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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

A shining example of local radio

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

Keri Jones and his other half were savouring breakfast at their favourite café in beautiful Shaftesbury. A woman came over, touched Keri’s arm, apologised for interrupting and said: “I just want to thank you for Alfred”. Her husband chipped in to protest that he’s sent to Coventry for an hour each day whilst she listens.

Keri runs Alfred – the Shaftesbury radio station that started life as a podcast and is now comfortably both. After the closure of the local press titles in the dark Covid days, Alfred is the lone voice of the town – and recognised by all as ‘the local media’.

He rises at 4.45 each day to prepare the first hour of programming, ready for 06.00. 'The Alfred Daily' is not a breakfast show – it’s an hour-long, wholly local news magazine, broadcast eleven times across the day – updated as appropriate on each occasion. Whenever you tune in to Alfred, you hear about your town. For other things, there are numerous other great stations.

Keri was typically calm as we chatted at the end of a busy few days. He'd been grabbing audio at a local music festival, talking to revellers at a Bollywood night down the road and attending a local council meeting where passions ran high when a weed-killer ban reappeared on the agenda.

He gets used to council meetings, given he witnesses them all: Shaftesbury Town Council and the two parish councils as the heated Jackie Weaver debates rage in this proud town. As they do. Zippy the Zoom Recorder is welcomed and even afforded its own place at the table at Motcombe Parish Council. Like any responsible local medium that sometimes holds-to-account, not every key figure in the area is a fan – but the overall level of support is palpable.

I should disclose that Keri is a close friend. A friend I know much too well to let him know just how bloody impressed I am with all he’s done without us both feeling highly awkward.

We first met at Leicester Sound in the '80s when he was an annoyingly talented 21-year-old student who patiently did all that was asked of him, despite being capable of so much more. He’d already served an apprenticeship tape-reclaiming at Gwent Broadcasting, before popping up on-air at Aire and Pennine in Bradford.

After darting around all manner of stations in the commercial radio network, he jumped off the roundabout to run several RSL and learn lots. After then being part of the consortium which won the Valleys licence, he signed up as a lead shareholder to launch Radio Pembrokeshire which bounced on air with an astounding 66% weekly reach. Then he sailed off to pursue a dream establishing the highly successful Radio Scilly. Keri knows the secret of local.

After ten years on the Scilly Isles, Keri shifted to Shaftesbury to settle in the sort of quiet, traditional area which suits his character. As he busied himself locally, volunteering for PR duties for various organisations, he witnessed just how many stories simply do not get reported and how little constructive journalism existed. With press challenged – and the local BBC local station just a pan-Dorset two hour daily opt-out from BBC Solent with its 1.9m TSA – he felt a clear appetite for something genuinely local. And he was missing radio.

Keri created a weekly Shaftesbury podcast. Some 600 listens from a town of 8000 convinced him quickly of its worth. He recalls touching proof too when attending a presentation about powerful women in the community. When the Town Clerk asked how attendees had heard about the event, most hands went up to cite the Alfred podcast.

He says Alfred could have carried on simply as a podcast; and there’s little doubt it would have still been hugely valuable. Indeed, he was in two minds whether to apply for a community radio licence – and even wondered if Ofcom would allow an operation which played no music and had no traditional radio shows. On balance, he applied for the licence, although the journey to getting the radio station on-air was hampered hugely by Covid.

Not so the podcast, which he took from weekly to daily as the impact of the pandemic bit – re-channelling the efforts of the volunteers he’d amassed in preparation for the now-delayed radio station. Covid coverage generally, he felt, was very much about the big Cities and rarely about communities such as his. At a time of most need, both local papers ceased trading. Such was the value of the Alfred initiative that the Council produced leaflets delivered door-to-door promoting the podcast. A shelf of awards now recognises the contribution the podcast made in those dark, lonely days.

The flourishing podcast generated momentum for the radio station itself which came on-air on Valentine’s Day 2022: “A podcast on the radio”. Keri says he finds the older audience tend to hear things on the radio whilst others value the convenience of the hour-long daily podcast.

Whilst he's always full of praise for all those who contribute, there’s little doubt that Alfred would not exist without Keri. As he’s always said about other operations, a great local radio station needs the energy and leadership of just one person who really knows what they’re doing.

Around eighty volunteers do their bit at Alfred – all of whom need training and managing. A core of around 15 contribute regularly, but there are also offshoot groups helping to create some of the other content on the station including a unit creating a weekly history show; and another unit, managed by a local creative writer, hosting a team of 20 at the Arts Centre who record short stories and poetry pieces. Like all great community stations, the ripples of Alfred stretch naturally way beyond what comes out the loudspeaker or headphones.

Keri knows major news stories are unlikely to arise in his town to headline the hour-long Alfred Daily programmes which form the backbone of the station. So, they start with a dollop of what’s ons, illustrated with audio clips, adjusted by the hour. “That’s what people want”, he says: “Want to find out what’s happening? Put the radio on on-the-hour”.

