The Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC) is the licensing authority. Licences were issued based on applications from prospective stations explaining their aims, showing the need for community radio in their chosen communities and presenting a business plan. In 1994 the IRTC issued 11 licences and monitored a pilot scheme on this third strand - after RTE and the commercial stations - of Irish broadcasting. Nine stations decided to carry on, and three more licences were granted; Tallaght is ready to go on air this month, and Inishowen and Blanchardstown start in March. The West Clare Community Development Group is gearing up to follow.
There are more than 2,000 community radio stations broadcasting in Europe. In Ireland, 15 have been issued licences since 1993, and more groups wait in the wings for their chance to get on air. What is community radio? What is the difference between this and other types of radio?
Community radio is run by the community it serves, it works on a "not-for-profit" basis and it actively promotes change in society.
The community that owns and runs a community stations can be a geographical community - e.g. the area around Youghal served by CRY. It can also be made up of a certain type of person living within a specific area - for example, the students communities of Cork, Galway and Limerick served by Cork Campus Radio, FLIRT and Wired. Or it can be a community of special interest, such as Raidio na Life serving the needs of Irish speakers in the Dublin area.
While most stations have some fulltime, paid members of staff to organise and administrate, most work is done by volunteers. The programming is based on the needs and interests of the community and is produced by community-based individuals and groups.
Some programmes deal directly with issues of concern to the community. West Dublin Community Radio, for example, has a programme for people who are recovering from drug abuse, as well as programmes aimed at encouraging students to stay on in secondary school.
Minority groups in an area can get a chance to "talk to themselves", as with the Bosnian and Spanish programmes on NEARfm in Dublin. Specialist interests are catered for on programmes such as The Great Outdoors, about the environment, on Connemara Community Radio, and Staying Alive, the health show on Wired FM.
Specialist music tastes are well catered for, as DJs haul in their own stocks of CDs, tapes and antique vinyl! Student stations, in particular, cater for alternative music and showcase local and up-and-coming bands.
By definition, community radio is not professional broadcasting. Still, all volunteers must complete training courses, and volunteerism doesn't equal sloppy production values: in IRTC awards and the ESB National Media Awards for 1998 Cork Campus Radio and Connemara Community Radio scooped awards for documentaries - in competition with local commercial stations.
Strangely enough, however, the programmes are not the most important thing about community radio. Community media, in general, strive to effect change in society - by allowing open access, and by training people to become vocal so they can use the airwaves to get their point of view across to the wider community.
Community radio offers people the chance to hear about, think about and talk to each other about issues that concern them fundamentally and to organise themselves to change the world where they live.
Yes, access and participation are buzzwords, bandied about in theory but not always practised. Community radio can really give a voice to the voiceless, and power to the disempowered; it gets people talking, not just listening passively.
Community radio is also owned by the people who listen and who are on air. Each station has a board of management which is accountable to the community. Programmes are made to cater for all sectors of the community - not necessarily in order to increase the number of listeners and profit from advertising.
That said, community stations are permitted to attract advertising. However, most stations have found that it fits their ethos as "community organs" better if they gather funding from a variety of sources, such as sponsorship and EU-funded initiatives. Most Irish stations have taken part in Europe-wide campaigns on subjects like racism and AIDS awareness, and they can hook into international sources of training, funding and action.
Like any other enterprise, community stations need money and are not averse to securing financial support for themselves. But all stations are not for profit - which means any money made must go straight back into the station, for equipment and upgrading studios, for wages or general development. This, in the end, is one of the most fundamental differences between community stations and commercial ones, which are run as businesses.
Rosemary Day is lecturer in media and communication studies at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. She was a founder of Raidio na Life and of Wired FM, and is a member of the Community Radio Forum.