Radio in the dark
A spooky night, saved by local radio and Uno cards
It took just one funnyman announcement from the commuter train guard to indicate that something was amiss in West Surrey last night.
Please resist the temptation to make ghost noises on the platform.
A power cut had knocked out supplies to around 17,000 homes in and around Godalming, Milford, Witley and Farncombe so the platform was in darkness. With weary resignation, commuters shuffled off the train and faded into the night.
And what a night for people who live there. An icy blackness, -3 degrees with no central heating, television or internet.
Seasoned programmers know instinctively what disruption like this means for local radio… a needy audience and an instant opportunity to win new listeners.
I learnt this from the late Tony Inchley, an editor of BBC Radio WM and a manager who could always trust his gut feeling because he had such a great sense of what made people tick. Tony understood that when listeners’ lives are disrupted they’ll look for reassurance and some shared human connection to help make sense of the situation.
Memories of one snow-bound Birmingham weekend in the late 80s last to this day. Tony and his superb lieutenant Andy Wright (again sadly no longer with us) had called and charmed everybody they knew to help out and a small army of us staffed the phones, kept the output buzzing and brought together listeners who could help each other out. It made great radio and cemented the station’s position as a trusted and well-connected friend.
This snowline operation was always ready to go with a war plan that covered everything from emergency contact names to pre-prepared jingles. It was as meticulously maintained as the Obits box, and more frequently used.
Times have changed but a local crisis remains one of the best free promotional opportunities you’ll ever get in local radio. Our job is jump on it fast and be best in market for what listeners need at that time.
What residents in blacked-out Surrey needed last night was information about what had happened, assurance that something was being done about it, a bit of advice and a friendly voice to reflect the shared experience in conversation and affirm that they weren’t alone.
They found it on Eagle Radio. Throughout the four hours of the power cut, presenter and journalist Lewis Mason offered rolling updates of information from the electricity company, mainstream music and some delightful human stories from people affected by the power cut.
We learned that one man’s dinner plans turned to culinary disaster when the power went out, we heard listeners leaning out of windows straining to spot where streetlights might be on in the distance and we pictured with a smile the woman who phoned in from under a bobble hat, lying in bed with her partner while playing a tense game of Uno.
On one of the coldest nights of the winter so far, Lewis also asked listeners to check on elderly neighbours and, of course, he threw ahead to the next day’s breakfast show and the station’s news service which benefits today from the previous night’s listener audio.
This was an instinctive response from the local UKRD team. Not an blatant promotional exercise (although the station knew what it was doing with frequent references to being live and local) but a decent commitment to look after its listeners.
It’s a move that should have banked a good deal of brand equity for Eagle Radio. Anyone in those 17,000 affected homes who reached for the radio in the dark last night found a station they can trust to be there when they need it most.
Radio promotion can be like a log fire. To get attention you need fast-burning kindling to crackle and spark, and to generate impressive flames. Then, once in a while you have the right conditions to throw on a big log that will make everyone feel warm for ages. That’s what Eagle Radio did last night.