If you like jaw-dropping displays of regulatory ignorance by radio stations, and haven’t read the latest Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin, then you really should do yourself a favour. This edition, number 282 if you’re counting, is a fine vintage indeed.
First there’s a puzzling clarification of the definition of ‘a commercial communication in radio programming’. Handy, if you’ve been asleep since 1973.
Flick past a 9,952 word investigation into dodgy editorial around the Ukrainian election and pity the poor Ofcommer that picked that particular short straw. Scroll through a ruling on a TV channel that appeared to have showed footage of an actual murder; then wonder how anyone at Jack Oxford let one of their ‘topical quips that walk the edgy sense of humour line’ about 150 people being killed in the Germanwings crash ever make it to air.
Eventually you’ll come to a portentous ‘Note to Broadcasters’ entitled “Community radio annual reporting”. This could be the moment radio historians say radio regulators in the UK were so exasperated by their impossible and thankless task, they finally not only threw in the towel, but set fire to it, and went down the pub.
It says (and I paraphrase for comic effect) “community radio stations are required to report once a year on whether they do what they told us they were going to do when we gave them a licence. Many of them find this troublesome. Rather than impose penalties for the flagrant breaches we discovered in the last twelve months, we’re going to look at ‘streamlining’ the process. Hey, even when we try and turn them off, they take us to court and win.”
Nearly a fifth of all community radio licence holders are in breach.
Thirty eight stations. Out of 200. OK, several of the 38 were comparatively mild infringements – and 15 stations have addressed running issues since reporting. That’s good. But take a look at these.
Cross Rhythms in Teesside reported that “the average number per week of live hours and original programming hours during 2013 was zero; that it not trained anyone during the year; and that it had just one volunteer involved, offering one hour per week of their time.” Just read that again and weep. Zero hours on average?! And feel for the poor guy/girl who turned up every week for that hour. On their own. Doing what I wonder?
Reading’s Ummah FM blamed a studio move for failing to provide the required amount of local content, “as some volunteers were unable to get to the studios to do their shows.” D’oh.
Big City Radio in Aston “found there was not enough fresh information to produce a magazine programme each week.” In Birmingham!
Tudno FM (which promised one-third Welsh language output, in Llandudno) couldn’t find new Welsh speakers to replace outgoing ones because of the ‘large population of people (sic) that have retired to the area from other parts of the UK, resulting in a reduction in the number of local Welsh speakers.’ Why? What did they do to them?
Ipswich Community Radio admitted ‘failing to build a solid and developing network of partners within the Ipswich Community.” Surely that’s as good a definition of a community radio project in Ipswich that you’ll find anywhere?
Ofcom actually tuned in to monitor Radio West Suffolk following a complaint that it was running few live shows. It heard a computer playing music for four hours on a Friday afternoon, interrupted only by Sky News. This is the same station that ‘was not able to provide any examples of the local news required by its key commitments.’ At all.
This glass is also half-full, of course. Arguably 4/5 full. Against a backdrop of continued austerity, 162 stations are doing what they said they would. Or telling Ofcom in good time if circumstances change and they need some wriggle room. That’s the most bizarre thing about the whole sorry story. They’re pretty reasonable at Ofcom. There’s even a form called a Key Commitments Change Request Form.
It’s sad, but the regulator’s pragmatic ‘streamlining’ of the rules is sensible. Is it really an effective use of time for some poor soul in Riverside House to fret over the Portuguese minute-age on Ujima Radio, whether Down Community Radio worked with a particular youth club or not, or the issue of ‘live quiz programmes not broadcast due to sound quality and content considerations’ in Uckfield? For Uck’s sake.
It’s hard work running any radio station. Radio stations built to any degree on the good faith of volunteers, doubly so. Money runs out, visionaries move on, shit happens. But the staggering number of ‘dog eats homework’ excuses above belies a lack of basic compliance understanding in an alarming number of stations.