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Inside the System

As I was scanning the list of winners of the UK’s Audio Production Awards last week — one of the most coveted prizes for those working in audio over here — I was struck by the fact that I kept seeing one name: the Prison Radio Association (PRA), which scooped up three Gold awards, including the coveted title of Production Company of the Year, as well as a handful of other nominations.

In a crowded field that includes industry stalwarts like the BBC, big indies like Whistledown, and broadcasters like Absolute Radio, the PRA’s stellar showing stood out. I decided to check in with Andrew Wilkie, the PRA’s Director of Radio, and find out about the background to the group’s achievements this year.

Some background for the unfamiliar: the PRA operates National Prison Radio, which is a linear radio station for prisons in England and Wales. The organisation operates as a charity with the larger mission of reducing recidivism rates, and that informs all of its content. Around 80,000 people in the prison system here can listen to the station through the TVs in their cells, and it has two production centres, one in the men’s prison at Brixton in London and the other at Styal women’s prison near Manchester. The station is funded by government grants, philanthropy, and entities that want to reach people within the prison system, like the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

“I think what’s really important to us is that we’re not playing at making radio,” said Wilkie, when I asked about industry award recognition means to the PRA. “We’re not an amateur radio station. We have very serious editorial standards. We have very serious technical standards. We demand that sort of professionalism from everybody who works with us.” It means all the more to him, therefore, that Anthony Olanipekun — who presents the National Prison Radio’s breakfast show — won the “New Voice” award in competition with peers in the industry.

Audio made from within prison, whether that’s the Ear Hustle podcast from San Quentin in California or the Bird’s Eye View show made by women inmates in Darwin, Australia, has become much more high profile in recent years. Ear Hustle, of course, has been nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody award, and Bird’s Eye View was recently named podcast of the year at the Australian Podcast Awards.

I asked Wilkie why he thinks audio from prisons has proved so powerful and so popular. He traces it back to the core intimate dynamic between host and listener. “I think that translates very, very well in a prison environment, which can be intimidating, scary, isolating. You know, that friendly voice in the corner is very, very valuable.” Further, for those listening on the outside, it’s the fresh perspectives these shows offer, which are hard to find elsewhere.

This year has been challenging for the PRA due to restrictions that Covid-19 has brought to prisons. Many work and education programmes — of which the radio station is one — have been shut down, and so from March onwards, they haven’t been able to produce from inside. Wilkie told me how they quickly pivoted to working remotely with people who had been released from prison, providing them with USB microphones and other equipment so they could present and produce the station’s schedule from home.

Another big innovation since the initial lockdowns in March has been making the station more interactive. “Most radio stations have some sort of live interactive element, but we didn’t have that luxury before lockdown,” he said. “The way our listeners contacted us was by writing letters and we used to get around seven or eight thousand letters a year from our audience.”

This year, they’ve opened a free phone line that people can call from the telephone lines on prison wings. “Since we opened that phone line, the number of contacts we’ve had has been incredible,” he explained. “In the six months from April onwards, we got around about 20,000 calls.” Producers have been incorporating these voice messages from inside into the programming schedule wherever possible.

One of the challenges of running a prison radio station used to be the competition from television: with the incarcerated working or doing activities during the day, the peak listening time was after around 5pm on weekdays or over the weekends when they were locked in their cells. “We try to put our most popular programmes like the request show on at 7pm, so it’s up against the soaps and peak time telly,” Wilkie said. “Our talk shows are where we put most of our resources, and they tend to be the programmes where we will address the sorts of issues that commonly lead people to prison — I slightly hesitate to say that because it makes it sound terribly dull and it really isn’t.”

Since the start of the pandemic, almost all activities have been suspended and inmates have been spending almost all of their time locked in their cells, often up to 23 and a half hours a day. Visits were completely suspended during the national lockdowns, and remain so for prisons in tier three areas of the country (that’s places on “very high” alert).

The radio has become a vital link with the outside world, and the PRA has shifted its schedule accordingly. “Whereas before during the day we would have just filled our air time with automated music and focused all our content on the times people are in cells, now we are broadcasting programmes all the way through the day.” They’ve also incorporated faith services, Wilkie explained, as in person worship in prisons has also stopped. In partnership with the chaplaincy team from the prisons service, they broadcast Friday prayers, a Sunday service, and other sessions targeted at people of all faiths.

Amplifying the sense of community within the prisons system has been very important, too. “The overwhelming sense is that people in prison want to support each other… You get all sorts of different people in prison, but there’s a sense that you are all in something together and that you’re all there to support each other because it’s a uniquely difficult experience,” Wilkie said. As one example, he cited the fact that on Thursday evenings, when people on the outside were coming out of their houses to bang pots and clap in appreciation of the NHS, inmates all over the country were banging on their doors to do the same.

Prison radio is in a unique situation, in that it has thousands of listeners within prisons but because it’s broadcast on a closed circuit through the in cell TVs nobody else can hear it. The PRA, therefore, makes podcasts to communicate its work to people on the outside. The main one targeted at a general audience is The Secret Life of Prisons, which released the first episode of a new series yesterday.

That show aims to share “aspects of prison life that people generally wouldn’t really think of” — such as the fact that people in prison have no access to the internet whatsoever, which personally I sort of knew in theory but it wasn’t until I talked to Wilkie that I appreciated fully what that means, especially during a pandemic. The PRA also makes podcasts in partnership with other organisations, such as The Forensic Psychology Podcast, which is a collaboration with HM Prison & Probation Service and targeted very specifically at psychology professionals who have an interest in working with inmates. The PRA also pitches regularly to the BBC for commissions to make radio documentaries, like any other UK production company, and has some success with that avenue. In July this year, for instance, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme hosted by awards nominee Brenda Birungi.

In August, the PRA went through all of the risk assessments in the hope that they would soon be able to resume production inside prisons, only for the number of Covid cases to rise sharply again in September and take that option off the table for now. I asked Wilkie what ambitions he had for 2021, after a year of such lows and then the high of the recent awards successes. “We want to maintain the standard of our broadcast schedule,” he said. “I think over the last nine months since lockdown, we’ve taken what we do to another level, I think, with providing an ever more essential service. So we want to maintain that.”

There are also ambitions to bridge the gap between inside and outside because “we’re aware that lots of people lose their access to their favourite radio station when they leave prison”. There are funding bids in progress that, if successful, would finance new content, such as a weekly video talk show that could be distributed both to inmates and listeners outside. And then there’s work with a body called Prison Radio International, which brings together prison audio makers from all over the world to share experiences and practices.

But above all, Wilkie wanted to tell the rest of the industry about the quality of the people the PRA works with, who hone their skills at the in-prison production centres and then build careers once they are released. “Keep an eye on what we’re doing because the talent of the future is sitting with us,” he said.