This article was published on Monday 15 June 2020, the day when some non-essential shops started to re-open in England, and when social distancing rules were being slowly changed. It was, in a word, a tentative British déconfinement. Say it with a French accent as befits the Gallic source of such an evocative word.
The COVID-19 lockdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic started in Britain on 23 March. The country had, at the time of writing this, been staying at home (mostly) and socially isolating for twelve weeks. It had given young artists, and fans of Star Wars down our way, time to decorate local nature, although in this photo it looked as if Dan had had a more permanent idea in 2014 (and maybe Lynn too in that same year. Perhaps they were connected. Did they bring their own step ladders?).
During the spring of 2020 radio in Britain had changed in subtle ways, and I’m considering three things: listening, talking, and doing. Firstly, I’ve been interested in listening to experts and media commentators talking about what radio audiences are doing. That was the subject of a previous article which you can read via this link.
Secondly, I want to listen to journalists talking about trying to do their jobs in a time of pandemic and who have been attempting to speak truth to power. That’s the subject of this blog.
The final part reflects upon how each one of us has turned from an audience member to doing the very thing modern technology has gracefully allowed us to do: have fun together in public from home. That will be the subject of a forthcoming article which you can read here.
I am a member of Christians in Media, a UK network that supports, encourages, and inspires Christians who work in the industry. Julie Etchinghan an ITN journalist and presenter said,
Like all other journalists, we are living the story as well as reporting on it – and it is the biggest of our lives. Reporters are coming in for a lot of flack for the questions they are asking government. But, what else are we for? We all get that this is a crisis like no other; that few in government have ever had to navigate such a challenge. But, if we’re still attempting to function as a democracy in the face of this, then scrutiny is clearly crucial.
The writer Paul Kerensa added, “As a comedian, writer, occasional broadcaster and full-time Christian, I’m adapting my working practices for this new norm. One challenge has been to think and work comedically when tragedy is bumping its artistic twin off the stage.” And the writer and broadcaster Natalie Williams commented,
In my other job as Head of Communications & Policy at a national Christian charity that also focuses on poverty, Jubilee+, we’ve had to adapt quickly too… […] Like so many others, we have taken our work online… […] I think only time will tell what happens when the pandemic is over. Many churches across the country have increased their focus on those in poverty around them. I hope this lingers long after lockdown has been lifted.
And a regional newspaper’s chief news reporter, John, warned, “There is huge concern that the print industry may never fully recover and that furloughs may eventually morph into redundancies. I am constantly haunted by the concern that this first draft of history we are writing may not be focusing properly on the main issues.” That is something the unions in Britain, including the National Union of Journalists are actively monitoring.
As already mentioned in articles written in March, April and May of 2020, radio has come into its own during the COVID-19 outbreak. The BBC local radio stations had reshaped their schedules from April to June 2020 and had been connecting like never before with their audiences, particularly through their regular ‘Make a Difference’ bulletins at each of the local stations. The idea was to allow listeners to share their own experiences with their local audience. And the stories had generated an intriguing series of podcasts which charted the daily routines and preoccupations of the British public in these extraordinary times.
Community radio – regarded as the third sector alongside the BBC and commercial radio – has also been serving people with help and advice. Up to the time of writing there were over 200 community stations on air. Each one is staffed by a group of volunteers and a skeleton team of paid organisers and station directors. And new stations have opened in the recent months with short-term licences until July 2020, perhaps a little tastelessly known in the industry as Covid Stations, but none the less, doing essential work telling people about the latest health advice and local information about where to get help, and so on. For example, one station in Hampshire was called Lockdown FM – licenced initially from the 16th of May until the beginning of July 2020, and subsequently extended until September. Listening to community radio stations has increased – just as it has for all radio services. Here’s one example from Weston-super-Mare in the south-west of England.
