Snapshot visits and participant observation

Inspired by the recent resurgence of newsroom ethnographies (Cottle, 2007), 1 planned visits to five additional community radio stations in market towns around England. Upon gaining research access, 1 noted the studios’ physical locations in relation to their target audiences, their material layouts and the availability of equipment. I inventoried the devices and equipment used in the production tasks 1 witnessed and tried to get a sense of the intangible logistical arrangements, interdependencies and relational understandings involved. Were there common patterns of behaviour and a shared understanding of, and commitment to, the station’s objective of serving the local community? I looked at the demographic profile of station memberships and the diversity of on-air voices. I considered everyone 1 met, and each practitioner I interviewed, as socialized through a lifetime of experiences: observing them as potentially embodying and enacting certain attitudes, beliefs and ways of doing and saying things.

Documenting my observations on a checklist enabled me to break down the everyday tasks that Schatzki terms “dispersed” activities, like talking, thinking, reading, using a phone or computer. 1 noted when practitioners wrote scripts, looked for sound effects and music, took or used photographs, arranged interviews, recorded and edited audio. Individual and sometimes basic tasks like those were interwoven to become more niche activities which accumulated to constitute the specialist, or “integrative”, practice of producing content in ways which deliver the stated mission of a community station. 1 evaluated how digital technologies enabled or constrained those activities and considered how each station was structured to afford, accommodate and update those devices, software and the skills required to apply them.

Online (socially distanced) inquiry

The UK-wide lockdown in Spring 2020 was a timely intervention in my ongoing research because it provided a mutually beneficial reason to conduct an online questionnaire. It was entitled “Digital Technologies in Community Radio Production Practices: responding to COVID-19 social distancing measures”, and was devised to ascertain how, and the extent to which, stations were able to successfully adapt and continue broadcasting as the crisis ensued. The findings were made publicly available for easy circulation to the community radio sector and it was hoped would provide evidence for future discussions with other stakeholders.8 To approach all the licensed operators, 1 clicked my way through the alphabetical list on the Ofcom website to the radio station homepages and contact information.9 My contacts at the CMA, the newly formed UK Community Radio Network (UKCRN) and on social media helped to publicize the questionnaire and encourage uptake. I conducted short periods of listening-in to each station’s output and checked to see if their social media accounts were up to date. Of nearly 300 community stations contacted either directly by email or using “Contact Us” forms on their websites, 44 unique responses were received from stations across the UK: Northern Ireland and Scotland: the Northern regions of England: the Midlands; Greater London; the East and South East, the Isle of Wight, and the South West (See Appendix).

I sought information on aspects that included the role of the respondent in their station and whether they were involved on the pre-sentation/production side. If so, they were asked how many shows they were normally actively involved in each week. “Normally” in this context meant prior to the social distancing measures introduced by the government in March 2020. Other information was requested about management and volunteer structures, as well as programming formats. For instance, 1 asked about the proportion of shows and features normally presented and transmitted live compared to those recorded from home or remote studios each week and how much that had changed under COVID-19. 1 was especially interested in what criteria had been applied to decide which volunteers were able to remain actively producing output, and how important it had been to maintain their usual station standards of broadcast sound quality and professionalism during the social distancing. The questionnaire also surveyed whether station teams amongst the respondents had begun to provide any new strands of programming. 1 was particularly interested in whether they normally provided a local news service, how it was delivered and if that had changed under lockdown. I monitored the sector’s press releases, newsletters and social media posts highlighting what stakeholders and audiences could do to support their local stations,10 and what requests might be put to DCMS and Ofcom, such as bringing forward the annual funding awards process.

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