Broadcast PR: Community spirit

A new breed of radio is reaching out to highly targeted audiences. Maja Pawinska investigates community broadcasting.

Imagine being able to target a new radio campaign so tightly that there is no wastage at all: every listener will be interested in it and will benefit from the information you are delivering. This isn't a PR dream, it's community radio - sometimes known as 'the third age' of radio, after the BBC and commercial stations.

After a successful two-year stint by 15 pilot community radio stations - and more than 20 years of lobbying by the Community Media Association - broadcast regulator Ofcom is finally inviting applications for the first community radio licences.

When the licences are awarded, PR agencies and in-house PROs will be able to target community stations alongside the usual roster of national, regional and local commercial and BBC outlets. The question is whether agencies and their clients will choose to do this. Is community radio a viable option for PR campaigns?

Mass movement

There's no fixed number of licences available, but Ofcom received around 200 applications for the pilots, so there are likely to be a large number of community radio stations. 'It's a completely different type of radio,' says Community Media Association director Diane Reid.

'It's extremely intimate and is about communities making radio, not radio broadcasting to communities. Professional PR people should bear in mind they may be dealing with people with little PR nous but lots of community expertise,' she adds.

One of the main barriers to a community radio station being included in the media list for a broadcast campaign is likely to be the low audience figures. Community radio stations won't have Rajar figures for listener numbers, and many agencies and clients are still focused on numbers: reach (quantity), rather than how many of those listeners are actually in the target group for the campaign (quality).

'Community radio is not on the radar for most PROs, so caution needs to be taken before recommending it as part of the strategy,' advises markettiers4dc CEO Howard Kosky. 'It does, however, have a role to play.'

However, it's worth bearing in mind that community radio stations have to meet extremely strict criteria, the core of which is that they exist for social gain, to serve a specific community, whether defined by geography, ethnicity, gender or age. This means that while audiences are small, they are extremely concentrated. If you are running a campaign targeting the Punjabi community with important healthcare information, for example, Desi Radio in Southall will deliver direct to the heart of that community (see box, p31).

'Clients naturally want the biggest stations with the biggest audiences,' says specialist agency USP Radio new business director Justine Hendry.

'But sometimes there is high wastage, especially where clients are targeting a specific group.'

Even if PROs want to work with community radio stations, the latter may not want to, or be able to, work with agencies in the way PROs would like.

They are strictly non-commercial enterprises, so one of the conditions of their licence is that they are not allowed to compete with local commercial stations.

Therefore, broad FMCG campaigns may not be viewed by programmers and presenters as suitable content, while information-based campaigns in areas such as healthcare, employment, skills, and education, which are directly relevant to and can be tailored to the listeners, will be more successful. Community radio is also a perfect vehicle for publicising events aimed at specific groups.

The experience gained by working with local BBC stations may be useful in getting the approach right. 'It's not so dissimilar: you have to be extremely sensitive to the fact that they are serving their community, understand who that community is and provide a platform for listeners to have their say,' says Hendry. 'If we were targeting an arts event at the Asian community, for instance, we would work with community radio pilot Resonance FM.'

At the Community Media Association, Reid, who worked for the BBC for 20 years, says the corporation can only dream of creating this level of local programming, but confirms that sensitivity is crucial if PR teams are to forge successful relationships with community radio stations: 'The focus is on peer-to-peer broadcasting, so rather than an expert from London, listeners are more likely to hear a neighbour talking, or at least asking the questions that they want answered.'

Steve Leavesley, director of content provider Radio Lynx, adds: 'The other key thing for PROs to do is to listen to the stations to see what their output is like before approaching them. It will help them choose the angle and tone.'

Leavesley believes that beyond gaining this understanding, however, PR teams should approach community radio programmers in the same way as any other radio station, rather than 'dumbing down' content or spokespeople.

'If research has indicated there is a real story for people of a particular social group, it makes sense to tell them the results of the survey, regardless of the medium,' he says.

Community radio may even entice brands and companies that have never previously run a broadcast element to their PR campaigns to look at radio, says Leavesley: 'Brands that hitherto didn't think radio would reach their audience are attracted to the very niche stations. We've done some work for a healthcare company that needed to target young people in ethnic minority groups, for instance, and community radio would be a perfect outlet as part of that campaign.'

Message delivery

There's another factor at play: with the increasing consolidation of radio - witness the recent merger agreement between the Capital and GWR groups - industry pundits are expecting more bias in the commercial sector towards music-led programming.

'In the changing radio landscape, there will be fewer chances for PR agencies and clients to get their message across in editorial, so we will be exploring the opportunities of community radio,' says Hendry.

No client will choose to run a campaign that focuses purely on community radio, not least because this would be missing the point of the medium.

PR and community radio is more likely to be about carefully building relationships with community stations as part of a wider broadcast campaign, with the aim of reaching a small but highly concentrated target audience. Truly focused radio communications isn't too far away.


Takeover Radio in Leicester is a station run for - and by - children as young as eight. The station has a mix of music and spoken programmes, including Leicester's only bhangra, hip-hop and RnB show, and a weekly show where kids can discuss issues from bullying to sexual awareness, as well as competitions.

Trust manager Robin Webber-Jones says the team already has good relationships with the PR industry. 'We don't play anything more than two years old, so we have great contacts in all the music, media and entertainment PR agencies. Because young people respond more when other young people are talking to them, we address a need that schools and colleges can't meet.

In terms of PR, we always want something credible, not token. We want to provide people with meaningful experiences, and the station is very much seen as the kids' station, not as a community station.' Desi Radio in Southall, West London, is aimed at the Punjabi community.

'It's exciting for the community to have a voice on the radio,' says programme controller Ajit Singh. 'It's our vision to bring the various strands of the Punjabi-speaking population of West London together, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian.'

The station is creating a library of Punjabi music and has trained more than 100 local volunteers, most of whom are women. The station focuses on community information, such as police reports, events, voluntary organisations, fundraising efforts, healthcare and education, cultural integration and human rights.

Singh says PR professionals approaching Desi Radio need to be highly aware of the nature of the station and its listeners: 'We're not commercial, so we can't be seen to be doing free advertising. We just have to be very careful and sensitive.'

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