The stations also needed help, especially as many of them relied on fundraising at public events. The Government announced on 27 April 2020 that it would offer grants totalling 400-thousand pounds to the community radio sector. Ofcom, the government regulator said, “The Community Radio Fund helps to fund the core costs of running Ofcom-licensed community radio stations”. For 2020-21, it was said that the grants would be provided as emergency cash funding to support stations facing severe financial difficulty due to the coronavirus outbreak.
And Stuart Clarkson, writing on the website Radio Today and quoting government figures, said, “Data suggests advertising revenues for community stations – which make up around 25-30 percent of income in most cases – have dropped significantly as a result of the pandemic”. However, a lot of volunteer-led community stations were facing serious difficulties as only about a third of the stations had received any help. Eventually, the Community Radio Fund Panel, which acts independently of Ofcom, awarded grants to 81 community radio stations totalling just over £333,000, short of the initial total that was originally talked about.
So at the beginning of June the community radio sector in the UK had to take stock of how it had weathered the pandemic and had maintained its services. The health implications of using a communal radio studio and speaking into the same microphone and touching the same mixing desk and computer mouse meant many stations resorted to remote working. Bill Best, of the Community Media Association, a lobby group for member stations took a straw poll of ten stations, all of whom said they’d had a good pandemic so far.
Meanwhile, commercial radio went through a dramatic change at the end of May 2020 and the recently enlarged group known as Bauer made a startling announcement. Programming began changing in mid-June, and many station names were due to disappear in the autumn, while others would close entirely.
The overall effect was the end of ‘local’ commercial radio. Commentators expressed concern. I felt sympathy for the staff and listeners affected. I’d worked at some of these stations in the last twenty years. In the 1990s I’d been at a BBC station when three of these local stations, Stray, Minster and Yorkshire Coast had opened. At the time it was with a mixture of professional concern and brotherly respect that I watched them encroach on our audience. The dial will not be the same.
Elsewhere, it seems these past three months have caused us to increase our viewing too. The lockdown meant we became tempted by the adverts for a Disney+ subscription deal.
The amount of news and information has also caused serious damage to some people. A direct result of fake news. However, I was reading of a previous tale of fake news, which remarkably took almost six-hundred years to resolve. Yes, that is not a typo. It’s about a character called Prester John, who I first encountered in a comic strip by Steve Moore, John Bolton and John Stokes in a British comic from 1982 called Warrior [I’ll correct the info in this link one day]. I do encourage you to do a bit of research about Prester John’s story. It ranges from the times of the crusades to the early years of the industrial revolution, from India to China and to North Africa. Indeed, his myth was said to influence how we look at the modern world. Fascinating.
But to finish, and to lighten the load just a little, the latest in a short series of bizarre quotes from Beachcomber. He was a long-time columnist on the Daily Express (1924 to 1975) who excelled in that dry satirical humour which is so quintessentially English. This one is from J.B. Morton Cram Me With Eels! (ed. Mike Barfield, 1994, Methuen: London, p.168)
Les Cochers de Huntingdonshire
My music critic writes: ‘The production of the French opera based on the famous List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen has puzzled audiences. Some are obviously bored by the singing of cabmen’s names during three acts, others are baffled by the absence of plot. The foreign singers are unable to give the full significance or even the correct pronunciation of some of the names. Nor does the libretto, consisting solely of these names and initials, lend itself to sustained melodies. This explains the excessive use of recitative, as in the over-long passage which opens with the murmured “Gackwynd, C.F.L.”’
When the curtain rises on the first act, the cabmen are assembled outside their shelter. They move about, laughing, and singing with verve the opening chorus:
TALL CABMEN: Jimpson, W., Mockpudding, C.F., Ralston, E., Bumcombe, R.J., Upchurch, C.L.K.
SMALL CABMEN: Walters, O.R., et cetera, et cetera, et cet-er-aaa.
[ENTER Miffcote, H., Faffnage, B.B., and Scrample, G.]
And I’ll have another quote from Morton in my next article. Stay safe and, in an effort to set an example to people around you, do what the Government and the health experts tell you to do.
Let me know your radio listening experiences, and of your creative activities during these days. Fill out the details in the comment box below.