Sound and vision blog

09 March 2021

A Covid-19 radio archive

In September 2019 the British Library started recording radio. The Library already had a substantial collection of radio programmes, going back to the 1920s, and has been recording radio off-air – that is, from the live broadcast – since the 1960s. But this was a new project intended greatly to increase the amount of radio captured live, with a particular focus on local and community radio. Too great a proportion of community radio has not been archived in the past and has been effectively lost soon after broadcast. The National Radio Archive, as the pilot project is called, should go some way towards rectifying this significant gap in the national audio collection. What we had not calculated for was the Covid-19 pandemic, and radio’s extraordinary response to a national crisis. Broadcast Recordings Curator Neil McCowlen describes some of the Coronavirus-themed radio programmes preserved for the nation over the past year.

Some National Radio Archive stations

Some of the stations selectively archived by the National Radio Archive 

With our National Radio Archive pilot barely six months old, the world suddenly fell into the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. Radio has often been seen as a great companion and full of friendly voices to lighten the mood, so with a national lockdown in March 2020, many turned to the radio to see them through the long days spent at home. National stations such as the BBC, LBC and talkRADIO had already documented the spread of the virus from its early outbreak in Wuhan, but now more local information was needed to give support, guidance and opportunities to help within the local communities as lockdown developed.

The National Radio Archive archives selectively from fifty radio stations at any one time (from over 700 operating in the UK). It strives to capture a good cross-section of the country’s response to the pandemic, through national stories, local news and community broadcasts to help those in need in the local areas. This output, sometimes produced at home, shows a great insight into how the communities helped each other with entertainment, support, guidance and activities to help in what was an isolating and, for some, a frightening time. The collection documents the ways in which radio delivered an immediate response to people’s needs, providing news as it happened, and giving a voice to those who needed it most.

After a year of recording since the start of the first lockdown, The British Library has recorded many thousands of news broadcasts, talk shows, phone-ins and general commentaries broadcast by UK radio stations on the pandemic, an ever-expanding reflection of not just the UK’s reaction to the pandemic, but how it has affected people across the world and the many smaller communities that live within that world. With the British Library’s complementary Broadcast News service adding television content to this archive, there is an enormously rich vein of first-hand experiences and reactions for researchers to dig into to tell them about how the world reacted to the first global pandemic for a century.

The National Radio Archive pilot records selectively from BBC network stations, BBC nations, the World Service, BBC local, commercial stations, community radio and Restricted Service Licence (RSL) stations, and internet radio. Over 110,000 programmes have been recorded since the start of lockdown as UK radio to responded with such inventiveness and immediacy. Here are three examples of this from stations whose response to the crisis has been particularly noteworthy.

Manx Radio (www.manxradio.com)

FM 89, 89.5, 97.2, 103.7, AM 1368

Manx Radio is the national commercial radio station for the Isle of Man. Because the island has an independent government, the station has access to all the local politicians with ministers appearing regularly on The Mannin Line, the daily phone-in show to answer listeners questions, plus a daily Update show that reports on the latest Covid-19 situation and Manx related news. The Breakfast Show also has Coronavirus specific interviews and local stories and news. There was also a short series recorded by a student returning to University at the start of his first year called Life as a Fresher. It is a snapshot of a unique experience of starting university life in a pandemic.

Manx Radio also broadcasts a regular Isle of Man Government Coronavirus Briefing, along the lines of the Downing Street, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Government briefings which have continued regularly into 2021 on radio and television.

Isle of Man Government Coronavirus Briefing, 9 April 2020

Manx Radio

Briefing held by Health Minister David Ashford

Isle of Man coronavirus briefing - Manx Radio - 9 April 2020 - extract

Transcript: The first is a statement the chief minister has asked me to read out on his behalf and the statement is as follows: Good afternoon. First of all I would like to thank everyone for their support and kindness over the past few days.  I have been humbled by the volume of messages.  It was important to me to keep everyone updated and I have today received my text message to say that I have tested positive for Covid-19.

