Zeitgeister On Air Radio Around the World #4 mit Keri Jones


Keri Jones ist der Gründer von Radio Scilly, dem kleinsten Radiosender der Welt. Seine Leidenschaft fürs Radio entdeckte er, als er ehrenamtlich bei einem Lokalsender mitarbeitete, um sich vor dem Sportunterricht zu drücken. Dabei wurde ihm die verbindende Kraft des Radios bewusst. Seitdem verbringt er seine Zeit damit, sich über das Radio für gesellschaftliches Engagement, Diskurs und Bildung einzusetzen. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson von Common Ground Berlin spricht mit Keri Jones über seine Erfahrung damit, wie man ein Freies Radio entwickelt, ein breiteres Publikum erreicht und die Hörerschaft zuverlässig mit Lokalnachrichten versorgt.

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Welcome to Radio Around the World, brought to you by Goethe-Institut. I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of Common Ground Berlin. And today we’re going to talk about homegrown radio with Keri Jones of Shaftesbury in Dorset, England. Community radio is his passion and he’s definitely put it on the British map. Among other things, Keri is known for launching in 2007 what was then the UK’s smallest radio station. I asked the 53-year-old whether he grew up listening to radio.

Keri Jones: Yes, and in that unhealthy, want to work in radio way, listening to far too much radio and probably not listening to the right stuff, not listening like a normal person would. You know, you get in the car and, you know, your friends that you’re in the car with because when the commercials come on, you put the radio up louder because you want to hear the ad-breaks and since they come into the song that comes out of the ad breaks, you turn the radio down.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: And that would annoy your friends?

Keri Jones: Yeah, because most normal people don’t like that, do they, they listen for the songs. 

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So how did you come to choose radio as a profession?

Keri Jones: The way I got into radio, I went to school in Cardiff in South Wales, I’m Welsh, and there was an option – I hated sports and you could get out of double games sports on a Wednesday afternoon if you did community work. And there was an orthopedic hospital next door. It was at the time of the Falklands conflict. Service personnel were being rehabilitated, brought back to Britain after the conflict – and there was a demand to do hospital radio programs. There’s a thing in Britain where there’s a closed circuit radio station for a hospital generally. They’ve been going on for years, a good training ground for actual radio. So I got to make radio programs and hang around the radio station rather than have to do boring rugby or play cricket. So that was my first taste at the age of, gosh, probably about 14, 15.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: And what is special about radio to you besides getting out of sports that you perhaps didn’t want to play?

Keri Jones: To me, radio particularly, and this is the key difference, I think, although it translates across all types of radio broadcasting – it’s making the communication and making a difference. I mean, I’m working primarily – and have worked mainly – in small markets because I prefer that. I’ve done London stuff, but I like small towns because you get to see the people that you serve when you walk out and you get to be told that what you’ve done has actually impacted on somebody’s life. You found their lost dog, you found whatever service they require. You’ve taken on the local authority of the council and got a solution for somebody who thought there was nowhere else to go. So, it’s that power really of connecting with people and sharing conversations and just being part of somebody’s life and sharing that joy. That’s what radio is all about to me. It’s not music, it’s about conversation.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Well, I’ve read that you were involved in creating and what has said to be the smallest radio station in UK history. Tell us about that.

Keri Jones: So that was on the Isles of Scilly and I ran it for 10 years. The Isles of Scilly are between 20 or so miles off the coast of the southwestern tip of England and there’s five islands with about 2,000 people between all of the islands. And we set up a self-sustaining, entirely local independent station covering those islands and operated it for 10 years. And so at the time it was the smallest station that I think there’s with the use of technology now, with you able to do things much cheaper and do more stuff online, I think there probably are radio stations that claim to target smaller geographic areas, but certainly in terms of a licensed FM radio station that was the smallest then in the country. 

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: My understanding is that you were broadcasting from a boatshed surrounded by lobster pots and rusting anchors and all kinds of fishing equipment. How did that work, especially in bad weather? 

Keri Jones: Well, that’s part of the story. We had this strange thing in Britain where you could have a limited period trial to establish demand for a radio station. You could go on air for 28 days. They called them restricted service licenses or RSLs. You got very low power at about 25 watts. And so there was no way we could fit out a proper studio for those trial broadcasts. We did several over a course of, I think, about three or four years on the Isles of Scilly. And so we used a boatshed to broadcast from. And yes, all the lobster pots and the various fishing paraphernalia and all sorts of storage items were also stacked up around us. So when we got the full-time radio license, we moved into converting premises to make the radio station, which was right opposite the beach. 

