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Prison Radio Projects Positivity, Education

Inmates in the U.K. are increasingly turning to radio to advance, improve their lives

LONDON — In 1994 there were major concerns at the prison for young people in Feltham, England, including increasing self-harm and tension among prisoners.

One evening, Roma Hooper and Mark Robinson, who lived near the prison, contemplated the fate of those behind bars. They consequently decided to create a radio station to reach out to inmates and approached the Feltham prison governor about the project. He liked the idea, and that same year the U.K.’s first prison radio station — Radio Feltham — was launched.

In the beginning, Radio Feltham’s programs mainly consisted of inmates spinning records and chatting with their audience between the music. In the years that followed, a few others prisons in the country heard about the idea and built their own small radio stations. However, for this handful of new stations there was little or no professional input.

In 2005, the BBC, Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the U.K. Probation Service, and a few education providers set up a partnership project with the aim of developing prison radio in the U.K.

Paul Maguire, Chief Executive of the Prison Radio Association EDUCATIONAL INSTRUMENT
At the time, Phil Maguire was working as a radio producer at BBC Radio 2, though he had previous experience as a residential social worker in children’s homes. “At the BBC I was working with some of the best people in the business,” Maguire said. “But a part of me felt a bit isolated being in a radio studio all the day, every day. Given my previous work experience, I missed the tangible involvement in people’s life. I heard that the prison radio partnership project was looking for a manager. I applied for the post and was successful. I was strangely excited to be moving from a radio studio into a prison cell.”

With the project, came a change in focus for prison radio — from entertainment to education. Maguire led the development of two new prison radio projects tightly focused on engaging prisoners in learning. According to Maguire, these new projects aimed to change the way the prisoners viewed education, many having had negative experiences during their formative years.

“A lot of prisoners had a negative experience with schooling and are reluctant to get back into the classroom, but nearly all of them have a favorite radio station, a favorite DJ, a favorite show. We started to use prison radio as an innovative way of persuading educationally hard-to-reach prisoners back into education. Prisoners studied for a qualification in radio production and became accustomed to learningwhile doing something enjoyable,” he said.

“Instead of telling them they needed to improve their English, we taught the basics of radio journalism and through writing scripts and preparing for studio interviews their literacy skills improved remarkably. Then we talked about timing, so they got mathematical know-how because in radio timing is everything. They gained IT skills, because they had to use computers for a range of activities — from scripting to editing. That was the turning point: when prison radio became really about education.”

In 2006 the partnership was complete but many people had become aware of the project and prisons countrywide were requesting information on how to build their own station. Maguire decided to leave the BBC to help launch the Prison Radio Association (PRA) as a charity, for which Maguire is now chief executive. The PRA’s initial aims were to advise prisons on how to set up their radio projects — how and where to buy the studio equipment, how to install it, how to broadcast, how to integrate the educational aspect and to focus on generating high quality output with the potential to maximize impact for the listening prisoner audience.

Inmates in the on-air studio at HMP Styal. ACTIVE ROLE
In 2007, Paul McDowell, then the governor of HMP Brixton asked the PRA to set up a station for the prisoners housed in the South London jail. In November 2007, the PRA launched Electric Radio Brixton — the U.K.’s first prison radio station that broadcast programming made by prisoners, for prisoners 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.

“When a person enters prison, they are usually confused and at that point are handed lots of information to read. However, according to statistics, the average reading capability of a prisoner in the U.K. is similar to that of an 11-year-old child,” said Maguire. “Through radio they can listen to the information, including how to access services, how to obtain professional skills during their stay in order to improve their lives and to not return to prison once they get out.”

The success of the radio station operating behind the bars of HMP Brixton prompted the PRA to try to convince the U.K. Ministry of Justice that a national radio station for prisoners was plausible. The idea was that this station would produce targeted content to prisoners that aimed to reduce recidivism. Remarkably Maguire and his team managed to convince the powers that be. In May 2009, NPR began broadcasting.

Today about 75,000 of the approximately 85,000 prisoners in the country have access to the station. The signal from Brixton is distributed via satellite and at every enabled prison. It is received through a standard dish and distributed to prisoners’ cells through an internal cable TV network.

In the main facility at HMP Brixton, NPR studios are equipped with D&R Airmate consoles, Audio-Technica AT2020 mics, Samson SP01 mic mounts, Audio-Technica AT8137 pop shield for the AT2020, Audio-Technica ATH-M20 closed back headphones and Edirol MA15 speakers.

Prisoners can listen to standard on-air radio broadcasting too, but according to recent listening figures (January 2014) NPR is very popular with its audience. Ninety-nine percent of prisoners have heard of NPR. Eighty-four percent of prisoners say they listen to NPR with 57 percent of the population tuning in at least weekly.

Prisoners attend a radio production class.

“Prisoners feel NPR is not a tool of the authorities, NPR is their station,” Maguire said. “Production methodology is key — we have prisoners at the center of what we do, they produce and present the programs, working side-by-side with a great team of professional radio producers, mostly ex-BBC. NPR delivers content that is relevant to audience and is seen as credible too. This is because prisoners are key to the production process.”

The PRA has a no-cost contract with the U.K. Ministry of Justice for running NPR and Maguire says it is a struggle to raise the necessary funds. In order to become more financially sustainable, the PRA set-up a production company, PRA Productions, which provides audio services, such as audio for webcasts, podcasts and conferences. The company also produces radio documentaries about a range of subjects (not just about criminal justice) for most of the BBC’s national radio stations.

In an effort to reflect a more diverse audience on air, the PRA set-up a second radio project in 2010 within HMP Styal, a women’s prison near Manchester, and launched two further production houses, at HMP High Down, a men’s prison in Surrey and HMP Hindley, a prison for 15- to 21-year-olds located in Wigan.

In the last five years National Prison Radio has won 10 Sony Radio Academy Awards. It was also named Station of the Year for London and the South East in the Radio Academy’s Nations and Regions Awards in both 2012 and 2013.

Davide Moro reports on the industry for Radio World from Bergamo, Italy.