The move to online for our European Researchers' Night festival, FUTURES2020, was not without its issues but we also saw it as an opportunity for us to test a few new ways of doing engagement. We teamed up with community radio practitioners Stellaria Media and five community radio stations across the South West and investigated the role community radio could play in public engagement with research.
Why community radio?
With the migration of engagement activities to online spaces over the course of the pandemic, the FUTURES team were mindful of the risk of excluding people from participating if all our activities were online-only and so we were keen to investigate ways to incorporate 'off-line' activities into the programme. Radio was an area that has been underexplored in terms of public engagement with research so as well as creating content that would form part of the FUTURES2020 programme we took the opportunity to explore the features of working in this medium.
What is community radio?
As a broad definition, community radio is a space for people to make radio in their own way, talk about meaningful issues in their lives, and connect with others through respectful discussion, listening and collaboration. Community radio is characterised by having community ownership, control and participation and being almost exclusively volunteer-run. It is oriented towards being non‐profit with activities that are focused on positive community development.
Unlike how audio content is created in traditional broadcast media, community radio content supports civic deliberation, creative engagement and social participation within a community setting on a chosen topic. The process is bottom-up, rather than top-down and supports a creative process of co-production and engagement, rather than expert-led dissemination.
How universities engage with the media
For universities, media engagement is often seen as a subset of corporate communications - marketing, press and public relations. As a result, the community development approach that characterises community radio is poorly understood and often overlooked by researchers when thinking about ways to engage public groups with their research.
We'd not explored public engagement with research through radio before but were aware of some great practice such as the AudioLab work from the University of Manchester. As part of our FUTURES consortium, cultural events producers Agile Rabbit had a relationship with radio practitioners Stellaria Media and together we came up with the idea of FUTURES on Air to explore the role community radio could play in public engagement with research.
FUTURES on Air
FUTURES on Air consisted of a series of co-produced radio conversations between community programme-makers and researchers and broadcast across community radio in the South-West of England as part of the FUTURES2020 programme. We worked with five community radio stations, including Bath Radio (Bath), Phonic FM (Exeter), Soundart Radio (Totnes) and Radio St Austell Bay (Cornwall), South-West-based community radio practitioners Stellaria Media, facilitated collaborative engagement between the groups and researchers from the University of Exeter, University of Bath and University of Plymouth.
Together we developed a model for FUTURES on Air involved community programme-makers identifying topics they were interested in and were matched with researchers carrying out work in those areas and through facilitation co-produced programmes that were broadcast on participating radio stations.
The programmes produced as part of FUTURES on Air varied in contenranging from climate change, feminism, housing inequalities, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and South Asian music, and were diverse in format (including). All the programmes are available to listen again on the FUTURES on Air Mixcloud station.
What we learnt
Working with Leicester based researcher/community radio practitioner Decentered Media to evaluate the project, we identified two key features that emerged.
Importance of working with expert practitioners
Whilst we enabled the project through releasing funding from FUTURES2020 and worked to connect community-programme makers with researchers, the FUTURES on Air would not have been possible without Stellaria Media. These community radio practitioners were embedded within the sector and were able to draw on their networks to reach out to community radio stations, understand their needs and using their expertise and insight to support us, and the participating researchers, navigate a new landscape, enabling successful collaborations.
Value of community radio content programming style
In contrast to commercial radio, there wasn’t a pre-determined model of programming or audience development on the project participants, instead the collaborative approach to programme making placed emphasis on valuing the process as well as the product. This model created an opportunity for greater deliberative engagement with research and enhanced the opportunity for the mutual exchange of ideas and experiences between researchers and community programme-makers.
Role of community radio in public engagement with research
From our evaluation of FUTURES on Air, we think working with community radio is an example of a more equitable approach to practice in public engagement with research. Community programme-makers accessed knowledge generated through research that helped them make sense of issues that they, and their wider community, are affected by in a space that they owned in a way that subverted the traditional power imbalances associated with public engagement. For researchers, we found that participation offered a meaningful opportunity to gain insights into the experiences of people who are or could be affected by their research.
We've put together a guide to Community Radio and Public Engagement using FUTURES on Air as a case study. In this guide, we cover what community radio is, what we did with FUTURES on Air and findings from our evaluation. We'd love to know if anyone else has had any experience of working with community radio, please drop us a line and let's compare notes.
Dean Veall is Deputy Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath