Dummies Guide to CR Community Radio and RSL Restricted Service Licences
If you are new to the subject, then we hope you will find this useful. It is written from Associated Broadcast Consultants’ direct experience of many community radio broadcasts. We can’t provide all the answers here, but we do aim to point out the main aspects you need to be aware of, and some guidance on the best approach (in our experience). Naturally this advice is provided free of charge in good faith, and only you can choose whether or not to follow this advice.
There is a long list of quite diverse stuff that needs to happen. Please don’t be daunted by this – it does not have to be done all at once, and if some areas are unfamiliar to you then try and find someone with experience of that kind of thing. Many hands make light work.
To find out more, simply expand each section below by clicking on the blue link text.
CR vs RSL – What's the difference? …About Ofcom FM broadcast licences…
RSL, or Restricted Service Licences are a special type of licence that Ofcom may issue. There are several “flavours” of RSL, but short-term (S-RSL) is the key one which permits establishment of temporary stations upto 28 days at a time. They are regarded as a kind of “stepping-stone” to applying for full-time Community Radio (CR) licence. Although unusual, it is permissible for RSL stations to make a profit, unlike CR licences. This is possibly why RSL licences cost so much compared to CR licences. There are many rules and regulations around RSL licences – you can find out all the details at the Ofcom website here: Ofcom RSL section
CR, or Community Radio licences are a step-up from RSL licenses. A CR station may broadcast every day for the duration of the licence (typically 5 years). A CR station must be operated on a not-for-profit basis, furthermore it is necessary to make “Key Commitments” about what you will do to enhance your local community. These Key Commitments become part of the licence conditions and are rigorously upheld by Ofcom. To make things trickier, no single source of revenue can exceed 50% – thus even if you have a thriving local advertising market, you are still going to need to find other ways to raise money. If the coverage area of the CR station overlaps one of the smaller ILR (Independent Local Radio) commercial stations, then the rules on advertising are even tighter.
In April 2011 Ofcom announced a new, 3rd round of licencing for CR licences on top of the 200 or so already awarded in the years before. Invitations for licence bids are invited on a regional basis according to the Ofcom Community Radio timetable. Once awarded, CR stations have a grace period of up to 2 years to get on air, after which the licence is revoked if they have not managed to get on-air. You can find out all the details of CR Community Radio licences and get the application form at the Ofcom website here: Ofcom Community Radio section
Organisation …Organisational structures for community radio…
In theory a very skilled individual might be able to run a CR Community Radio or RSL station on their own. This is not a good idea for two main reasons:
- You may think you know it all, but in reality it is quite unlikely that you will have the skills to cover everything from technical, organisational, programming, sales, finance, complaints, volunteering, community engagement etc etc.
- Even if you do know it all, it is quite a lot of work so it is unlikely you will have enough time to do it all!
So step 1 in your CR Community Radio or RSL project is to assemble a small team of keen individuals with complementary skills. They do not need to know about radio, but one or two with some experience would be helpful. At this early stage keep it small and pick people you know you can rely upon to deliver when they say they will do something.
As the project develops you are likely to pick-up more people. At some stage you will need to establish a formal organisation with a constitution, hold meetings with minutes, have a budget and accounts, and start thinking about policies and procedures (eg disciplinary, complaints, children and dependent adults, expenses etc etc). It sounds boring, but nevertheless it is important. In addition, if you intend to apply for grants, most bodies will request evidence that you are a properly constituted organisation with proper governance and control – after all they have a duty to ensure that the money they distribute is spent wisely so they will want to reassure themselves that they are not giving any money to cowboys or fraudsters! Fortunately Associated Broadcast Consultants can help you on all this with our Policies and Procedures pack for Community Radio broadcasters
We are not experts in company law and finance, but below we briefly review the pros and cons of three common options for CR Community Radio or RSL Community Radio stations below. Also there is some excellent help and advice available on the internet such as this document Good Governance – A Code for the Voluntary and Community Sector
- Board of Trustees is probably the simplest organisational structure to use. You may choose to organise yourselves for example with a Chairman and a board of Trustees. This is certainly better than nothing! Step one is to draw-up a constitution that states what you are, and what and how you will achieve your aims. There are template documents available on the internet, and your local council may have someone whose job is to help and advise voluntary organisations get started. The key drawback with this type of organisation is that the Trustees are jointly and severally liable – meaning that if it all goes horribly wrong, any lenders or creditors can recover the whole indebtedness from any one of you. The debtors are left to sort out their respective contributions between themselves. Although it may seem unlikely or pessimistic, are you prepared to give your time voluntarily and then to risk everything you own in the event for example of a tragic accident or a presenter libelling someone on-air?
