On the right wavelength

4th August 2000 at 01:00
A recent radio Authority report expressed concern over children being exposed to unsuitable programmes. Elaine Williams eavesdrops on a group of young people taking control of the airwaves and asks how they can be better served.

David Blunkett has revealed all about his first date, teenage Liz is about to give birth and we think the father of the baby is in a coma. It's mid-morning in the basement at BBC Radio Sheffield, but already the room's buzzing about the evening's broadcast.

Oblivious to their gloomy surroundings, a group of about 20 Sheffield teenagers is concentrating on producing Festival Radio for the prime-time evening slot - 6.30pm to 7pm.

It's a fairly impressive schedule for today's programme, which the student volunteers are making during release from school or college or between lessons. The interview with Blunkett is a scoop for the mini-series Growing up in Sheffield. Apparently our Secretary of State for Education and Employment made the most of his blindness by inviting young women to the cinema and getting them to whisper in his ear to explain the action on screen: a ploy equivalent to asking a girl "to come up and see my etchings", he told Robert Gurrachaga, his young interviewer.

Liz's pregnancy and the suspected father's accident (he was knocked down by a milk float) is only one storyline in the Festival Radio soap, Jarvis Cocker Street, which needs a new episode. When students were asked what daily items Festival Radio should include they insisted on a soap, which in the course of nine episodes has turned into a spoof of all the soaps they have ever seen and heard. This one has found a highly appreciative audience. Indeed, the last Festival Radio programme was extended to an hour by popular demand. For the past three summers similar programming has gone out to thousands of listeners most evenings during the two weeks of Sheffield Children's Festival.

Liz Dooley, 18, who has just finished a GNVQ media and communication course at Norton college, is getting ready to read four more of her poems for a poetry slot. Holly Peterkin, 16, in her first year of A-levels at Silverdale school, is about to edit the interview she has just finished with a man fighting to regain access to his son after being barred by a court order. There is animated discussion among the production group about the merits of his case. Kate Linderholm, one of the two BBC journalists directing the young team for the fortnight,suggests that Holly contact a divorce lawyer to add balance. "How many of you have divorced parents?" Linderholm asks, then suggests that Holly might interview some of her peers whoseparents have split up.

As the day progresses the pace quickens: interviewing on location; editing and mixing; writing scripts; recording in the studios; researching for news slots. It requires confidence and concentration, which the students have gained rapidly. What they lack in experience they more than make up in enthusiasm - some are returning for a second or third year to help out.

Sinead Thompson, 18, wanted to be a beauty therapist before a friend dared her to volunteer for Festival Radio two years ago. A shy girl from Brantwood, a girls' independent school, she felt the experience had a profound effect: "I used to have a lot of problems with my voice, I used to be so shy, but I loved the idea of going on air. There's a real buzz getting the show out. It's addictive."

Sinead went on to take a BTec national in media studies at Rotherham college and now intends to study media production. A keen sportswoman, she helps on the Radio Sheffield sports desk every Tuesday and Saturday. She has fallen in love with radio: "Because you are concentrating on listening to the voice, I think it means that views come across more strongly than when you see them on TV."

Festival Radio attracts volunteers from both state and independent schools as well as an ethnic mix. It is the brainchild of Margaret Burgin, an arts presenter and producer for BBC Radio Sheffield. She felt that children and young people should be heard more on air and persuaded the BBC to provide the space and the staff (herself and Linderholm) during the festival. She is campaigning for BBC money to be put into schools' radio. Simon Cooper, director of public affairs at the radio company GWR FM and head of the training committee of the Radio Academy, a charity which brings together BBC and commercial radio to improve quality, is also behind the campaign.

Burgin's interest began with recording school choirs at Christmas and getting children to talk about Christmas. "Our listeners loved to hear those young voices and they do sound so different, so full of vitality. All that energy is lost when people grow up. Children themselves rarely hear young voices on the radio, and yet they are so good at making radio. Whenever I have gone into primary schools and got children to talk they do it very well."

Linderholm believes Festival Radio is a real asset to BBC Radio Sheffield and of enormous benefit to the students who make it. "What's in it for us is diversity, giving young people a voice. What's in it for them is a growth in confidence."

Burgin repudiates the belief that young people only want pop music on radio: Festival Radio has shown that they are interested in and good at producing talk radio if it is pitched at their level. Her aim, she says, is for most schools to be able to make radio shows. Modern equipment makes it affordable: you can do it with a computer, a microphone and a mini-disc recorder.

Lindsay Gumbrell, head of English at King Edward VI, asecondary school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, has been running King FM radio station with pupils for a week at the beginning of every July for the past few years. The station, on air for five evenings from 4pm to 10.30pm, is a mixture of music and talk, with students making programmes about the businesses which sponsor the station; about the national curriculum or about their peers on work experience, foreign exchanges and school trips.

Though a licence and transmitter costs more than pound;2,000, the benefits for students, she says, are huge. "There's nothing quite like going on air for developing communication skills quickly. Students' presentation is lively and upbeat and they work extremely hard, shifting from a state of extreme nervousness to euphoria."

Simon Cooper, of the Radio Academy, believes that the cheapness and accessibility of radio means that it can be used in schools to support the national curriculum, and hopes to meet the DFEE to put this message across.

Listening to radio also aids concentration, says Susan Stranks, a former presenter of children's TV programme Magpie, and director of Children 2000, the national campaign for children's radio which wants a Children's Broadcasting Commission to be set up.

Listening 2000, a recent report from the Radio Authority (which licenses and regulates commercial radio) and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, pointed out that many prime time radio music-and-chat shows do not take child listeners into account and may contain strong language and sexual innuendo. Stranks is concerned that children no longer have access to an alternative in the form of suitable talk-based programmes on radio.

"They have been marginalised. All 230 UK radio stations target audiences aged 15 and above."

With one in five pre-school children apparently suffering communication problems, Stranks says radio is perfect for honing their listening skills and that given appropriate material - songs, stories, rhymes, quizzes, competitions and phone-ins - they will want to listen. She also says BBC-produced audiotapes and access to children's radio via the Internet are no substitute.

"Why should children be the only citizens who have to download their radio from a telephone line when adults get it free-to-air? And why should they have to pay for tapes? In any case radio is about discovery - it should whet children's appetite for stories and songs and plays they did not previously know about. It can be a great support to cash-strapped nurseries. The Government has spent enormous amounts on youth sport and after-school clubs and all of that can be supported by children's radio."

She also believes that giving children and young people a voice on radio as well as making programmes for them is important in creating a positive media image of young people. She said: "We only ever hear about them as truants, drug addicts or alcoholics, when radio is in fact a cheap and cheerful way of acknowledging what children can do and are doing."

Children 2000: Telfax 01273 422999The Radio Academy: Tel 020 77255 2012; fax 020 7255 2029Listening 2000 details on www.radioauthority.org.uk

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