With Jeremy (careful now) Hunt bemoaning a lack of local news and everyone prattling on about the importance of reinvigorating local community spirit, I thought it might be interesting to see what audio journalism was doing for the BIG SOCIETY. Cue local radio which, as we all know, has been happily pootling along for decades little caring what grand declarations politicians were currently making about localism.
But how is local radio faring in our all singing, all dancing media age and is it embracing new technologies to engage more people? To find out I popped into Wilton Way Café (any excuse for a cake), home to London Fields Radio, Hackney.
This is a station that not only caters for a specific geographical community but also a specific kind of Hackney resident. The emphasis is very much on the creative types who reside between the high rise towers, Turkish restaurants and independent cinemas of Hackney. Although shows embrace a range of topics, from poetry to the problems facing the modern man, each one covers its topic in a sustained yet explorative, experimental way, a tone that might only appeal to a certain type of listener.
What founder of the station Dom tells me, as we sit cosily encased in the café’s hubbub of steamy coffee machines and chatter, is that passion for local radio is as strong as ever. But he doesn’t determine this strength in terms of numbers listening but by how solid the community is. “What are you going to say to three billion people?” he asks. “It’s not about communicating with as many people as possible. We want to communicate with a specific kind of like-minded person and to know that they’re getting a lot out of it.”
Dom goes on to describe how the station has grown organically since it was set up in 2009. In other words, its strength lies in people from the community broadcasting to others in their community. “Most of the people who come and put on shows are from round here so the station kind of represents the community naturally. We are amateur radio for amateurs so it’s small, friendly and cost-effective.”
So why radio? What is it about this form of broadcasting that serves this particular community so well? “Technically it’s all kept very simple,” Dom explains. “We want people to produce their own shows because we don’t have many man hours to do this. We just have a mixing desk and a couple of microphones so it’s easy for people to have a go. Hardly anybody’s got experience- that’s the whole point.”
The girls giggling into microphones in the radio corner of the café certainly don’t seem to have much experience. But a few instructions from Dom -including one that I noted for future reference, of keeping the same distance from the microphone at all times- and they’re well away.
The success of this simple form of audio journalism is however down to much more than just ease of use, Dom tells me. “I believe there is a lot of sincerity and simplicity in the medium,” he says. “In some ways it’s like reading- it stimulates your visual imagination. Kids are going to miss out on this, with all of their computer games- everything’s done for them imagination-wise. Kids have always played shooting games but now the gun’s actually there in the game for them to pick up; the scenario’s been imagined for them.”
But is Dom tempted to dabble in other forms of audio journalism? Possibly, but again he would want this to happen organically: “I’m not interested in defining things,” he says in response to me referring to audio slideshows when introducing this blog. “I’m much more interested in wanting to do something because I’m excited about it- other people can define it for you if they want.”
One medium slightly more techy than radio waves Dom is passionate about though is the podcast. London Fields Radio currently file their most successful radio shows on their website but Dom describes how in the future he hopes to record more features specifically for this medium. “Because they’re not time specific, podcasts can provide a different type of entry into a subject. Podcasts not being time specific was seen as a weakness to start with but people are now seeing this as strength as the material has to stand up on its own. They started life as just a way to catch up on something you’d missed. But recording podcasts is now becoming a craft in its own right. They can become more like plays”
Podcasts can be ideal then for meditations on certain timeless subjects which might otherwise be ignored by mediums which naturally lend themselves to topical content. “I’m always having random ideas,” Dom says. “There’s no editorial veto. I like to pursue ideas in quite unscripted ways just to see what you get out of it. This is usually when you get to the real emotion.”
But, I wonder as I sit writing this and digesting all Dom has had to say, surely podcasts impose certain time restrictions and expectations in a different way. After all, podcasts are often more actively listened to than the radio, with the listener expecting a certain amount of structure and direction. As Dom points out, podcasts should really be crafted.
So the future of the podcast? Still, it seems, to be decided as the genre evolves. And the future of the humble local radio station? Well, if London Fields Radio is anything to go by, still going strong.