A number of community radio groups are extremely disappointed and annoyed at Ofcom’s latest licensing round, which excludes certain areas.
The regulator wants applications from within West and South Yorkshire, Humberside and north west England but has said there are no FM frequencies available in Manchester, Liverpool, Warrington, Cheshire, Leeds, Bradford, Scunthorpe, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham.
Mid-Cheshire Radio, which has been broadcasting online with a group of volunteers for most of the year, is unable to apply for a licence because Ofcom says a frequency is not available, even though another station operated in the same town until last year.
Cheshire FM closed after a winding-up order was served on it because of unpaid debts and ceased broadcasting in January 2012.
Ofcom told RadioToday: “Before inviting applications for this region we reviewed the suitability for future licensing of the frequency that had been assigned to Cheshire FM. When Cheshire FM was broadcasting Ofcom received some complaints about poor reception from listeners and the licensee, but we were not able to identify ways to alleviate them (aside from recommending broadcasting in mono). Incoming interference levels on 92.5 MHz are high, and increasing the power is not a solution due to outgoing interference.
“At the beginning of the current licensing round we made a general statement about our licensing policy, based on our experience. We said ‘we have received feedback from a number of existing community radio licensees that a small coverage area threatens their sustainability. In particular, it can affect their ability to attract support from potential funders or advertisers for example. As a result Ofcom does not wish to offer licences that will put operators in a similar situation in future, if at all possible.
“In light of the difficulties experienced by Cheshire FM, our review of the suitability of this frequency, and our statement above, we decided not to invite applications for FM in Northwich / Winsford and the surrounding area. We also checked whether it might be more viable elsewhere in Cheshire, but this proved not to be the case.”
However, Ofcom has invited applications for Crewe or Nantwich, both in Cheshire.
A spokesperson for Mid-Cheshire Radio told RadioToday: “We are extremely dissapointed and at the same time annoyed at the regulator Ofcom’s decision to restrict us for applying for a Community Radio Licence for the area we are aiming our programming at.
“At the time of the collapse of Cheshire FM, when we tried to rescue the licence, Susan Williams, Manager of Community Radio and RSLs at Ofcom told us that “you can apply for a licence when we invite them in your area. However, we do not anticipate doing this until the first half of next year.
“Since then Ofcom have moved the goal posts and have now prevented us from applying for a licence for a frequency that has received European Clearance for the area.
“If there was such a major issue with interference on the 92.5 FM frequency then why was a five year extension issued by Ofcom in October 2011.”
The station, which is not connected with Cheshire FM, has contacted a local MP who will be writing to Ofcom and raising the issue in Parliament.
Elsewhere, The Revolution founder Liam Forristal has also been working on a licence application, for Saddleworth in Greater Manchester. He is unhappy that the area has been excluded from future community radio activity and wants each location to be assessed on a case-by-case basis:
“I am very disappointed to note that at the last minute, without consultation, and following months of delay Ofcom has invited invitations for Region Five but have at the same time vastly reduced the area where they will accept applications for services on FM. They have not so much moved the goal posts as reduced them to the size of a croquet hoop.
“In their previous statement which was on their web site for months if not years, Ofcom only referred to a Manchester FM exclusion due to “frequency availability issues”. Either some big frequency eating monsters from outer space have landed in the depths of Yorkshire and Cheshire overnight and gobbled up all available spots on the FM band, OR Ofcom have been providing bogus advice for months.
“What could have happened down there in the capital for them to change their mind so radically, right on the eve of inviting the next round of applications? And what are small cash strapped applicant groups that have already been busy for months, raising and spending funds based on the previous Ofcom advice to make of this massive sea change? Surely Ofcom must have known about this for years.
“This is a spectacular publicity and competence own goal for Ofcom. In the notes of guidance there is a standard get out clause about the scarcity of available frequencies on FM anyway. I am probably one of the few people to own a copy of the 1990 broadcasting act and its amendments, and the current belated, sledgehammer to crack a nut approach from Ofcom, is certainly not in the spirit of the act, which empowers Ofcom to enable community radio to flourish where possible.
“Ofcom seems not to be empowering, but putting obstacles away in the way, by using an arbitrary line on a map rather than actual technical research and statistics to determine frequency availability. There are I am sure many small valleys and localities in the hundreds of square miles of excluded countryside where a 50 watt community station could be viable on FM without impacting on availability elsewhere. Why not leave it to the applicant groups to prove the technical case, as they have to for social gain?
“Europe and America seem to be able to find many more slots on the FM band in crowded areas than we can manage in the UK.
“Or is this a bit of slight of hand, & not really about frequency availability at all?”
RadioToday reported in 2010 that “Many of the UK’s most populated areas have been declared out of the running for FM licences by Ofcom due to a lack of frequencies. The most significant include London, Greater Manchester and Cheshire, the West and East Midlands, Glasgow and much of North East England and the South Coast. AM frequencies may still be available in these areas.”
Ofcom’s notes from April 2011 says: “We are able now to give an indication of where we expect currently not to be able to accept FM applications, but full and final details will not be available until applications are invited.”
The regulator has not added any extra ‘excluded areas’ to the list – but has removed some, and points out to RadioToday that it would invite applications in this region in the first half of 2013, which it has done.