by Trystan Davies
Gordon Brown at the turn of the century highlighted a new idea. That idea was “community radio” which has become, according to Ofcom the broadcasting regulator, “one of the great UK broadcasting success stories in the last few years”. The journey has not been easy and certainly isn’t over but despite recession, stiff competition and “Broken Britain” volunteers from all over the UK still want a sense of belonging and new ways to communicate.
One such community can be found in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland. Its port area, called Leith, has always straggled between boom and bust both economically and culturally. In the 16th century the royal burgh was the launching pad for Scottish Kings to set sail for war and Mary Queen of Scots started her grandiose arrival here. The industrial revolution saw Leith as a major ship building port but the depression of the late 20th century witnessed a decline the burgh is still recovering from. This depression became world famous in the iconic Danny Boyle film Trainspotting. Despite all this attention Leith still remains the poor relative of its neighbour Edinburgh but its strong community spirit has looked hard for ways to improve life. One foundation has been the annual Leith Festival, an arts celebration the origins of which go back to the beginning of the 20th century. The festival, whose fortunes have matched the economic decline of the area, had to find something new and innovative to meet the 21st century.
Leith goes radio ga ga
Local radio in Leith was the brainchild of a man called Charles Fletcher; a former correspondent with Sky News and the BBC World Service. Having set up a local short term broadcast with the nearby South Queensferry community, Fletcher introduced a Restricted Service Licence (RSL) in 2002 to the Leith Festival but according the Mary Moriarty, one of the committee members, it was not an easy idea;
“Charles came to us and asked if Leith Festival would like to do a week of radio broadcasts. He would approach local businesses and the whole thing would cost five thousand pounds. Of course the Leith Festival Committee was quite aghast at that amount! We didn’t really have that kind of money”
During 2003 Fletcher and the Festival Committee worked hard to raise the money but failed to achieve their objective. Charles Fletcher stood down but one DJ, Tony Leech, was inspired by his adventures as a youth with a home-made CB (Citizen’s Band) radio, decided not to give up. Luck was on their side, the money was found and the team grew. Following a successful Leith Festival and a full week of broadcasting the RSL was repeated a year later for two full weeks. Further success prompted the creation of Leith Community Mediaworks (LCM) to deliver community radio and TV to the people of Leith. The venture was risky but fortunately, as Mary explains, the spirit and skills of the volunteers overcame those hurdles;
“Most the people who were involved were local, they really seemed to know their stuff about radio and the presenters were excellent. Downstairs in the Leith Dockers Club there were lots and lots of lovely young people coming in, talking and playing their music. There was a real buzz and it was so exciting”
People do criticise New Labour but they got one thing right in 2004 and that was community radio. The idea, in media terms, is an old one and was hinted at in the Broadcasting Act 1990. This Act was used and adjusted to allow Ofcom to make an announcement on the 1st of September 2004 welcoming applications for Community Radio Licences on FM (Very High Frequency) or AM (Medium Wave).
In autumn 2004 LCM decided to apply for the Leith licence but Ofcom were overwhelmed by applications so it took till February 2006 for the licence to be granted. Leith FM was officially launched in March 2007on waveband 98.8FM and on Monday May 7th. 2007 the first full live broadcast spread across the city. Others in Scotland had the same idea; Awaz FM, an ethnic minority station in Glasgow, progressed from being a very successful pilot scheme for the Radio Authority, and Revival FM based in Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire serving Christian listeners was the first start-up from scratch.
Since 2004 community radio has blossomed and there are over 180 licences across the UK. Leith FM has grown too with 150 members and 60 regular presenters. The station hits well above its weight to meet Ofcom’s community criteria with shows in French, Polish plus specialist shows in North African and Asian music. Getting serious, local radio is recognised by the government as a source of local news and current affairs and since Christmas 2009 Leith FM has built up a news-team, giving local and worldwide news bulletins four times a week. Politics from the nearby Parliament can be heard on Noise Up! – a programme which covers, for example, the First Ministers Question Time on a Thursday afternoon and then an interview with a local politician. Local MP Mark Lazarowicz has been a regular guest on the show;
“It has been a good initiative for Leith. It has a real connection with the community. People do pick things up from the programme – people on the street and not just a few which is good. I’ve been on air for political and current affairs based issues and you always get a pretty rigorous cross-examination. It’s a very good radio station.”
Community radio also broadcasts the stalwarts of community information such as government advice on “How to keep warm this winter” repeated on the hour every hour during the recent heavy cold snap. Charities have also benefited from Leith FM with the local Bethany group, which deals with homelessness, allowing those struggling with life the opportunity to take part in music shows and further their contribution to society.
