‘A City Talking To Itself’ – An Interview with BCB’s Mary Dowson

‘From the heart of Bradford, this is BCB Radio 106.6 FM’; the innocuous jingle drifts from a well-used radio on the reception desk. Through the glass the newsroom is in full swing, keyboards are clicking and discussions are underway. You could be forgiven for thinking this was just your average local radio station. You would be wrong. Just around the corner several school children sit at their desks working away, an elderly lady cracks a joke and a man with a thick Polish accent talks on the phone. A schoolgirl is preparing a feature package on football mascots, “Why are Crewe called the Railwaymen? What is so special about Crewe’s train station?” The light on the studio door lights up red, ‘Live on Air’. This is not Smashey and Nicey, this is proper grassroots local radio, from the heart of Bradford.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more inclusive organisation than BCB radio, nor are you likely to meet a friendlier host than Mary Dowson, the station’s Director. Twenty years ago Mary spotted an opportunity – the Broadcasting Act of 1990 had opened up the chance of creating a community radio station for the city of Bradford. It would bring together her two great passions, radio and community-based education.
“It was just fantastic, the idea that we could have a radio station where ordinary people in Bradford could broadcast, that those voices could be heard… it’s probably the most exciting thing I have ever done in my life.”

At the time broadcasting licences were limited to one month, and so ‘Bradford Festival Radio’ as it was then known became the audio companion to the Bradford Festival season. Little did Mary and her fellow pioneers imagine that two decades later this experiment would have grown to become a full time broadcaster, recognised both nationally and internationally for its community work.

The journey was by no means easy but is testament to the ethos and objectives that make this organisation so special. For ten years BCB has provided free training and support for the people of Bradford, turning consumers or passive listeners of radio into active broadcasters. The volunteers are given compete control and many sections of the community are given a voice, “It’s about people identifying what programmes they want to make and us giving them the training and platform to be able to do that” says Mary. “Our role is to encourage people to become broadcasters and to give them that training and support to make their own radio programmes.”

It is a stubborn commitment to this ethos that has prevented the station from ever becoming commercially funded. “We have chosen not to be a commercial station, not to take advertising because we don’t want to be driven by another objective…Finding advertising that sits with us ethically is always going to be difficult, we could take some but we would much rather do something which was socially useful and had community gain and social benefit .” The idea was almost unheard of ten years ago when, after a good deal of hard lobbying by Mary, the station was granted a full broadcasting licence. “We were very much seen as a trailblazer and we have been visited by loads and loads of different organisations over the years who want to come and see what we do and how we do it, which is very flattering.”

Their commitment is admirable given the difficulties facing social enterprises but BCB has an impressive track record when it comes to securing funding. “Most of the funding has not been as a radio station per se, it’s actually for the work we do in development and training… In the past we have had money from Europe and through government projects such as the Working Neighbourhoods Fund. We have actually fitted into a lot of policy objectives that governments have had, but of course they come and go so it’s about being ready for whatever the next one is.”

The nature of project funding means the station needs to be on its toes at all times. “Obviously we have a great premises and resources now, but we do have a lot of overheads. In this difficult economic period it is going to be a challenge for us to find the money to keep going. It’s about how we can be creative and inventive.”

BCB survives on a skeleton staff team who have to make sure the infrastructure is there and that the equipment is working, as well as being there to make sure everybody has the training and support they need. Thankfully they can call on the huge team of devoted volunteers; around 250 people are actively involved with the station. Mary admits managing that amount of people is hard but is full of praise for the dedication of everyone involved, “The commitment of our volunteers is absolutely incredible, they are very devoted to the station and thankfully there are very few occasions where people aren’t able to do what they want to do.”

The benefits for these volunteers are varied and rewarding, both for the individual and their communities. The station supports and encourages those looking to find work through various training projects and in some cases has been able to offer work experience. “We have had three different projects where we have been able to employ teams of community reporters for a year. To give somebody a year’s training and work experience as a reporter is a massive thing in somebody’s life,” said Mary. The organisation does a lot of work with schools and offers a unique opportunity for children to develop skills and engage with the wider community. Their youth radio projects have included exchanges with Germany, the creation of a dedicated online youth radio station and magazine -BCB Extra – and have delivered projects and accreditation with Bradford District Pupil Referral Unit, youth offending teams, and in youth and community centres across the district.

Just as importantly BCB gives each and every community the opportunity to engage with the rest of the city. “There have been a lot of different people come to live in Bradford, be they refugees, asylum seekers or migrant workers. What we can do is provide that welcome, and there are many people that have got involved with the station because they want to give something to the community…That might be a French-African refugee community, or the Czech and Slovak community, who broadcast to help people fit in to and understand the city. There are other more established communities, such as the Ukrainians, who actually want to broadcast in English to share their community… One thing about BCB that we have often said is that it is ‘a city talking to itself’, increasing that dialogue and understanding of each other,” said Mary.

Not surprisingly Mary is incredibly passionate about Bradford and its people. She reflects how the city has changed since the early days of Festival Radio, “Physically the city has changed a lot and of course it has transformed demographically too, but in terms of what it means to be a Bradfordian…I don’t think that has changed a lot. I think an awful lot of people are very proud of being from Bradford. I think the spirit in Bradford is incredible, I really do. I think it is a really special place, it is very straightforward, has no airs and graces, tells it like it is and that puts a smile on my face.”

As for the future Mary believes the station will continue its quest to get Bradford talking to itself. “I think BCB has a real role in the city, I think we can play such a big role in people talking to each other. There has never been more communication and there has never been more hunger for communication. We can talk to people all around the world and sometimes we forget to speak to people next door to us. BCB can be that conduit, that glue that brings people together and helps people understand each other’s stories and know each other’s stories. Keeping people connected in Bradford is something BCB always aspires to do.”

You can listen to BCB Radio live on 106.6fm, or online at http://www.bcbradio.co.uk
Full listings are available on the website and keep a look out for their series of features shows, starting next month.

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