Every morning between 7.30am and 9.00am the inhabitants of Skye and Lochalsh can wake up to breakfast with community radio station Cuillin FM. Broadcasting from its studio in Portree, the station provides a mixture of music, chat, news and local information 24 hours a day, all year round. The service is available on various frequencies throughout the area, and since going on-line in 2008, ex-pats across the world can tune in to hear what's happening back home.
The idea for a community radio station on Skye goes back to the 1990's when it was seen as an innovative way to connect a scattered rural population. With help from the Skye and Lochalsh Council for Voluntary Organisations, a working group put together trial broadcasts in 1995 and again in 1998. Armed with this experience they applied for funds to launch a formal service: grants were found to construct a studio and transmitter masts, and in July 2004 Cuillin FM officially took to the airwaves.
Cuillin FM, is a social enterprise, operating as a Company Limited by Guarantee and is very much a community service: none of its 40 volunteer presenters are paid and most of them have no professional background in broadcasting. The station is managed by a board of directors who handle all the complex legal, financial, technical and personnel issues involved. The only paid member of staff is a full-time administrative assistant, with a freelancer responsible for securing vital advertising revenue.
The management and broadcasters may be volunteers but the ambition is to deliver a professional service. The station has two studios, equipped with music desk, computers and editing suite for playing and recording music and interviews. Live shows are broadcast from 7.30am to 9.00am and from 3.00pm to midnight on weekdays, and all day at weekends. In between the live programmes Cuillin FM runs a "sustaining service" which allows it to put out pre-recorded shows, repeats, adverts, trailers and music to keep it on air 24 hours a day. Several hours each week are devoted to Gaelic broadcasts.
Catriona MacLean, an active board member, presents one of the afternoon drive-time shows. She explains what is involved in "driving the desk". "I'll play music, mainly from our computer library - which has 50's music, 60's music and so on - and I like to cover a local interest story during the programme. This week for instance I'll have a teacher and some kids from the Raasay school into the studio to talk about a charity run they're doing. They'll maybe be in for 20 minutes and I'll get them to suggest some music. I've also got to fit in adverts, sponsor information, a news summary that we buy in from Moray Firth Radio, sport, the weather forecast and a "what's on" slot".
The volunteer broadcasters clearly get a buzz out of taking part and many have the chance to interview big names from the worlds of music and politics: K T Tunstall and First Minister Alex Salmond have both featured. However, the big challenge for the station is how to become financially self-sustaining.
A few years ago cashflow was very tight and advertising revenues too low. HIE has helped turn this around through support with marketing and financial planning.
Catriona says, "HIE paid to develop a media pack that we can give to advertisers and gave us marketing training that was very good. We re-organised the staff and brought in Drew Millar on a freelance basis to chase advertising and sponsorship. He knows everyone locally and revenues have really gone up".
On the finance side Catriona says it was, "Fantastic to have someone to work on a financial management plan with us and come up with a software package to get us to manage our budgets better. We've now got a management system we can use".
Alongside this vital work to install good systems, the board have been busy expanding and upgrading the service: a new mast will go up soon to ensure coverage reaches the parts of Skye unable to receive existing frequencies; studio two is being upgraded; more Gaelic programmes are planned; a van will be bought to make outside broadcasting easier, and more young people are being encouraged to train as presenters. A listener survey is also about to get underway. The financial plan to achieve this is, says Catriona, "Totally on target".
Income from advertising, sponsorship and a weekly Bingo competition - an idea taken from a community radio station in Nova Scotia - has all grown and will help to finance developments. HIE has also agreed a grant towards this work. Eilidh Ross from HIE says, "By helping them achieve their social aims, to expand their reach and understand what their listeners want, we're also helping them sustain and expand their income through making sure they stay attractive to advertisers. They are doing really well in what is a difficult economic climate".
Business information (figures correct as of 16 December 2010)
For further information visit www.cuillinfm.co.uk or call HIE's Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross area office on 01478 612 841