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: And it was a 24-hour-a-day radio station, correct? 

Keri Jones: Yeah, we were. Yeah, all through the night.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So what did you broadcast for 24 hours? I mean, how much news can there possibly be with these small islands? 

Keri Jones: Well, I mean, we broadcast back-to-back music through the night. And now in Shaftesbury, we’re all speech for a 10 of 8,000 people. And we broadcast ambient sounds through the night. There’s no point putting your great material on at 3 o’clock in the morning in a town of 8,000 people. So, through the night, we have a thing called the soundscape where we make a real-time recording, lasting eight hours in a various point around the air each night, perhaps next to a stream, in a meadow, and just playback in real time, the recording the next night or later on the week. So, you get to hear the sound of dusk and summer, and then owls through the night. And then the sound of daybreak. And we just punctuate that with recording of the town hall clock chiming each hour and the voiceover announcing the hour. So that’s where we have through the night here, which has actually, bizarrely, gained quite a following. People will find it quite soothing.  

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Your current project is a community radio station born out of your This is Alfred podcast. Tell us about that.

Keri Jones: So, I’ve always worked in radio. And after 10 years on the Isles of Scilly, living in on island is kind of tough. You know, it’s 2,000 people, more than 20 miles off of the mainland. And the winters were very long because you’re out on the Atlantic. I did 10 years of it and I was kind of done. And I decided I wanted to do something different. So, I did a radio travel show, syndicated that for two years – great fun. Got a bit bored after about a year of waiting at airports, because I was away for 30 weeks of the year, and kind of lost my sense of being anchored to a place. I’d chosen to live in Shaftesbury because it’s a gorgeous town. Got involved with community groups and realised, there were lots of good things that we’re doing, but there was no outlets for them to shine. There was no way in which people were knowing what good work was been done in the community. The local paper was all about “If it bleeds, it leads” type headlines, even though there’s no crime here. You know, they’d run a story like “Knife Crime Doubles” because there was one knife crime in a year. So, I decided to do something different and to showcase what positive contributions people were making. So, I made a weekly podcast. It became quite popular. Then, I won a radio license. I applied to the regulator to get a license for a not-for-profit station. Then, during all of that, COVID happened. We got wind – we assumed that the prime minister of the day Boris Johnson was going to announce the lockdown. So, what was a weekly podcast? My team of volunteers who were helping prepare for the community radio station – I said, “We’re going to go daily from the 20th of March 2020.” – and we did. And we’ve been daily making hour-long local news and magazine programme for a town of 8,000 people, seven days a week. Ever since, we’ve not missed a day, we’ve not run under one hour and we’ve done it consistently. And now that’s on the FM radio station as well, which went on on Valentine’s Day last year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: That’s amazing. And are your volunteers – do they have a radio background or are these people that you train?

Keri Jones: No, they’re all real people, normal people. People who have a passion or interest for the town or a specific hobby or something that’s special to them. I think there’s lots of myths about radio. You don’t really need special skills. Yeah, we’re given pointers on how to record, usually on a mobile phone. That’s the device people are most comfortable with. And you find that people are okay going out and talking on a mobile and interviewing on a mobile. You get a microphone in front of somebody and they get intimidated by a mic. So, all of our volunteers will record using everyday handheld devices and use editing software. They use Hindenburg to package material up and send it to me and I put it into the broadcast chain. But we operate this entire 24/7 all-speech radio station with a rule that none of our content comes from more than five miles away from Shaftesbury, our town. So, we don’t have any national news or information – it’s entirely local. And we do it without any physical studios. It’s all done in the cloud, virtually, using everyday devices. So, our running costs are exceptionally low. And we’re running for about £3,000, $4,500 a year.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So, radio is actually easier to make nowadays than maybe a hundred years ago when it started in Germany, for example.

