Radio is powerful. It has the ability to connect people in a way that no other medium can. It’s a source of entertainment and information, but it also plays a vital role in promoting local culture, supporting small businesses, and bringing communities together. One of the most significant roles of local radio is to provide a platform for the voices of local residents to be heard. This is particularly important in areas where local news coverage may be limited, and where national media outlets may not be able to provide the same level of coverage.
Local radio broadcasters have the freedom to choose their own track listing and to punctuate their links with rewarding personal stories, without the confinement of a looming news bulletin. Fascinating guests without profiles are as welcome as A-listers and unplanned conversational twists have the space to be explored. The freedom of online radio’s programming is what makes it so culturally valuable. It’s paramount in supporting the independent music economy and in sustaining the careers of alternative broadcasters. Capital has thick walls, and the social media game isn’t for everyone – for rising broadcast talent, community radio is a vocational place of learning and thriving. Independent stations often run workshops to fuel creativity outside their business as usual, too, taking their role in the community seriously.
'Radio proved its value during the coronavirus pandemic, providing structure and togetherness for listeners, and even company for those who are alone.'
Local radio in the UK has played a crucial role in promoting and launching the careers of several now-internationally renowned hosts. Scott Mills was just 12 when he started working at a local hospital radio station in Southampton, only snagging the job because his grandmother phoned the station. And who could forget Beryl Renwick and Betty Smith? With a combined age of 175 years,the pair would present their hour-long show, Beryl & Betty, on BBC Radio Humberside at 6pm on Saturdays and who were, officially, the Sony Awards' oldest ever nominees. These individuals, and many more, went on to achieve great success in their respective fields, owing in part to the exposure and opportunities provided by local radio.
‘I'm trying to listen to Fat Tony’s audio book and take notes. It's six and a half hours long, and I’m about two hours in,’ host of Radio 1’s Future Dance show, Sarah Story tells me. Sarah is about to interview the legendary DJ in Ibiza, so it’s fair to say her career has skyrocketed since her local CFM Radio days.
'I did work experience when I was 14 for my local radio station, CFM in Carlisle. I only did two days, but I stayed in contact and eventually, when I was 16, managed to get myself a Saturday show co-hosting with two other presenters. They would send me out to local events – mainly farming – that were happening in and around Cumbria. It was great. I quickly had to learn how to respond to different scenarios on the spot and stay cool, but mainly it was a really fun time.'
Having graduated in music at Liverpool, Sarah was soon covering shows on Capital before taking over the breakfast show.
’Local radio was so important. It was a place for me to cut my teeth and learn my craft. It builds your confidence and gives you the chance to explore the different roles which make up radio,' she explains. 'A career in radio, isn’t just broadcasting. It can be producing, advertising, research, there is more to it than just who you hear in the car.’
But how do you make yourself stand out among hoards of other young hopefuls? 'There's so many people that want to be a broadcaster, but not always for the right reasons. You have to have passion, you need to care for something whether that’s the music, or social action, there needs to be a driver. Don’t wait for someone to come knocking at your door. It’s all at your fingertips. You can start broadcasting today through your social media. One thing I did when I was starting out was Backstory – a podcast where I interviewed DJs about how they came into music. That was me saying, "This is what I'm about, this is what I enjoy."'
Despite its many benefits, local radio is facing significant challenges in the UK. Many stations are struggling financially. Last year, Worldwide FM paused programming after the station announced that it was ’re-organising and re-evaluating the next phase and financing for the station’ in a post on Instagram.
'As we look afresh at what it means to be home, local broadcasting suddenly feels all the more needed. Radio as comfort is nothing new. But new comforts wrapped in familiar packages are still welcome.'
Worldwide FM isn’t the first local radio station to demonstrate its fragility and it won’t be the last. Bristol’s SWU FM ceased broadcasting in September 2022 due to rising costs. The month before, London’s Threads Radio was evicted from their London HQ. South of the Thames, Balamii’s founder James Browning started 2022 by making the call to reduce the station’s output. As these stations and the likes of NTS, Clyde Built Radio, Reprezent FM, Sable, Dublin Digital Radio, Netil and Noods have shown, local radio is crucial for cultivating local scenes. While the arts are still struggling to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis is sweeping away its progress.
Radio is a never-ending live event. It’s familiar, but ever-changing. Whether you’re a news junkie, a music fiend, or you just like the chat, there are stations for you. There are phone-ins if you want to vent, pop quizzes for distraction, singalongs, help with schoolwork. Plus, if you find a show you like, a DJ can become a friend – a warm presence chuntering in the kitchen corner, quipping over your headphones, blasting tunes out of speakers you’ve placed on a window ledge.
The decline of local radio in the UK has been a quiet type. The world can seem like it’s moved on from local broadcasting, but there is still demand for regional programming, and considerable value to it. Radio proved its value during the coronavirus pandemic, providing structure and togetherness for listeners, and even company for those who are alone. Local stations have been particularly well suited for this, bringing a sense of community through the airwaves. In an ever busier and more disconnected culture, there is something unique and personal about local media output. Hearing a regional accent on the airwaves, you are transported to your own corner of the world, rooted in the people and places that are meaningful to you. It is a sense of identity, a voice that would otherwise be drowned out.
As we look afresh at what it means to be home, local broadcasting suddenly feels all the more needed. Radio as comfort is nothing new. But new comforts wrapped in familiar packages are still welcome.