- Community Interest Company (CIC) is a special type of limited company that may not make a profit, and its assets are locked so that they cannot be used for profit by company members. You appoint some Directors and register your organisation with Companies House, paying a small annual fee and adopting and filing your “Memorandum and Articles of Association” (equivalent to a Constitution). You are obliged to file an annual report and accounts. Establishing a CIC is a fairly complex process so you will probably need the advice of a solicitor, or someone who is well versed in Company law. The advantage of a CIC is that it is a limited company – meaning that if something goes horribly wrong you may limit your liabilities – £1 being the normal amount. You can find out more at the CIC Regulator Website
- Charity is probably the most well known type of voluntary or not for profit organisation. It has a number of advantages, but in our experience it can be difficult for a Community Radio station to fit the strict criteria necessary to become a registered charity. You would need to frame the purpose of your station around one of these criteria such as education, arts, culture, amateur sports etc. If you do manage to become a registered charity then you will avail of a number of tax advantages, reduced rates on buildings, and will gain recognition more easily with grants-giving bodies. On the other hand, charities do have trading restrictions unlike CIC’s. One word of warning, we understand that by default trustees of Charities have unlimited liabilities – however it may be possible for a Charity to alleviate this exposure by setting-up a separate CIC that dedicates all its earnings to the charity, or by establishing a “Charity limited by guarantee”. All this liability stuff is fairly complex, so get proper legal advice!
As well as the cost of buying or hiring equipment, don’t forget to budget for the cost of the necessary licences. Licence costs depend on what kind of licence you want to apply for and what stage/maturity your are at in radio station terms. CR Community Radio licences are limited availability and relatively cheap, whilst RSL licences are fairly freely available (provided you meet the application criteria), but VERY expensive. RSL’s are best regarded as a “test run” rather than a permanent solution.Warning – the costs in this section need updating – please treat them as indicative!
RSL Restricted Service Licence – For one reason or another S-RSL (short-term RSL) broadcasts seem to be penalised on a cost basis by Ofcom and the music royalty bodies and others. The costs therefore quickly mount-up. For a 28 day broadcast at 25 watts for starters there are:
- Non-refundable £400 fee for Ofcom S-RSL application
- Wireless Telegraphy and Broadcasting Act fees charged on a daily basis up to a maximum of £1960 for 28 days at 25 watts
- PRS music royalties (£1173.48 discounted rate)
- PPL – £980 + VAT +£50 web simulcast
- MCPS copyright (£72.47 minimum)
CR Community Radio Licence – Unlike RSL licences, CR Community Radio licences are not freely available on demand. Ofcom only invites applications for CR licences occasionally. In April 2011 Ofcom announced a third round of CR licencing that will progress on a region by region basis starting with Wales and the South West. The licence award is typically for 5 years, and the CR station may broadcast 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Rather strangely the licence costs for CR licences are much lower than RSL licences:
- Non-refundable £600 fee for Ofcom CR Community Radio application
- Ofcom CR licence – 0.173% of revenue with minimum of £600 per annum. Payable in advance of broadcast start anniversary
- Wireless Telegraphy licence – £250 per annum
- PRS music royalties – 2% of NBR (Net Broadcasting Revenue – 85% of total revenue) with £587 + VAT minimum. Runs 30 Sep-30 Sep. Quarterly revenue reporting
- MCPS Copyright – Does not seem to be charged yet, but needs to be budgeted for – £615
- PPL Licence – 3% of NBR with minimum of £550
- PPL Web simulcast licence – £212.55
And all those licence costs come before you get started on the other costs:
- Studio and transmission equipment purchase or hire
- Insurance – buildings, contents, public liability
- Rent, electricity, phone, web, rates
- Publicity – as much as you want to spend if you have anything left!
