Sites and sounds of community radio
This chapter presents insights and information from research studies conducted between 2014 and 2020 to explore specific situated examples of how practitioners produced localized content for community radio (see Appendix). First, 1 recount my own practice for a local internet station, both as a radio reporter and academic researcher, and how-digital technologies enhanced my capacity to source and process information. 1 then describe the performances of practitioners I encountered during fieldwork implemented through snapshot visits, interviews and participant observation at other community radio stations. 1 also present some findings of my online research inquiry conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, designed to establish how-stations adjusted to the lockdown and which devices and software facilitated their ongoing operations. It is important to bear in mind that the practitioners whom 1 describe participating in media production and journalistic activities were unpaid volunteers: citizens whose contributions represent the interwoven nature of local radio with the communities served (Atton, 2008: Ahva, 2017).
Home-produced local content for a hubless virtual radio station
I found out that there was a local internet radio station for the town where 1 lived, Harpenden, in 2013, soon after a small group of experienced community radio practitioners had launched it. Their aim was to establish a solid listenership and a good reputation with local organizations in readiness for applying to Ofcom for a licence, as and when one associated with a frequency for the locality became available. There was no actual studio building; it existed as a club with a
Sites and sounds of community radio 45 bank account and a few committee members. The former website for the station (now defunct) had several pages of local information and clicking on the “play” icon on the homepage enabled the output to be streamed. Alternatively, the station could be found on various streaming services like Tuneln. In its early days, there were 15 named presenters on the programme schedule, producing music-based shows remotely using their own equipment in home studios. Only half of the team lived or worked in the local area, the other shows were nationally or globally syndicated shows by presenters such as UK-based Sean Bell and Mark Gale and USA-based Tom Fallon. Pre-recorded audio packages in MP3 format were transferred using file share services such as Dropbox or sent through the mail on memory sticks so that the volunteer programme director could upload them to the playlist schedules on his computer, by “dragging and dropping” directly into the station’s playout system “RadioDJ”.
Consequently, most of these shows were neither locally produced nor locally focussed, and nothing went out live. Prior to my research internship with the station in 2017, 1 had occasionally reported from local events such as political hustings, festivals and theatre productions: recording interviews which I then edited, topped and tailed and emailed to the scheduler. Only one other volunteer was making local programmes. Sylvia, also the station’s fundraising and public relations person, presented an hour-long rock music show that played out twice a week and About Harpenden, an hour of music with local interviews, repeated six times a week. Her home studio was located ten miles outside Harpenden, comprising: two computers, a mixer, two microphones, two CD players, turntable, amplifier, and a radio. She described working her way around the table and a shelf. After editing each show and saving it as an MP3, she would give the file its required name and upload it to the station’s Dropbox account so that the system could automatically load it into the right places on the schedule.
She recorded conversations with people over the phone about forthcoming local events and schemes, although she had also negotiated use of the Mayor’s parlour at the council offices to conduct interviews using a small handheld audio recorder or the electronic notebook with a pair of microphones which the council had helped to fund. She engaged enthusiastically with local businesses and charities, attended and promoted local events and was very active on Twitter. As she was the only volunteer doing this sort of public interaction, she told me she felt synonymous with the station in the minds of the audience. Sylvia talked emotionally with me about experiencing that certain:
.. .feel good factor ... with the community programme - you know I interviewed Helping Hands, Harpenden Trust, the Lions, the Round Table, all these people. And they all do so much for their community and globally as well, and it’s just giving them a platform.
I decided to create a series of speech-based features to inject more locally sourced and focussed content, designed to be repeatable and useful schedule fillers. 1 wanted to help generate audience engagement for the station and build its reputation as a local media provider. I collected printed matter such as newspaper clippings, council brochures and publicity flyers, and I searched the internet on my computer for information on websites and social media to track down potential contributors. I stored these details in document folders in the cloud, which meant 1 could access them on my smartphone or tablet, when thinking through options while away from my desk. I liaised regularly over the phone and by email with my informant, who helped run the station from his studio in a spare bedroom of his suburban home. After agreeing on a title. Remarkable Harpenden, I drew up a list of ideas for topics which would reflect the history, culture and environment of the town. I approached people to interview: most were already acquaintances of mine, but one or two I tracked down through Facebook and via email or contact forms on websites. Once their participation was agreed, 1 emailed them information and consent forms, exchanged phone numbers and arranged to meet them for interview. One contributor who ran a busy corner store, was dealt with face-to-face and with hard copies of the paperwork.
