Media: A chance to be your own DJ for 28 days: Just about anyone with pounds 2,000 and unlimited enthusiasm can start a radio station - as long as they don't want to stay on the air. Martin Wroe reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS not what you expect on the breakfast show - spiritual music and recitals from the Koran. But then, if you are a Muslim listening at home in Bradford, you are not having breakfast anyway. This is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and that means fasting - no food or drink between sunrise and sundown - and Fast FM on the airwaves.

After the breakfast show without breakfast comes a programme featuring Muslim converts from other faiths, such as Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), followed by a religious leader from a local mosque answering listeners' doctrinal questions. In the afternoon, there is what Qasim Khan, a programme controller, calls 'a female spot' ('where we let the females loose to try and target the women'), followed by Koranic children's stories and a Muslim businessman talking about his success. Later, Sister Rashta comes on air with a programme of Islamic readings and English translations.

If all that bears little resemblance to your local radio station, there is another difference: five times a day at Fast FM everything stops for prayers.

There are a growing number of Asian stations in the country but Fast FM, broadcasting under a 28-day Restricted Service Licence and run by 25 volunteers from a disused factory in the city, is purely Muslim in outlook. The pounds 10,000 needed to run the four-week service has been found by the Muslim community and the station is well supported by Islamic shop owners and traders.

Mr Khan claims that it is doing well with Bradford's estimated 80,000 Muslims, many of whom do not listen to Sunrise Radio, the Asian/Afro-Caribbean service, because it is not exclusively Muslim.

In the two years since the Broadcasting Act became law, 495 groups have applied for the chance to run their own 28-day stations. Last year, 241 licences were issued. The qualifications are not difficult - a licence fee of just under pounds 2,000 for an FM frequency and enough volunteers, enthusiasm and wit to acquire a studio, transmitter and programming for less than Capital Radio's paper-clip budget.

'The Radio Authority makes no judgements on quality of applicants,' says Sue Williams, its development officer. 'As long as they are not providing a service that duplicates an existing one in their area, we will almost certainly award a licence.'

Paul Kewley, a third-year natural environment science student at Sheffield University, is a main mover in Sheffield Student Radio, which runs Forge FM. Restricted Service Licences (RSLs), he argues, can offer a distinctive service: 'Existing radio services do not cater for anything that I want and there is a big market of people like me.'

At Sheffield Student Radio they are not doing it only for fun but to prove that they can be trusted by the Radio Authority to run a permanent station in their locality. The two applicants for the Paisley local licence had both run RSLs and Wey Valley Radio in Hampshire came out of the fund-raising RSL Radio Cracker.

But here lies the frustration for winners of RSLs: 'We build a large listener base but then go into obscurity after four weeks,' says Patrick Courtney, treasurer of Sheffield Student Radio. 'You cannot reapply for four months and then you are given a different frequency.'

Having climbed the dizzy heights of broadcasting to thousands, most RSL organisers don't want another RSL. They went the real thing. But, for the most part, this is not on offer from the Radio Authority. David Vick, head of development at the authority, points out that with 420 RSLs awarded to date, 'they can't all have permanent licences'. But, retorts Steve Buckley at the Community Radio Association, the Radio Authority is advertising only one new licence a month at present, when it promised up to three times that number. Mr Buckley says that his members have to resort to competing for re-advertised franchises against existing commercial incumbents, which 'is not pitting like against like'.

Ray Ferguson, station director at Channel Radio, with 20 years' experience in hospital radio in the North-west, launched a 28-day station for listeners within a five-mile radius of Whiston Hospital on Merseyside last summer. The station, which offered a talk-based service to the immediate area, was a local hit, cost just pounds 3,000 and raised pounds 7,000 for charity.

'The problem is,' says Mr Ferguson, 'that we've demonstrated that we have an audience, that we can get the sponsorship and advertising, that we have the studios, equipment and people, but the Radio Authority won't advertise a licence for us to apply for.'

David Vick is not convinced about the commercial nous of many community radio enthusiasts, however promising their experience with an RSL: 'It's very difficult translating a 28-day licence where everything runs on enthusiasm into an 8-year licence where the bills have to be paid.'

Radio Thamesmead, he points out, was formed as a community radio group and relies on volunteers but still needs to make pounds 20,000 a month to break even.

'Community radio enthusiasts have to adjust to the commercial realities. You can't say to the electricity company that you haven't got any money to pay their bill but you've got loads of enthusiasm.'

Mr Buckley points to the success of stations such as Wear FM in Sunderland and Radio Heartland in Scotland as evidence that community radio activists are quite able to cope with commercial realities. He says the Radio Authority should turn its attention to offering small-scale FM services to towns and cities where community radio activists have demonstrated - through RSL - that there is a demand for such a service.

However long the authority takes to advertise a licence for the activists at Sheffield Student Radio, with true student optimism, they are certain the future is theirs. 'In the United States,' observes Paul Kewley, 'there is one FM licence for every 25,000 people. We could have 20 stations in Sheffield by the end of the century, and we'll certainly have five, each targeting a different community of interest.'

(Photograph omitted)