Life Tracks: Working as a Volunteer Radio Presenter
So I’ve done something completely new and totally not what I’d thought I’d be doing, but hey, new lockdown, new me…again….for the third time.
Yep. Something that 100% sounds like a bunch of old dudes sat in trackies and Iron Maiden shirts, geeking out about music long since past. It’s ok, I kinda had the same image too, and it seems the actual community of community radio doesn’t deny this either, bizarrely enough. But, here I am only 3 weeks into my new volunteer role and I have to say, what an impact it’s had on my life so far – I am now the voice of people’s lock down. And without sounding too dramatic, I may honestly be one of the only voices someone hears in a day. And that’s a bigger responsibility than I initially thought, larking about in a studio on a Sunday night.
I’ll start at the very top of how this even occurred. I was merrily kicked off my contract with Cirque Du Soleil, in March, having been performing pole and as Dance Captain for two new shows on board the MSC Grandiosa. One could argue that I’d been in a state of isolation for 5 months already, but there’s really nothing to bring you crashing down to dry land like heading back to your mum’s house at the age of 31, and becoming the little sister again. Normally just a stop gab between contracts and a holiday home, I was now trapped in Chesterfield, a medieval market town in the middle of the UK, living in the spare room, and trying not to kill my family. Sound familiar?
Needless to say, I was trying to escape down all possible avenues, and one was radio.
I’ve always been a huge fan and I listen a great deal to the good ol’ BBC, particularly Radio 6, the alternative station. What’s badass about Radio 6 is that even before podcasts became the done thing, they’ve been interviewing and speaking with some of the most amazing artists – of all genres – from around the globe for decades, and has killer hosts including Iggy Pop and Cillian Murphy. And as a choreographer, it’s as useful as Spotify for discovering bizarre and wonderful music for shows. So during lockdown (the first one), it unknowingly became the source of another voice, and I slowly started getting this creeping thought of, ‘maybe I could do that…?’. But I was very aware that basically anything performative that was put in front of me seemed like another avenue I could possibly invest myself…and as a pole dancer, it’s shocking really I didn’t get Only Fans – it really seemed too risky with my older brother just a short landing away.
Time when on (and on, and on, and on), and I did end up being a panelist on two TAL webinars, a guest on Aoife Carry’s ‘This Creative Nomad’ podcast, and starting my own podcast with my pole partner, Lisa Hammond. ‘Mid Week Mingle’ became my gateway into, well, what I thought was essentially me just being a bit of an indulgent ass, talking about myself and my own experiences…but then I realised that’s exactly what radio is. Presenters are sharing life experience, even if it’s completely mundane like what they watched on TV last night, or ‘this one time, when I was on set with….’ – it’s basically why we listen. It’s escapism. And even as a dancer / choreographer, I can’t just listen to music all day. I’d happily walk for hours (because we did happen to time the pandemic well for the summer months) and listen to all kinds of stuff to just forget….at that’s the main point here; a good presenter (on unbiased stations) steers you away from the crap that’s occurring, and if they mention it at all, it’s to constantly lift you out of it and offer you an alternative. They’re upbeat, optimistic and don’t drag you down with their drama. They’re almost like loyal dogs in that respect; they’re around you at all times to keep you company, seemingly oblivious to the darkness in the world, and are great company on long walks.
So, to cut the story down a bit; the rest of the summer happened, I managed to run off to Germany and train with a load of other ship wrecked artists, did manage a couple of commissions and avoided UK lockdown No.2…but returned just in time to hit UK lockdown No.3 – the Christmas Edition. And that’s when I found it. That little Facebook ad for Volunteer Radio presenters.
It was honestly a little, ‘ok, I know FB reads my mind but this is a bit intense’. But with no solid work on the horizon and the only gig I’m still contracted for getting pushed back again, I figured that there’s not a big chance I’m going be moving on any time soon. I applied and within days I was in the newly refurbished studios of Crags Radio. Not gonna lie, I was 100% expecting to rock up to a pile of shite garage in a blokes back garden. But no. I was blown away by the station’s volunteer founder, director, presenter and mastermind, John Steemson.
