The Love Tour: Radio in the Community

Post length: 1,111 words, almost 5 minutes.

I’ve long been a supporter of independent local radio and listened to it in one form or another for as long as I’ve had my own tuner. I remember waking up listening to Mark Page and I think back fondly to keeping the radio on quietly at night, hoping my parents wouldn’t hear, to listen to Alex Hall both on The Pulse (I honestly think that Alex was a big part of my love of talk radio). When I was at university I would dip in and out of The Bay and was of course involved with the student radio station 87.7 Bailrigg FM. These days while I mostly get my music from BBC Radio 2 when I’m at home, I usually pick up an hour or so of LBC each evening depending on who is presenting.

The recent trend towards networked programming and heavily branded groups of stations is something which really saddens me. While I appreciate that there are (relatively high) costs involved with putting out a radio station and that, as commercial entities, each station has to make a profit, I don’t see why stations, even owned by an umbrella organisation with the clout to sell national advertising (as well as local) should mean each station turns into a carbon copy of every other. The modern trend toward deregulation of the radio spectrum and the increasing reliance on network programming has lead to quasi-national stations such as the Heart network. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for this style of station — indeed the fact they exist either means there is appetite for them, or starved of choice people listen to them regardless of if they would or not if they were given a choice — just that the lack of localness leaves a hole in the range of media people can consume.

That said, there are some radio groups who still manage to put out local radio while financing the stations centrally. UKRD is one. UKRD own 16 local radio stations, for the most part each with their own identity (there are some similarities, for example the branding of the TLRC stations are basically the same), and each producing local content.

Eagle Radio is my local radio station and in the last couple of weeks we have been listening to 96.4 Eagle and eagle3 at the office. One thing which caught my attention was the station’s Love Tour when, for two weeks, the whole daytime schedule upped sticks and travelled around the station’s TSA broadcasting from a different town each day — “making good on our promise of being the radio station that ‘loves Surrey and Hampshire'” as their website says. In my opinion this is exactly the kind of thing which a local station should be doing and something which the networked stations could never possibly achieve: real contact with the people they serve. (Cynically one might suggest that the reason they do this is to raise their profile: if you see people sitting in the street broadcasting you’re more likely to listen to them than if you have no idea where they are coming from. You’re also more likely think about advertising with them.) Whatever the motivations, the Love Tour sadly never seemed to reach it’s full potential. While the presenters were outside of the studios it seemed, certainly from listening, like the contact they managed to achieve with the local communities was considerably lower than it might have been.

One problem seems to have been the locations of the OBs. They were in the key towns the station covers, but in each location (with the exception of Woking) they seemed to have been down a side-street, or sheepishly hiding in a beer garden where passing footfall is low. In Aldershot they were on the steps of the town’s theatre which sounds great but in reality is at the top of the town where few people pass; in Farnham they were at the end of a pub courtyard on a busy road junction. Great for getting honking horns of passers by but poor for real interaction (and when I passed by on my bike at the end of the day it looked like Wes was cowering in the corner while people, who I guess would not be regular Eagle listeners, ignored them, chatted and drank their beer in the sun. I smiled when I was stopped at the traffic lights, he looked terrified (perhaps he thought I was a nutter). The only speaker they had playing the station’s output was pointing towards the road and playing very quietly). I appreciate that each site had to have certain things in order that they could get their broadcasts back to base to be transmitted — electricity and an internet connection at a guess — but it’s a shame they couldn’t find somewhere more central to each town to house them.

Either because of the locations or for other reasons they also didn’t seem to have people talking to them live on-air. During the day there are likely to be fewer people around to join in, and perhaps PG did talk to children and their parents on their way to work, but it really seemed to be a missing element during the hours I was listening. Maybe it was other factors. I know that there are some concerns with taking members of the public live to air if you’re not running a delay but that could have been easily overcome by a simple pre-record between links. Perhaps they struggled to find sane people to talk on-air, although I find it hard to believe as in my experience children have no fear around these things. When I was a radio producer and we had OBs one vital element was getting people on the ground on air with competitions, games and interviews. It added to the atmosphere which in turn made the on-air output sound fresh and exciting. Without it it simply sounds like the normal show coming from the studios high above Guildford town centre with a bit of added wind noise.

So Eagle: I salute your attempt to bring your station to the community. It is refreshing (regrettably) to hear real locally produced content on a local radio station these days, and getting out there in the community with the Love Tour is a great way to do that. But perhaps, next year, you can push the concept a little further: mix the format up a bit and really get to grips with the public on the road. It’ll be fun, and fun really comes across thanks to the wonderfully intimate medium of radio that you have at your disposal.

Posted on Tuesday 15th July, 2014 at 9:29 am in Arts & Ents, Obiter dicta.
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