Public service broadcasting

The Leeds radio station that even a global pandemic can’t bring down

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As the lockdown continues, one constant source of hope is communities doing their bit for the collective good and helping vulnerable people.

For one group of people, this means running a community radio station from their living rooms, with a daily programme aimed at helping elderly people across east Leeds, an area with some of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the country.

“This is a deprived area and we know in a crisis those in poverty are the worst hit. We have a population that is disproportionately unhealthy and unwell,” says Adrian Sinclair, co-director of Heads Together Productions.

“It’s utterly unsustainable in the long term but it doesn’t need to be long term.”

The community arts organisation formed in 2003 to work with local teenagers. Its ELFM station is usually based in Chapel FM Arts Centre, a restored former Methodist chapel in Seacroft, where it’s been broadcasting from for the last five years.

The station broadcasts online, but when the lockdown came it decided to continue through it. Volunteer and former BBC sound engineer Phil Driscoll knew the scale of the challenge that lay ahead – but it had to be done.

“When the lockdown was looming I did some investigating of the kind of technology that would allow you to do what we’re doing remotely, with no budget and proposed that this is what we should be doing.”

Driscoll wakes up at 5am every day to get on air for 6.15am, and works until 4.30pm, when he can “flick a switch that moves the transmitter to someone else’s house”.

“I know how hard it is to fill time with good, interesting content. I don’t know everyone else knew how much of an ordeal it’d be, but we had to do it. The volunteers that are involved in making the show on the technical side are sound engineering professionals who’ve spent their lives doing this for a living. It has to be that way because it’s really hard.

“If we had to pay people to do what they’re doing right now, we wouldn’t get anywhere near it, but because it’s an emergency and people have a lot of time on their hands, we’ve got a lot of volunteers. It’s utterly unsustainable in the long term but it doesn’t need to be long term.”

Sinclair took the equipment from the studio to set up the station from home for the duration of the lockdown. But moving the equipment was the easy part. Just before the lockdown, he spoke to an elderly man on the allotments near the chapel. He liked the sound of the station’s plans to broadcast from home but he said he didn’t have the internet.

Sinclair quickly realised that many elderly people would need to access the station on their radios. He and his colleagues at the station approached media watchdog Ofcom to get on the airwaves using a temporary licence.

Ofcom initially failed to respond, despite repeated requests from the station. The team set up an online petition, and its quest to broadcast was supported by local organisations including the local MP Richard Burgon and the then-shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin.

“We got the sense from Ofcom they were worried we’d swear or say the wrong information,” Sinclair says.

Early last month, Ofcom gave ELFM its long-awaited licence – fast-tracking a typically much longer process. Now the station is broadcast from ELFM’s team members’ front rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, as well as from the homes of some of the station’s hundreds of volunteers.

If the station had turned on its transmitter without permission, the charity’s trustees could’ve faced serious consequences, including imprisonment.

“If I was a charity trustee, I’d have gone to jail and put that on my CV. I’d be proud,” Driscoll says.

ELFM is on the waves every day, thanks to a handful of remote studio hosts. Its daily flagship programme Keeping A Distance, Staying Together is broadcast from 10am to 1pm and features local stories, advice and many other community-based stories.

“It’s nice to hear a familiar accent so we make sure to get lots of people on the air from east Leeds,” Sinclair says. “It’s about having familiar voices – at the moment the media doesn’t know what to do. There’s only one thing on the news and it’s scaring people. We keep it light.”

Content ranges from the practical, including the shopping forecast – named after the BBC Shipping Forecast – which gives the latest information on local shops and services, and the latest public health advice.

“We had someone on the show yesterday who broadcast live from a supermarket, telling people where they can get bread flour from,” Sinclair says.

Driscoll adds: “All the organisations running voluntary services such as food provisions are over the moon we’re doing this, because we can get messages out for free, instantly, with no risk of infection.”

And then there’s the creative – writers from Yorkshire and beyond are invited to send in their poems, essays and short stories to be read out on air. The programme also reminds listeners of local phone numbers and has interviews with local organisations and schools.

There are also suggestions of creative ways to kill time during the lockdown, and film and TV recommendations, and hosts talk to people from radio stations and other organisations across the world – as well as chatting to locals, of course. Recent guests include a 92-year-old former teacher, needlework group East Leeds Stitch and Social, and a supermarket employee.

“There are other Leeds radio stations but they cover all of Leeds so they can’t be hyper-local like we can,” Sinclair says. Or as Driscoll puts it: “BBC Leeds don’t care if there’s bog roll in Seacroft’s Tesco or bread flour in Lidl in Gipton.”

The station also records living room concerts, bringing listeners live music every day.

“The artists are at home in isolation, of course, though some have fortunately been isolated with each other,” says Trevor Learoyd, a sound engineer who helped set up the station’s lockdown operation.

ELFM also regularly records young people from its Next Generation scheme, which supports young people to get involved in music, broadcasting, creative writing and theatre.

The key to keeping listeners happy, Learoyd says, is keeping it simple.  “It seems to work best if we don’t try to be too clever, with multiple mics, for example. If we do it like a Grand Ole Opry setup, where there’s just one mic and people lean forward if they take a solo, we seem to be getting some decent results and some lovely performances.”

So far, ELFM has hosted a few solo singers and guitarists, a couple of piano players, a harmonica player, a trumpet player, a clarinettist, a trio playing folk and Irish music, and a singer and guitarist and her flugelhorn-playing partner.

When asked what’s motivating them to run a radio station from their homes during a difficult and stressful time, Sinclair, Driscoll and Learoyd all say that, if they didn’t provide such an essential service, no one else would, and a vulnerable community would be worse off.

“The job needed doing, and we were the only people who could do it,” Driscoll says. “We need to do this until the lockdown ends.”

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