As the nation continues lockdown, we’ve found ourselves with more time to listen. Now is when we’ll know which voices we truly rely on for cultural navigation and information.
“Big up all frontline workers,” booms down the mic as a slick rewind pulls through the last track of the morning on Melodic Distraction Radio. The socially-charged sign off, delivered with underlay of murky bassline and sporadic synthesiser most commonly found on grime instrumentals, isn’t your average public service announcement in a time of crisis. Nor is it the usual offering of chirpy music and current affairs chatter on your average breakfast show. For a start it’s much closer to midday than the first spritely pips of Radio 4’s agenda-setting Today programme. But this is no barrier to the club focussed selections setting the music-first agenda on MDR.
The online radio station’s combination of spirited selections and spirit-raising conversation has watermarked its first month of live morning programming. Whereas the station previously broadcast each day from 4pm in its Baltic Triangle studio, the programming team has added three live shows from 9am-1pm every weekday – all of which are broadcast from the living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens of the station’s radio show hosts. “We basically scaled [the setup] back,” explain station co-founder Josh Aitman and manager Nina Franklin, tuning into a steady connection on Google Hangouts. “People donated so much kit, close to 70 microphones, cables and audio interfaces,” Aitman adds. “As the lockdown was coming into effect, we’d been able to deliver equipment to our host’s doors and get them set up.”
It’s not only the record collections of the hosts on show. The live streaming aspect of the programming brings the listener further into the room. Yesterday’s breakfast show was complete with its hosts, Tom Lye and James Binary, riffing off one another’s music choices in an attic bedroom.
The station’s presenters, like many across commercial and BBC networks, have assumed the role of quasi-frontline workers since the nation went into lockdown. Tuning into radio has provided the only access to outside voices for many in isolation. Yet, musical connection isn’t merely enough on its own. The presence of steady human navigation is there to reinforce the emotive connection within the listener.
On the more established local radio waves of the BBC, its role is typified by delivering the latest information and retaining high spirits for its listeners, albeit with fewer grime instrumentals. “We need to give trusted information,” says BBC Radio Merseyside editor Andrew Bowman. “In that sense, institutions have never been more important as being somewhere people can look to for information that’s well checked and well trusted.” But there’s an equal incentive to retain a familiar atmosphere that flattens the angular nature of information emerging from the crisis. “[It’s] important to be offering people a distraction, and being somewhere people can turn to in really hard times,” he says, speaking over the phone on a rare day in a usually busy office, where the workforce is operating on a skeletal level in line with social distancing measures.
For MDR, forming a digital web of musical connection across Liverpool’s postcodes has been a key component of the programming according to station manager Nina Franklin. “I stopped listening to albums and recorded mixes really quickly after lockdown,” she starts. “I wanted to hear somebody’s voice. Anything with a chat room integration and a comforting voice suddenly became really important.” Jovial phone ins and song requests have also been a regular feature throughout the live programming, arguably a lifeline for many at home self-isolating, working or furloughed. “The current situation was the push that we needed to launch the morning schedule, but it was never intended to be in this format. It’s a strange and enjoyable thing to be doing at this time,” Franklin notes.
As a nation we’re listening a lot more since the lockdown. Not just in terms of statistical figures – up by 18 per cent across BBC networks at the end of March – but in terms of a willingness to connect to other, trusted voices; seeking out a more personable and emotional connection with content being delivered. And this runs through both culture and information with many relying on daily briefings where the politicians don’t field the majority of questions. This, in an era when people were supposedly sick of listening to the experts.
The nation shutting its front doors and staying home is an obvious marker for growth in listenership on radio. However, in parallel, streaming figures are down – as much as 8 per cent on Spotify. In this there are early signs that human voices are taking greater prevalence over algorithmic navigation as we find ourselves with greater time and space to listen.
Melodic’s listening figures have gone “through the roof” according to Franklin. “We’re having thousands more people tuning in every week,” Aitman reinforces, “and this is live”. Given the challenging circumstances the results have come at an even greater surprise. “This has changed the game for us. Whether it’s the chatbox, or Facebook live, people are getting in touch more than before. Our listenership has increased by over 100 per cent.”
The online station has come good on its promise of providing a ‘distraction’. As the virus has proliferated and news reports and briefings grown otherworldly by the day, the station’s lighthearted approach and commitment to following the musical tastes of its hosts has been a portal to momentary solace. However, to steer clear of the hard talk of exponential graphs and ventilators is not to assume an apathetic discourse. “We’re not frontline workers, and we don’t have any coronavirus expertise,” says Franklin, “but we do have loads of tunes. That’s what we can offer to people.” Most importantly of all, the voices at the heart of the programming remain informed on the music choices and sincere.
Key to following a trusted navigator stems from understanding and sincerity. As an institution delivering news and curating culture, the BBC is a ubiquitous presence in many households with its raft of familiar and ‘trusted’ voices. For many, it remains the gold standard of news and analysis on national and local level – even while its sincerity will be questioned by some. Its radio stations are still the most listened to in the country with the Today programme on Radio 4 drawing in just over seven million listeners each week.
In recent years the broadcasting institution has found itself wedged in between an increasingly polarised political sphere. Up until the current pandemic, its very existence and use as non-partisan organisation was being brought into question by the Government. And yet, similarly to Melodic Distraction, the challenges have seen the institution come into its own as resource for listeners confined to their homes with a growing appetite for information.
“The companionship of radio is different from most other media because we’re in people’s kitchens, people’s living rooms, people’s bedrooms,” says Bowman. “Often, if they are living on their own or not seeing family and friends as much, we’re a link to the outside world.”
