Radio : A Social Service

When reception desks are closed at radio stations, the newsroom becomes the de facto switchboard. And it’s only a matter of time when, on a late shift, the phone will ring and an exasperated voice will say the immortal words : “I don’t know if I’ve got the right number for this but…”

Anything and everything can follow. Occasionally, it’ll be newsworthy: the listener tip off is still an invaluable part of a good hack’s sources. But mostly, it’s like being on the general enquiries desk for your local council. Or railway company. Or bank. Or all of those and just about everything else in life.

Words which have followed that initial greeting include…

“Could you tell me, is Marks and Spencer’s open late today?”

“We’ve lost a budgie/cat/raccoon and we wondered if…”

Or more commonly, and perhaps worryingly, gripes about benefits, housing issues or serious allegations against hospitals. Not every enquiry can be answered or followed up, and much of the time an online search will direct the caller to another, more appropriate number. It was ever thus. Except a few years ago there was always somewhere else you could direct the calls to.

Pictured here are two former staff from the Radio Trent Careline (along with presenter David Lloyd). Generously funded by benevolent local authorities, social action desks operated on both BBC and commercial stations. Nottingham was lucky to have not one, but two such services – crammed into an old shop building on Mansfield Road were Trent’s Careline and BBC Radio Nottingham’s ActionLine (initially known as the rather cryptic TX-RX).

This was the broadcasting equivalent of social services, citizens advice and lost pets all rolled into one. In the late 1980s I did some work experience with the Careline as it seemed like a good way of getting into radio. You see, the role of social action desks was twofold. Providing advice to callers was one thing, but the other side was producing on air features – some of them award winning – reflecting the work of charities, self help groups and just about anyone else in the voluntary sector.

At that time, both the BBC and commercial radio saw social action as a core part of Public Service Broadcasting. And whilst some of the material was brave, poignant and useful, other items were – well – just a bit worthy. But the content didn’t really matter. As a volunteer you got your hands proper radio kit – and a chance to look like a real professional with your Uher tape machine.

The funding arrangements were always a strange partnership, dating back to a time when local councils would throw pots of cash at almost anything in their localities, which meant that radio stations usually only had a small financial outlay. And social action folk were often confined to the smallest of production studios at the radio station – sometimes banished to the small hours.

Times change, of course, and so do budgets. For a time, many social action desks were run as fully fledged not for profit organisations under the auspices of CSV Media. But they were still reliant on grants from councils, which dramatically dwindled through the early 2000s.

A few action desks remain around the country. But they’re nowhere near as influential and well known as they once were. And sadly, that means fewer opportunities for volunteers who made the most of work placements to forge contacts and careers in radio.

And gain one very strong shoulder from humping a Uher about…

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