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Radio Regen: A History

When the idea of radio regen first emerged in 1998, even its founders Phil Korbel and Cathy Brooks weren’t aware of the full potential of what community radio could offer. The initial concept was simply an organisation offering radio training to the unemployed.

At the time Phil had been working as a radio producer for the BBC since 1985 and was running the independent production company Peterloo Productions with Cathy. As a long-time environmental and social activist, however, he was dreaming of other things.

“I was earning a fair living but my ideas were changing about what was important. One of things I’ve always wanted to do is to combine my professional skills with something that actually does some good,” Phil says. He kicked around ideas like radio in schools and looked at how it was used as a development tool around the world. These thoughts crystallised after it was suggested by Manchester City Council that he should try putting radio to work in Manchester’s ‘regeneration’ areas.

Regenerating Urban Communities

After spending 1998 firming up the concept and authoring a European Social Fund bid, Radio Regen was officially incorporated as a non-profit organisation in April 1999. A partnership with Manchester College of Arts & Technology (MANCAT), now The Manchester College, was cemented at that time, which lasts to this day. Thanks to a Manchester Evening News story and endorsement by actress Clare McGlinn of The Cops and Coronation Street, there was no shortage of applicants for the first year-long BTEC radio training course.

“The big change happened about a week into the first proper training course in May 1999,” says Phil. “We were sat with our first 25 trainees and they started saying to us, ‘Do you know what this could do on my street and in my area?’ We started to wake up to what radio could do on a neighbourhood level.”

Until then, the concept had been purely about boosting self-esteem and employment opportunities. “The idea was that if you make a radio show you increase your communication and IT skills, creativity and your problem-solving abilities, all of which are useful for virtually any job.” It was through these initial modest aims that Radio Regen realised it had stumbled across something with much greater potential – the possibility of helping regenerate whole communities as well as helping individuals within them.

Restricted Service Licences

Back then, temporary Restricted Service Licences (RSLs) were the only ones available. In 1999 and 2000 Radio Regen ran two month-long city centre music stations - City Centre Life FM and Radiosonic – with City Life magazine, giving trainees a chance to put their new skills into practice.

Both were inspired by Phil’s love of alternative music (he produced and presented GMR’s Meltdown show in the 1980s). Daytimes were fronted by names like Terry Christian, Steve Toon, Paul Graham and Andy Woods to keep the ‘quality’ up. The trainees did all the production and appeared in various on-air supporting roles. The evenings celebrated Manchester music with the likes of MC Tunes, 808 State, Jah Wobble, Jon Da Silva, Dave Haslam and Mr Scruff.

In a flurry of fun and games, both stations broadcast live from the Northern Quarter’s Oxfam Originals clothing store. Highlights included a chicken with a microphone, a visit from the Lord Mayor and Keep Off The Grass, a silent radio party in a park where the public were encouraged to bring ghettoblasters, don headphones and all tune-in simultaneously.

Each city centre station was followed by a series of 72-hour community broadcasts from libraries, community centres and social clubs in Manchester’s less prosperous areas – Radio Moston, Radio Openshaw, Radio Longsight and Wythenshawe FM. Trainees also gained real-life radio experience on stations such as Over To You FM for the launch of the Local Strategic Partnership; a three-day transmission during the inauguration of The Lowry arts centre; and Chipping FM, a temporary station set up in rural Lancashire to provide support during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The Communications Act

The exuberance of 30-day music celebrations like Radiosonic and City Centre Life FM is history for now, because the serious business of full-time community stations is now a reality. The seed for these permanent frequencies was sown during regional roadshows held by the government to discuss The Communications Act, the legislation that rolled together telecommunications, IT and the broadcast media under the new regulator OFCOM as of December 2003.

Phil was among members of the North West media at the Manchester consultation. “I asked, ‘What about community radio?’ The civil servant in charge said, ‘what is community radio?’ and I explained. Next thing representatives of Granada TV and Jazz FM piped up saying it was a fantastic idea that could help them broaden the range of their recruits without being a threat. This was probably one of the first times that community radio really came up on the Government’s radar in the context of that Bill.”

Later, discussions between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Radio Authority made it clear that the Government was considering introducing this third tier of broadcasting alongside the BBC and commercial radio. “I was one of the people to suggest to the Radio Authority’s head that they should test it out first. Thus came the idea of doing long temporary licences and the Access Radio Pilot Scheme was born.”

Access Radio Pilot Stations

The Radio Authority received 200 applications to run non-profit stations – 15 were awarded one year licenses with Radio Regen winning two, ALL FM and WFM. The pilots all went on air in 2002, with the period of the scheme later being extended for a further year until 31 December 2004. The Authority commissioned ex-Arts Council boss and academic Anthony Everitt to produce an independent report, New Voices, on the 15 pilots. It concluded that community radio would be “the most important new cultural development in the UK for many years”.

Among others who gained licences were Cross Rhythms, aimed at Stoke’s Christian community; Hackney’s Sound Radio which sees itself as a local World Service; Angel Radio for Hampshire’s over-60s; Desi Radio aimed at Southall’s Punjabi population; and Radio Faza for Nottingham’s Muslim community.

Not all the other pilots share Radio Regen’s vision of community radio as a regeneration tool, but Phil maintains that anything else would be wasteful. “It is a strong personal conviction that the scarce resource of frequencies should only be put at the disposal of the most disadvantaged communities. It would also be disastrous if single-interest communities got stations at the expense of the broader community. We should go for umbrella stations that incorporate old people, young people, ethnic communities, different religions and every sort of music. As there are not enough wavelengths to go round, you have to look at broad-based partnerships that represent a large swathe of the community because there will most likely only be one station per area.”

For now, WFM and ALL FM continue to be overseen by Radio Regen, but the aim is for ownership to be transferred to residents and managed by local steering groups. “It is not our aim to run a station or stations, we’re here to enable the residents to do that for themselves,” says Phil.

The Future

Radio Regen started 2004 by hosting the Community FM conference at Manchester Airport’s Radisson SAS Hotel as the first step towards establishing itself as a national centre for expertise in community radio. The conference brought in the North West Development Agency into the field as sponsors, and all parties will eye its success as a marker for the future.

Article: Sarah Champion, January 2004