Community radio or local radio can play an important role in a universal access and service (UAS) policy and programme, especially if the UAS policy covers broadcasting services as well. While there are no fixed definitions of what UAS means in the broadcasting field, there is a certain consensus on what its key dimensions are. These include:
- Reach – UAS requires nation-wide service to be provided to the entire population, including the rural and remote population. Typically, public broadcasters are mandated to provide national broadcast reach. Private broadcasters do not necessarily need to reach the entire nation (though it is beneficial) as long as the population has also access to other local broadcasting media.
- Affordability – This relates to the affordability of the actual broadcasting receiving device (e.g., a radio or TV). In many developing countries, rural citizens can only afford radio receivers as TV sets are often too expensive. Considerations and discussions about TV access on a community basis do exist, and there are promoters of multi-media community centres that include TV (e.g., UNESCO).
- Local media, plurality and diversity – This is the strongest dimension of UAS in the context of broadcasting. It is considered essential to ensure that all citizens have access to a local radio station as a forum for local debates and cultural expression. It is important that local media provide a diversity of content and plurality of information and opinions. Because of its higher costs and greater technical needs, local television is far less of a UAS priority.
Thus, in terms of UAS for broadcasting, the following are main requirements:
- Nation-wide service by the public broadcaster and/ or private broadcasters; and
- Access to a local radio station (community or private with public service obligations).
Consequently, many countries believe that local community radio stations are essential. In the developed world, Germany, France, Canada and the United States, all have specific policies for rural broadcasting and community/ local broadcasting stations. The Practice Note Different local radio models in France gives an example of a local radio policy. Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador are all countries that have good broadcasting legislation for rural, indigenous, educational or community radio. In Africa, some of the countries with the best policies for rural radio include Mali, Benin and South Africa. The Practice Note Rural Community Radios in Mali give an African example of community radio.
Local or community radio stations are even more important in conjunction with Internet access. In many cases, successful use of the Internet for development requires community intermediaries which can overcome issues of illiteracy, lack of ICT training and language barriers of the Internet. Local rural radio, which has Internet access, is emerging as one such successful intermediary because it is accessible, affordable and cheap to produce. Further, radio is a mass and an oral medium that promotes community interaction and social communication processes. Radio and Internet can benefit from each other in the following ways:
- Internet resources for radios to exchange information and programming, such as InterWorld Radio, providing access to a huge range of journalists’ reports on a variety of topics; and
- Radios using the Internet to provide a variety of information to their listeners; a well-known example is the UNESCO-supported Kothmale Internet Project in Sri Lanka.
In South Africa, a “community broadcasting service” is defined in the Broadcasting Act 4 of 1999 as a broadcasting service which:
- Is fully controlled by a non-profit entity and carried on for non-profitable purposes;
- Serves a particular community;
- Encourages members of the community served by it, or persons associated with or promoting the interests of such community, to participate in the selection and provision of programmes to be broadcast in the course of such broadcasting service; and
- May be funded by donations, grants, sponsorships or advertising or membership fees, or by any combination of the aforementioned.
In France, in addition to local community broadcasting, the regulator, Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), distinguishes between three types of local radios:
- Community local radio;
- Commercial local radio service without national programming; and
- Commercial local radio service that also broadcasts national programming.
Whether or not the local station is a community station, an important part of its mandate is to provide a local forum and it is therefore desirable that it be locally owned and that it meet certain obligations regarding community access and local production. Without these obligations, they could be 100 per cent repeater stations for programming coming from the capital, at the expense of local access.
Funding and sustainability
There is a range of funding options for local community radio stations. Most often, community radios finance themselves through a combination of national and international donations, advertising, sponsorship and membership fees. However, in developing countries membership fees are very rare.
