National wireless congregation

Leo Devine, former Head of BBC South West, reflects on the new Sunday worship service to be broadcast on all 39 BBC local radio stations during the coronavirus pandemic, showing how local radio connects communities.

When the great war correspondent Frank Gillard first suggested the notion of local radio to the bosses of the BBC, he called it “home town” radio.  His big idea was to create a service and a voice for local and disparate communities across the regions of England. Regardless of whether they were urban or rural, he knew there was a real need for communities of interest to be connected and to feel listened to. The first full-time service was born in Leicester on November 8th, 1967.

Since then, local radio has grown to become a network of 39 stations across England and the Channel Islands providing news, entertainment, connection and companionship. It has reflected and reported those communities throughout its 53 year history; it has also raised millions of pounds for charity, led countless social action campaigns, championed the weak, questioned the powerful, showcased the talented, been serious, compassionate and fun. Most importantly of all, it’s been there when we needed it most.

All 39 stations have had their share of reporting fuel shortages, power cuts, and extreme weather.  In the severe floods of 2015, Radio Cumbria was broadcasting updates and emergency information 24 hours a day. It received immense praise from listeners and civic leaders and was mentioned in the House of Commons.

In my old region of the South West, I think immediately of the flash flood at Boscastle in 2004 and the relief efforts covered by Radio Cornwall. I also remember the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, when many people were quarantined on their farms, including a Radio Devon presenter. That station transformed its output to respond to the crisis, even linking up its phone-in with Radio Cumbria so that listeners could share their stories of isolation and the devastating loss of livestock and livelihoods. These are not isolated examples. Local radio has always been there for its listeners in times of emergency.

That has never been more true than it is now, and this time the crisis affects all of us.  I know that right now former colleagues up and down the country will be working extremely hard to provide the best service for their communities. Not only will they be reporting the worst effects of Covid 19 in their localities, but also coordinating support and practical help for the most vulnerable amongst us.

It seems an obvious thing to say, but it’s so true, local radio staff live in the areas they serve. Their neighbours are the frontline health-workers of the local hospital, the police, the firefighters, the care workers, the small business owners and the many other vital people in our society that they’re talking about on air.

Local radio is the beating heart of the BBC. Alongside its amazing colleagues in BBC regional television and BBC local news online, it unites the regions and fuels the rest of the organisation with stories, faces and voices from every corner of the country.

In difficult times, people naturally want to feel connected; they want to hear stories of how others are coping; they need to know they have a voice and that they will be listened to; they desperately want to feel companionship, especially the elderly and those in most need.

Some also seek spiritual support and a way to express their faith; for this reason, local radio has always had a strong relationship with churches and faith groups. In the early days, Lent courses and Weekly “Acts of Worship” were common to the schedules; some, like Radio Devon and Radio Merseyside, still broadcast a religious service every week. All stations broadcast weekly faith programmes reflecting the diversity of belief, and all take the coverage of faiths and ethics very seriously indeed.

It’s hardly surprising then that the Archbishop of Canterbury should choose BBC local radio to broadcast a virtual service of unity this coming Sunday, 22 March. At a time when church services are suspended throughout the country and most people are socially distanced or even isolated at home, where better than the local airwaves of the BBC to provide that spiritual support and to put a collective arm around local communities everywhere.

The BBC is calling this a ‘national wireless congregation’ . The first nationwide service will be broadcast on BBC local radio at 8 am on Sunday 22nd March; at 8.10 am on BBC Radio 4;  and repeated on Facebook at 9am. Subsequent services will reflect all denominations. BBC local radio will also be working with other faiths – including Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs – to provide on-air spiritual reflections.

Leo Devine is now a lecturer in journalism at Plymouth Marjon University.