Turn on, tune in, hang out: how radio is uniting the nation in the age of COVID-19

Radio listenership has rocketed since we entered lockdown. As Radio 1 Breakfast Show host Greg James puts it: "isolation doesn't mean you're lonely"

On Sunday 22 March,  Greg James hesitantly asked his producers: ‘What’s the tone for tomorrow?’

As Britain shut down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, causing a tsunami of job losses, the Radio 1 Breakfast Show host was concerned how his programme – known for its joyous silliness – should approach an unprecedented crisis. “We were all batting it around thinking: ‘How the fuck do you talk about a pandemic?’,” the 34-year-old remembers with a dry laugh. “We had a plan A, plan B, plan C.”

In the end, they discovered the best way was to just to broadcast, be honest, and allow the show’s five million loyal listeners to dictate the mood – which remains business as usual. But in these anything-but-usual times, James’ willingness to have a laugh has taken a vital, defiant quality. As presenter of the station’s flagship show, he is human caffeine: he puts the listeners front and centre, getting them involved in funny things and acting as a distraction to their day.

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“We try to make people laugh and do stupid stuff – that nonsense is key to the show, so it’s been a ramped up version of that,” he reflects. “But it’s also felt like more of a lifeline because you rely on little glimmers of nonsense and funny things even more when the news is bleak and about one thing – and everyone is talking about that one thing. We’re trying to create some sort of normalcy in an extraordinarily abnormal time.”

Greg James. Credit: Getty

It’s a normalcy that more and more people are clinging to. While the streaming of music apps such as Spotify has dwindled, radio stations are booming. The BBC has seen listening figures for its stations rise by 18 per cent during the lockdown and Global (the media company that owns Capital, its hip-hop and R&B offshoot Capital Xtra, lad-rock station Radio X and talk radio hub LBC, among others) and Bauer (Magic and Kiss) have both witnessed surges of 15 per cent. Indeed, NME’s own radio services have experienced their best month ever with a 12% month-on-month increase.

It makes sense. On your  daily commute you want to blot out the outside world with a tailored, individualised playlist; in a time of enforced  isolation, you crave the communal camaraderie and human connection that only radio can provide. Now the only people travelling are key workers – there are shout-outs across the stations to plumbers, electricians, NHS staff – as well as those cocooned at home, who may find comfort in hearing a familiar voice – “a friend in your ear” as James puts it.

Capital’s breakfast show host Roman Kemp likens this period to “how people must have felt back during the war when everything was going on and they’re having to go in and broadcast in such uncertain times.”

When the pandemic’s grip began to tighten, his father – best known as Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp – phoned him up: “He told me how it was my duty to step up and try to do my bit. I haven’t got many other skills, the only thing I know is talking to people and trying to keep their mornings moving. I only turned 27 at the beginning of this year, and there is an abnormal amount of pressure in a situation like this, where people are tuning in to get answers or seek relief.”

“As our world gets smaller, people want that communal experience” – Capital bREAKFAST HOST roman Kemp

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He’s unsurprised that people are flocking to the radio. “As our world seemingly gets smaller, people want that communal experience,” he says. “It’s proven that hearing other voices lessens anxiety.”

Over the past couple of weeks, our radio personalities have stepped up to the plate. Radio 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne has been getting people dancing around their kitchens with an eclectic playlist wedding disco that lurches from Sports Team‘s indie-barnstormer ‘Here’s The Thing’ to Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus’s ‘We All Stand Together’. Every morning, Kemp walks into the studio and asks: “How can I make people laugh?”. The pulse of his show remains the same – the Dua Lipa bangers, his Mega Hard Super Quiz and the cash giveaways – but a regular segment with former Love Island contestant Dr. Alex George has taken on a greater sense of purpose, as he answers questions about the virus. He even diagnosed one listener with COVID-19 symptoms live on air and told them to self-isolate.

Kemp invites people to leave messages for frontline NHS staff – which are played to his 3.4 million listeners.  “You see a tweet coming in saying they’re in an ICU and they’ve got it on in the background listening to it, and it makes you emotional,” he says.

