Written evidence submitted by MônFM
Thanks for providing the opportunity to respond to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s recent evidence session on local radio.
I’m delighted to provide a written submission addressing some of the questions that were raised in the session – most of which had been typed out in advance for Anwen to deliver at the meeting since I wasn’t able to be present. Below are the written responses to the questions asked:-
- What are the main difficulties faced by local radio?
- Sustainable Funding – DCMS, Government Funding and BBC license fees need to recognise the valuable local Public Service broadcast role undertaken by each Community Radio Station. This needs to be done in a better way e.g.
a) The Audio Content Fund provides copious funding to the private sector for producing content to be played out on community radio stations. This takes absolutely no account of the broadcast costs of transmission – with dozens of private companies contacting community radio stations to ask ‘can you play our audio which we’ve been paid to produce’. How can this be fair? Develop a package whereby community radio stations receive an annual grant (if they apply) to develop good local or National content by their own volunteers – thereby helping to sustain the community radio sector for the future. At the very least, there needs to be a fee for broadcasting, since everything costs, and it isn’t fair that the private sector benefits from Government funding to produce content that the Public will never hear on the radio without a community radio broadcaster to facilitate such. Imagine buying a new car for someone, giving them the keys, but not having the money to pay for fuel to make it go!
b) The BBC and the Government receive funding from the Public License Fee – why not use some of that funding to develop a better partnership between the BBC and Community Radio stations to help create local news and information content which can be used by both entities? Over the last decade, several community radio presenters from MônFM have been taken on by both the BBC and Commercial Radio stations here in North Wales, so it would be beneficial for both organisations to collaborate on a more formal basis to provide career opportunities for future talent. Likewise, content paid for by the Public purse in use by the BBC should be available for use on Community Stations (who is also a not for profit local Public Service Broadcaster).
c) Not enough Government Advertising or Public Service Advertising or promotion contracts are offered to Community Radio Stations – who provide excellent coverage and who’s audiences penetrate deeper into a wider cross-section of communities than some of the commercial stations. Community Radio could benefit from more advertising revenue income – not to make a profit but to sustain some of its critical infrastructure to keep going. The Welsh Government held a conference with Community Radio Stations in Wales recently, and have listened to the plea, and they’ve instructed their advertising agents to work with and offer Government Advertising to Community Radio stations via their contracted media agents. However, there’s a long way to go with UK government for wider sponsored advertising and promotional campaigns, and Local Government and other Public Services such as the Police or Fire and Health who are missing an opportunity to target a wider profile of the population e.g. one commercial station has a target audience age of 16 to 24 years, however community radio listeners rage from 6 to 106 years, so the audience profile is much wider and more suitable for some campaigns e.g. electoral commission etc.
d) WCRN Cymru recently obtained a grant of £5k from Cardiff University to give PR & Publicity to a few of its community radio stations. A series of newspaper articles were prepared for public consumption (see attached SAMPLE). This helped to ‘announce’ the existence of stations and to highlight the good work they’re achieving – further campaigns of this nature should be sponsored by the Government to highlight local visibility and collaborative opportunities, but also to highlight what can be done for the welsh language.
- Do you feel that Wales is losing its voice among Britain’s radio stations? What are you doing to counteract this?
- The tendency is often to use Sky News or Radio News Hub for ‘paid for’ on the hour UK wide news on Community Radio Stations. It is every Community Radio station’s intention to have in place a local news team, and although one or two have managed this, and we did for a while, its often a challenge to sustain, which is why there should be better collaboration with BBC news to provide a link-up between local and National News content pertinent to a local area.
- We are however providing a steady stream of bilingual local news stories via social media, which our volunteer presenters are picking up on, and using to share details or to report on during various radio programmes. That style of output allows a more detailed look at news items, with some question and answer sessions from local politicians or public servants, with listener interaction and ‘questions from listeners’ taken on a social media ‘chatlink’.