Academy FM (www.academyfmfolkestone.com)

FM 105.9

Academy FM is a charity community radio station based in Folkestone, Kent. Its programme Folkestone Virus Update ran for the first months of the pandemic with local information and important messages as well as stories and interviews about life and services available in the community. The twice weekly Folkestone Status shows also contain local news and interviews, although there is a lot of music as well. The Folkestone Radio Church is a virtual church service (“When you can’t come to church, the church comes to you”).

Folkestone Virus Update, 30 March 2020

Academy FM

Councillor Jenny Hollingsbee talking about the Community Hubs set up in the Folkestone area and what they offer residents facing hardship during the lockdown.

Folkestone Virus Update - Academy FM - 30 March 2020 - extract

Transcript: The sorts of things they can do is: to provide food for those not able to get, or to prepare it, for themselves; food delivery in all the three hubs; assist with collection and delivery of food orders; collect and deliver medical supplies; walk dogs and other pets; offer to talk to someone for advice and reassurance. But it’s not limited to all of that, I mean in fact, what any vulnerable person needs.

BCB (www.bcbradio.co.uk)

FM 106.6

Community radio station BCB, or Bradford Community Broadcasting, produces an extraordinary amount of local programming. It has two hourly shows a day called About Bradford and Bradford and Beyond. These cover all important local news stories, plus messages and support for residents in the Bradford area. There are interviews with a large variety of people involved in caring and those isolated during the pandemic. Guests range from local councillors giving official advice to ordinary citizens helping the community to cope at home with ideas, support and contacts.

Programmes are also made for the elderly, mental health sufferers, carers, academics, migrants, LGBTQ+ community, gardeners, businesses, programmes on specific racial matters, environmental matters (Women and Climate), work undertaken at the University (Research Matters), local landmarks and shows on computer games and entertainment. There is also a strand of programmes made by under sixteen-year-olds, the youngest presenter being seven, sharing their experiences of life during the pandemic, including a young carers show, Who Cares. Bradford Spice provides specific programmes for the Asian and Arab communities and also has programmes in Urdu.

The station also broadcasts Democracy Now! which is broadcast Monday to Friday. This is a syndicated current affairs programme from New York and covers the US and the world’s reactions to the virus and the political response to it. With New York being the epicentre of the pandemic in America through 2020, it serves a useful role in showing how the outbreak developed in the United States.

Research Matters, 6 April 2020

BCB 106.6fm

Professor Marcus Rattray, Bradford University explains the structure of the Coronavirus.

Research Matters - BCB - 6 April 2020 - extract

Transcript: Covid-19 as we all know is a virus and viruses are really tiny, really, really, really tiny.  Some people say they’re microscopic but that's a major exaggeration.  The Coronavirus is smaller than can be seen under a regular high-powered microscope. It's around 10 nanometres long. Over 1 thousand times smaller than a human cell and a human cell itself is tiny. In our bodies we have about 37 trillion cells.

Broadcasting in a pandemic has been a great challenge for many community radio stations, existing on slender resources, run by volunteers, and with hastily-improvised recording operators as staff were in many cases forced out of the studios and obliged to produce programmes from home. It has also been challenging at times to archive such programmes. In the crisis conditions of the early months of lockdown, regular schedules were often abandoned and the metadata essential for catalogue descriptions could be difficult to locate (we often found social media to be the most useful source for programme information). Catalogue data and the brief programme descriptions that are available were also enhanced by speech-to-text transcriptions for some programmes.

UK radio’s response to the pandemic has generated much praise. A #ThankYouRadio campaign, has been launched by Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio, to mark the anniversary of lockdown, with contributions from the chancellor Rishi Sunak, health minister Matt Hancock and Dame Judi Dench. The academic research community has also taken note, Brunel University being quick off the mark with its UK community radio responses to COVID-19 project. Radio responded boldly to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the archive will greatly inform understanding of the impact the virus on UK society, for years to come.

Neil McCowlen

Broadcast Recordings Curator

Background information on this project, including a listing of all radio stations included so far, can be found on our blog post Piloting a National Radio Archive.