And then there’s James, who sets the gold standard for spreading good vibes. On the day of our interview, he enlists rapper Big Narstie to cheer up a 27-year-old firefighter  (“Do you ever play The Prodigy‘s ‘Firestarter’ in the fire engine?” he asks) who’s estranged from his girlfriend because she’s self-isolating at home with her vulnerable youngest son. Narstie gives her a call, adopting his “sexual chocolate voice”, to much mirth. Later James phones a man self-isolating with someone he met after a couple of Tinder dates (“they’ve taken the lockdown as an opportunity to lock-it-down).” It’s the usual knockabout stuff, but with an added element of raw catharsis.

“If you approach it with kindness, there’s always a joke in there if everyone’s onside,” says James. “We can take the piss out of each other if everyone knows what the game is. The only way to deal with the real uncertainty, darkness, and bleakness for me is to find the light relief in there somewhere.”

The response from listeners has “multiplied by 100”, he adds. “You’ve got people who are now saying: ‘I’ve struggled with my mental health and I was lonely beforehand, but now I really need this. I really need to hear all of you carrying on because I’m literally alone.’”

At present, James is still broadcasting from the studio, albeit in different circumstances. A skeleton crew remain there, with a young team chipping in from their homes.

“We’re sort of thriving on it because it’s weirdly exciting,” says James. “You get into this to make radio that changes peoples’ days a little bit – and this feels like it’s really mattering to people at the moment. Everyone is exhausted and frightened and uncertain about everything, but it’s also therapy to us because we’re being tested on this level.”

Yinka Bokinni & Shayna Marie. Credit: press

Other DJs, at Capital, have seen their set-ups drastically alter. While Kemp still broadcasts from the studio, his co-hosts Sian Welby and Sonny Jay join him from their homes. Similarly, for the past 12 days Yinka Bokinni, Capital Xtra’s breakfast host, has been taking to the nation’s airwaves, “hiding in the corner of my living room with a huge blanket over myself” to muffle any background noise.  As someone with heart problems, she is on the list of vulnerable people required to self-isolate. Within 24 hours of her telling her bosses, they’d dispatched a microphone, laptop, and headphones to her home.

Her co-host Shayna Marie remains in the studio and at first they worried about talking over each other.  “It was almost like learning to work together again because you’re blind and not together,” says Bokinni.

Though she fretted her 744,00 listeners would notice a change, Bokinni reports that it’s been a seamless transition: “If it wasn’t for us saying, people wouldn’t know we weren’t in the same room. It’s business as usual from the outside facing in. It’s like how ducks’ feet move at a rapid pace and then it’s all smiles up top.”

Speaking of smiles up top: how do you do a comedy radio show in a time of unremitting misery? With people bouncing between open tabs of Twitter and The Guardian‘s Coronavirus Live blog, this is a challenge comedian Ed Gamble – best known as a regular on panel show Mock The Week – has grappled with. As a diabetic who’s self isolating, he’s hosting his weekly Radio X show with Matthew Crosby – billed as “chatting, chuckling, and churning out the hits” – from his home, broadcasting at 8am Sundays in his dressing gown.

“I initially thought it would be difficult to do a light-hearted comedy show during a pandemic, but it turns out it’s a great solace,” he says. “Yes, the spectre of the virus is looming over every sentence, but we really haven’t changed much of what we do.  The show is still extremely silly.”

Their “dumb stories” from listeners about the “sillier side of all this isolation” act as a ballast in a tumultuous climate: “We’re aware that people’s lives and routines have been turned upside down, so we are actively trying to not do that with our show. I think people appreciate a bit of consistency in such fast moving times, and hopefully we’re providing that – even if it’s consistency in reading out times people accidentally burned themselves.”

He continues: “People like to hear someone else’s voice – it’s reassuring to know that you’re connected to the rest of the world. Especially when we’re all cooped up in our houses, it can be so easy to forget we’re all going through the same thing. That’s why radio and podcasts are so important.”

Radio X’s Ed Gamble and Matthew Crosby. Credit: press

It’s also providing a sense of weekly routine to Gamble who, as a self-employed comedian, has found his work diary erased like an Etch-a-Sketch: “Apart from the Radio X show, all my other work has been cancelled or postponed. Sundays at 8am is the only thing in my diary for the next two months. It’s a massive help mentally having something to look forward to every week.”