Bowman concedes that trust in journalism has been tested in recent years, but he stands by the “importance” of institutions like radio, magazines, newspapers and publishers to assume the role as trusted voices at a time when people are looking for leadership. “Journalists are there to tell stories and tell them in a truthful and accurate way,” he continues. “The current crisis has shown that we need quality journalism. We need that at a local level too.”
The local connection Bowman speaks of has seen a huge spike in engagement in the past four weeks, with 300,000 calls made nationally to the 39 local BBC station’s Make A Difference teams – a virtual notice board where members of the public can ask for, or offer up, a range of help during the lockdown. All of this comes down to the connection with the voice according to Bowman. “It’s not OK to not have a local voice. I think the BBC has a unique position to provide that.”
Speaking to The Guardian last month, professor Sophie Scott, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL, underscored the huge importance of voice familiarity. “From the moment we are born,” she stated, “we react differently to voices we know. We are calmed by them. It’s a profound connection. A familiar voice, one that we are fond of, is both company and solace.”
But what exactly is in a trusted voice, and why does it matter now or in usual circumstances? Writing in The Observer, Alan Rusbridger opined: “In our isolation we are rediscovering community. In our confusion we are rethinking whom we trust…but what it amounts to is this: there is such a thing as society and we are all interdependent. And if it sometimes takes a grave crisis to remind ourselves of these truths. then this moment may well be historic for the possibilities of hope.”
Climb to the top of Everton brow and Rusbridger’s thoughts are echoed more economically. Sprawled on a wall nearest the parks peak is “there is such a thing as society”. The graffiti makes a poignant point in its location. The views take in Scotland Road as far as Waterloo, past Liverpool’s modernised docks. To the right, monuments to social housing projects stand in line as they taper towards Everton Valley. Beyond the insincere cityscape, punctured by new builds held together by dirty funds, the riverside of L8 comes into sight with its terracotta-flecked terraces and community steeples. Every direction you look you can take in the existence of society. Even without the people present a shadow is still cast on empty streets by busy households. A drive for individualism, most forcefully pushed by Thatcher, is countered by the view on offer and the riposte on the wall. Without society the landscape wouldn’t be quiet. There’d be no trust in calls to stay at home.
Radio is just one medium where we have seen societal bonds tighten in the ensuing lockdown. Faith in the BBC has grown. Those who dared to question the NHS now clutch at straws to lay blame at the exhausted hands and feet of medical professionals. But the role of cultural navigation remains just important to retaining these societal bonds. As with Melodic Distraction, trusted voices remain at the heart.
“On the other side of all this, we’ll say to ourselves, ‘We got into a bit of a mess here’. Not just in politics, but in cultural navigation too,” says Roger Hill, who has fronted the explorative Popular Music Show on BBC Merseyside for over 40 years. “We’ll be looking to those whose voices convince us – the curators. The person who shimmies together a characterised cluster of content. Just as John Peel was doing.”
Hill’s comments take in the age of the influencer and the voices who’ve risen to prominence through social media. One glaring omission from the trusted voices cohort since the crisis gained pace is celebrities. Toe-curling renditions of Imagine and You’ll Never Walk Alone have been enough to see their stocks plummet at a similar rate to crude oil. For Hill, this has reopened the door for the trusted voices. Those at the heart of institutions, those strengthening society through the subtle rallying cry of radio broadcasting – even when music takes centre stage.
“The crisis has increased our alertness,” Hill starts. “It hasn’t showed us that there are new, trusted voices per-se. If you look at the stars in the garden at night, in one sense you’d say they’re all the same brightness. But actually, some are brighter, some are more penetrating and visible, but we never bothered to look at them long enough for quite some time.
“Now, in isolation, we’re taking a moment to look a little bit longer and reacquaint ourselves,” he adds. “Through this we’re starting to see which voices among the masses offer the widest perspective and inform us, bring us something new. We were always capable to do this, but we didn’t have the motivation to do any hard looking.”
Hill’s perspective is shared by Joel Hansen, editor of Scottie Press Newspaper, who has been zeroing in on the impact of the pandemic in North Liverpool. “People are feeling more and more detached from the world around them. Familiar platforms and institutions giving them comfort is more important than ever. That’s what Scottie Press is, even when outside of the current circumstances.” While the paper has moved to digital production for the time being, Hansen does not see it taking a reduced role as trusted voice in the North Liverpool communities – something which it has offered for over 30 years. “We’re seeing figures and we’re hearing stories that might not be too close to home. Local press is able to take these stats and stories and relay them in a way that relates to a local community, with added first person accounts that people can resonate with.” In doing so, community connections are established and strengthened on the micro level, and if propagated enough, levels of trust in what we see and hear grow on a macro level. Taking a step back in isolation allows us to venture back to root of what we believe in.
Back over at Melodic Distraction, Josh Aitman is at the controls for today’s full morning schedule. For the past four weeks the news has continued to grow more serious as signs of a peak in deaths haven’t fully materialised. With an extended lockdown, the country is in a different place to when it started. But at MDR, the focus hasn’t shifted. “We’re here with you, bringing the connection through music while we can’t be together,” he says into the mic. The resolute, uplifting attitude is likely of paramount importance to listeners at home placing trust in the music and the voice that’s guiding them through social distancing. It’s no less important than the authoritative voices standing either side of the politicians every day at 5pm briefings.
Access to these voices is an essential public service, and one that spans all layers of society – from politics to culture. Now is the time when we’ll understand which voices we truly rely on – those we’ll need to be just as vocal once lockdown ends. As Hill puts it best: “We’re going to need the tastemakers, the navigators, these trusted voices more than ever, because it’s going to look a fuck of a mess when we’re on the other side and we start to rebuild.”