Broadcasting the community call
Regeneration & Renewal Magazine
By Mark Lupton
Phil Korbel has spent the last five years enabling Manchester communities to colonise the airwaves. Mark Lupton meets the creator of the ultimate open mic.
‘In a few years every town, and most villages, will have one or two community radio stations,’ says Phil Korbel, head of Radio Regen. ‘There’ll be a high street shop front, where anyone can walk in and tell them about their missing dog or their jumble sale. It will be accessible and instant and a forum for people to meet and join up. We’ve lost a lot of those forums, and community radio can put them back into most communities.’
Korbel is more than enthusiastic about radio’s potential to provide a boost to disadvantaged communities. He founded Radio Regen in 1999 as a way of providing radio trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds with a platform to try out their new skills. But it soon became apparent that community radio – locally-based, stations run by, and for, local residents – could do much more than that. It could, argues Korbel, help neglected areas regain their pride and provide communities with a voice. Run properly, it could even act as a powerful regeneration tool. And it seems the Government agrees: Korbel now runs two of the 15 stations taking part in a publicly-funded pilot to test the viability of community radio.
‘The idea to develop the radio stations came from the people who were undertaking the training, says Korbel. ‘They said to us: ‘Do you know what this could do on my street? It would really lift the area.” Initially, stations were run on a temporary basis using restricted service licenses from what was then the Radio Authority. Two were run from the city centre for a month at a time, and stations with even shorter broadcasting lives (72 hours) were set up on an ad-hoc basis in deprived areas of Manchester including Longsight, Moston, Openshaw, and Wythenshawe.
Slowly the Government came round to the idea of community radio stations occupying a third tier in the radio sector, below national radio and local radio. Korbel and other champions made sure their message was heard during the passage of the Communications Bill through Parliament, and eventually the Radio Authority was persuaded to set up the Access Radio Pilot Scheme.
Radio Regen was one of 200 applicants for licenses to run year-long community radio stations as part of the trial. Wythenshawe FM and ALL FM (covering the communities of Ardwick, Longsight and Levenshulme) went on air in 2002. The pilot scheme is due to end this December, but a Department for Culture, Media and Sport evaluation report deemed it such a success that the department, along with Radio Authority replacement Ofcom, is already paving the way for community radio stations to bid for permanent licenses. A 12-week annual window of opportunity for stations to submit such bids to Ofcom is expected to open for the first time this summer, says the regulator. The Government has also set up a fund of £500,000 a year to help stations get on air.
Most importantly, the Government is insisting that the stations deliver ‘social gain’ in their communities: a stipulation that delights Korbel. ‘There are going to be greedy opportunists that will want to get these licenses to make a fast buck,’ he warns. ‘What the Government has done is lay down quite a good framework which might exclude that. It’s going to be quite hard to run a commercially attractive station and meet what the Government wants with regard to social gain. That will all come to nothing, though, if there are not sufficient resources from Ofcom to police this – and at the moment they don’t have those resources. For that reason, the first few years of community radio could be quite fraught – people might be given licenses when they’re not ready or just because they write a good bid’
Despite the potential pitfalls, Korbel is confident that Community radio stations can deliver. He believes they can help boost the skills base within an area, help service providers and regeneration agencies reach hard-to-reach groups, and increase areas’ self-esteem. ‘Community radio is in part a mirror,’ he says. ‘By showing the good stuff, it can create community pride. But the ingredients have to come from the people. So it’s not like we can just pop up and magic a community spirit: it’s still got to come from the residents. Community radio could be the missing link in regeneration: the thing that could join services with clients in the hardest-to-reach communities. Regeneration practitioners ignore it at their peril.’
Korbel recently convinced the North-West Development Agency not to ignore such potential. It has agreed to fund a feasibility study to help Radio Regen establish a centre of expertise where others can learn how to set up and run stations. Meanwhile, ALL FM and Wythenshawe FM hope to convince Ofcom to let them be part of the first wave of permanent community stations. And with the Government’s assessment of the pilot concluding that community radio represents ‘the most important cultural development in the UK for many years,’ their future seems assured.
Korbel, at least, is convinced that they will soon become part of our cultural and social fabric. ‘That is the vision,’ he says. ‘There will be stumbling blocks along the way, but I think community radio will become second nature in three years; certainly five. Regeneration practitioners and community organisations will wonder how they ever did without it.’