Reflections on the Temporary COVID-19 RSL Broadcasts

Image: East Leeds FM

At the start of lockdown, Ofcom developed a new temporary restricted service licence in response to the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This new licence was developed for those wanting to provide a radio service designed specifically to share information, news and updates about the Covid-19 pandemic with their community.

Here five stations share their thoughts on the experience of broadcasting during the pandemic, the challenges and unexpected obstacles and how the experience is shaping their plans for the future.

Sam Hunt of Leicester Community Radio said Ofcom asked the station to gather evidence of support and “Within minutes of putting an advert on air, emails started coming in. We received over 120 emails in the first 10 hours, with a significant number of comments directly referring to our service as being “essential” to their mental health, keeping them company, providing just the key information in a neutral manner so as not to cause distress. We also had several comments from people who said our service stopped them committing suicide. The station is regularly played on the intensive care ward at our local hospital too, so the comments from listeners, and knowing we are possibly one of the last voices ever heard by some people there, has been profoundly touching for many of our presenters”.

Sam said liaising between different local groups has proved a bit of a challenge. He said “Though well-meaning, some groups did not understand how to use the power of radio effectively, while others had their own ideas for how things should be done, with little or no experience in media”. He felt that local groups often failed to understand that community media does not have the same resources as the BBC or some commercial operations with fully-equipped studios, producers and technical support on full standby.

Leicester Community Radio, which can trace its lineage back over 46 years, will be celebrating its birthday later in the year with an online and FM Caribbean Carnival broadcast. Sam finished by saying: “Our listeners, the local authorities and community leaders are all extremely supportive of our project and we plan to continue to provide a much-needed service to the city of Leicester, hopefully for at least another 46 years.”

“Just getting the station off the ground was a remarkable achievement in itself”, said Councillor David Meller of Cheadle FM. “We went from a vague idea of a streaming service to a full FM station in a matter of weeks. Our techie, Nick Hall, was incredible: he essentially built the scheduling software we used from scratch and his enthusiasm and dedication was most remarkable”.

David described the station as something positive for the whole community to invest in. The “All Mine” show, recorded by Cheadle residents on their mobile phones, was particularly significant. David said these shows “Helped re-connect the local community as a whole and there is now a fantastic archive detailing people’s thoughts and experiences while the pandemic was at its height”. People also spoke about how contributing to Cheadle FM helped them deal with the crisis. David said, “I think hearing those positive stories alone showed what we did have the impact we hoped for.”

“One of the biggest challenges was getting everything edited to a high-quality on-time without the luxury of having a lot of live output because restricted access to the studio was part of the licence and lockdown rules”. David also felt making sure the shows met Ofcom rules was time-consuming and at times felt rather intimidating. He said listening to pre-recorded content against the Ofcom Broadcasting Code took up hours of people’s time and not being allowed to have any paid advertising, as the terms of the licence prohibited it, was frustrating which meant that carrying on with a temporary COVID licence for Cheadle FM was not sustainable going forward. However, Cheadle FM is now looking at ways they can have a longer-term community FM licence which would allow them to bring in some advertising revenue.

David concludes by saying, “It’s clear the effects of COVID are going to be with us for the long-term, so we absolutely feel there is a demand for the station: the key is looking at how we can do this financially and, importantly, have a bank of dependable volunteers who are willing to put the hours in!”

Simon McNeill-Ritchie, Station Manager of West Wilts Radio said that their experience of operating the Temporary COVID-19 RSL was almost entirely positive. He says, “First and foremost, it allowed us to perform a valued support role to the Town Council and local Community Emergency Volunteers’ response to the pandemic by providing a further channel for their communications. These were then joined by Wiltshire Council’s own emergency communications and then those of the Police & Crime Commissioner. As well as these, we also broadcast regularly throughout the day government guidance and NHS public health announcements”.

The station created a daily 3-hour programme, live from 12pm, repeated at 5pm, providing updates and local news as well as music. This featured interviews with representatives of local organisations, businesses and response services, and updates about which shops and restaurants were open and the services they were providing. This helped the station keep in touch with residents and provided reassurance that local life was continuing in one format or another.

Simon continues, “The experience also had several positive effects on the radio station team. Presenters learned new skills, such as recording and producing programmes from home, which were then broadcast in lieu of their live programmes. Several of them developed additional programmes and our daily output of original content soon doubled as a result. We also had a substantial number of new programme offers from residents forced to stay or work from home. These have continued to grow and our regular presenters are today double the number they were before the licence.

“In turn, the local news service we were able to provide, together with the greater variety and frequency of our programmes has undoubtedly led to a significant increase in our audience. We do not have figures for FM listeners, of course, but our online figures have seen a dramatic increase.

Simon said that almost the only downside of the RSL “Has been the devastating impact it has had on our finances. Ofcom of course waived their fees, which was very much appreciated, but we still had to pay WTA fees of £40 per day - £3,200 in total for the duration. This seems rather unfair given that the only purpose of the licence was to assist the government’s response to the pandemic. As a new radio station we had very little in the way of reserves, and like everyone else our advertising revenue dried up overnight. As we were keen that the new local station should do what we could to help the local community we (the founders) had no alternative but to pay the fees out of our own pockets. What local grants were available were heavily oversubscribed, and we did not qualify for any of the government’s other business support. Looking forward, without the FM facility, we anticipate that the return of local advertising revenue will be painfully slow”.

