Sunday, 20 December 2009

Arts in the Recession: The Cult of Amateur Radio

Emails of excitement pulsed out of Phonic FM HQ when The Times published a full length feature on the home station of The Blah Blah Blah Show. In truth, such mainstream recognition barely registered a ripple. The regulars on the Phonic message board were preoccupied by missing keys, faulty equipment, the challenge of staying financially afloat and all else that goes with running a 24-7 radio station on a shoestring.

Maybe I'm on the broadsheet fringe of the roster of presenters - many of whom would have only taken their headphones off to check a mention in Kerrang, Mixmag or some other specialist music or technology glossy - but I read it with interest, not least because it fits well with my current series of articles on trends in the arts during a recession, my theory being that lack of subsidy from the exchequer may be a blessing rather than a curse when it comes to cultural regeneration.

Which isn't to say that Phonic FM is run grant-free and we're very grateful for all those who back us. But it is a station run by enthusiasts, not employees, on a not-for-profit basis, has aspirations to become a company run by the community for its community, and in that way fits my grassroots thesis. Commercial radio is beholden to its advertisers to maintain the largest possible audience, while BBC radio has to constantly reaffirm its raison d'etre by demonstrating mass appeal. Listen to most stations on your dial most times of the day and you'll soon begin to wonder if it doesn't all sound a bit samey the presenters are slick but scripted, their music choices defined by a playlist, the playlist determined by committees of producers who in claiming to forecast popular taste are in fact defining it.

Phonic FM presenters work to a very different rulebook. They receive no pay or payola, have no budget or expenses, do what they do only because they like doing it and hope that others like what they do too. There is a steering group that considers pitches by would-be presenters and does its bit towards quality assurance by listening in and providing feedback but it is hardly intrusive in its methods or working to a grand design. Our audience is known only so much as they make themselves known to us, interacting via email, on the phone or via sites such as this. I could pick out my favourite shows, but yours would be different, best located by tuning in: some are name checked in The Times article, others on the station's Wikipedia entry, all on the Phonic FM schedule. All tastes are catered for except those tastes already catered for by our mainstream alternatives, which isn't to say that you won't hear the popular sounds of now, they'll just be mixed in with sonic curios from all eras and genres with the occasional programme such as ours majoring on spoken word rather than promoting its particular musical manifesto.

DAB radio was meant to widen the dial to British listeners. Although I regularly tune in to some digital-only stations, the choice available is still restricted to 60 or so channels, akin to the range available on Freeview TV. The American model of a subscription based satellite service offers more variety - the US market has always been more niche driven, every town having a station dedicated to country, most one grooving on rap and R&B - but at a price to the listener. In Sirius XM, a merger of previous providers, it now also has a monopoly supplier. Community radio has a different ethos. It reminds me most of the glory days of pirate radio - not the 1960s boat-based channels such as Radio Caroline, as ground-breaking as they were, dragging British broadcasting and its monopoly corporation into the modern era - but the nineteen-eighties when technology became cheap enough to fall into the hands of inspired amateur enthusiasts and a station could be run out of a suitcase from a squat or bedsit. Tune into Phonic FM, relax with your favourite relaxant, and you could almost be back there back then...

1 comment:

    here is a link to a new project- started by a group of artists based in Swindon. they fought to be given a space for years and managed to be given the Old Post Office near the Wyvern Theatre through the slack space scheme- well worth visiting and looking at!