The big winners of the UK National Radio Awards this year were not the big national radio hosts, but a small South London broadcaster with a (literally) captive audience. At the Sony Radio Academy Awards on May 11, Electric Radio Brixton won gold medals in The Listener Participation Award and The Community Award categories, as well as two other silver medals. The station broadcasts to 800 inmates at Her Majesty’s Brixton Prison and all of its hosts, producers and technicians are prisoners. The station broadcasts music, talk shows, and questions for the governor (head of the prison) that include inquiries such as “why are the portions of food so small?” Is it because you don’t want to give us a lot of food, so we’re not bigger than the officers? ”As he recovered from a night of partying, Phil Maguire, CEO of the Prison Radio Association ?? the charity that oversees Electric Radio Brixton ?? spoke to TIME about the challenges and benefits of broadcasting in a prison, what mainstream broadcasters can learn from the station’s success, and how radio can change lives.
What has happened since your Sony award was successful?
The way prisoners contact the radio station ?? of course they don’t have internet, phone or cell phones ?? is done via mailboxes near their cells. I just learned that today every mailbox in the prison is filled with comments, questions and requests for the station. Instead of ratings or other comments, public participation through mailboxes is how we judge our success.
What is the idea behind Electric Radio Brixton?
We offer a technical radio production course to a group of inmates who run the radio. They learn to write for the radio, to edit and to conduct interviews. They get a degree, but more importantly they develop transferable skills ?? literacy, organizational skills, the ability to work in a team, to work on time. In addition, our shows serve as a forum for agencies ?? both statutory and voluntary ?? that help inmates stay in touch with their families, solve long-term health issues, increase financial literacy ?? anything that reduces recidivism rates.
So the radio is a means of rehabilitation?
I firmly believe in punishment, but if we don’t teach prisoners anything or give them the opportunity to develop and change, then we are wasting our time. Almost all prisoners in the UK will eventually be released from prison and when they do they will suddenly be our neighbors.
What do you think impressed the Sony Awards judges?
The two gold prizes we won were the Community Prize and the Listener Participation Prize. Obviously, our listeners are deeply involved. But there are challenges. HMP Brixton is a Category B prison. It is not quite the highest level of security, but the security is quite high. Most radio stations involve interaction with the audience ?? by phone and SMS. We don’t have that privilege. But what we have are 800 prisoners who believe the station is theirs.
Do you have security inside the station?
The radio studio is usually occupied by around 10 or 12 inmates and a uniformed officer. In every prison in the UK, every room has a wake-up call. if you ring the alarm bell, about twenty beefy officers storm in. We have been on the air since November 2007 and have never had to push the alarm bell once.
Do you have a censor?
We are very fortunate to have a good relationship with the prison governor who trusts integrity. We have never had to modify a program or withdraw a program because someone in authority did not agree with it. The governor comes at least once a month for a section called “governor’s questions” where he answers questions from mailboxes or from the prisoner’s presenter. He never refused to answer a question.
Do you have any tips for the mainstream media?
I don’t mean to sound arrogant. We are a small organization. We have the chance to work with interesting people ?? they have amazing stories to tell and we have access to them. But what we do well is keep it simple. We listen to our audience. We believe in what we do. And we believe in the power of radio to change people.