As in indication, the first community station we were involved in cost about £11k from ground-zero to being on-air – and that was with free premises provided. That cost could probably have been shaved down by hiring instead of purchasing equipment and scrimping a bit more, but equally it would have been possible to blow lots more money.
So you’ll need deep pockets, or spend significant time generating some revenue from the broadcast and/or applying for grants and negotiating freebies. Contact Associated Broadcast Consultants if you would like us to prepare a detailed budget for your fledgling radio project.
Licence Application …Applying to Ofcom for your licence…
- RSL Restricted Service Licence – early in your RSL project after you have assembled a team and a plan you need to apply for the licence. Ofcom apply a first come, first served rule for RSL licences, so do this as early as possible – 6 months or more. If you leave it late you may not get granted a licence (wasting the £400 application fee), or be granted a licence on an inferior frequency and possibly at reduced power. Ofcom operate a special allocation method for Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting) which moves each year. If you want to establish a “Radio Ramadan” for your community, then get organised and submit your allocation as early as possible (eg 1 year in advance). Other stations are probably best-advised to avoid this period – if you are allocated a frequency bear in mind it might be congested with competing broadcasts, so you may have a smaller coverage area. The application form is relatively simple, but remember it forms the basis of your legal obligations under the licence, so don’t lie, and make sure you deliver what you promise – especially on the technical side. Associated Broadcast Consultants can help you complete the form if you wish.
- CR Community Radio Licence This will probably be the main focus of your activities early in your project. The application is fairly detailed. Obviously you are asked to describe your service so that it may be judged against competing applications. In addition Ofcom want to see details of your organisation and finances to give them confidence that your station is sustainable for the full 5 year licence term. One key aspect is the “Key Commitments” section – where you need to commit to what you promise to deliver. Do not take this section lightly – you are expected to report on your achievement against these commitments annually, and Ofcom can and do punish stations that do not meet their commitments, or do not file a report. You need to strike a balance between making good enough commitments to make your application appealing, whilst also making sure they are achievable over the medium to long term.
You only get one chance, so if you would like a second opinion on your licence application before you submit it, then consider Associated Broadcast Consultants’s Ofcom licence application review service.
Delivery …Getting organised…
Technical …Some important technical details…
This is an important area that you must get right both to stay of the right side of the law and to sound professional and win and retain listeners.
Stay Legal! On the transmission side if you get it wrong you may be in breach of your licence conditions. The ultimate sanction Ofcom have is to prosecute which means you could end-up with a criminal conviction! So you are well advised to get some quality advice on this aspect at the application stage, and also at the purchase/hire and installation/commissioning stage. Plug – Associated Broadcast Consultants can offer you Independent help and advice untainted by sales commissions or partnerships. Take a look at our very cost-effective e-Consultancy service in the Consultancy page of this website.
Coverage The location of your transmitter site is of critical importance. It will heavily impact how many people can receive your signal. In general on FM height is king, so the optimum site will probably be the highest hill or building near the centre of your target area. There’s a lot more to planning a transmitter site that that – Plug – Associated Broadcast Consultants can help you with this aspect. We can provide coverage prediction plots from your chosen locations, or we can offer a turnkey service to take a detailed look at your area and run through many potential locations giving you a shortlist and comprehensive study with advice and conclusions to obtain maximum coverage. A coverage prediction plot is not essential in your application to Ofcom, but we think it lends your bid an air of professionalism which will help build confidence that you mean business!
