Building a sense of community through the airwaves
Creating a sense of community
This episode of Our Voices focuses on the power of technology to create a sense of community. James discusses the ways in which key individuals in his life have been able to achieve this.
James begins by talking about the value that radio had to him as a child. He used to live in a sleepy village in Somerset in an old building called Monk’s Dairy. His house was situated in a valley amidst beautiful rolling, green hills.
The downside, however, was that the area was susceptible to floods. Describing the impact of one of the floods James experienced as a child, he says
“water lapped up into the dairy. We couldn’t go anywhere because the entire house was surrounded by floodwater and it would get into your boots if you tried to walk outside.”
Love of radio
The flooding was so severe that James and his family were unable to leave the house for days. The only things he could do were watch television and listen to the radio. The latter proved to be a particular comfort to James as the BBC had created a special broadcast for those who had been affected by the floods.
Listening to the presenter’s voice, he felt a deep love of radio which came from a sense that the whole community was listening to this same broadcast and that they were in it together.
A geeky friend
Technology’s ability to create a sense of community was also evidenced in James’ school life. James went to a boarding school in a remote valley in the north of England. The imposing design with its towers and turrets made it somewhat reminiscent of Hogwarts Academy.
It was at this school that James would meet his first role model, a fellow pupil named Michael. Describing Michael, James says he “was very, very geeky.” James is no longer in contact with his school friend but he speculates on what the adult version of Michael would be like.
“If he’s a professor in a university, he would be the person with the dishevelled look, and the trousers that aren’t long enough.”
An intricate prank
Michael was four years above James when they became friends. But, along with the geekiness, James was drawn to the maverick side of Michael’s personality. He was particularly taken with his friend’s attempts to use technology in subversive ways. An example of this was when he attempted to make an FM transmitter in order to bug the headmaster’s office.
The motivation for this was that a pupil had got into trouble and the school was keen to hear what the headmaster’s reaction would be.
“What Michael did in just a day is, he went to the electronics room at school and built an FM transmitter with a little microphone. It was an FM transmitter with a little antenna, which he ended up sticking onto this thing so that it would transmit the audio. He then stuck it into this guy’s top pocket so that it would end up broadcasting the headmaster shouting at this guy and it would end up on the FM waveband across school.”
Had this technological prank come off, it would have been certain to create quite the stir. But unfortunately, or fortunately, perhaps, events did not go to plan. “The wire needed to be straight, I think, in order for it to work. And, for whatever reason, the wire ended up bending.” So there would be no school broadcast. Nevertheless, James was inspired by the attempt.
Bringing people together
Michael would go on to start a technology club, an example of technology bringing people together. In this case, it helped to unite the school’s “outsiders”. He would share his passion and show people how to build electronic devices, creating a very unique sense of community in the process.
He also started a pirate radio station, something which James would take over when Michael graduated.
“I was very aware that I was doing something illegal, because you’re not allowed to broadcast on FM. Although, if you are in a valley in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors, probably nobody’s going to care.”
An influential colleague
A few years later, James began working in radio in a legal capacity at a local station called The Pulse. Here he was able to take a role at the forefront of creating a sense of community. This occurred as a result of meeting the second person who inspired him, a man named Steve Martin.
Describing Steve, James says he “looked like the sort of person that would work in a council doing bus timetables”. He also describes Steve as “incredibly introverted”. Yet, despite his introversion, he saw enough of James to recognise that he had potential. Consequently, he gave James his first role as a radio presenter.
“I remember him putting me on for a week just to try me out on the afternoon drivetime show, which was a pretty big show…” James’ trial proved to be successful. “So he ended up giving me a job. And I ended up doing the afternoon drive show for a year, followed by the evening show for a year.”
The importance of praise
Recalling his time at The Pulse, James particularly appreciates the way in which Steve encouraged him to take a professional approach to his work. Comparing radio DJing to musicianship and painting, Steve believed it was important to practise and prepare constantly in order to do one’s best work.
James also found Steve to be very encouraging. He would offer praise when it was merited and helped James to recognise the ability that he possessed.
Joining the podcast community
James now lives in Brisbane, Australia, where he edits podnews.net, a daily newsletter about podcasting. James has taken the subversive values he learned from Michael and the professional attitude he learned from Steve into his approach to his current role.
For example, talking about a recent press release from Spotify, he says “it was the dullest legal statement that you’ve ever heard. But I felt that I had to get it into the newsletter.” However, when putting together his podcast, Steve reported the release with an irreverent twist “I’d speeded up that boring legalese by 30% just to make it sound even more ridiculous and legal.”
Reflecting more generally on his newsletter, it is clear that he has contributed to the sense of community he knows that technology can achieve. In joining the podcast movement, he has become a part of one of the most modern ways of achieving this.
“There are lots of people who are reading this, who are consuming the same thing. And there is a bit of a community out there. Building the community around it is something that I really enjoy doing.”