Dom Chambers has taken an active interest in the UK’s community broadcasting sector since joining the CMA Council in 2011. Each year he tours the country to identify and celebrate how various organisations are delivering grass roots and community media. This not only helps share best practice but his visits cumulatively talk up a sector that is still emerging into the broadcast landscape. He firmly believes in the social value of community media and hopes that his tours help bring this to the attention of decision-makers. Dom runs Somerset-based Somer Valley FM and is the CEO of the Somer Valley Education Trust CIO. In these roles, he has developed a particular interest in the social benefits of communication and media training through the development of transferable skills that open life opportunities. If you would like Dom to visit you or for any feedback please leave a comment or contact him on DomChambers@SomerValleyFM.co.uk or @TheDomChambers.
Nevis Radio, Fort William. Saturday 12 August 2017
Nevis Radio has long been a target of mine since starting these tours, if only because, I imagined, its location is in that sort of purple heather landscape of the type favoured by those tins of shortbread you can pick up in motorway service stations. Traffic backing out of Fort William meant I had plenty of time to enjoy the majesty of the surrounds and the radio service of one of the biggest transmission areas awarded in the community sector. I had been listening to Nevis Radio for most of the thirty miles since leaving Fort Augustus. A pleasant blend of music, local information and regular well-appointed ad breaks presented by ‘Big’ John Weller. Local radio spilling effortlessly into my car as the shadow of Britain’s tallest peak, Ben Nevis, looms large over slow moving traffic. A policeman was now cheerily waving me on and soon I was walking into the station and greeting John whose magnanimity of welcome matches his stature.
“Nevis Radio plays a big role in life around Fort William.” He tells me as we settle into comfortable chairs in his office. John Weller is the Chair of the Board and Head of Music as well as being a presenter. “Communication is what it is all about so that everyone is informed what is going on. We started in 1992 as a ski report service. Then in 1997, we became an independent radio station. When the government started offering community licenses, we decided to go for that mainly to open up new funding opportunities.” Coming to a station that has morphed between licence sectors is a first for me as I tour the UK and I was keen to know if the transition was a smooth one. The short answer is, ‘it wasn’t!’ John explains, “The period of readjustment took longer than we’d thought but in the last couple of years we have found our way again. We are really listening to what people want and we have now developed a strong working relationship with local schools.”
Listening to Nevis Radio, it seems that an obvious legacy from its ILR days is an advanced advertising proposition with three ad breaks an hour. John confirms that this is their main revenue source. Before finding out how they go about sales I wanted to gauge what their liabilities are. As they own the building they are in this is mainly down to staff, “We have two members of staff; a station manager who is responsible for sustainability and development and a sales operative. They work hand in hand and we do have an annual bonus incentive if they hit their targets.” Getting sales leads is only half the battle, John confirms that sorting out advertising contracts and administration has been a major part of ensuring the station matches expenditure with revenue. Getting to this point has involved getting the right mix of skills and expertise at board and staffing levels. John himself is a full-time builder. Advertising is not the only offer for businesses.
“We do also get some sponsorship with companies who want to help us out in return for a name check. That money we put to new equipment rather than it going into general running costs.
I get the impression that Nevis Radio not only lost its way a few years ago but it very nearly went under. A refreshed approach resulting in good management and governance has brought the station back from the brink to the point of becoming a robust and popular local radio station. I have no doubt that this success is due to leadership of a board that understands the need of business discipline and the emergence of a business model that balances the books. This is not easy in community radio and pretty well all the licences that have been handed back to Ofcom are down to business failure. John believes they now have the right formula, “I hope within two years we should have money in the bank!”
What advice would he give to a community station introducing an advertising offer, “It must be face-to-face. It can’t just be a flat email drop. Everyone needs something different so you must talk to them and your package needs to be flexible. Also, you need to keep talking to them after they have signed up. It’s important to get feedback from the customers how it is working. We know that some businesses are up by 25% just by advertising with us.”
Nevis Radio is one of the more remote licences in the UK. It has a long history and shown that it has overcome many of the challenges that are common in our sector. What remains is a local radio station that understands why it exists and knows its own business. That makes it a case study that is well worth the trek through beautiful terrain. The quality voice of Viv Macdonald joins me as I head out on the road to Edinburgh.
Alive 107.3 Dumfries, Dumfries & Galloway. Tuesday 8 August 2017 #CrTour17 heads into Scotland and takes a left turn to Dumfries and Galloway. Alive 107.3 started out in 2004 when a local pastor wondered how best to link the various churches of the region together. The station launched in 2009 and soon found that there was wide community spirit and that radio could help people feel good about living in the Dumfries area. Lee Medd is the On Air Manager who welcomed me at the door, “We’ve still got our Christian output,” he tells me, “but we do it in such a way that engages the listener. We do have specialist music shows but our mainstream programmes are all about the wider audience and what’s been really good is that we are now seen as part of the fabric of the community. Everyone at Alive is a volunteer and there are 42 of us drawn from all parts of the region who want to give something back and be part of the bigger picture.” The volunteers are not only key to the station sound but they are essential to its sustainability as Alive Radio operates on a subscription model. Approaching eight years as a licensed broadcaster the station’s capacity to build relationships has led to growing interest from the business community. Sales of adverts are on the rise and this is now becoming a significant revenue stream. With an increase in revenue and having no staff liabilities, I ask Lee what the plan is, “We need to reinvest in our studios and equipment which has been around a long time. The subscriptions just about pay the running costs and we need capital to put into the place for the future.” Back on the road and I’m tuned into Alive Drive. Aaron Kelly is trailing a big weekend for the station with an upcoming festival. In so many parts of the country, community radio is the local radio and I had just visited a cracking local broadcaster with a clear sense of purpose.
