Students take to the airwaves

November 1, 1996

British student radio does not have a proud history compared with the United States. There stations are vibrant, professional operations, while here they are mostly low-budget, part-time outfits that are only heard on campus.

Twenty-two universities have licensed low-power AM stations. Only one - Lancaster - is on FM and can broadcast to the surrounding district too. Student stations can also apply for "restricted service" licences to go on air for one month twice each year.

While legislative controls have stopped Britain following the US model, a change is finally imminent. Oxygen FM in Oxford recently became the first student station to be granted a full broadcasting licence by the Radio Authority. The decision has spurred on other student broadcasters who want to operate permanent services.

Oxygen was set up in 1994 by two Christ College graduates, Nick Molden, 22, and Philip Weiss, 24, who questioned Oxford's lack of a student radio station.

The two knew from the start that winning a licence would be difficult, so they began by focusing on the business aspects of the project rather than the programming.

Mr Weiss, the station manager, said they enlisted the support of prominent Oxford alumni and Channel Four co-founder Anthony Smith to form a board of trustees and establish contacts.

"Once you've got the big names behind you, the credibility is considerably increased," he said.

Demand for a student station in Oxford and the quality of the bid convinced the Radio Authority to give Oxygen an eight-year licence. The station will have five full-time staff, with students making and presenting programmes.

Oxygen will go on air in mid-February with a 70:30 music: speech ratio.

Mr Weiss said the station will break new bands and play music students want to hear. Programmes will address issues relevant to the city's 60,000 students and young people.

In Liverpool, Shout FM is hoping to repeat Oxygen's success. Based at John Moores University, its three test broadcasts have been well received.

Despite backing from Phil Redmond, chairman of Mersey Television, Barclays Bank and the university, it faces tough competition for the one or two Merseyside licences up for grabs.

Nick Wallace, the coordinator, said Shout FM wants to be a cutting-edge radio station and emulate the innovative style of BBC Radio One on a local level.

The JMU graduate is also chairman of the Student Radio Association, which holds its annual conference in London tomorrow followed by the announcement of the first Radio One National Student Radio Awards.

One item for debate is whether student radio should be commercial or public broadcasters. "Should there be legislation allowing universities to own radio stations which will essentially be commercial, but have a strong public service ethos?" Mr Wallace asks.

US record companies have long recognised the ability of university stations to break new bands and styles of music. Virgin Records and Sony Music have created departments to service student radio and are clearly keen to see stations flourish here.

The rapid growth in media studies is also creating demand for student radio, to give budding broadcasters and journalists an outlet to develop their skills.

Broadcast journalism students at Nottingham Trent University are working on Kick FM, which starts its first one-month broadcast on Monday. Like Shout and Oxygen, Kick FM's long-term aim is to secure a permanent licence to serve Nottingham's 22,000 students.

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