How Do Community Radio Stations Differ From Commercial Stations?

On the surface, listening to a community radio station does not seem too different to listening to a commercial radio station. They both play advertisements and this is an important part of their income, they both play music, they both host discussion programmes, they both often promote community projects and events and support charity fundraising.

So what are the differences?

One difference is in how they are set up and owned. Commercial radio stations are profit making and privately owned. Community radio stations are generally set up by members of a community and have a social legal structure. Commercial radio stations pay their DJs and they pay more for commercial radio licences so they have to generate a far greater income than community radio stations which can run on far less income.

This doesn't mean that it is easy for community radio stations to earn enough income to survive. They are subject to more restrictions on how they raise funds than commercial radio stations are. Community radio stations have to play 70% music and 30% other content and they cannot earn more than 50% of their income from any one source. This limits how much advertising space they can sell to any one company, limiting the viability of community radio advertisements for large companies. This means that community radio stations rely on small businesses buying smaller advertisements.

During good times this is not a problem, but during difficult economic times, such as this current Covid-19 pandemic, when businesses are closed for long periods of time, it can make the difference between a community radio station surviving or not.

Commercial radio DJs are paid for the hours they are on air but DJs in community radio often volunteer their time and DJ for the station in addition to paid work. They often have strong links to the community surrounding the radio station base and want to give back to that community. Many community radio station DJs have years of experience, including international music experience but others are starting out on their careers. One of the important functions of a community radio station is to train the next generation of radio presenters, DJs and producers and they help to kickstart music and media careers.

Commercial radio stations are usually based in city centres and serve wide geographical areas, including national coverage. Community radio stations are based in local communities and are easily accessible to people in those communities.

Both commercial and community radio stations host discussion programmes that give people an opportunity to discuss topical issues but community radio stations go one step further. They are proactive in giving a voice to people who struggle to be heard in national debates. They are proactive in creating programming that highlights where people are being oppressed, disadvantaged or mistreated and in giving people caught up in these issues, a platform to voice their opinions. They lobby on behalf of communities and lead on community projects to resolve problems that affect the community around them.

Both commercial radio and community radio play a role in comforting, informing and educating people but community radio stations focus on a small geographical area and have a very local flavour whereas commercial radio stations focus on a larger geographical area and have a more generalised focus. In the UK we are lucky to have a good mix of both offering people a choice every day.

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