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Radio in a crisis

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Published: 20 May 2020

Like many other radio broadcasters around the world, the team at Spark have been learning to live in the new normal where their bedrooms and lounges have been turned into radio studios; and we’re not alone. Programmes on commercial radio and national BBC channels like Radio 4 are being produced in makeshift studios in home offices and hallway cupboards as radio stations cut back on the number people going into their buildings. 

Richard Berry, Senior Lecturer in Radio

Richard Berry, Senior Lecturer in Radio

When I started in radio in the 1990’s, music was played from record or CD and everything else was on tape (remember that?) and broadcasting from anywhere other than a studio was a complex, technical and, expensive business. Today, our broadcast systems let us broadcast live or record programmes using a microphone and a laptop. We even have members of the team making content under their duvets on a mobile phone and emailing it in.

But at a time when the internet rules all you might wonder why they are bothering?

The fact is despite our obsession with Netflix and Spotify, radio remains pretty resilient. But it’s at times like these that traditional media comes alive. Since the lockdown started the big commercial radio groups have reported double digit increases in their online listening. The website Radio.Garden was developed by a team of academics across Europe, including my colleague Dr Caroline Mitchell; as the pandemic kicked in journalists and radio professionals began writing about the way the site offered us a window on the world, as a result Google search for it went up by 130% as the lockdown began. As the nation grows hungry for information and human connection, people are turning to radio. In fact, the media regulator Ofcom recently offered new temporary licences so new stations can offer local and immediate information to their areas and the Audio Content Fund unlocked more money to run campaigns on mental health and connect people via their radios.

People are consuming more media than ever, but why radio?

As a medium radio is not only cheap to access but it’s also highly trusted. According to research from the European Broadcasting Union radio remains the most trusted form of media; ahead of television, the press, and way ahead of the internet, across most of Europe. Radio is all about relationships. Listeners feel connected through the power of the human voice and so it’s no wonder that as presenters share their experiences of working from home, balancing family life around work, that audiences identify with that and want to find new ways to connect with the outside world. It’s all about the power of the human voice, and the sense someone is talking to me.

Watch the video below and you can feel the emotional power of talking.

In many ways the lockdown has changed our media. Radio presenters are talking more about communities, and daytime TV schedules are filled with programmes to keep us, or our kids, occupied and educated. All this means that it’s a great time to be studying media, as we not only have more time to consume it but it’s shown us the value of staying connected, from watching the daily briefings to exploring the delights of Netflix or Disney+.

The move to at home broadcasting has also shown how flexible modern broadcasting has become, with complex programmes like ‘The Steph Show’ on Channel 4, through to drama like ‘The Archers’ all adapting to the new environment. The home studio is proving so popular websites like Amazon are running out the kit we need; suggesting that more and more people are making radio and podcasts at home. At Spark we’re no different. Our volunteers are broadcasting live, recording shows, and talking to guests all from their own homes. The learning curve has been massive. The RCS Zetta software that we use is used widely across the world and while it wasn’t designed with this mind, it’s barely put a foot wrong and we now broadcast live and pre-recorded shows with ease. I’ve made a few myself, and while my coat cupboard is not an ideal venue, I doubt many listeners will notice.

Many educators talk about the benefit of experiential learning, where students can develop skills through experience. It’s why our MA Radio, Audio and Podcasting is closely aligned with Spark. The students take an active role in managing it and it’s through their hard-work that we are still on the air. They are engaging in local issues, offering space to local musicians and university staff to come on-air and talk. They’re also offering a space to entertain and have some fun. We look forward to welcoming a new cohort who’ve been inspired by recent events to take forward their careers in radio and podcast production.

It’s not all good news, though. Across the UK community radio stations are also learning how to adapt. Many, like Spark, are trying to find ways of broadcasting everything from the homes of presenters. In our own case, the doors to the Media Centre have been locked for several weeks and we had several hurried days of working with technical colleagues across the University ensuring that we could access all of our systems remotely.

Like other sectors of the economy, one of the big concerns for community radio is how it will cope in the weeks and months ahead. Thankfully, the University supports all of our efforts at Spark, but elsewhere advertisers have cancelled contracts, and grant funding has all but stopped. In a response to this the Community Media Association has launched a campaign to secure additional government funding to ensure that these radio stations will survive the crisis.

Richard Berry, Senior Lecturer in Radio

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