Examples of funding models that have been mandated by government policy include the following:
- In Colombia, the Universal Access and Service Fund (UASF), Compartel, is managed by the Ministry of Communications, and has a joint programme with the Ministry of Culture and a special government fund for Development Projects known as FONADE. The fund provides partial financing for community radios under a programme called “Comunidad”. Currently, Compartel has financed between two to six community radios in approximately 25 departments of Colombia. Compartel receives its money from a levy mainly targeting telecommunications operators, though commercial broadcasters must also pay into the fund. The Practice Note Colombia’s universal access to community radio gives more details about Colombia’s model. However, Colombia’s specific programme for community radio is an exception among UASFs. The UASF in Peru is only occasionally funding pilot projects that have some community radio element, but are focussed on the Internet. Ghana’s UASF, GIFTEL, is authorised to fund community media projects that combine Internet and community broadcasting;
- Other governments, such as South Africa and Mali, provide no particular financial support to the community radios, thus they have to finance themselves. In some poor communities in South Africa, this policy is creating problems as the people do not have the advertising expenditure to support a community radio station. While Mali has over 300 community radios, a number are struggling. This situation is complicated even more in instances where old equipment needs to be replaced;
- France has a special fund for local community broadcasters, which is sourced by a special tax levied on radio and TV advertising expenditures and paid by advertisers. Qualified stations can receive partial funds to assist with the initial installation, to subsidise some of their operational costs and to subsidise equipment purchases. However, the community radio stations must fulfil certain criteria which determine if and how much funds they receive, and meet specific criteria for accepting the funds. These criteria include the community stations’ capacity to secure some local funds, and the quality of their programming. Conditions include a ceiling of 20 per cent of advertising of their total annual turnover, and broadcasting four hours of local programming daily;
- In some countries (e.g., the United States, Chile, Mexico and Brazil), governments impose restrictions on community radio stations in regards to advertising. These restrictions are either absolute, such as no advertising allowed, or there may be a ceiling, such as no more advertising above a certain limit (see the France example above). Botswana is unique in that the acceptance of national and international donations by community radio stations, are only allowed in the first years of the organization’s establishment. Lastly, restrictions can be content-related, such as no sponsorship from political parties or only local advertising; and
- In South Africa, community radio stations receive preferential tariffs from Sentech, the signal distribution company, based on a review from Sentech, itself, and the Department of Communications. Previously, community stations were not using Sentech because they could not afford it and had reverted to their own signal distribution. This resulted in inadequate coverage. More details about the South Africa experience is contained in the Practice Note Rural community radio in South Africa.
In conclusion, some partial funding of local community broadcasting stations is clearly beneficial, and can be sourced from both government funds and a small levy on advertising revenues. However, it also seems important that community stations should be required to raise some funds themselves and apply for funds. These terms are necessary since not all stations may need support. Moreover, the inclusion of application criteria would establish some minimum quality controls in the distribution of assistance. It is proposed that the criteria should not necessarily involve judging the content of programming, but rather focus on indicators such as:
- The amount of local programming;
- The amount of support the radio station receives from the local community it serves; and
- The amount of community participation and/or involvement in the programming.
In addition, it appears crucial that community stations, while being non-profit, should have the opportunity to generate their own funds by as many means as possible. Restrictions on their ability to generate revenue, if imposed, need to be carefully selected. An example of a positive restriction would be the limiting of political party sponsorship during non-election periods.
Enabling support, especially through regulation
The review of various case studies of community radio clearly indicates that enabling support and good regulation for local community radio stations is important for their success. Key features of good regulation and enabling support are as follows:
- Waving or limiting payment for radio spectrum to a minimum e.g., paying USD 20 annually for frequency allowance (Colombia, Mali);
- A special support office within the Ministry of Communications dedicated to assist community ratio stations (Colombia);
- Simplified procedures for obtaining community radio broadcasting licences (Colombia, Mali), including the elimination of unnecessary engineering studies;
- Making technical expertise available to community radios (considered in Colombia);
- In South Africa, France and Mali, development of national associations of rural community stations which are dedicated to supporting and lobbying for rural community stations. Also, they are often better able to attract national and international funding for training programmes etc.;
- No licence fee requirements (Mali);
- Clear regulation from the outset - in South Africa, the Independent Broadcasting Authority issued community broadcasting licences starting in 1994 but only clarified the regulatory framework for these licences in 1997, which caused many community stations to operate in uncertainty and on temporary licences;
- Sufficient capacity of the regulator to handle community radio applications (South Africa); and
- Sufficient licensing length - initial temporary licences such as those in South Africa are clearly not advised. In France, community stations receive licences for five years, and can apply for renewal after five years.