Producing content and building community at local stations
During 2018, 1 paid one-off visits to the studio hubs of four community radio stations to conduct interviews with managing directors, staff and volunteers. 1 also listened-in and researched their websites and social media to glean further information. Below are outlined first the findings from 103 The Eye and Vibe 107.6 FM. Then 1 cover the snapshot studies at Somer Valley FM and Radio LaB. whose managers also took part in the online questionnaire 1 conducted in June 2020, enabling comparison of their responses from before and during the COVID-19 crisis. 1 proceed to describe and discuss a longer term study of another station, Radio Verulam, which likewise features in my lockdown research.
The Eye - station base and family home
103 The Eye, licensed for Melton Mowbray in rural Leicestershire, was the first station to launch on-air after licences were first awarded in 2005. The station was based at the licensees’ house situated a short distance from the town centre, on a tree-lined residential road. It comprised a room between the kitchen and a small conservatory overlooking the back garden. The owners, couple Christine and Patrick, maintained this small well-equipped studio, with several screens each with a keyboard and one control panel spread out along a waist-high, half-hexagonal desk, three large microphones, three guest chairs and an adjustable office chair for the presenter. There was one dedicated phone line into the station and one handset. If a show was being presented from a volunteer’s remote studio, then the line would be diverted there. This ensured that elderly and less physically active volunteers could produce and present material from the comfort of their studies or spare rooms doubling up as satellite studios. About 10-12 shows were routinely pre-recorded weekly and sent via the internet so that Christine could load them up into the automatic playout system. One presenter preferred to send his shows on a memory stick. The programme schedule featured some high-profile syndicated shows to supplement their output, such as the Sixties Vinyl Countdown with Roger Day, Mark Stafford with Stafford’s World and Live Wire on selected evenings. Their key commitments required a weekly provision of 70 hours of original content; 13 hours a day had to be produced locally.
Christine had a background in journalism; so as well as being managing director and coordinating the programme schedule and volunteers, she routinely arranged interviews for the station’s flagship Sunday morning local news show, presented by Patrick. If unable to attend in person on the Sunday, the guests would be allocated to other presenters during the week. Then Christine would “edit the more interesting interviews”, take out the music and insert them into the playlist to be repeated on Sunday mornings. She explained: “Speechbased programming is much more labour-intensive and difficult to produce than just bunging a few songs on”. Patrick added: “People join the community radio stations and they all want to do the presenting music side of it. Very rarely do you get anybody come along who wants to do the news gathering side”. So it was often left down to them to attend local events looking for opportunities to record interviews on their Zoom and a back-up memo voice recorder.
Christine was also responsible for compiling the “what’s ons” each week, a pre-recorded read-through of forthcoming events in the local
Sites and sounds of community radio 51 area. Presenters were expected to play that feature and also to refer to local and national newspapers, hard copies or online, for stories, as well as keep an eye out on websites and social media for interesting things going on in their locality. There was a public Facebook group where presenters posted promotional messages about the station and engaged with listeners, and they were also part of their own online, private Facebook group, which helped to encourage the family atmosphere with Christine and Patrick in charge, as relatively liberal “parents”. Through this platform, the 60 or so presenters and other volunteers and contributors offered each other friendly advice and moral support, heartily welcomed new members with friendly emojis and animated stickers, and shared show or event updates. They posted photographs and videos of themselves interviewing guests in studios, reporting from events and entertaining crowds from their roadshowtrailer at local fairs, races and carnivals. The Eye’s website looked old-fashioned and static in comparison but carried information about the station and target area: photographs of local sites of interest and activities that presenters had been involved with; the programme schedule; event listings; and information on how' to advertise. A link to the “listen live” stream was on their home page and broadcast output was also available on Tuneln and similar platforms.
I observed in progress the live Saturday sports programme with a young stand-in presenter filling in for their usual host. He masterfully combined digital and printed sources to deliver conversational updates to his audience: match facts; current form; recent results. These were delivered between music tracks and live reports and he spared time to talk me through the procedures. He described pre-recording interviews for the programme wdth players, football managers and coaches, often visiting their clubs to do so. While speaking to me, he kept an eye on the screen for social media updates on matches. Results from different clubs were posted on Twitter and Facebook and the show had its own dedicated Twitter account. Sometimes the studio phone was used for receiving reports from places like West Bridgford, the City Ground w'here Nottingham Forest played. Another computer screen was for national sports updates by Sky reporters for Independent Radio News (IRN), filing reports from grounds further afield and the final scores. If he chose to, he could fade across to take this news feed live, or he w'ould record a report off-air and edit clips if necessary, for later transmission during the show.
Attention to timing was crucial. In the last half hour, I watched the presenter take tw'o IRN feeds of match reports, including the classified results “down the line”. Heading towards Sky New's at the top of thehour, he also had to allow enough time for the weather update in his countdown. He then handed the studio over to Christine and she lined up a remote feed to the live programme due to follow, which was being broadcast from a presenter’s remote studio near Leicester streamed through a standalone encoder into The Eye’s desk using a service such as Shoutcast. The station’s only voice-tracked show played out later on Saturday nights, the Melton Top Ten: a 40-minute show which Christine put together using links pre-recorded at the station on Fridays by a volunteer who lived two streets away.
Having the studio to themselves on Saturday evenings allowed Christine and Patrick time to prepare for the Sunday morning programme, load up any other pre-recorded content and do a general tidy up. This also gave Patrick the opportunity to make his weekly check on all the equipment, which was a necessity to reduce the number of technical glitches that might arise. For instance, a problem with the computer, a router or any cabling might risk the connection to the internet or the transmitter dropping, which could cause disruption and dead air until fixed. Because the main studio was in Christine and Patrick’s home, they were always on hand to react promptly. They always tried to deal with technical problems themselves and had even been known to go out to investigate their transmission site in the middle of the night in the snow. No one at the station received payment for their time. Only external services, like accountancy and engineering in case of a more complex breakdown of the transmitter, were paid for.