Studio The audio/studio side of things does not have the same dire legal implications if you get it wrong, but instead the penalty might be that you sound terrible and no-one listens! Bear in mind that although some domestic HiFi equipment may be good audio quality, it may not stand-up to 28 days use 24 hours a day. Try to stretch to proper broadcast-spec kit whenever possible – it is built to withstand the rigours of broadcast life, and the extra quality will make a difference. It can, but does not have to cost a lot. There is some great stuff available at very good prices. Contact us to see how we can help you understand the pros and cons of different approaches.
Audio Processing Unless you have been involved in broadcasting before, this will probably be an alien concept. If you have an audio enthusiast doing your technical stuff, this is one important part they may not be aware of, or dismiss as “not required”. Although true in the strictest sense, it is not true in practice – in our opinion the “Audio processor” is an essential part of any broadcast transmission chain. Ask the person in charge of technical matters what they are doing for audio processing. If they sound vague, or say it is not required, seek professional advice! We won’t go into the detail here, suffice to say without one your station will sound “thin” and quiet on the dial. You are strongly advised to rent or buy such a unit – Associated Broadcast Consultants can advise on the choices to suit your budget and where to source them. You can find out a little more on the Audio Processing page of this website.
Audio production and quality control is another key area. It need not fall within the remit of technical, but it is likely that the people with the best skills in this area will also be technical. You need to ensure that all material you record and play (jingles, adverts etc) is recorded with good quality, edited correctly and sounds right. This is particularly true for adverts which may need addition of backing music, sound effects and/or audio effects. It’s one of those forgotten details. Get it wrong, and say if your adverts are left with 10 second silence at the end, then when they are stacked in your playout system you may get long periods of silence and your listeners will keep thinking you have gone off-air! Associated Broadcast Consultants have written a guide to audio production using the free open-source audio editing software called Audacity. You can download the guide for free from our website here.
Computing and IT is another important area. Try to get an IT guru on-board who can set-up everything you need. They will need to install a computer network. You will almost certainly want to have a digital playout system for music, jingles and adverts, possibly an automated playout system for nights and quiet parts of the day. Also e-mail, web, maybe SMS text in ability and archiving/backup. An essential requirement from Ofcom is a station log – recording of all station output which must be retained for 42 days. This used to be done with video recorders, but is now best achieved with a PC running some special software, and an automated backup routine. You will probably want to stream your output on the web, and you will also want a website.
With all those costs mentioned earlier you need to find a way to pay your way. The good news is that provided you approach the matter professionally, there is a tier of small local businesses who are keen to advertise on local radio. Bear in mind that the big commercial stations have become less “local” and more regional/national – so advertising on them costs a lot and reaches listeners far beyond the catchment area of their business. This is your Unique Selling Point – your listeners are their customers! So try to get a few volunteers who can sell, and set them on the road with a rate card and some example recorded adverts. Point of note – make sure your adverts sound slick and professional, and if you use backing music you’ll probably want to use royalty-free stuff. Associated Broadcast Consultants can help you find this, some of it is free!Sponsorship is another area. Approach the larger businesses in your area and appeal to their better nature that they should be supporting local community initiatives. At this point it helps if you have evidence that you are a “pucca” organisation which is properly constituted. In return for serious cash you can offer interviews, infomertials, website banners and the kudos of being associated with a local community initiative.
Grants are another key source of revenue. Again you will need evidence that you are a properly constituted organisation. Generally they provide Capital grants – that is to say grants that can be spent on buying “stuff”. Occasionally, but rarely, they will provide grants for operational expenses like licence fees, rent etc. The time/benefit ratio of grants is very high – so it is well worth having someone dedicated to the task of finding and applying for grants.