Keri Jones: Yes, because you’ve got technology that makes life a lot simpler. And also, I think the regulatory environment has changed. And if we’d gone to the UK broadcast regulator 10 years ago and said in a small town of 8,000 people “We want to run an all- speech station.” They would have thought we’d gone crazy because speech is expensive and they just wouldn’t think it was viable or possible. But we’ve kept running costs exceptionally low. So, we don’t need very much commercial income to break even. We need, you know, just a handful of clients. So, we have, you know, on tops 60 seconds commercial airtime an hour. It’s very much speech focused and very much local. And doesn’t have the irritations you have to have if you’re running a much bigger commercial operation with a lot of money going out on infrastructure and those sort of resources.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Do you keep officials accountable because you’re there. I mean, do you feel that this is something that radio is better able to do than newspapers?

Keri Jones: Yes, to a degree. The difficulty with radio is that you need sound and you need to talk to people and you don’t always get people who want to talk. If you’ve got some bad news stories they might, may view it. They’re not going to be crawling all over you to do an interview. So, to that end, we have to rely on things being shared in the public domain. Going to council meetings, recording the council meetings and taking sound bites from that and making a radio package – a bit like the BBC Radio 4 Today in Parliament program. That’s how we approach that. Now, of course, any public meeting you can record legally in the UK. So we do that. And we make it clear that we are recording and that’s how we, how we cover that base. There are times when we know stuff that we can’t get anybody to go on record and say on tape. And whereas the local paper would possibly run that  we can’t because we need the sound to go with it. But the upside of that is that we don’t generally get the fake news accusation because people can actually hear – on our broadcasts, on our website, on our listen-again-facility – what the person who’s been quoted has said that might think they’re talking rubbish or lying. But the fact is, our reporting is of what was said and that makes quite a difference.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Is there a Radio Alfred story that you or your team have done that you are particularly proud of?

Keri Jones: It doesn’t have to be something that is necessarily big. But when you get somebody calling you up in tears and saying “Thank you.” –  then you know you’ve made a difference because nobody else has, nobody else has stepped up and offered to do something. And when you do little things like that, it could just be, not even a news item – just finding a lost pet by putting out an announcement or fixing a problem for somebody. When somebody has had a problem with the council – you’ve stepped in, you’ve found a clear path for them. It’s palpable that you can feel how relieved they are and they know that it’s down to you. A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in one of our pubs on a Friday night with a friend and I was listening to a conversation of three old guys talking behind me about a local news story. And they were well informed. They’d listened to our news broadcast that morning and they could have only heard about that story by listening to us. And I thought that’s nice actually, the fact that they’re talking about it, they’re informed. And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve done our job.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Why is your radio station called Alfred? Does the name have any significance?

Keri Jones: Very much so. So, our town was founded in the year 888 by King Alfred the Great, King Alfred who fought off the invading Danes and is seen as an English folklore hero really. He brought the first education system into what was the Kingdom of Wessex, which made the foundations for England, brought in some of the first education and legal measures. So, he’s revered to some extent and he founded our town and there’s a statue of him in the town. There’s lots of references in businesses and street names to Alfred. And we thought, as is the [unintelligible] of the trend, a couple of years ago, to name radio stations after people like Jack. I thought Alfred would be a good name because with radio going digital on the alphanumeric displays on car dashboards, you’ll be first in the queue.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So, do you think that there’s a future for community radio?

Keri Jones: I think there’s a future for the community radio, if you provide something to community wants. I hear a lot of community radio stations where they’re trying to be mini commercial radio stations. You don’t hear this in America, but you hear it in Britain where people just want to be an old-school radio station because they either worked at an old school radio station before, stations got bought up by networks, or they hankered after that position. I don’t think you’ve got much life left if you just play records and have people talking between the records. If you just have local information that people can source elsewhere from the internet, I don’t think you’ve got more than five years left, because of the advance of AI. I think if you provide unique content that nobody else has got and it’s you putting that stuff on the internet first and whatever comes in in terms of fake newsreaders, fake presenters with AI that can read stuff online. If you’ve got it out on the radio or streaming through your online service before it’s been uploaded and one of those devices can read it, then you’ve still [unintelligible] and anybody else, and it’s all about unique content. So, any station that’s doing something that cannot be found anywhere else, as is often the way with radio, I think you find: content is really king – never so much as it is now.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: That was Keri Jones in Dorset, England. [Music and radio voiceover] You can listen to his Radio Alfredat 107.3 FM in Shaftesbury. Or stream it via thisisalfred.com

Host: Radio Around the World is brought to you by the Goethe-Institut. Thank you to all of our friends and partners for making this series possible. [Music]