- Community Radio stations in Wales are providing a sense of identity for Welsh matters in Wales, and whilst commercial radio stations have pulled out of local studios, and centralised on a region, they would tend to lose the detail of local events and happenings, whereas community radio stations maintain content that’s pertinent to that area. One of our listeners said….’I’m really not that interested in UK matters unless it affects me, but what I am interested in what’s happening in my square mile and how this will affect my and my family’ – community radio has stepped into the breach where commercial and BBC stations have centralised. Likewise, Welsh Government are paying digital journalists and some Welsh magazine producers a fee for their work, but Community Radio gets nothing.
- How would you assess listening trends to have changed over the last five to ten years?
- Most people still listen on FM in our area, however there has been an increase on-line, through Apps, tablets or computers, but also largely through smart-speakers.
- DAB has grown, but transmissions in hilly areas like North Wales make things difficult as FM provides a better level of penetration due to being on a lower frequency and the ability to have less transmitters with more reach.
- The pattern of listening during the day has also changed, with less listening early in the morning (especially since COVID), and many listening whilst working from home (hybrid working).
- Its still important to access radio in vehicles, garages, public operating areas e.g. doctors surgeries, shops, large factories, so the ability to remain mobile whilst keeping in touch with news, weather, traffic and travel and receiving entertainment on the move or during any emergency is still as important as ever – a good example of this is when the Menai Suspension Bridge was closed due to an emergency – and radio proved to be an important medium to get information out quickly – in Wales more people listen to the radio in any week than any other part of the UK.
- What steps have you taken to attract young people, both to listen to and to become involved with MônFM?
- We have conducted radio programmes from schools, delivered presentations, attended workshops, musical events and various shows to recruit, involve and record and train young people.
- We also have a strict DBS check mechanism to facilitate working with young people, and encourage them to participate in radio related activities e.g. Christmas pantomime, sporting activities like football, ‘Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton Relay’ etc.
- Many of our young people have gone on to gain access to Universities and Colleges following their volunteering activities with MônFM, and we regularly provide references for employment. Some have even established their own media companies with the experience gained, and we are in touch with the local University at Bangor to provide new opportunities for students to develop technical and broadcast engineering project input.
- Do you think that local radio should have a role in supporting and promoting the Welsh language?
- Most definitely. MônFM has over the last decade made an invaluable contribution towards sustaining the Welsh language, with over 50% of all its output being broadcast in Welsh.
- MônFM provides a useful platform for new and up and coming Welsh speaking bands and artists to be heard, interviewed or to play on stage at live events.
- MônFM is part of the local Welsh Language Forum (Menter Iaith) and sets annual targets for the promotion and use of the Welsh Language.
- MônFM prepares weekly bilingual news and radio bulletins which include input from local politicians, Public Services and elected representatives – all containing bilingual content.
- MônFM runs regular competitions, features such as ‘word of the week’. ‘Welsh Sayings’ – some poetry etc. which all make a valuable contribution to sustaining the language.
- MônFM prides itself on being able to go out to the communities of North-West Wales to broadcast, act as a stage MC or to commentate in the Welsh language to community members at gigs, festivals, celebrations and all manner of public events e.g. Anglesey Agricultural Show.
- Many sources both within the UK and abroad have commented how useful MônFM has been both to Welsh learners, or those who may have moved away from the locality or are studying away and still want to keep in touch through Welsh but also to monitor developments at home.
- MônFM has interviewed the Minister in Welsh Government responsible for the Welsh Language, Council Welsh Language lead portfolio holders, the Welsh Language Commissioner, but also Wales’ First Minister, and recently the UK Prime Minister where some Welsh was used.
- Community Radio is rarely given the recognition it deserves for its valuable contribution to the Welsh Language, and its support for local and National Eisteddfod’s in Wales has been consistent and well received.
- Should there be a regulatory requirement that local news about Wales be produced and presented in Wales?
