jubilee FM Radio and Jubilee FM Television. Jubilee FM Radio was established in 2001 and currently has a bid with Ofcom to operate a full-time service in North Queensferry and South Queensferry and in nearby towns and villages. Jubilee FM Radio was launched initially to promote and celebrate the Ferry Fair festival, the oldest continuing civic gala in the UK. The station was an instant hit and has grown in popularity over the years. It has become a fixed part of the community and has a strong brand for entertainment and information. When it is not broadcasting, the station delivers live commentary and entertainment at a range of events in the town. It is now in its sixth year and has developed a partnership with the community high school in South Queensferry. It is a unique development and was the idea of one of the sixth-year students, Scott Findlater. He had been one of the volunteer presenters on Jubilee FM the previous summer and suggested that it would be great to have radio at school. A week later the head teacher, Robert Birch, and the station manager, Charles Fletcher, met and began the process of bringing the community radio station into the high school.

If Jubilee FM Radio is awarded a full community licence by Ofcom—something I fully support—it will, I believe, become the first radio station in the UK to broadcast full-time on FM from a school. To put it another way, Queensferry high school will become the first school in Britain to have its own FM radio station broadcasting to its local community. The school has been awarded school of ambition status, and hosting the community radio station is a key element of that programme. Having the station at the school offers students the opportunity to learn first-hand how to make programmes. They will have workshops in presenting, producing, recording, editing and technical skills, and they will have the opportunity to go on air and present and produce their own programmes, once they have been trained. Jubilee FM and Queensferry high school are making a major investment in the students’ media skills and education, and the community radio station gets direct access to a sea of talented youngsters, who have already shown that they are willing and ready to learn how to make radio. Having the community radio station at the high school will also offer opportunities to senior students to use radio production as part of their subject work. Instead of writing an essay in English, they could submit a documentary; or they could record a series of interviews with people in the community to create an oral history programme and submit that as part of their course work.

Queensferry high school is also the home to Jubilee FM TV, which was established in December last year. Students who worked on the radio in the summer were given training in television production skills: how to use a camera and then edit pictures. That project has created a series of news, documentary and entertainment programmes posted online at the Jubilee FM TV website. In January, on new year’s day, Jubilee FM TV did a live worldwide broadcast of the annual Loony Dook, when people—including Margaret Smith, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh West—waded into the River Forth to raise large sums of money for charity.

Jubilee FM TV—community television for Queensferry—offers groups and bodies in the community an opportunity to upload videos of their activities for the rest of the community to access freely. Like community radio, community television needs money to operate, and there frankly is not enough money set aside by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or Government generally, to help fund local broadcasting. Local broadcasting is a vital link in the community—arguably more now than before, as local and regional radio and television stations are merging into large unitary bodies. There is less requirement on the ITV companies to provide local news and programmes, and some local radio stations have cut their commitment to and output of locally generated news and information. That means that people are more and more reliant on community broadcasting for their local news and information. Services such as Jubilee FM in Queensferry have a key role to play in the community and should be able to rely on more support from Government than they currently get.

A number of possible funding sources must be considered, including looking again at the dispersal of the television licence fee. At the moment, all the income generated from the licence fee goes to the BBC, but is not community broadcasting a public service? I believe that it performs a vital public service. It is not only the BBC that engages in public service broadcasting. Community radio in particular needs serious financial support to help it survive, let alone develop. The BBC is experimenting with a series of localised services. Might it not be better, instead of extending the BBC’s reach into more localised services, to consider channelling the money needed to deliver those services into community radio stations? It is also worthwhile to seek to divert some funding out of the Ofcom digital dividend into the community broadcasters; but I would not rule out top-slicing some of the licence fee as well.

Ofcom manages the community radio fund—an opportunity for stations that have community radio licences to apply for some financial support to help to pay for positions on the station such as the station manager, a fundraiser or a technician. The DCMS has confirmed that the total community radio fund for the year 2006-07 will be £830,000. The average station grant in 2005-06 was about £23,000 and the average grant in the last round was about £15,000. Community radio stations are generally staffed by volunteers, with a handful of paid positions. They try to generate an income from advertising, programme sponsorship and grants from local government and the lottery. It is a hand-to-mouth existence for many of them.

Additionally, broadcasting legislation has put a fundraising restriction on community radio stations by insisting that they can only generate 50 per cent. of their income from advertising and sponsorship. The other 50 per cent. must come from grants and donations. That is a restrictive practice which means that community stations could be turning advertisers away, because they have reached their 50 per cent. sales income threshold. I understand that the ruling is intended to help protect some of the heritage stations from other services that might eat into their advertising market, but perhaps the 50 per cent. barrier is unrealistic and should be adjusted to help those stations generate more sales income.

One new community licence holder, in the Shetland Islands, has written to Ofcom to seek a change in its status to a full service commercial licence because it is confident that it can raise 100 per cent. funding through sales of programmes and advertising spots; it is equally convinced that it cannot raise 50 per cent. of its income through grants and the lottery. If it is successful in its bid for a change in status, it could set a precedent that other community stations would be ready to follow. Services such as Jubilee FM Radio and TV in Queensferry open a unique window on a community. They help to give access to debate and exchange of views on local and national issues that are not found anywhere else in the media world.

Community stations also serve a further purpose—training the broadcasters of the future. Stations such as Jubilee FM train all their volunteers in production, presentation and diction. People who have had the break there are turning up on the doorstep of radio and television stations ready trained. No one knows their community better than the people who live and work in it; and it is usually such people who deliver community broadcasting. It is our duty in this House to help ensure that the sector is properly funded and economically stable, so that communities throughout the country can follow and build on the excellent pioneering work currently going on in Queensferry.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.