Radio can be a great focus for the disabled. The medium is all about sound and touch so many blind and partially sighted people use it as a way of accessing and performing to a wide audience. One presenter, Alan Dudley, performs Leith Talk on a Thursday afternoon using a volunteer assistant and a brail-based keyboard. I have had the pleasure of assisting Alan “Cuddly” Dudley and his guide dog Demy on a number of occasions and it’s impressive how accommodating radio can be.
Keeping with the tradition of being a port Leithers have emigrated across the world and in this Diaspora Leith FM has found a new audience. With evolving new media the station has a presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The station manager Mohammed Bouchkal is keen to keep up with the online community;
“We do get a few international responses and we put a map, a tracking map, on the website where you can see all the red dots where people are listening from – places you think could never pick up Leith FM!”
Having formed part of one local entertainment event, Leith Festival, the station has ventured into the world famous annual Edinburgh Festival with interviews and reviews of well known and upcoming entertainers. Past guests include Sir Anthony Hopkins, Foster & Allen and Jimmy Osmond.
The New Recruit
Rehan Yousef is a 28 year old former TV and film student who is a convert to radio. He’s enthusiastic and very ambitious about his Asian music show on Monday nights;
“My dream is to have a show where one week we’re talking about a local issue then another week talk about an international issue but maybe something people haven’t really heard of. We did a story on Sri Lanka and the constitutional crisis and we weren’t sure it would work but we had a wee bit of feedback, at first; ‘What’s going on? this is Leith FM!’ but after the show they were saying; ‘you know what – this is really interesting and I’ve learnt something!”
Rough air waves
Not all attempts at community radio have been successful. Six stations failed to start while three have had to return their licence. Charles Fletcher, who had introduced local broadcasting to Leith, failed to establish a bigger venture in nearby South Queensferry. According to Professor Anthony Everitt, author of the 2003 local radio report New Voices, community radio is in constant fear of closure. Everitt’s recommendations have formed the basis for government legislation but the Community Radio Fund (CRF) is well below the £3-4million he wants. When the CRF was set up in 2005 it was £500k per year and only 14 stations, but since then very little has been done to support the boom in licence holders. A campaign was launched in 2009 by Professor Everitt and 82 community radio leaders, media scholars and experts including representatives of 60 community radio stations. A petition gathered over 1700 signatures and an open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown pointed out, amongst other issues, the fact that 150 community radio stations receive less funding than a Radio One breakfast DJ. Looking to the continent is furthering their argument with France providing 25 million Euros annually to 600 community radio stations.
On-air and off-air life has not always been easy for Leith FM. As with all small voluntary ventures there have been bust-ups and trouble organising everything. In September this year Leith FM found itself on a list with fourteen other community radio stations in breach of their licence conditions having failed to submit an annual report to Ofcom on time. The main issues have been more fundamental to staying on-air and Mohammed Bouchkal believes the stations problem is keeping the books balanced;
“We’re keeping it afloat at the moment but we do need a lot of money to keep the station going. We do try to keep a good contact with the Scottish Parliament so they can help but I think most of the money goes to other organisations such as cancer research – more serious things than a radio station”
Freddie Roddick, presenter and scheduling Manager believes that membership is tricky;
“The big problems I’ve come across are volunteers coming and going and , especially at this time of year, trying to find new volunteers to fill positions. A lot of volunteers work during the day so trying to find people for daytime positions is a nightmare!”
And of course, says Mary Moriarty, everyone wants to be the star but not necessarily do the donkey work;
“There is a priority for people just to be presenters and, probably, that is as much as they want to do which is quite right but I think for the advancement of Leith FM it would be more encouraging if everybody took part to make it better”
Things are still fresh at Leith FM with volunteers learning all the time. The team were, along with many others, pioneers in local media and despite hardship the station has continued to sail along. The media world changes quickly and the FM signal itself has been threatened by digital technology which, at the moment, is far less accommodating and flexible than the traditional medium. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, stated last July that the Government will not trash analogue radio once the digital switchover takes place in 2015 but it will encourage listeners to go digital as quickly as possible. The new technology is growing steadily with 11m digital radios sold in the UK serving 24% of listeners. Where will Leith FM and community radio fit in this new world? It is probably too early to tell but it runs the risk of being marginalised by wealthier companies buying up the airwaves, and community radio stations lack the expensive technology to broadcast digitally. But smaller commercial stations will face the same difficulties so community radio is certainly not alone. Leith’s community will also change. The area is now targeted as one of the main centres for renewable energy construction in Scotland. Tourism will also transform the area with a growing cruise liner industry and the possible resurrection of the stalled tram project. As can be seen in other city port redevelopments the results do not necessarily improve community cohesion and can even be destructive.
The most recent announcement from Ofcom repeats the “genuine success story” mantra of community radio. Despite “Broken Britain” people still need a sense of belonging and this is strong in Leith. The burgh has always been proud of its distinct, working class and community driven ideals which soak into every pour of Leith FM and flows out again across the airwaves, hopefully for a long time to come.