- This is a challenging question. Whilst the ideal solution would be to ‘yes’, then the mechanics of putting that into practice on Community Radio is different to the Commercial or BBC setting i.e. Volunteers join community radio for a number of reasons – some want to be radio presenters and play their favourite music, some want to be involved technically, others just want to help in any way they can and may end up cleaning the studio, or driving the van to events etc. Preparing news needs a special skill – to have an interest in journalism. Not many volunteers carry this aspiration, which in itself carries a risk. The risk is publishing incorrect or inaccurate information which could be liable. Often volunteer journalist need their content to be ‘ratified’ before releasing by an experienced news editor, which are even harder to find! The timing of news bulletins currently mean that they run 24hrs a day on a UK National template from two main news sources (IRN Sky or RNH). If there are enough volunteers to run a local news team, there is a need to get the first bulletin prepared by 6am, ready for vetting and broadcast at 7am and onwards. Since many volunteers work, the timing to research, script and record or live read bulletins continues to be a challenge. However local community radio is able to provide news and information content within some programmes e.g. local magazine programme. This allows people to be invited in to talk about specifics, and to answer listener questions. So, there needs to be enough flexibility to deliver local news items, but not so much in a rigid on the hour news template which would involve resources like full time staff and editors. How news is delivered and presented should be a matter for each station dependent on their ability, experience and capacity – in short, any regulatory requirement should encourage local news and information content for commercial and BBC stations, but unless such content can be shared more freely, then community stations require much more flexibility.
- Only 3% of all applications to the UK Government’s Community Radio Fund were from Welsh radio stations and only 1% of those were successful in their applications. Do you believe that there needs to be more help in accessing these funds?
- Yes! - The whole nature of Ofcom’s Community Radio Fund is with a heavy emphasis on ‘one-off or developmental projects’. Such projects can receive ‘start-up’ funding for a post or project, but then has to be self-sustainable. What’s required is a more general fund which used to be in place a few years ago from Welsh Government, which would mean each Welsh Community Radio Station would receive a fixed annual sum (be this for advertising, promotions etc.) or for operating as a local community station. This sum used to be say £12k per station, and provided a backbone for transmission and broadcast license fees, music play and utility core running costs.
- Given that there are more than 320 community stations in the UK, the chances of Welsh Community Radio Stations having a successful application in the UK Ofcom rounds are slim, since there are only 12 or more within Wales. A community station that can afford to pay for a full time manager or assistant have the capacity to enable them to write bids and to seek potential external help on successful bid writing, which is why some stations might have had more of a share of the Ofcom fund in the past.
- Could the Ofcom fund not be apportioned for different regions of the UK to provide a fairer opportunity, or simply shared between those with licenses with certain operating criteria?
- What additional support would you like to see from the UK and Welsh Governments?
- More ‘paid-for’ advertising contracts for campaigns, initiatives, promotions – community radio prices for on-air exposure is low and provides value for money – and the money would be re-invested for the benefit of local communities - and not into the pockets of private shareholders often located outside Wales.
- Consideration of a portion of the BBC license fees being attributed to Welsh Community Radio Stations e.g. similar to S4C?
- More use of shared Public Service News and Information content and increased collaboration – less exclusivity for the BBC – which in itself is owned by us, the Public!
- Unable to make any comment regarding of any proposal for devolution of broadcast regulation to Wales until further information is available.
- Can the BBC stop throwing valuable kit into skips when they dispose of them, and consider giving the first refusal to community radio stations?
- Could there be a radio passport system for the BBC to develop in Wales (like Somerset) – where community radio presenters there are offered training and a passport as standby presenters to their local BBC station?
- Community Radio Station functions are critical to community wellbeing, for instance over COVID they were the only available means of sharing information with the community as local newspapers had shut-down. Community Radio stations for example cover dozens of local football matches, and grass route sporting activities. The list of how community radio stations contribute is vast – see the recent paper shared by MônFM to the committee. The UK Government should continue to support UK Community Radio Stations through the licensing regime, and might consider a baseline sum of money annually to keep them more sustainable for the valuable service they all provide to the various communities. There should be a better and more transparent partnership between the BBC and Community Radio Stations to share content, resources and equipment to improve Public Service Broadcasting, and to create more opportunities for budding journalists, presenters and technical aspects.
- How would you assess the performance of BBC radio in Wales?
- On the whole – good, however there have been significant losses of listeners with recent presenter re-shuffles, some of which have caused a public demonstration.
