Keeping the country afloat

It's unpolished, but local radio provides a lifeline for flooded communities

<strong>Radio Oxford

Did you hear the big 8.10am interview with David Cameron on Thursday? You probably didn't unless you were listening to BBC Radio Oxford. He was lightly grilled not by John Humphrys, but by the breakfast show's host, "Shabina", a local star who shines so brightly over the county that she has no need to narrow things down by using her surname. Cameron was on not because of the rumblings about his leadership, but because he was one of flooded Oxfordshire's MPs. Nevertheless, Shabina, who noted that callers had been asking what on earth he was doing in Rwanda when Witney was knee-deep, suggested it had been a rough few days. Cameron agreed. "But it is nothing like as tough as getting flooded out and having trouble with your business and home." His office had been flooded, too, he said.

They say a change is as good as a rest, and to hear Cameron complain solemnly that "some ditches have not been cleared for years" certainly made a change from his usual persiflage. Tuned in via the internet from London, I confess I even found Radio Oxford's breakfast show cosy listening, there being nothing like tales of disaster from lands far away to avert one's mind from one's own flooded cellar. For the Witney farmer who was interviewed, his 700 cattle still standing in several feet of water, and for thousands of others without power (some listened on wind-up radios) or unable to drive down their own roads, Radio Oxford was a necessity not a treat. Over the week the local authority's emergency officer John Kelly became a de facto co-presenter.

Breakfast with Shabina covered, as far as I could tell, all the bases, with its travel and weather reports being improved by listeners' contributions. After Cameron, it even thought to talk to someone from the RSPB, who reported that the weather had been terrible news for barn owls: the voles they ate had drowned. Considering the scale of the crisis, however, I can't pretend that her show was particularly brilliant. A caller suggested that the station match people's needs with the skills of volunteers. Shabina doubted if she could get it to work. The station's breakfast show has been subject to upheavals in the past few years - Anne Diamond, Sybil Ruscoe (ex-5 Live) and now Shabina have all presented it - and it feels underproduced and underpopulated.

Disappointingly, the station's drive-time presenter, Bill Heine, is weak, too, even though he is the surrealist who put a fibreglass shark through the roof of his home in Headington. His callers are more fun than he is. One of them, Dorothy, called on Wednesday to say she'd had a crew from Mexican television filming her street: in her day, the BBC would have sent cameras to film their disasters.

If you want to hear how local radio should sound, I recommend BBC Radio Gloucestershire, whose patch was even more heavily hit by our glorious summer. Even though its regular breakfast presenter, Mark Cummings, was away, its morning programme sang. The excellent stand-in host, Steve Kitchen - now there's a household name for you - invited listeners to nominate the good, the bad and the ugly who had emerged during the crisis, and named an 11-year-old the station's hero of the week. The programme was full of bowser news: they were empty; they were not filled often enough; they were being urinated in. The local MP, Parmjit Dhanda, declared himself on "bowser watch". Signing off on Friday, Kitchen told us what he had learned over the past seven days: the meaning of the words "community spirit", the weight of water, and what a bowser was - "not a breed of German dog". We also learned that most of the station's staff had not showered in days. This was live radio you could smell.

Perhaps a local radio station does not need to be as slick and busy as Radio Gloucester to succeed. So long as it gets the local news first and keeps its lines open for its listeners, in the end they will make their own connections. On Friday a woman called Carol rang Radio Oxford's Heine to say her husband had been stuck in a boat on the Thames for a week. Heine's mind drew the blank it tends to. But a few minutes later a farmer called to say he would take down his tractor on Saturday to fish him out. That's my action station.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.