Chorley FM – Chorley, Lancashire. Tuesday 8 August 2017 #CrTour17 On Tuesday I took the opportunity to visit one of the longest serving community licences. Arriving at Chorley FM I was warmly welcomed by one of the directors, Barbara Lowe. Launching in 2006 the station has reinvented itself along the way and that spirit of social entrepreneurialism is alive and well with a new advertising offer that caught my attention. Barbara is eager to tell me all about the 100 Club, “This is a brand new scheme brought in by one of our directors where local businesses pay £100 per year to get short but regular ‘on air’ mentions.” The take up has been good and with 40 signed, already this is becoming a significant revenue stream. As I hear about the place Chorley FM has in the fabric of community life it becomes apparent that the growing success of this initiative is largely down to a high level of local confidence in their radio station. Further evidence of this comes when Barbara tells me that many of their advertisers are motivated to support what Chorley FM does for the area as well as the commercial advantage of building a custom base through audiences. “We’ve got a great community here and people are always willing to support anything that is community-based. Because they can get involved themselves it adds great value to the town of Chorley and the surrounding rural area.” Community radio is working well when it reflects the life of an area but, at the same time, helps steer cohesion by bringing people together through audiences. Chorley FM is a good example of this.
Bolton FM – Bolton, Greater Manchester. Monday 7 August 2017 #CrTour17 Bolton FM is the 35th licensed community station I have visited. First impressions count for a lot. I walked into an office buzzing with pre-show production, forward planning, volunteer training and sales activity. The studios are in full use and on the Afternoon Show, Chris Hajdar is introducing a new presenter who has just moved to Bolton and wants to get involved. Many of the balances that combine to make effective community radio are there for me to see and not just because they knew I was coming. This level of activity is normal as Production Manager, Alex Healey, tells me, “Community Radio is reaching local people in a way that other broadcasters don’t. Bolton FM is all about Bolton. People in Bolton can tune in and know what we’re talking about because it’s about them.” That reach extends to some positive outcomes for those who are directly involved. “Bolton FM taught me to grow up and behave around other people, “Alex, who is 23, uses himself as an example of this sort of impact, “I know presenters who would barely speak when they first came here. They didn’t want to go on mic or press the buttons but they gave it a go, got their confidence and are now making radio that would not be out of place on a BBC or commercial station.” I left here with a strong sense that I had seen first-hand an exemplary model of community broadcasting. Don’t take my word for it – hit #BigBoltonChat.
Leyland Festival Radio – Leyland. Monday 7 August 2017 #CrTour17 stopped by Leyland Festival Radio for a really interesting meeting with Brian Ashman who is one of the directors. Leyland are one of the applicants for an FM licence in the current Ofcom round. The ambition of the station is to help give the area its own identity and build the educational training offer. The theme of training is particularly warm to former teacher Brian who sees an educational value in the inherent nature of community radio, “One of the things education can do for you is that when you have got it, it cannot be taken away. When people meet they will gel together. Obviously, that happens with like-minded people such as those who are into radio but you also meet people you would not normally meet. You have to interact with them. This is life enhancing. You have to understand different people with different backgrounds and ages. You have to get along with them and you have to work with them. That is a wonderful lesson in living with other people.” I first met Brian at the Radio Skills Sessions I put on in Manchester with Cathy Brooks and Phil Korbel at Radio Regen last year. “They were really useful,” Brian tells me, “particularly the guides on how to do a funding application.” As a follow up I was happy to review the licence application before the deadline. There is a strong vision here and I am certain that many of the ingredients are in place to build a successful and sustaining radio station. I hope it will not be long before this potentially high impacting community broadcaster gets underway permanently.
Keynsham Town Community Radio (KTCR) – Keynsham. Friday 4 August 2017 #CrTour17 My annual community radio tour got underway when I dropped in on the fledgling Keynsham radio. Keynsham Town Community Radio is one of the 36 applicants currently applying to Ofcom for an FM licence. One of the principal drivers for this is music festival organiser Ric Davison who tells me the time is right for Keynsham to have its own dedicated radio service, made by locals, from a town that is rapidly growing. The organisation is already having an impact. “KTCR,” Ric says, “Was quite a force in galvanising public opinion that led to an extraordinary U turn on local authority thinking which means that the new leisure centre is going to be in the heart of the town and not on the outskirts. KTCR grew out of a Somer Valley FM training project funded by Bath & NE Somerset Council. Hearing Ric’s sheer level of enthusiasm to take KTCR from a one hour, weekly show to a full 24/7 local radio station is hugely satisfying for me. I wish him, Seb and Kim all the luck in the world and Somer Valley FM is there to support if needed as I know are many other organisations across the community.