Another radio station launch yesterday, but a small one, rather than a big one. In Shaftesbury, The Vale and Chase, 107.3FM came alive with Alfred – a new community station, but a very different one. Covering less than 12,000 people and almost entirely speech.
On the way to becoming a licensed radio station, its broadcast output started in podcast form – The Alfred Daily. A 7 day-a-week 45 minute to hour long podcast with stories about the area that it covers.
An episode from the beginning of the month included: Shaftesbury Town Council agreeing market day pedestrianisation changes; Sherborne Causeway filling station reopening with expanded retail offer; a piece on Shaftesbury history from Robert Mullins; a report about Wiltshire being 5th and Dorset 28th in a council climate change table; Mary Myers’ smallholding diary and a soundscape too – a wren and a dunnock at dawn in Enmore Green.
The radio station uses this daily podcast material as the basis of the 6am, 7am, 8am, 10am, 1pm, 5pm and 9pm hours. Keri Jones, the Station Manager, tells me that these are each subtly different with changing weather and travel dropped in, and also changes to tense as well. So an earlier version will say “at a council meeting this afternoon” and later on that will become “at a council meeting earlier today” etc.
In the other hours, one of two things happens. There’s either an hour long-programme (on subjects like Travel, Business, Nature, Sport or Countryside) or an hour that combines evergreen content from the daily podcast archives (of which 600 hours are currently being reviewed for gems).
Like many community radio stations, it’s staffed by volunteers (mostly those who are retired). After some training they collect material on their phones, with a split sponge hair roller to stop any wind over the internal microphone. The teams making the hour-long programmes communicate on WhatsApp and then use Hindenburg (shortened by them to Hindy) to make their shows. These get a number of repeats throughout the week.
The station then uses the Station Playlist play-out system to collate and schedule all the elements. To backfill hours they use soundscapes collected from over the area.
I asked Keri whether his 80 volunteers get much direction about the brand or what listener filters they should think about. He said it’s all quite light touch, but the core filter is “has this happened in SP7? [the local postcode]”. If it doesn’t, he’s not interested.
Also helping them sculpt the output was a 400 person survey before submitting their FM application. When told the station idea, respondents were asked whether they wanted national news. The answer – a resounding no. He suspects some of this was influenced by surveying during a rancorous Brexit discussion period, but it helped push him towards his entirely local format.
Listening in, the use of the podcast material (and the podcast archive) gives it an incredibly pro-feel. It sounds similar to built programming you might hear on a BBC station. With a volunteer-led approach some of the features run longer than you may traditionally choose to, but it’s friendly, interesting and provides great company. It’s lack of liveness is not missed, especially when the material is so rich of people and place. With individual shops mentioned, as our notable locals, combined with enough news features and what’s on, the fact its all pre-recorded barely registers. And why should it?
Shaftesbury isn’t a haven of crime, but they cover tougher stories too. Keri tells me though that rushing to get a scoop isn’t essential, especially when their local newspaper is fortnightly. When a local shop was burgled, rather than doorstepping the proprietor, he waited a few days so he was comfortable to tell their story and was able to add detail and follow up. If there’s something that is time sensitive – a local traffic flare up – one of the volunteers records a WhatsApp audio message and sends it over. Keri then drops it into the play-out system.
Doing local radio differently has always been in Keri’s blood. After a number of DJ jobs at stations around the country, he won FM commercial licences for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and a move to the Isle of Scilly led him to set up a community radio station there too. Though speech was important in both of those operations, they were also music services.
He didn’t think that there was much of a through-line of his radio work leading to Alfred but he felt the ability to do the station the way he has done it today has been driven by technological progress and changing listener behaviour.
Volunteers with phones, Whatsapp, 4G and Hindy make them self-sufficient in a way that would have been difficult ten years ago. Playout software, IP infrastructure and ubiquitous internet makes it simpler to assemble and broadcast.
At the same time, the sheer range of music stations on digital radio, means there’s no need for Alfred to provide music (other than a local music show). Keri even considered whether they should launch the FM station at all after the success the podcast has had – with around 1,000 downloads a day (not bad when the patch is around 12,000 people). With stories about blind locals being given Alexas by family to tune in and events putting their growth down to plugs on the pod, they had clearly cut through by providing a truly neighbourhood product. “The listeners all referred to hearing things ‘on the radio’ whatever the platform” Keri says.
Hearing Keri talk about the station and the production method reminded me of many of the things that we do at Fun Kids, particularly about being content-first and then relatively agnostic about delivery. It only cements in my mind radio’s ridiculous obsession with being truly ‘live’. With volunteers, a defined mission, clever technology and having things well though out, Alfred is a rich radio station that puts many other local stations (community and small commercial) to shame. It’s another reminder that merely replicating what’s gone before is not the way to be creative or successful today.
Like many small operations, the pinch points for Alfred is a lack of full-time staff to carry the burden. Acting as ringmaster and delivering at least an hour of new speech everyday whilst marshalling his volunteers’ shows is quite the effort.
The station’s design means that the station’s hard costs are a few thousand pounds a year. They’ve raised over double that from five advertisers, with year long campaigns, who do some NPR-style underwriting and occasional live reads.
It does mean that whilst costs are covered, the resource isn’t yet there for them to be able to utilise the great material they collect 100%. The packages and features could, of course, be turned into web articles with audiogram’d social content too. There’s probably enough to put a local news website to shame. However, that’s not particularly why they’re all in it. In Alfred they’ve created an audio product, podcast, radio station – whatever you want to call it – that has deep connections to the community and its listeners. Providing they’re in SP7.
This week on The Media Podcast I caught up with media commentator Kate Bulkley and Heat Magazine’s Boyd Hilton to discuss the week’s media news plus I found out more about Albert – the screen industry’s sustainability organisation – from their Director Carys Taylor. Listen and subscribe.
Alfred is doing things differently.