Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Rhubarb Crumble

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about radio. I’ve been busy with the Pilot Project, of course, but there are other reasons. The overall radio picture is relentlessly depressing. Imaginative and capable broadcasters are being squeezed out to make way for networked output, with less and less sense of an obligation to listeners or communities. All this to allow more er, ‘brand development’ (Radio practitioners who feel unjustly maligned are welcome to reply to this post).

Last month, there was more bad news. Like many community stations, the eccentric but occasionally quite wonderful Rhubarb Radio is feeling the cold winds of recession. The current managerial team is bailing out; an intensive effort is being mounted to build a new and solid structure for the continued existence of the station. As I write, there are positive signs. The latest revival news is here.

I really want the Rhubarb revival to succeed, for a number of very good reasons, listed below. But I have been struck by the harsh cynicism, and sometimes malice, with which Rhubarb's bad news has been met by many of my colleagues in mainstream and associated radio sectors. I want to challenge that. 

It must be said that a number of community stations seem to be not so much about community as about layers of control-freakery and ego-tripping. Rhubarb is certainly not immune. But, to be brutally frank, not one of the 70 or so stations I have worked at or advised could be said to be immune either.

Truth be told, I don’t know anyone who puts a show out who doesn’t have ego drive. Ego drive can be a very good thing. It should encourage competition; it should make you strive to make your show, or your station, the very best that you can make it. .So rivalry certainly comes into things. But it should not extend to barely disguised glee at a fellow broadcaster’s troubles. When I was programming at BRMB, I wanted to take the opposition (at the time Radio 1) down, big time, and it felt really good when I put a serious dent in their figures. That did not extend to wanting to demolish the BBC or shutting Radio 1 down.  There were those in commercial radio who did, and do, want it shut down, but that’s another story.

The spectrum of ability and impact in radio is continuous and seamless, from beginner to practised. There’s no clear division between the big boys and the tiddlers, much as the big boys would like to see it that way. But I have a problem with hearing one radio person tearing into another operation – no matter what reasons they may have. A bit of humility might be nice. It’s only radio, after all…..

We all started somewhere. Chances are it was a tiny station, online or otherwise, a whole world away from today’s glossy radio factories. Dumping on stations like Rhubarb, especially when they’re on the ropes, is an ugly way to thank the people who put your first college or community or tiny local station up, so you could start to practise your craft. I started in student radio. It was not perfect then; it’s not perfect now. But you won’t find me dumping on it.

We need those community stations. We need the room to allow people to experiment, to try new tricks, to learn their craft, to practise until they’re perfect. And we need community stations to reflect and support their communities, to champion the music from their town, to float new ideas.

When a station folds, it’s sad, but the world does not stop turning. But when a small station folds, yet another door closes that might admit brave, fresh and idealistic talent to the world of broadcasting.

When I was putting the Pilot Project team together, I approached a lot of stations. From the mainstream, apart from the gracious and constructive help afforded me by the BBC Introducing team at BBC Shropshire, I drew a blank, even from areas where I might have expected some kindred spirits. But four of the fantastic advisors who worked with me on the Pilot Project were or are community radio djs. They were and are valuable to me because of their knowledge and enthusiasm. This knowledge and enthusiasm also took them into radio, and their stations were the richer for it. Three of those advisors were from Rhubarb. All of them do excellent shows.

I want to keep listening.

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