John (31) is the same age as me and at the start of 2020 (pre-pandemic) he was struggling with a deep depression – something which he says he’s been battling since he was 14 – and questioning his entire life’s achievements. Again, sound familiar? A couple of years ago he was diagnosed with a heart condition which deemed him unstable to work. A farther of two, he became a stay-at-home dad and volunteered for other local radio stations within Derbyshire County. In an interview I did with him live on one of my new shows, Life Tracks, he said that,
John – ‘I was at that point in my life where I didn’t realised what I had. The fact that I was married and had kids, and […] there’s lots of things that I’ve done, I couldn’t see those positives. All I was thinking was, what have I got to look forward too? I’ve got nothing now, my career’s been take away from me and what do I do next?’
Well, he did this: I’m sat in this lovely new refurbished station, with 5 gifted PC’s, all the tech, a bustle of activity from various volunteers buzzing about, hammering, painting, fixing, installing wires, and sound equipment. I can honestly say that there was a level of professionalism and pride here that matched, if not exceeded, what I would expect of a get in from any established theatre company or venue. The biggest difference though; no one is paid – at least in money.
‘So this is what’s driven me. It’s given me that focus. I didn’t have time to be depressed and I’ve been grateful for that’.
What has struck me about John is his sheer resilience. The drive to pull himself up and then found Crags Radio hasn’t made him slow down and have a beer, which is probably what I would have done. He has a continual push to reach out to the community, and develop programs including REACH OUT – a mental health advice team, future community events, getting all our shows on MixCloud for more accessibility and finding more ways for the community to get involved. Now, call me tainted, shady or even removed, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a team where people are really doing this for the good of others, and with the idea that they’re actually serving the community. As a performer, I think that gradually I have become a bit more, ‘I’ve had X years of experience here and I can do A,B and C’, and ‘you have no idea about the training and the years of hardship I’ve endured to be on this stage’. Not to mention the monetary value of my time, the EXCEL doc I have of my 2020/21 fees or the anger I get when people ask me to work for free. Worse, the inevitable name drop/company drop ceremony that so many of us do when we’re in the midst of a networking event. At Crags Community Radio: no one cares less what I’ve done, what anyone’s done, or why I’m here. The goal is, ‘we the community, serve the community, and we’re gonna do a good job’. No. Drama.
If I was to walk in with some kind of stuck up aura of, ‘well I’m a professional artist’, I would just look like a complete moron and serve nothing but my own ego. I do rock up, though, with the experience and the concept of making a good show. And for the first time in months, I actually have to go away and plan something. I now have 2 shows: Sundown Sessions which is three hours of alternative music, most of which is just my personal collection from years of being a choreographer, and I also cater it towards the creative industry. The second is Life Tracks, which is an immediate response to the community radio vibe. We play music to keep you pepped up, but more importantly, it’s more inclined to a talk show, for us to reach out to the listeners and talk about mental health. Myself and co-host Elisa, have suffered with depression and anxiety before, and both of us can see, like John, that the station gives us the creative output we need to keep our heads above water.
I suffered a vile depression while I was a performer at The House Of Dancing Water. Brought on by the passing of my father, although it was the catalyst, I wasn’t depressed with grief, I was depressed because I didn’t have clear creative goals and outputs to fulfil myself. Ironically, I was bored. Yes. Bored. At arguably one of the biggest shows on earth, with a wonderful pay check, amazing colleagues, a great apartment and a challenging job. But I’d done everything I could in that job. So I was bored. Which took me 9 months of very expensive (but reimbursable) therapy to identify….damn I miss having good health insurance.
This ‘little’ volunteering job, is not boring, and 100% acts as a pre-meditated cure for depression.
I walk into that studio with a basic plan, but I don’t know what I’m gonna say, or who’s gonna text in. I have to be on it for three solid hours. Music changes every week, and now I don’t feel guilty for endlessly researching music. I also can’t drop an ‘F’ bomb, I can’t be over opinionated, I have to watch what I’m doing with all the new tech I’ve never played with, plus entertain, advise, make the mundane exciting and, more importantly, serve the people. ‘I am here to keep you company. You are not lonely as long as I am here’. Being on this side of the mic has taught me a lot about the nature of performance, and what it really is to be a storyteller and to send someone to a new place in a very subtle way…even in the background.
Moral of the story: Change your Fans to your Community, and serve them. Because in these desperate times, you might seriously be a voice to bring someone else from the edge, if not yourself. And being paid for your efforts isn’t a complete measure of your skill.
If you’re ever interested in listening to Crags Radio, visit www.cragsradio.co.uk and on Mix Cloud, Crags Radio
Life Tracks: Tuesdays 7-10pm (GMT).
Sundown Sessions: Sunday 7-10pm (GMT)
Also by Sophie Duncan:
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