Three-D Issue 34: How community radio in the UK rose to the challenge of COVID-19

Josephine Coleman
Brunel University, London

The last few months under lockdown threw most of the population into a strange new world of working from home imposed from on high. Routines were disrupted, the availability of resources was stretched to the limit, anxiety levels rose. An industry which has played a key role, on the one hand, in disseminating essential information, whilst on the other distracting audiences with lashings of entertainment, is broadcast media. As a result, one sector appears to have come of age during this crisis: and that is community radio.

Research under lockdown

At the end of April, I began researching how the UK’s licenced, small-scale, non-profit and volunteer-reliant radio stations were responding. Since every station’s output is streamed online, I was able to click my way through the alphabetical list on the Ofcom website. Of nearly 300 stations, the vast majority were still broadcasting 24 hours a day, including daytime and evening shows presented and voiced by volunteer presenters.

As the lockdown persisted, my project developed into an investigation to ascertain how, and the extent to which, stations had been able to successfully adapt and innovate during the pandemic. I circulated an online questionnaire to station managers and during June began collating responses. I conducted follow-up interviews with selected respondents using web conferencing platforms.

A total of 44 unique responses were received from community stations across the UK. The information gathered and insights shared by the respondents demonstrate the wealth of technical expertise across the sector, and the passion and sense of commitment felt towards the stations and their local communities.

A selection of findings:

I asked my respondents (r) how many hours each week they normally spend working on community radio business. Half of them estimated between 11 and 30 hours, whilst nearly a quarter said they spend over 41 hours a week dealing with station matters (Figure 1).

It is noteworthy that two thirds (65.9%) of the respondents said that this work is unpaid. When asked how much change there had been under lockdown, over a third reported that it had “increased a lot”.

Figure 1 Responses to question: How many hours did you normally commit each week, prior to social distancing?

I also enquired as to how well-equipped the respondents felt their stations had been at the point of lockdown. Two groups, in equal proportions (29.5%), said they “just about had adequate access to some basic resources” or “were fairly well-equipped”(Figure 2).

Figure 2 Responses to question: How well equipped was your station to respond to the COVID-19 social distancing measures?

In another section of the questionnaire, I asked whether stations had been able to keep to their usual programme schedules. I was interested in how many of the shows still being aired sounded the same. Over a third of respondents (36.4%) said that over 75% of their lockdown content sounded the same as usual, whilst one quarter of respondents reported that what output they were achieving under lockdown was sounding exactly the same (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Responses to question: Of the shows still on-air during social distancing, approximately how many are themed, formatted and sound the same as usual?

Where stations were less well prepared, one respondent admitted: “We had nothing in place” (r13) and another explained: “Few of our Presenters are technically minded, several don’t use computers/tablets/smart phones at all” (r4). Sometimes though, solutions could be found. One station manager stated: “A lot of older generation of presenters were taught new skills and bought their own equipment” (r37).

What those who felt they were “excellently resourced” had in common was software and the availability of decent quality devices: one director reported that they had already “purchased a new playout system that allowed every presenter to be live or voice track (VT) from home” (r44). My survey found that the most important factor for determining which volunteers could continue broadcasting was possession of the relevant technical know-how, closely followed by internet access.

Half the managers responding strove to achieve a balance between the number of shows and voices they could get on air and the quality of that output. As one station engineer put it: “Quality of sound is not as important as quality of content for local community” (r37). However, 38.6% were adamant that quality should not be compromised: “We have a reputation to uphold but we have a loyal, appreciative and understanding listenership, aware of who we are and our place in the community, seen as ‘friends’ doing a worthy but professional job” (r20). Another pointed out: “We have been able to maintain production values even with some presenters VTing from home with nothing more than a USB mic and a laptop” (r39) (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Working From Home: Martin Steers, co-founder of UK Community Radio Network and station manager of NLive (photo credit: Kathryn Reading)

I learned that prior to the lockdown, 59.1% of respondents operated their own local news service, providing content through on-air bulletins and magazine shows and online via social media and station websites. Most (84.6%) said they had been able to maintain this service, if not increase it. Of the stations who previously did not have their own news service, 38.9% of respondents said that they had since started new features, circulating community news on COVID-19-related projects and initiatives. Stations were managing to cover news from local NHS partnerships, local councils, police and emergency services, trading and charitable organisations. Some had started broadcasting local church services, and two stations reported that they had extended airtime for local Talking Newspapers.

In summary

The research has illustrated that this sector has proven itself to be perfectly placed to provide locally specific health and welfare updates and has been adept and efficient at responding to a crisis and incorporating new content alongside their usual entertainment and information outputs. However, the stations’ ability to do so should not be taken for granted: there are certain aspects of community broadcasting which will need addressing if the station teams are to make it through the fall-out of COVID-19. For instance, the Community Media Association (CMA) and the new UK Community Radio Network are lobbying tirelessly to raise their concerns with the government, requesting that community stations be paid for running public service announcements (PSAs), and that the annual Ofcom Community Radio Fund be increased to adequately support the growing sector.

For more information, my report is available at:








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