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Guest editorial for Antenna magazine 
Published in March 2003

This column gives subscribers the opportunity to share their opinions with others. Cathy Aitchison, independent media consultant, explores developments in the British community radio sector.

It's an interesting time for community radio in the UK. With the Communications Bill going through Parliament as I write, a third sector for radio is at last taking its place alongside the BBC and the commercial radio stations.

If all goes to plan, the Bill will allow for a new category - 'Access radio' - a third tier of licensed, not-for-profit, local stations designed to bring benefit to the communities they serve. Already the idea is being piloted around the country, with fifteen Access radio stations licensed for a year by the Radio Authority. The pilot stations cover a wide range of interests, from Desi Radio, which broadcasts to the Panjabi community in West London, to Takeover Radio in Leicester, run by children for children, to Pontypridd's GTFM, a partnership between Glyntaff Tenants' and Residents' Association and the University of Glamorgan.

But the community radio sector is not just waiting for the legislation - two other factors have helped drive its development over the past decade.

Firstly, new technology. Affordable digital technology has brought radio production within everyone's reach, making it easier for non-professionals to participate. From schools to reminiscence groups, people involved in community radio are using mini-disk recorders and computer editing facilities to produce programmes.

One such example is Radio in Schools, a project set up in 2001 by the Radio Academy. The project co-ordinator, a producer from BBC Radio Sheffield, used portable equipment with groups from local schools to create and produce their own short pieces of radio.

The second factor is the Restricted Service Licence, or RSL. These short term licences of up to 28 days give people the chance to broadcast without the worries of sustaining a full service over a long period. The idea has grown rapidly in popularity and now many groups set up an RSL for a festival or a school project, or to provide hands-on experience for a training course.

Partnership plays a key role in many succesful RSLs. Instead of focusing on all the mechanics of broadcasting, communities can team up with training and professional organisations who can access funding and deliver expertise. An RSL project can also provide a bridge between the community and the established stations and organisations, such as the BBC and local commercial radio groups.

For example, Riverside FM, a three-week arts RSL for the West London area, was organised by Riverside Studios in collaboration with Women's Radio Group. The project was supported by the BBC and funded by the European Social Fund.

Community radio is thriving in the UK: for the many groups who want to run permanent radio stations, Access radio could soon provide the chance to do so. For many others, the innovative and flexible opportunities offered by the short-term RSL will continue to bring the most exciting rewards.


* Cathy Aitchison is an independent media consultant and trainer who specialises in promoting media access for all. She works regularly with Women's Radio Group and is a member of the Radio Academy Training Committee.


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Cathy Aitchison, Aitchison Media & Development, 2009