Using Community Media to Stay Social

There’s some great advice going around at the moment about how communities can connect and communicate during the immobilisation period, as we all deal with the coronavirus. The support networks that bring together volunteers from community and civic groups have started to activate, and are being co-ordinated on a local level through a mixture of public bodies, social sector organisations, and voluntary groups. Much of it is going to be useful for community media, and there will be a lot that community media groups can use that will be useful in return.

I saw some good advice that was shared by The Rural Coffee Caravan c-a-f-e (coffee-and-friends-events) network. In a recent blog post they explained how there are some simple ways to support our neighbours and communities that might help to ward off loneliness at a time of physical distancing. Their idea is to build a bank of ideas that can be pooled and used by anyone, and can help to keep people active, calm and engaged without being overwhelmed by distressing information.

Their advice starts with finding creative ways to have a chat, “whether it’s on the phone, down Skype, through FaceTime, having a Zoom call or through a window at a safe distance.” According to C-A-F-E there is plenty of power in having a simple conversation. There’s a lot of good advice given that can be adapted by community radio volunteers and programme makers. With some imagination, I’m sure that the contribution of community radio volunteers will be equally inventive and creative. Here’s a couple of my initial thoughts suggestions that might help. I’d be very interested in hearing about other examples that are happening around the country.

Be prepared to ditch the format. Community radio isn’t meant to do the same job that the BBC and the commercial broadcasters aim to do. Instead, community radio is created by volunteers who are part of, and speak directly with, members of their local communities. If radio programmes stick to a pre-arranged script that imitates the formatted style of commercial radio, then it would miss the chance to connect people with positive and engaging human stories. So ditch the format and instead have some extended conversations with people.

Stop talking and start listening. The role of the presenter is often seen as a controller of information or as an entertainer. While both might be important, they are not the only way to approach making and hosting a radio programme. We will be serving a highly valued socially function if we spend more time listening to people, and helping them to tell their stories for themselves. There’s going to be a lot of pain and anxiety bottled-up over the next few weeks, and without an outlet these emotions might be dealt with negatively. So hone your listening skills, and give people time to explore and express what they are dealing with. At times like this we all need to be sensitive to what it means to be human, to be anxious, and to feel the fear of being overwhelmed.

Be creative. The C-A-F-E recommends a number of creative ways to connect people, from taking up arts and music, to writing and visiting online galleries. Remember, radio is primarily a creative medium, so be prepared to explore people’s creative responses to our circumstances. Encourage listeners to share their poems, to describe the visual art they create, to explain what they enjoy about art, music, drama and literature. Our social response isn’t going to be well served if all we allow ourselves is to be force-fed repeats of TV detective series, or zombie and murder mysteries on Netflix. We need to connect with one another on a practical creative level. What can we make for ourselves that will help us to express ourselves? And how can we share and help others to find that creative inspiration that will be an antidote to the gloomy days ahead?

Encourage participation. There’s no point in just talking at people, we also need to get people taking part and contributing to something that is more than themselves. As well as encouraging people to talking with one another, in whatever way they can, across all forms of media, we need to ask them to capture those conversations and share them. The more widespread and inclusive our pool of stories and storytellers, then the more there is to learn from other people’s experiences and the way they have deal with social challenges before. More voices mean more perspectives to view things from, which will give us more insight. Don’t just limit yourself to people like ourselves, dig around and find the people who don’t normally get invited to share their stories.

Focus on positive stories and solutions. The more positive the better. Being positive doesn’t mean being unrealistic or fanciful. Useful positivity is grounded in a balanced and objective view of our options, but if we get drawn into conspiracy theories, or magical thinking, then we will run out of practical options. Always asks what works in practice, and what the difference is that makes a difference? Examples of a generous outlook and spirit connect with people at a deeper level, and can help them to find resilience at times of despair. It might be as simple as collecting recorded statements from contributors on a WhatsApp group and playing them out. Or reading out letters that have been collected and playing them on a show. Not everything has to be hi-tech. At a time like this, the low-tech human solutions will probably work best.

Promote the feeling of social accountability. We all need to feel we belong to something, and the best way to do that is to name check everyone involved. Don’t talk in generalities, for example about the council, or a particular company. Instead, try to find the names of each person who is involved in a story, and mention them specifically, by giving them some praise for their efforts. Many of your volunteers and listeners will highlight the people that they recognise for making a positive social contribution, so this is an invaluable resource to use. Community radio doesn’t have the resource of paid journalists to maintain networks of stories and follow-up problems by researching deeply in to them. So use your local assets, relationships and connections. Keep the stories positive and welcoming. There’s plenty of gloomy stories around, don’t add to them unnecessarily.

Avoid indignation-based platforms. Many of our social media platforms are designed to provoke a negative response from users, so they are filled with fake stories and click-bait, which emphasises a negative outlook that is highly addictive. Don’t let guests and contributors talk about what they have experienced through the media, or via social media, instead ask them to talk about their immediate experience and how they are feeling. People will open-up and talk passionately about what they care for. Don’t just talk about what people should care about, instead, encourage them to describe and share what they care for – their families, their pets, their contribution to their community. There is a wealth of stories out there that will inspire other people.

It’s going to be important to keep people connected and not simply informed. Social distancing is not only a physical, but an emotional and a psychic challenge for everyone. There are creative and innovative ways that we can use radio to overcome some of these distances. Many have been around for a long time. What community media excels at is giving this job over to ordinary people, who have no professional background or experience. What people need at this time is access to a medium they can trust, where they can share their stories of positive social solidarity. Which is media that is made by and for people like us. Community radio isn’t run by experts, or highly technical professionals. Community media is driven by ordinary people who want to play a role in nurturing the well-being and cohesion of their neighbourhoods and communities.

If you’ve got more ideas that you think would be helpful to share, lets keep people aware that community radio and other forms of community media are a great way to do it. Use the hashtags #communitymedia #communityradio. Stay distant, stay safe but stay social.

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