Chelmsford Calling was a short lived radio station serving the 'mature' listeners of Chelmsford Essex. It's philosophy was to provide a combination of music, information & comedy specifically aimed at the older generations, who are neglected by the current mainstream media.
Chelmsford Calling was set up by me at the end of 2000 & was greatly inspired by 'Angel Radio' in Havant, run by two old friends Tony Smith & Martin Kirby. Angel Radio is still thriving today & is fiercely loyal to its original ethos of serving the older population, & is extremely popular with its target audience.
The first broadcast from Chelmsford Calling was for 10 days under an Ofcom RSL (restricted service licence) in July 2001, & was probably our most successful & enjoyable transmission. Our enthusiasm & the response from our audience was tremendous, & this was enough to spur me on to apply for a second licence to broadcast in December 2001 / January 2002 for 28 days. The regulations at this time only permitted 2 broadcasts per year for a 28 day period each.
Our second broadcast & third in November 2002, whilst still enjoyable, proved to be considerably harder in various ways - financially the cost of a 28 day broadcast is in excess of £4,500, & logistically the organisation & running of the station for a longer period raises different problems. That said, I believe we still provided a reasonable service which on the whole was worthwhile. Some of our programmes were very good, some very average, & a few were absolutely atrocious ! More importantly, & something we didn't admit to ourselves at the time, was the significant drop in audience response from our first broadcast - the novelty had possibly worn off.
Chelmsford Calling remained quiet until July 2004 when, with the advent of the new community radio licensing system imminent, a 3 day RSL broadcast was organised to see if there was still a desire for this service. The response was reasonable enough for me to apply in November 2004 to Ofcom for one of the new community radio licences which were to become available. This involved setting up a Limited Company & submitting a 35+ page application form setting out my aims & commitments for our new community radio service.
The whole licensing process took considerably longer than originally expected, & it was not until May 2006 that I was told the application was successful. This should have been an exhuberant moment, but the reality was that by now most local support which had been present in previous broadcasts had dwindled to virtually nothing. Little happened unless instigated by me. If I am to be generous to others then I will put this down to poor leadership & inadequate explanation on my part. If I was to be critical... but then that's futile.
With the benefit of hindsight perhaps I should have seen the writing on the wall & ended the whole project. However I had (& still have) one major problem - that is my passionate belief that there should be a radio service specifically for older people, which provides information, comfort & friendship in a gentle & respectful manner. I decided therefore to carry on regardless...
With the support & patience of Ann I set about preparing for full time community radio broadcasts to start in December 2006 - an extremely over optimistic target ! Surprisingly we were ready in time, & by the beginning of December had studios revamped, computer playout systems ready, announcements & information adverts recorded, transmission equipment prepared, website up & running (thanks to Michael), 4,000+ songs recorded to computer, & everything in place to operate 12 hours per day, every day. Nothing could go wrong...!
Chelmsford Calling commenced full time programming on 23rd December 2006 - & closed down on 11th February 2007.
It would be wrong to say that the closure of Chelmsford Calling was due to one specific reason, & looking back objectively it is obvious that a combination of problems occurred which took their toll. A few of these problems follow...
From 2 hours into our test transmission we were made aware that our transmissions were causing 'blocking' of many radios over quite a considerable area. This is the affect of our radio signal on poorly constructed radio receivers resulting in our transmission wiping out most of their normal reception.
Our transmission equipment had passed Ofcom's strict requirements, & whilst all radio engineers & radio amateurs will correctly tell you that the 'blocking' problem is purely due to the inadequacies of the radio receiver, I found it difficult to accept that I was potentially affecting the radio reception of 100+ surrounding properties - mostly elderly people who I was hoping to help. After various tests we significantly reduced our transmitter power which limited the 'blocking' problem but obviously greatly reduced our coverage. We were however still audible over 2-3 miles, which is not far less than the actual 5km radius which community radio stations are expected to have.
The audience response to our return & throughout our subsequent short life was low. I had thought that our return would have resulted in a moderate level of contact, & specific questions repeatedly asked in our broadcast warranted some response. Most people involved with radio will confirm that getting a response is difficult, but I would now question the belief that there are still many people listening. Community radio by its very nature should command a greater relative response from its audience because audience interaction is part of its ethos. I therefore had to seriously question how many people were actually listening.
Financially the basic cost of running a community radio station is less on a daily basis than the high costs of an RSL, although it is interesting to note that many community radio stations have exhorbitant budgets. I managed to return Chelmsford Calling to the air for less than £1,000, & our transmission & studio equipment was basic but perfectly adequate. However the cost that I never honestly calculated was the loss in earnings on time spent setting up & running the station. Being mainly self-employed I was able to find time if necessary, but always conveniently overlooked the drop in earnings.
We were fortunate enough to be awarded a grant by Ofcom of £6,500 from the DCMS fund, but since this coincided with our decision to close, the grant was declined by me & the allocation went to another station. I had put aside personal funds to cover the initial licensing & PRS / PPL costs, but it was difficult to justify using our own money unless there was sufficient evidence that our service was worthwhile. Unfortunately the allocated grant money could not be used for licence fees.
Further lesser problems occurred in the 9 week period from test transmissions to close on 11th February 2007. So - I had to decide whether to struggle on & provide a service which would not live up to original expectations & which was obviously not as important as I had imagined, or to close before becoming financially over committed & before losing my sanity... I thankfully chose the latter !
It is interesting to note that I waited 2 days after closedown before returning the official revocation paperwork to Ofcom, perhaps in the hope that people may come knocking at my door to persuade me otherwise - it didn't happen.
I therefore have the dubious honour of being the first person to hand back a community radio licence. Some length of time on now I'm more than happy with my decision & am not surprised that others have followed. Was the project a success or failure ? On the one hand it was a success in that I was granted a licence & this proves that a very small organisation can achieve the goal of obtaining a community radio licence. Obviously though the station was not sustainable in the way I set it up & so I can accept that overall it was a failure.
From a personal point of view it was a very interesting project & Ann & I met a wide variety of people, many of whom we will remember affectionately for a long time. Unfortunately a few people who became our friends are now no longer with us, & I believe that had they been alive still then Chelmsford Calling may have taken a different direction. We feel better for having known them & are pleased that they were involved with Chelmsford Calling.
As for the future - my passion for radio & music remains, & I watch with interest the dramatic way that radio continues to change. I believe many community radio stations will not survive, or will become primarily playout stations struggling to raise finance. There will always be exceptions - Angel Radio is the best example I know of what community radio is all about, & I am sure there are others.
Despite my experiences - or because of them - I am always willing to talk to anyone about radio, & am happy to give advice or help on how to - or how not to - set up & run a community radio station ! Personally I have no plans at present to become involved with community radio again, but I have stopped saying 'never again...'!