- BBC Radio Cymru 2 seems to be a cross between commercial radio output and traditional Welsh music, and may not be as successful as first anticipated in all areas.
- Both BBC Radio Cymru and BBC Radio Wales being focussed in Cardiff have less foothold/presence in the North of Wales, and so the population might gravitate towards local stations who reflect more of local happenings in the area – it also has to do with the local accent, and the ease of listening?
- As a programme director for MônFM, I can’t imagine how or what the career path is into the BBC from our side would be unless job adverts are applied for. The process is mysterious - some people receive a phone call to ‘come for a chat’ and others get standby presenter work due to the circles they move in. There needs to be a more transparent process of entry into BBC radio, who they would call for cover and what possibilities there are for new opportunities, assessments etc. which might result in lifelong careers. There also needs to be consideration of on-going dialogue between programme directors who can and should be used to spot talent and to suggest suitability for new opportunities.
- There is also room for new and exciting specialist shows, some of which have a National and International following on Community Stations – this territory is something the BBC seem nervous to adopt in Wales, preferring to keep to more traditional ‘middle of the road’ content.
- How would you assess the role and performance of Ofcom?
- MônFM has always had a positive relationship with the Wales Ofcom office, and we’ve participated in many consultations on policy and procedures development.
- We feel there is good access to the Ofcom Chair of Licensing Advisory Committee, and the Ofcom manager in Wales.
- Contact with the London (UK) headquarters has been more distant with the exception of one officer who made herself very accessible.
- Ofcom supply consultation documents bilingually, and share regular updates on policies and through newsletters and bulletins.
- Through WCRN Cymru, there needs to be more engagement with Welsh Community Radio Stations, and liaison meetings with Ofcom are going to be requested in 2023.
- Do there need to be reforms to the availability and offering of FM and DAB radio licences?
- This is a complicated question, and one which deserves a lengthy response.
- Community Radio Stations have strived to expand their FM coverage areas over the past few years, and their infrastructure is so delicate that additional expenditure on masts, transmitters and links has taken a magnificent effort to put in place or project manage whilst still maintaining a community radio service. If FM frequencies are opened up for more applications in the same area, then that will saturate the opportunity for existing stations to be sustainable e.g. Tudo FM (Llandudno), Point FM (Rhyl) went into liquidation for similar reasons.
- The appearance of SSDAB whilst fine in principle, does segment the market in terms of potential advertising revenue income into ever smaller landmass packets of opportunity. Ofcom claim that such developments provide the listener with more station choice. However the reality is that listeners will always go where they get the best content or entertainment, which means that larger stations may ‘buy-up’ space and offer much wider coverage to clients (economy of scale).
- SSDAB transmitters are much more expensive than FM, and due to being located on Band 3 with lower power rather than FM on Band 2 with higher power, there is a need for many more transmitters to cover the same area as FM. The level of technical expertise needed to run an SSDAB multiplexer means that most community radio stations would need to pay someone to run it for them even if they had won a multiplexer operating license.
- The main spirit of Community Radio is to put something back into society, sharing information for the good of the community, for social gain, and not necessarily to be embroiled in the finer technical aspects of broadcasting in the digital World or commercial radio which is primarily focussed on money-making.
- One option would be to make it mandatory for commercial DAB operators to make room for community radios on their multiplexers for free or a small operating fee, allowing community stations to concentrate on good local content and not spending time and money on duplicating coverage on a poorer SSDAB scheme.
- Witnesses have proposed that community stations should be free to become wholly commercial services. What are your views on this?
- I would imagine that such a view would have come from an on-line station?
- This is wholly impractical and would be the end of community radio in Wales if this went ahead, and would form the opposite of a level playing field.
- Volunteers won’t give their time to support a commercial entity!
- Commercial operators know that most community radio stations are very close to being unsustainable due to the lack of grants and public funding, and the recent lack of radio adverts due to the serious downtuen in the UK economy, so they would easily be eaten up e.g. Radio Ceredigion was lost in SW Wales, and has never recovered and there’s been a huge detrimental effect to the Welsh language in that area.
12 April 2023