Sound and vision blog

03 December 2020

Piloting a national radio archive

The new content strategy from the British Library, Enabling Access for Everyone, includes a section on COVID-19, showing how different collecting sections of the Library have responded to the pandemic. Listed among what we have collected are radio broadcasts from some sixty stations, national and regional. This is the first public report on the progress of a pilot project that officially began operations at the start of 2020, entitled National Radio Archive.

National Radio Archive graphic

The National Radio Archive pilot is part of the British Library’s Save our Sounds programme. Scheduled to run over two years, its aim is to create a digital radio archive which will preserve a representative proportion of ongoing UK radio output and make this available for research. This intervention was needed because most UK radio output was not being preserved long-term or was inaccessible for research and education. We estimate that of around 3 million hours of radio broadcast in the UK each year from 700 stations, some 92% is not being properly preserved, with only 2% being made available for potential research post-transmission. These are sounds that need saving.

In particular, we were keen to preserve some of the output of regional or community stations, whose local engagement has proven to be so vital over this traumatic year.

The pilot is exactly that - a trial service to test the parameters and capabilities of such a resource. We have gone down the route of off-air recordings; that is, recording programmes at the point of broadcast. We are capturing these from a maximum of fifty channels at any one time (some on a near-continuous basis, others on a sampling basis), taken from different broadcast streams (DAB, DVB, IP streams). The descriptive metadata likewise comes from a variety of sources: embedded in the digital signal, acquired via special arrangement with Radioplayer or added manually.

We are generating automatic speech-to-text transcriptions for a proportion of the programmes, one of the goals being to see how well such software performs on a large scale, with a rapid turnaround from capture to access, and with multiple accents.

Screengrab of National Radio Archive management system

Image caption: The National Radio Archive management system, built by SCISYS, with speech-to-text transcriptions delivered by T-Pro/Cedat85

The operation is complicated. We are still working out the best models for the selection, capture and description of the programmes. Nevertheless, at the end of the first year we have recorded over 130,000 programmes (ahead of our target of 100,000) from sixty-four stations. A list of the stations from which we have recorded is given below. It should be noted that for most stations we have only recorded selected programmes (stations we record in their entirety or nearly so include LBC, talkRadio and Times Radio).

There is no access to the National Radio Archive as yet, and when this has been developed it will be almost exclusively onsite access only, in British Library reading rooms. However, we are keen to start working with researchers who may find such a resource useful, so please do get in touch (email us at [email protected]).

Further blog posts will follow, covering particular aspects of our pilot archive, including COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter and the US presidential election.

For more information please visit the project page for the National Radio Archive.


UK radio stations covered by the National Radio Archive pilot during 2020

(Note that for most stations we take sample programmes, not their entire broadcast output)

BBC network

  • BBC Asian Network
  • BBC Radio 1
  • BBC Radio 2
  • BBC Radio 3
  • BBC Radio 4
  • BBC Radio 5 Live
  • BBC Radio 6 Music

BBC nations and World Service

  • BBC Radio Scotland
  • BBC Radio Ulster
  • BBC Radio Wales
  • BBC World Service

BBC local

  • BBC Radio Cornwall
  • BBC Radio London
  • BBC Radio Jersey
  • BBC Radio Leicester
  • BBC Radio Newcastle
  • BBC Radio Oxford
  • BBC Radio Tees
  • BBC Three Counties
  • BBC Radio Wiltshire
  • BBC WM (West Midlands)


  • Absolute Radio
  • BFBS
  • Classic FM
  • Island FM
  • LBC
  • Manx Radio
  • Metro Radio
  • Radio City Talk (Liverpool, now defunct)
  • Radio X
  • talkRADIO
  • talkSPORT
  • Times Radio

Community radio and Restricted Service Licence (RSL)

  • Academy FM (Folkestone)
  • All FM (Manchester)
  • Bradford Community Broadcasting
  • BCfm (Bristol)
  • Calon FM (Cheshire)
  • Cam FM (Cambridge community/student)
  • Radio Cardiff
  • Celtic Music Radio (Glasgow)
  • CHBN (Truro hospital/community)
  • CSR (Canterbury student/community)
  • East Leeds FM (aka Chapel FM)
  • Fix Radio (community radio for building trade)
  • Future Radio (Norwich)
  • Gaydio (Manchester)
  • GTFM (Pontypridd/South Wales)
  • Oldham Community Radio
  • Panjab Radio (West London)
  • Phoenix 98 FM (Brentwood/Billericay, Essex)
  • Podcast Radio (London)
  • Radiophrenia (temporary art radio station)
  • Reprezent (South London youth-led station)
  • Resonance FM
  • Resonance Extra
  • Radio Reverb (Brighton/Hove)
  • Siren (Lincoln student/community)
  • Soundart Radio (Devon)
  • Spark (Sunderland community/student)
  • Ujima (Bristol)
  • Radio Verulam (St Albans)

Internet radio

  • Monocle FM
  • Totally Radio 


Neil McCowlen, Luke McKernan, Paul Wilson