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19 April 2017

Fifty years on, BBC local radio matters more than ever

It doesn't just give people something to listen to. It gives them a voice.

By Phil Jones

The question I have been asked the most over the last week is this: how did you manage to announce that one of your presenters was dead, when he wasn’t? And not just any presenter, but Brian Matthew, who had worked for the BBC for over 60 years and who was much loved. That did actually happen on the show that I edit. We announced he was dead at 12 noon, and then just after 2 o’clock we had to issue a correction to say he wasn’t. Radio Two had been informed in the morning by close family that Brian had passed away during the night in hospital. But they were mistaken. Sadly he did die three days later. 

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The wonderful thing about radio is that you can do something else while you’re listening. You’re never actually wasting your time, in fact you’re doubling up. I’m especially struck by radio’s ability not to only entertain and inform us, but actually to transform lives. Phil Maguire is the remarkable man who set up National Prison Radio, run from Brixton Prison in south London. There’s a lot of proof that supporting and educating inmates it helps reduce reoffending rates. People who visit prisons often observe that the prisoners are just normal people. Arriving at the radio station, it was hard to tell the prisoners apart from the staff. People were so polite and friendly. But at the end of the working day, as everyone says, “see you tomorrow”, half got the bus home and the other half were locked up in their cells. 

One inmate (I’ll call him Tom) was happy to show me his “room”. It’s a familiar picture: small cell, with a bunk bed, bars on the window, and photos of family stuck to the grim walls. I started to imagine how I would cope if I were locked up here. In a Prison Radio interview, Jonathan Aitken spoke very powerfully of his first night in jail. Paralysed by fear he overhears all the terrible things the other inmates were threatening to do to him. Back with Tom I was getting a glimpse into a prisoner’s life and what matters. And what matters most, particularly to 58-year-old Tom, is having an ensuite toilet and sharing a cell with someone his own age. By way of example, we went into the next cell where you literally tripped over the WC as you walked through the door. As he put it, the 20 year old in this cell doesn’t even ask his cell mate when it’s OK to “shit with impunity”. He just does.

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I’ve often produced radio phone-ins where the received wisdom from the listeners is that prisons are a “holiday camp”. So it was interesting to hear Tom’s variation on that thought. The most popular TV programmes on the wings are documentaries portraying the horrendous condition of prisons overseas. A caged cell in the Philippines crammed to the rafters with 100 prisoners. Tom consoled himself with the thought that he has it relatively easy. I guess this is where I should point out that last year prison suicides were at an all-time high. Drug abuse also is a huge problem. While still chatting to Tom on the landing another prisoner approached and surreptitiously handed something over, in a brown paper bag. He seemed delighted. “What’s in there?”, I asked, trying not to sound too suspicious. He produced two slices of freshly baked bread from the prison bakery. Simple pleasures.

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I’m in Sheffield to celebrate the work of Charles Parker, the man who, along with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, created the Radio Ballads. It’s a joyous occasion and the room is full of grey hairs like me, and young passionate students studying radio today. When they were first broadcast in the Fifties these ballads were revolutionary, transforming the way radio documentaries were made and giving a voice to people who didn’t have a voice before. They combined folk songs and instrumental music with the speech of ordinary working people. The result is utterly compelling as voices take on a truly poetic quality.

In that same spirit we hear a recording made this year from a 13-year-old girl who was kicked out of school. She tells her life story through a rap and her words manage to be both achingly sad yet relentlessly positive. She sang, “I’m not bad if you get to know me”. I’m struck again by the human need to be creative and reminded of a story from a friend who visited another penal institution, Guantanamo Bay. In the early days the prisoners were given nothing. No books, paper or pens. But on the polystyrene cups that held their drinks, they improvised, drawing elaborate designs with their finger nails. Such is the human need to create. 

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Guglielmo Marconi didn’t invent radio, but in 1901 he proved that it was possible to send a radio signal across the Atlantic. Then came the BBC in 1922, using the technology that Marconi had developed for military use in the First World War. Feeling a little guilty, perhaps, he was determined that the magic of radio was put to peaceful use. In 1967, BBC local radio was born, and in Sheffield the room is full of people delighting in reminiscing about the early decades. BBC Radio Sheffield covered the miner’s strike and the famous Battle of Orgreave. At the time, I ran the Yorkshire Rural Playbus, which was funded by Margaret Thatcher’s Community Programme. Maybe I can finally admit that we were using the resources of the state, in other words our bus, to deliver food parcels to mining families. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of BBC local radio, which doesn’t just give people something to listen to. It gives people a voice.

Phil Jones is the editor of the “Jeremy Vine” show on BBC Radio 2