Walking on air

Oxford's Oxygen fm may be the first student radio station to have won an eight- year licence - but will it last that long? Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Online
If you think student radio is all about playing your favourite records with scant regard for audience research and advertisers, think again. Oxygen 107.9fm, Britain's newest commercial station, launched in Oxford on Friday; and although it is run by students rather than seasoned professional broadcasters, it means business.

Oxygen has raised pounds 250,000, signed up a roster of high profile advertisers and has the backing of commercial radio's leading investor, Radio Investments. It has also become the first student radio station to secure an eight- year Radio Authority licence. Not bad going for the station's two founders, Philip Weiss, 24, and Nick Molden, 22.

Based in Oxford city centre's Westgate shopping complex, Oxygen boasts two fully equipped studios, the latest computer systems and a full-time staff of five.

"It's pretty well been a full-time commitment in the run-up to launch," says Sonia Damle, 21, a second year English student and editor of the daily breakfast show, Breakfast on the Edge. Damle is one of 300 student volunteers working an intricate system of shifts and programme teams to produce Oxygen's output, 24 hours a day. "I'll probably be in a little less now we're on air - I've got to balance this with course work," she says.

Inspired by the success of student radio in other countries, notably the US, Weiss and Molden came up with the idea for Oxygen while still at college three years ago. "The city of Oxford has such a lively media scene it seemed logical to have a student station, especially as the city's students are so scattered: they have no central base," Weiss says.

Although the pair met at Christ Church college, both insist Oxygen's focus goes beyond Oxford University. "Our ambition is to bring together students from all the city's education establishments," says Weiss. "We're determined not to be elitist." So references to bumps suppers, formal halls and Michaelmas term are banned. Which is just was well, Molden adds, "because students are only a proportion of the station's target audience". To satisfy the Radio Authority, Oxygen set itself a target of attracting a weekly audience of 23,000 students. However, Weiss and Molden insist they are targeting anyone in the city aged 16 to 24 with a new and independent music mix that is similar to recent London licence winner xfm. "There's nothing inherently `studenty' about our output," Weiss insists. Seventy per cent will be music, 30 per cent speech. Independent Radio News is providing national bulletins. Reuters is supplying access to its world, business and financial reports. Local news, debate, features and comedy produced by students will appeal to the whole community. "We'll provide a unique service - no other station caters just for the city." Although there are 24 student stations in the UK, Oxygen is the first to secure a full-term, eight year licence from the RA. Others use an "induction loop" system which restricts transmission to college property. To broadcast to the world outside, a campus station must go head-to-head with professional IR operators to win a full licence. To date, few have bothered. Tim Schoonmaker, chief executive of Emap Radio and a former presenter on New Hampshire university Dartmouth College's radio station, believes there are two reasons for this. "College radio in the UK has not really developed because of a shortage of frequencies as the BBC has absorbed so many," he says. Geography is another factor. "In the US, more stations can use the same frequency because they're more spread out." It is also about application, adds Marc Bond, commercial development manager at The Local Radio Company, a division of Radio Investments. "Many are run to satisfy the egos of those involved." Weiss agrees: "You've got to care about being a successful business. We lobbied the RA first, prepared a business plan, secured finances, talked to City Council and the Chamber of Commerce before thinking about programming." And just as well. With estimated annual operating costs of pounds 200,000, Oxygen will rely heavily on advertising revenue. But will its listeners be attractive to advertisers? Molden concedes that most local commercial stations rely on businesses eager to target employed twenty- and thirty-somethings. However, he adds: "Research shows Oxford students alone have a combined spending power worth pounds 20m a year." Schoonmaker believes Oxygen might have a struggle on its hands. "Local advertisers are not so interested in 15- to 24-year-olds, as they don't buy new cars or double glazing," he explains. They'll also have to compete with the Oxfordshire-wide commercial station Fox FM. Linda Smith, marketing director at MSM, which sells airtime for Fox, says the area is popular with advertisers. "It has an up-market, young listener profile which means many use it for launch and test campaigns." However, Fox has a loyal audience. Although it targets a broad audience - people aged from 16 to 44 - it performs well with younger listeners, with a weekly reach of 55 per cent. Molden remains unperturbed. With costs kept to minimum, he is confident Oxygen will more than break even - enabling profits to go into bursaries helping local students in media-related activities. "Oxygen is 49 per cent owned by TLCR, 51 per cent owned by Oxford Student Radio Trading, a registered charity," he explains. "We're student-run with professional expertise, but OSRT profits will benefit students and the local community." Noble sentiments, but will it work?

Alan McGee, president of Creation Records, believes that it can. Like many music industry executives, he favours any move to get more new talent on air. "Music radio in this country tends to lean towards the chart-oriented safe options," he says. "The non-mainstream audience is a lot bigger than many people think." Adds Bond: "Oxygen has a properly developed management infrastructure to run an entertainment service as a business. I certainly think we'll see more following their lead." He may not wait long. Next month, the RA awards a new Merseyside licence. Among the bidders is student- run Shout FM.