Local radio? Why not news from your own street?

Politicians rack their brains about how to create a sense of community in big cities. Radio could give us a stronger sense of belonging
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The last London radio licence will be awarded tomorrow by the Radio Authority. The capital is not exactly holding its breath with excitement: we have 14 London-wide stations already. What is the point? But here they are missing a remarkable opportunity for the renaissance of democracy in a great city.

The winner is likely to be yet another music station, and whatever it promises, it will probably end up playing middle-of-the-road something or other. You might think there was plenty of room for 15 radio stations for different niches and interests. But niche radio in the capital has fallen on its face after the disastrous flop of Viva!, the feminist chic station; and Premier, the daft Christian station, sank to only 1 per cent audience share. Money is made in the mainstream.

So the Radio Authority is expected to be unadventurous with this last licence (which costs only some pounds 70,000 - this is not an auction). Not much hope for the French language station for "francophones and francophiles" - such a rare breed, they might be cheaper to contact by phone. Nor for two children's stations, since the last lot of children to gather round the bakelite set for Uncle Mac and Children's Hour ("Are you sitting comfortably?") are now the target audience for another bidder, Saga, for the oldies. Nor for the gay and lesbian bidder; the idea that sexual orientation dictates musical taste seems a bit insultingly determinist.

So what does London really need? What could the Radio Authority do? It could split the licence into at least 12 small stations and offer them to local community groups. Audiences might be small, but at least London would get a service it desperately needs.

The nation grumbles resentfully about its capital: we who live in London have it all. We suck investment, prestige projects and national attention away from the poor, benighted provinces. The irony is that London is worse governed and worse informed about its governance than any other part of the land. It has virtually no good local newspapers: the capital- wide Evening Standard is in effect a national. Where I live in Lambeth, one so-called local paper covers six colossal boroughs, each with an economy the size of a Third World nation, so it cannot report much on each council's committees and planning decisions.

London local government gets little scrutiny, until some scandal is big enough to hit the nationals. In a downward spiral, fewer able people participate, fewer citizens scrutinise. Local government is in decline partly because the local press has often given up reporting it properly. The less it is reported, the less interested people become. Though there remain good papers in some cities, most of London is poorly served. Covering council meetings and committees is expensive: it requires hours of intelligent reporter time, digging, understanding and writing relatively unsensational stories. But covering crime is dirt cheap, with the police and the courts spoon-feeding shock-horror stories that make quick, easy front-page splashes.

There is nothing "London" about these radio licence bids because there is no "London" identity. I, living in Lambeth, have as much or as little interest in what happens in Harrow-on-the-Hill as I have in events in Dumfries. The BBC's dire South-East News on television displays the problem at its most extreme. There is nothing more boring than other people's local news from other parts of the region - a fire in Oxford or a crime in Kent. What people want is very local news, not regional news. If it happens in your high street, to people you know, at a school your children once attended, or a shop you use, then almost any trivial event takes on a special interest. If you hear your own councillor from your own ward, you may sit up and listen - and even remember their name.

These days policy-makers rack their brains about how to create a sense of community in sprawling urban cityscapes. Most of us choose to live in cities in order to escape being trapped in some tiny, claustrophobic community. We prefer to build our own community around us from the rich choice of friends available in a metropolis - and they are rarely our physical neighbours. And yet we still also yearn for some kind of attachment to place, especially those who have children in a local school, and retired people who spend more time within the purlieus of their district. Neighbourhood is unlikely to define and confine most city-dwellers and yet most would like a stronger sense of belonging. Community radio is never going to solve all the problems of urban alienation, but it could make an important contribution. Even if it never got big ratings, it would provide a focal point for local activists and scrutiny for local government.

The Radio Authority has one last chance to make it happen. Four final smaller licences, dividing the city up into four quarters, are to be handed out shortly. A quarter of London is almost as meaningless an entity as the whole - Wandsworth cares not a fig what goes on in Bexley - so, instead, the authority should divide these last bits into the smallest fragments their engineers can devise and advertise them for local groups. To be sure, the local groups would have to raise the money: the National Lottery may help, since the Government refused to set up a community radio fund in the Broadcasting Bill last year. But with some local advertising revenue as well, they could thrive.

And if the Radio Authority will not, then why doesn't the BBC abandon its pointless, low-rating Greater London Radio station, divide up and hand out that frequency (and the money spent on it) to a myriad local London communities?

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