The inclusive all-in-this-together nature of radio extends globally. On 20 March, 180 radio stations across Europe joined together to play Gerry & The Pacemakers’ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in a moving show of solidarity. It was the brainchild of Dutch DJ Sander Hoogendoorn of 3FM., who found himself inspired by an initiative in the Netherlands where everybody clapped at 8pm for healthcare workers.

“We started an on-air brainstorm, listeners got involved and we started calling other Dutch radio shows,” he remembers. “At first,we tried to get every Dutch breakfast show on board but in a few days, Belgium and Germany got fired up. So then we decided to go for the whole of Europe.”

“People like to hear someone else’s voice – it’s reassuring to know that you’re connected to the rest of the world” – Radio X HOST ED GAMBLE

So at 7.45AM GMT, Radio 1’s weekend Breakfast Show with Matt Edmondson and Mollie King, Lauren Laverne’s on BBC 6 Music and Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 show all united to play the 1963 anthem of togetherness.

“It’s a song that my dad used to play when I was younger and it’s such a universal song of power and hope,” Hoogendoorn says. “I got a lot of tweets, Instagram DMs and mail from listeners all over the world. Most of them were in tears just like me – I cried three times that day because it was such a beautiful moment. It showed the power of music, the power of radio and the power of people – when people are in need, most have shown themselves to be good.”

He is proud of his broadcasting contemporaries around the world: “People want to hear a familiar voice who they trust and like. When I turn on a Spotify playlist, it’s nice for a few minutes but I feel isolated. I want to hear a friend on the other side of the radio, and know what other listeners are doing in these times of crisis.”

Capital Breakfast host Roman Kemp. Credit: press

We’re used to articles decreeing that the end is nigh for radio, that younger listeners sought to retreat into the personalised silos of playlists – just as we’ve become familiar with regular threats from the Conservative party to abolish the license fee. James, however, isn’t viewing this as a time when the BBC is proving its worth.

“We’ve been proving our worth ever since I started doing the Breakfast Show,” he insists. “There are more important things to worry about at the moment [than the license fee]. The BBC has always been a hugely brilliant public service, but every company should come under scrutiny and every company can improve.”

Bute he admits: “I suppose it does magnify radio a little bit and reminds people of the great stuff the BBC can deliver, which is wonderful.”

Besides, all of the DJs are keen to put their jobs in a wider context: they may say laughter is the best medicine, but it’s not better than a ventilator. “I’m mindful that I’m broadcasting to medical professionals who are going into work trying to save lives – and essentially all I’m doing is just playing songs and trying to make people laugh,” says James. “Doing a radio show is not heroic.”

The pandemic has illuminated the positives of things we may have previously mocked – such the local DJs you might have derided as parochial Alan Partridges, who are rallying their communities, or the breakfast hosts you might have haughtily written off as breezy banter merchants. They’ve proven their value: we’re drawn to their open-and-honest tales of how they’re coping with the “new normal”. You might once have asked, “What kind of person would phone LBC?” – essentially the Twitter of the radio world – but only the most granite-hearted could fail to be moved by frontline workers sharing their experiences.

As the days go on, coronavirus and the death-count will increasingly feel like background noise. At the moment, though, many feel bombarded by the scale of it all. It’s tempting to cede to despair. These presenters are reminding us that humour can still be found in the cracks. I ask Greg James if he has any tips for remaining upbeat.

“Limit your news intake and stop endlessly scrolling on Twitter,” he says, “because frightened and confused people are tweeting every thought they have in their head. Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with the fucking play everyone says you should write [with all your extra time]. You shouldn’t berate yourself for not being fluent in French.

“I keep saying to my wife Bella – who suffers from terrible anxiety and is understandably up and down with stuff: ‘You can’t fix the world. You can only look after the patch you’re on.’ There’s a balance between that and staying connected – I’ve been FaceTiming my parents and friends and making sure that isolation doesn’t mean that you’re lonely.”

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