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Community Radio

Volume 488: debated on Monday 2 March 2009

3. What recent assessment he has made of the long-term financial viability of community radio serving smaller communities. (259228)

As set out in the interim “Digital Britain” report, we have appointed John Myers to consider the sustainability of local content on radio. The review, which will report by the end of March, will consider both the commercial and community radio sectors.

Does the Secretary of State realise how difficult it is in small communities of populations up to 20,000, as in the Alnwick area served by the popular Lionheart radio, to raise funding from small business and local advertising? It will get even more difficult during the recession, so what ideas is he putting to the review as the Government’s view of how we can have a sustainable future for community radio?

I am aware of the community radio service that the right hon. Gentleman mentions and I think it particularly focuses on younger people, which is very welcome. As part of the review that I just mentioned, the rules under which community radio operates are being considered, so we want to look at those things together. I think that he would acknowledge that community radio is still in many ways a fledgling industry—it is only a few years since the first station started—but it is developing and growing. We already have established radio stations that provide an excellent service to their community and we want to work pragmatically to ensure not only that community radio can continue to develop but, with one eye on the rest of the media industry, that it does not threaten the development of commercial services.

Will my right hon. Friend look at the issue of grant finance? The grant finance introduced at the start of my community radio station, Stroud FM, was absolutely crucial, but there is an issue about how that grant finance can continue over time, because of course all the people running the station are volunteers. Does my right hon. Friend accept the importance of the grant regime and will he look at it to see whether there are ways in which we can expand it and make slightly different use of it?

I certainly endorse the importance of those points. The money that DCMS has made available has helped to develop community radio, although I acknowledge that the more community radio stations there are, the more thinly the money has to be spread, so I take on board the general point that my hon. Friend makes. We can look at the issue again, but in the long term community radio also needs the unlocking of sources of funding at local level. I promise my hon. Friend that I will look at both those things together. Having been involved at the very beginning, when the first White Paper came along suggesting community radio as a good development, I am very committed to it and I want to work with the community radio sector to develop services around the country.

The Secretary of State is right in saying that community radio is a fledgling industry, but is he aware that the services provided by those stations are incredibly important and popular? As it is a new industry, will he remove the dead hand of government from the regulatory consultation he is going through and let those stations flourish and deliver to local people the kind of local service they are beginning to miss?

A moment ago, I was being asked for more of the dead hand of government to help the stations along their way, so the hon. Gentleman needs to acknowledge—as I think he did—that the sector is at a very early stage of development and we have to get the process right and think it through at every stage. The other point is that there is pressure on the commercial media industry at local level, as we were just discussing, so in relaxing any rules that affect community radio we have to be aware of the knock-on effect that that might have on commercial radio or even local newspapers if everybody is competing for a smaller ad spend locally, but I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I have visited lots of community radio stations and they do a skilful job locally, but we need to take things forward carefully.

Given that 40 per cent. of local radio stations—probably more now—are losing money, is it not time that the Government stopped dithering and came forward with clear proposals, not just on local programming, but on co-location, media ownership and digital switchover? We need legislation and proposals not in a few months’ time but now, so that local, community and commercial radio can survive, if not thrive.

I am not sure what I can say; I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. There could not be a more focused process than the “Digital Britain” process, overseen by Lord Carter. It was precisely because of that issue that the Prime Minister appointed Lord Carter to conduct that detailed piece of work, which looks at the content industry and at infrastructure—and I did not hear any calls for that from the Opposition at the time. We will have the final recommendations in the spring, or perhaps—

I will not give a firm commitment, but it will be well before the summer recess. Unless the hon. Gentleman has alternative proposals to feed in, or unless he is clear about what needs to be done, he should say that we are right to conduct that process. We will bring forward our proposals shortly.