The formation of Heartland FM (HFM) was one of the most innovative community projects of its time. There were no rules or guidelines from Ofcom when Heartland applied for a license to broadcast in March 1992. As a result of grassroots activity, a strong committee and financial backing from the local business community, the first small scale community broadcaster in the UK was born. It is now the longest serving community owned radio station in the country, reaching its 29th anniversary this year. The average lifespan for stations following this path is around 7 years.
The remit of the station was to provide a radio service to a large geographic area that was not covered by existing national media. At this time much of Highland Perthshire could not access FM quality radio broadcasts or even Channel 4 on television.
Focusing on a provision of local issues and drawing on local people to present programmes and provide technical backup HFM went from part-time broadcasting to an all day, everyday radio station. To achieve this commitment HFM has had to embrace the same structures and governance that apply to national providers such as the BBC. It is to the credit of those involved both past and present that HFM has continued to meet the standards set by the UK governing body, Ofcom.
Through the years there have been thousands of contributors, guests and interviews. The station quickly found a place in the community as a tool for local information and a platform for issues not explored elsewhere. HFM has promoted numerous local events, provided an opening for local representatives to be held to account via live public hustings prior to elections and referenda. It has broadcast live from numerous gala and Highland Games days and hundreds of community groups have been given airtime to promote their objectives and publicise their events.
HFM has worked with schools across Highland Perthshire providing training in all aspects of radio production. This had two successful outcomes, the radio station had access to potential new broadcasters and content and the participants learned many new transferable skills as well as reinforcing the usage of literacy, numeracy, language skills and diction. Working to deadlines in teams to produce a product of broadcast quality provides vital insights to the workplace and increases employability.
Some of the volunteer presenters have gone on to make broadcasting a career with some working with larger local and national stations, the highest profile being a producer for the Steve Wright afternoon show on BBC radio 2. Others have taken the experience gained and used it to help gain entry to further education or employment in areas that may otherwise have been out of reach.
From the beginning HFM recognised that, as a volunteer based community owned organisation, financial survival would be best achieved by a mixed financial package of earned income through advertising and sponsorship, fundraising and external grant applications. The support group for HFM, The Friends of HFM provided financial support for many years through the efforts of a dedicated fund raising team allowing the radio station to concentrate on broadcasting.
During this period HFM enjoyed many successes and accolades, Scottish New Music Radio Station of the Year, held up as an example of community in action by elected MPs and became a cornerstone in local community resilience. During the storms in 2012 Heartland was the only form of mass communication available to Highland Perthshire residents. Parts of the area were without power for 72 hours. When all other national stations failed and mobile phone coverage went down HFM was the only conduit for communities to access accurate information. HFM is now a major part of Perthshire and the larger Tayside wide Resilience Planning Group.
Over the years, changes in the Friends of HFM resulted in it becoming less effective and the radio station had to look to more grant funding than previously, eventually allowing itself to become grant dependent. This was the point that HFM lost its way with the constant search for funding overshadowing the focus to provide good quality broadcasting for local residents. The morale within the organisation fell and key people left further pushing the station into difficult times. The increasing reliance on grant funding exacerbated the problem to a stage where something had to be done to save the station from inevitable closure.
There is now a new board of Trustees, running costs have been reduced and charitable status has been achieved. A number of new initiatives are being set up to ensure a secure financial future for Heartland FM, with a renewed and reinvigorated focus on providing the communities of Highland Perthshire with high-quality local, relevant media.
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