Colombia’s universal access to community radio

While broadcasting is not formally part of Colombia’s universal access and service (UAS) policy, UAS is a goal of the country’s broadcast policy. Colombia has a mixed radio broadcast system with public, private and community participation.  Government policy is to intervene in the broadcasting sector in order to promote competition, to avoid monopolistic practices, to ensure public access to a variety of information sources (including local ones), and to enable active citizen participation.

As in most countries, radio frequencies are considered public property and regulated in the public interest. Colombia recognises three distinct types of broadcasters:

  • Commercial broadcasters primarily seek to provide services in order to make profits. They may make a contribution to the educational, entertainment, cultural and informational needs and aspirations of listeners, but this is not normally a requirement. There are 700-800 commercial stations, although most of them are part of national networks with little or no local programming;
  • Public broadcasters are mandated to provide educational and cultural programming and to promote civic values. There are approximately 250 public broadcasting stations in Colombia, 50 of them belong to the national network and the rest are operated by other organizations such as municipalities and public universities; and
  • Community broadcasters also have a public interest mandate, but they are owned and controlled by organized communities, their programming is primarily local, public participation is encouraged, and they are non-profit. There are between 400 and 500 community radio stations.

Like many other countries, Colombia has policies in place to prevent excessive domination of broadcasting by a single company, financial group or network in a given market. However, Colombia’s broadcast policy also puts a strong emphasis on promoting and supporting locally owned and controlled community radio stations as a way of ensuring local content and of permitting citizen participation in public debates.

Funding and operations
In 1997-1998 Colombia awarded 464 community radio licences to community-based organizations formed to manage the stations in municipalities that did not have either a local public or commercial broadcaster. To contribute to the stations’ sustainability, they were given access to a variety of funding sources on the condition that all funds received would be invested in the radio station or “other investments that guarantee the adequate continuity of services and the development of the community objectives”. Sources included:

  • Universal access and service funds managed by the Ministry of Communications;
  • Broadcasting of advertising and sponsorship messages up to a maximum of 15 minutes per hour (this is the same amount as commercial stations are entitled to carry); and
  • Donations from national and international sources.

Additionally, as Class C low-power stations (250 watts) they pay only a symbolic amount for their use of the radio spectrum.

Other non-monetary support included a support office within the Ministry of Communications and simplified procedures for obtaining a broadcast licence.

By 2005, approximately two thirds of the 464 licences were operational. Many of the remaining licence holders never started broadcasting, being unable to complete the (simplified) technical studies required by the Ministry of Communications. The Ministry announced in 2005 that it will be awarding an additional 440 community radio licences with a goal to have a community radio station in every municipality in the country.

Success factors and challenges
Allowing the community radio stations to access a variety of funding sources was essential to their sustainability. In other countries, models have imposed heavier restrictions on community radio’s ability to generate advertising revenue and/or to receive contributions from local and international organizations, damaging the ability to self-finance and provide quality programming.

The normal application process is expensive, requiring specialised consultants, lawyers and knowledge and is beyond the capability of local communities. The simplified application process created for community radio licences was justified because the stations are providing low-power community service in a non-competitive market.  Even with a simplified application process, producing the required technical studies presented a barrier to the applications in one third of the interested communities.

Source: Ministry of Communications, Columbia

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