In conclusion, Simon said “We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the national and local response to the pandemic, which appears to have been much appreciated by the county and town councils, emergency services, local businesses and residents alike. We have seen a dramatic increase in active participants in the radio station and in its listeners as a result. However, without either a permanent FM or SSDAB service (the latter of which is sadly years away in practice in this part of the country), we fear that any benefits here may soon dwindle away, like our finances”.

Ferry FM is an online community radio station which broadcasts all year round from its base in County Down, Northern Ireland. The temporary COVID-19 RSL meant that the station was able to try out new technology to enable its presenters to broadcast from their own home for the first time. Station Manager David Gabbie said it worked quite well bar the odd dropout here and there, adding; “A few volunteers spoke of how surreal it was to be at home presenting a show, over the Internet, on the station from their spare rooms, attics or gardens instead of from our studio which was out of bounds due to the pandemic”. The weekend before lockdown, the studio’s playout kit was moved to the home of the station’s technical director from where it has been operating remotely from a corner of his living room ever since. Presenters have been logging in remotely from home and apart from a local power cut which took the transmitter off air, and an unexpected Windows Update issue, the station has been running for over 50 days. The transmission will end on 26th July 2020 making it the longest broadcast ever undertaken by Ferry FM.

David said promoting the station to the local community during lockdown was a challenge as many local shops and cafes that usually display publicity posters were closed. Going forward, Ferry FM would like to obtain further funding to keep the radio project going online as well as preparing for the possibility of future FM broadcasts (Covid-19 related or otherwise).

Tony Macaluso from East Leeds FM / Chapel FM said the process of creating special coronavirus lockdown FM radio programmes was a deeply meaningful experience for the staff, volunteers and the many members of the community they worked with for the 12 weeks of the temporary COVID-19 RSL, adding the tremendous effort of numerous volunteers will undoubtedly shape how the station works in the future. Volunteers, including several retired BBC producers and technicians, developed a sophisticated remote studio “network” that allowed the core team of around a dozen staff and volunteers to produce a rich and varied 3-hour daily magazine format radio show called ‘Keeping a Distance, Staying Close’.

Each programme contained more than a dozen unique pre-recorded features including: community conversations with creative people leading the way in responding to coronavirus challenges; living room concerts by prominent Leeds musicians; ‘The Shopping Forecast’ - on the local shopping situation; and ‘From the Potting Shed’ on gardening and allotments during the lockdown. ‘Talking to the Wider World’ featured in-depth oral history conversations with people from other radio and arts organisations from across the globe. ‘Wordybirds’ was a twice-daily feature of original writing from Yorkshire authors and prominent geographers. And historian, Rachael Unsworth, created ‘Leeds City Walking Tours’, a collection of radio documentaries about the city’s past and the influence of coronavirus.

There was also two-hour weekly show, ‘Passing the Time’, featuring the voices, stories, interviews and artistic creations of teenagers from East Leeds and a number of other specialised programmes ranging from Sunday religious services with leaders of local churches to an epic 7-hour ‘Armed Forces Day Radio Broadcast’ that was commissioned by Leeds City Council.

Tony said one of the most meaningful and, in retrospect, helpful decisions was to be quite specific in developing the core daily FM broadcasts (the ‘Staying Close’ show) with a particular target audience in mind. “We resolved to focus on creating radio for older residents in our community who lacked the Internet or other digital tools to stay connected and informed which shaped our programming and grassroots marketing with the goal of appealing to these citizens”. The station also gave away several dozen high quality FM radios to older residents and local care homes and organised an online fundraiser that gathered £620 to pay for the radios.

Chapel FM was always very clear that its goal was both to use radio right now to share stories and connect people during lockdown and also to create a thoughtfully curated audio archive of this unique historic event for the future. The British Library’s Sound Archives department has already been in contact with Chapel FM requesting a selection of the spoken word and oral history radio features for their permanent archive.

The station is also planning to revisit many of the stories and partnerships from this broadcasting experience with a series of live events at its venue, the Chapel FM Arts Centre, in early 2021, marking the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Tony said the station faced many challenges when it came to working remotely and implementing new technologies to enable recording of interviews and running a live radio programme with multiple hosts from different locations. Staff worked extended hours for most of the 12-week period and did at times struggle to sustain the momentum of producing three-hours of high quality, daily programming along with numerous special programmes.

Publicising the station during coronavirus lockdown was also a unique challenge. 500 posters were printed and 15 bollard wraps were put out across East Leeds and the station also significantly increased its social media output, posting 6 times daily across different platforms. Despite these efforts, Chapel FM realised it only reached a fraction of the potential audience and that much work could be done in the future to further raise awareness of the unique local radio content that they had learned to produce.

Tony said: “We are very excited to be exploring how the new skills and ways of using radio that we developed during our 12-week coronavirus FM radio licence broadcasts will influence the future of Chapel FM Arts Centre / East Leeds FM.

“In August and September we will focus quite intently on developing a new weekly radio show for and about young people in East Leeds and Yorkshire more broadly. This is a pivot from our coronavirus work, which was focused on older residents, but in keeping with our larger mission which is youth oriented.

“This new weekly youth radio show will incorporate the following four qualities that we identified during our coronavirus lockdown work: Create a consistent format that is highly personable, unashamedly local and unique, humorous but respectful.

“East Leeds is often overlooked even within the larger city of Leeds, and weaving together stories from our communities with the wider world sends an important message about connectedness and how radio can bridge geographical boundaries”.