All interviews were carried out on location, in homes or workplaces and on two occasions outdoors. 1 was equipped with my “Handy Recorder” H4n manufactured by Zoom Corporation (not to be confused with Zoom Video Communications). 1 also had my smartphone with pre-loaded “Voice Recorder” software and a downloaded app for broadcastable recordings, “WavePad Free”. Relying on handheld devices meant 1 could be mobile, but I had to keep an eye on the battery life and available memory. 1 tried to avoid recording in poor sonic conditions such as inclement wet or windy weather and noise-polluted locations where machinery was being operated in the vicinity, such as diggers and lawnmowers. Even indoors, 1 encountered telephones ringing, creaky furniture, loudly ticking clocks and unexpected interruptions. 1 timed the interviews in my home for during school hours to avoid potential hubbub from my family and hoped my pets did not cause any disturbance or set off allergic reactions in my participants.
I recorded two gardeners on the town’s allotments on a cold, damp Sunday afternoon. We had met in the adjacent church car park at the hall where a boisterous children’s party was taking place. The main road was busy, which meant that my microphone picked up plenty of unwelcome sounds as we walked around the plots talking about the allotment lifestyle. I attempted to stay close, keeping the microphone near the mouth of whoever was speaking. Editing the interview down to create the impression of a seamless conversational narrative in an idyllic countryside setting was challenging and time-consuming in post-production. Fortunately, 1 had also recorded wild track from a nearby locality on a quieter occasion, including cheerful bird song which I was able to insert to cover any obvious inconsistencies in the underlying traffic flow. As well as recording natural sounds from every place 1 visited, 1 took photographs depicting the aspects of Harpenden that my contributors discussed. I used my digital camera for its higher quality images as well as my smartphone, which was also handy for accessing Facebook and Twitter, sending and receiving emails, and occasionally searching the internet whilst in the field.
With 13 audio interviews in the can, 1 set about the post-production to shape the material into ten features. I did this in my home study on the desktop computer. All the audio recorded on my portable recorder was uploaded directly in the standard format of waveform audio files (WAV), by inserting the Zoom’s digital memory card into the reader. I directly connected my smartphone to copy across the raw audio files. 1 transcribed and timecoded each interview so that 1 could use key term and phrase searches when storyboarding narratives for each feature. This was time-consuming; it took me five minutes to transcribe one minute of audio (industry standard is 4:1). Each hour of audio, which was the average length of my recordings, took five hours to do. I was not aware at the time of any reliable, free software that I could have used for this purpose but have since learned of various artificial intelligence (Al) and automatic speech recognition (ASR) programs that automatically transcribe speech to text, such as YouTube’s built-in captioning and Otter. Basic, free accounts tend to set monthly limits on the number of minutes you can have transcribed, which would not have been sufficient for the amount of audio 1 had. Of course, there was also the option of commissioning a professional to transcribe, but the texts would still require checking through for accuracy. I preferred to trust my own ears, save money and maximize the amount of exposure 1 had to the material 1 was working with.
This immersion made subsequent revisiting of over 13 hours of interview material, for building themes and narrative threads, much easier and facilitated writing the blogs and tagging the topics, place names, events and contributors for the social media publicity posts I was planning. The themes that arose and around which 1 shaped the ten episodes ranged from the history of the nearby international agricultural research centre to the social life of the local allotments club, and from charitable good causes like the food bank to the voracious demand for residential building plots. 1 storyboarded each feature using tables in Microsoft Word, so that 1 could copy and paste then edit paragraphs of time-coded transcriptions until I had more or less finalized the structure of each piece, prior to copying the corresponding audio segments into the working file. 1 edited using Audacity, free open source, broadcast-standard software. I saved as I went along in the cloud linked to my computer and backed everything up on a portable hard drive. 1 generally used headphones for accuracy, but when each feature was near completion, I also tested listening to the audio playing in the background whilst doing housework or some other activity, as is customary in much audience consumption.
The completed features were exported as MP3s and 1 filled in the metadata providing details: myself as contributing artist (producer), the name of the track (for instance “Green Fingers”) and album title (Remarkable Harpenderi), year, genre and length. I then sent them one by one or in pairs by email, capacity allowing: the average file size being 13 MB. The maximum file size 1 could send using my Yahoo email was around 30 MB. 1 also delivered the collection in bulk on a memory stick by hand. 1 requested that they be introduced one at a time to the schedules and hoped they would remain online for several months.