Finance …Managing your finances…
Programming and Station Imaging …Controlling your station identity…
In the excitement of delivering a new radio service, this aspect can get forgotten. If it does, there is a risk that your radio station may sound like a collection of random programmes delivered on the same frequency. This is unlikely to be a successful formula that gains listeners and advertisers!Unlike TV, people rarely make an appointment to listen to the radio. They are unlikely to consult your programme schedule and plan their radio listening around your station. Don’t tell your presenters, (well actually DO tell them!) but they generally use it as the “wallpaper of their lives”! – it’s on in the background as they drive to work, do the ironing, at work, after school etc etc, but in general they do not pay close attention to it. Thus it really helps if you format your station so that people know what they will hear before they tune in. If you want to be say a “Country and Western” or other specialist station, this is relatively easy – just make sure you always play Country and Western music and never play anything else! If you want to be more of an “all things to all people” station, then it starts to be very difficult. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln – “You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. Example – many people love Heart FM, but some people are ambivalent towards it. Few people however hate it enough to turn it off, so they retain a good audience.
Part of the answer to this problem is to plan a format for your station, which attempts to match what the majority of your target audience will want at various times of day. For example you may have your best presenters playing the latest music at breakfast, have more laid-back middle-of the road hits through the day, say a lunchtime feature programme, a informative fast-paced drive-time show and specialist jazz, rock, etc programmes in the late evening. Whatever it is, plan your format and then populate it with volunteer presenters – don’t create a schedule around what your volunteer presenters feel like doing!
Having planned your format, it will also need some training , mentoring and policing. So this is a bit of an on-going job as presenters come and go.
Finally another important aspect is “Station Imaging”. This is radio-speak for having some jingles, a logo and station “style” that all hang-together and reflect the format and ethos of your station. It may sound overly commercial, but the more you can construct an overall recognisable “brand” on-air, on web and print etc, then the more people will “get” you and start/stay listening. A big part of it is ensuring consistency in what you say and how you say it. Jingles can be costly for proper sung ones, but there are audio production companies which do jingle packages with spoken phrases for a reasonable price. If you can afford it (maybe an unexpected grant comes through), some professional sung jingles will really add a lot to the sound of your station though.
Associated Broadcast Consultants’s consultants have literally decades of experience in programming and station-imaging. Contact Associated Broadcast Consultants to talk about how we can help you
Studio Manager …Station management…
Community Liaison and Volunteers …Don’t forget your community!…
Marketing and Promotion …Some marketing ideas…
Whether RSL or CR Community Radio station, you will need to try to build “brand awareness” in a radio market crowded by bigger players. This is particularly important for RSL stations because they can only broadcast for up to 28 days at a time. Without adequate promotion before broadcasts start, there is a risk that people might not realise you are on-air and so only start tuning-in to the latter half of your RSL broadcast. In addition, if you do this right such that your “brand” looks professional and is seen often it will boost the perceived value of your offer to potential advertisers – winning more business and perhaps greater revenue.Effective promotion does not have to cost any, or a lot, of money. Needless to say a good website is a pre-requisite in this day and age as is an active presence on Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Twitter etc. The local newspaper is also important. In the run-up to your broadcast try to submit regular articles – what works best is if there is a news-worthy point or achievement for the article, and that you write it in a suitable style so it can be copy-pasted into their publication. Also try to negotiate to have your programme schedule published. If you have local parish newsletters and magazines, then these are trusted source of information for many people. Likewise school newsletters are read by many people and are well worth the effort if you have local school pupils involved with your station. As with all printed publications think well-ahead to avoid falling foul of printing deadlines. If you go looking you are also likely to find websites aimed at your local area. Submit your news stories to as many of these as possible.
TV and radio are also possibilities. Local ITV and BBC television news may run a story on you, especially if you can provide something interesting and visual for the story. Local commercial radio stations are unlikely to give you much joy, but BBC local radio can be quite helpful – apparently it”s in the BBC charter to help small community stations.
Then there are the usual things like posters, leaflets, stickers etc which start to cost money unless you fund them with adverts.
This is only a very short list of the main ways to publicise your station. If you ask your volunteers you will certainly list many, many more ideas. The challenge for you is to find people who will turn these ideas into reality!
We hope the above information is useful for you. Really it is only scraping the surface of what you need to know. Contact Associated Broadcast Consultants to talk about how we can help you.