Local characters prevail - like the weatherman or the contributor who chips in with audio nature notes. Each one beginning with a few seconds of wild on-location audio. Keri likes the tapestry of sound and weaves it beautifully. Volunteers are applauded when they record a piece which happens to feature the town hall clock sounding in the distance.

There's a gentle pace to Alfred. Decimal lengths do not exist – on-air pieces are as long as they need to be. Through the night from 10-6, Alfred broadcasts ambient sound. A recording made by one of the volunteers with a microphone under a hedge – recorded and then played out in 'real-time' the next night.

The sounds of the larks at dawn, the rain, the pauses, the gentle instrumental imaging coupled with Trish Bertram’s measured VO tones. Alfred sounds like walking down the Hovis cobbles of Gold Hill.

The perspective is human. After a cyclist died in a tragic road accident recently, Keri waited until the right moment – some time later - to cover the death of this local musician well-known in her community. Then, it was the emotional words of family and friends that were heard in tribute, not breathless, hurried commentary.

His general editorial policy is almost militant – “5 miles radius of Shaftesbury – anything outside that, we don’t touch it”. That’s wise. Too many stations become smaller where they try to become bigger – as the BBC will shortly find.

Steeped in the area, Keri’s always alert to stories. On a walk one Sunday night to eavesdrop on locals watching swifts – a keen interest for those troubled by the decline in the bird population - he got chatting and found out about a rare butterfly sighting. A 10’ package resulted, after the wildlife enthusiast told of two verified sightings never witnessed before in North Dorset. “You won’t find that in a press release”, adds Keri.

The station costs around £3,000 a year to run. No salaries, no PRS costs. Overheads are underwritten by a short list of commercial partners for whom credits are broadcast. Thanks to the likes of Morrisons Daily, an estate agent and a local hotel, the station’s finances are secure. It’s generating a surplus and Keri pays himself nothing, although he’s fully entitled to draw a salary.

Commercial solutions are inventive – whether the estate agent’s Q and A on property matters; the internet company deal which funds the transmitter link; or lively Sharon from Morrisons recording her daily offers on an audio file ready for broadcast. Little wonder the ads contribute positively to great local radio.

Technology and efficiency are key if this station and podcast are to stay on-air. There are no premises, no studios. The editing journey is often via Descript for the rough cut - and Hindenburg to polish it. A 7’ package produced in around 20’ from an hour- long police meeting. Chat GPT is embraced for refreshing stories or helping with cues. But – as Keri says – always treat AI's work as you would that of a rather inexperienced colleague. It always needs a sense-check.

Keri has utter conviction - yet is self-effacing. Proud but embarrassed when his efforts are realised. A local artist journeying to see him on her mobility scooter to give him a chocolatey thank-you. A round of applause at a local event. A line about his station in a local musical anthem. A pricey bottle of wine handed over when he popped in the fish and chip shop. Best of all, he says, is when an event organiser thanks him for helping to sell-out their events.

It’s not the only way to run small town radio. Keri praises Rutland and Stamford Sound, Radio Newquay, John Harding's Seaside FM in Withernsea, Great Driffield Radio, Petersfield’s Shine Radio and other examples he says are ‘dripping with localness’, although quite how he finds time to listen I do not know. But he does. He’s a critic, however, of stations just playing at radio and what he’s dubbed ‘spite stations’.

“True local audio is about shoe leather”, insists Keri. You need to be steeped in the patch, listening, watching, sharing, participating. Alfred would not fill an hour’s content on incoming information – it has to be found. The real-life stories that really interest people do not arrive by press release. Keri says he’s proudly "Digital Second". “First I have to get the story by walking around and finding it.”

Drawing back, I am in awe of Alfred and stations/podcasts like it – and it illustrates just how perverse UK local radio structure is.

Keri has a community licence, with all its headaches, but also does great work on an unlicensed podcast – at no public cost. Rob Persani at Rutland and Stamford Sound has a huge following to his online station – again at no public cost - but struggles with platforms. He cannot secure FM (despite an available frequency), nor a practical DAB solution; and wrestles with easy Alexa/Tune-In and Google. It is madness.

There are numerous people contributing serious local audio value. From standalone podcasts to FM community radio, small-scale commercial radio, online-only linear radio, or local operations seizing small-scale DAB coverage - all providing real public service at negligible or no cost to the public purse.

Yet it is the BBC that gets all the public funding for local audio – £119m on content alone - plus Royal infrastructure and the most luxurious transmission networks. And that network is now set to go less local, not more. Its purpose disintegrating, yet still costing a fortune.

Despite the huge public investment - the BBC’s planned output is unlikely even to be sufficient to have won a community radio licence.

Something is very wrong. Just think what that cash could do in the right hands.

The latest local radio re-organisation by our public service broadcaster could have been part of a radical plan to bring localness into the 21st century – but the World’s finest broadcaster has failed where Keri is succeeding.

Follow Keri's Twitter posts here.

Radio Secrets is a comprehensive guide to contemporary presentation and production techniques in all formats, from writing to delivery, across radio and podcasting.

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