Weird community radio story of the day

June 15th, 2009 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

Has to be this one from Australia about FBi, a community station that ran an ‘Ask Richard’ campaign, calling on listeners to the the attention of Richard Branson, in the hope that he would donate $1m (AUS) to them. They succeeded in getting his attention – when an (anonymous) woman swam 2.5 miles to his private island – but not his cash, though he has provided some flights and festival tickets to be used in competitions.

At first – indeed, second – glance, the premise of the campaign seems flawed. Surely the energy and imagination of the many individuals who had tried to get Branson’s attention – the long distance swimmer was only the last of a long line – could better be spent in raising small sums from a larger number of individuals, than on this long shot. And digging deeper, it seems that those at the station recognize this point:

But our decision to ask a billionaire for financial support shouldn’t be the concern. What’s really concerning is this: a station commanding a listenership of nearly a quarter of a million can’t rely on the community to put their money where their preset is.

The story at the station is not so much a parable as a series of parables. The station spent AUS$0.5m on its legal struggle to get on air. The recession has hit their normal fundraising hard – youth employment has been particularly hard hit. The station now faces a AUS$1m hole in its finances. The station has been, in any event, getting limited direct financial support from listeners: “FBi has 219,000 people tuning in every week. 2% of these are financial supporters.” There’s a billionaire, with his own private island, based inside the station’s coverage area.

Still, seeking large donations of this nature is a rather long bet, and speaks to the need for more sustainable models of support. Community radio can be – and is, in many communities – an important tool for community building, something that’s perhaps particularly important in economically troubled times such as these. But because of the indirect, and not always obvious, linkages between community radio and such development, it’s difficult to solicit support – from government or individuals, let alone corporate donors – at times such as these, when budgets are stretched and there’s an increased demand for public support, and a need for quick-acting economic boosts.

This is why it’s important for community stations to develop mixed-funding models, including support from government agencies, tariffs on commercial broadcasting revenues, and direct listener donations. Some stations may also be able to develop side-businesses, such as sound recording and professional services (space rental, training). Each of these will be hit when the economy takes a turn for the worse, but diversification of revenue sources will minimize the risk to the operation as a whole.

In the meantime, best of luck to FBi in their fundraising campaign!

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