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The Radio Listserv, in 2020

If you’re involved in audio production in a professional or semi-professional way, you’re probably a member of at least one email listserv on this topic. There are lists based on geographic location — of which NYC Radio is probably the best known to a US audience — as well as those devoted to other kinds of community or identity, such as Ladio, Gaydio, and Producers for Diversity in Public Media. Like lots of readers, I use these lists and others every day, but it’s only recently that I started thinking about why they’re so important to this industry, and how they can adapt to the changing demands of work in 2020.

For the purposes of this piece, I’m using the term “listserv” generically to refer to the category of software that allows messages to be distributed transparently to a list of email addresses just by sending a single email, rather than meaning the specific trademarked application of the name. Listservs are an old-fashioned internet technology, first used widely in the 1980s and updated through a variety of iterations over the decades. These days, the easiest way to create and maintain one is through something like Google Groups, although plenty of more old school options still exist as well.

Given that so many other ways to connect and form communities now exist, from Facebook groups to Slack to Twitter and so on, I’m curious to think more about why listservs have remained so central and vital. There are great projects being run beyond them too, don’t get me wrong — the PoC in Audio database is one that springs to mind. But plenty of instant messaging tools have promised to minimise or even eliminate email from our workflow, and yet this simple, email-based system is still thriving, with busier audio-related listservs seeing dozens of posts a day.

On a fundamental level, I think listservs have stuck around precisely because email is so ubiquitous. It’s an extremely rare person these days who doesn’t have an email account they use regularly, so an email-based community is actually a pretty accessible one. There’s no need to download a new app or learn the rules and etiquette of a new platform. Any of those other examples would automatically exclude people who don’t use Facebook, say, or aren’t interested in adopting Slack, whereas email is a pretty universal presence.

In some ways, the lo-fi nature of a listserv is a distinct advantage in the modern age. Unless moderators so choose, there doesn’t need to be an obvious front end presence for the list, meaning that new members are mostly introduced by word of mouth and therefore tend to be genuinely interested in participating in the community. It doesn’t require huge amounts of attention from members to exist either — no constant notifications or updates needed. From a technological standpoint too, it’s also pretty low maintenance, so there’s no time consuming upkeep required from a webmaster or moderator.

However, for a listserv to be more than just a distribution list used to publicise job requests, there is more work involved. Plenty of the examples I’ve already mentioned work really well for this purpose, with companies and production houses using them as a means of sourcing stringers and producers in other locations for freelance work. But I’ve also used the word “community” a few times in relation to this kind of organising, and in some cases that’s what a listserv becomes, with regular conversation on much broader topics that over time nurture a sense of belonging, and can even foster change in the wider industry.

With this in mind, I caught up late last week with Lily Ames, who founded the UK Audio Network listserv. She started it in August 2017, inspired by various US-based groups and wanting to provide the infrastructure for greater transparency for those working in audio in the UK. More than two years on, Ames is now running a survey about the future of this group with the intention of building on the basic foundation to enhance the community’s offering.

As a forum for job callouts, UKAN is working well, she said. But there’s more it could be doing. “I think I would like people to give just as much as they take. That’s what needs more work from me to make happen.”

She elaborated: “Taking is just posting tape syncs when you need them without posting real jobs or bigger contracts for your show. Taking is just posting tape syncs without taking the time to get to know that producer who you’ve hired for the day — they could be, you know, a really interesting candidate who just is freelancing right now. When you’re in a higher up position — if you run a company, you’re a commissioner, you’re a senior producer — and you’re adding junior people to the list, you have to make sure that you’re actually then in turn posting opportunities to the list.”

At the moment, “I can see that it’s skewing more towards taking,” Ames said. But it takes work to encourage other kinds of activity, which Ames herself doesn’t always have time to do (she’s the head of production at Chalk and Blade, a London-based shop making shows for the BBC, Pushkin, Audible and others). “You have to kind of cultivate a sense that this is a thriving, exciting community and that’s done through work like reiterating the values, through reinforcing rules through outreach, through innovation where possible.”

UKAN has already done some valuable work to help even out the uneven power dynamics in the UK audio scene — we reported on a pay survey facilitated via the list back in May 2019, for instance, and there have been some useful conversations about diversity (or the lack of it) when it comes to awards lineups. Alongside the email list, UKAN has a resources section with studio and gear hire databases, legal factsheets, production templates and other helpful documents.

However, Ames has observed what she thinks is some cultural differences that sometimes prevent the UK list from being as transparent or direct as its US counterparts (she herself is a Canadian who moved to the UK in 2014). “It kind of evolved very differently, I think mainly because of the difference between British culture and American culture. People kind of look to me to run it as opposed to it being self run,” she said.

And sometimes there’s a reticence to post publicly that can be frustrating. “A post goes up and it’s controversial in some way — those posts are kind of important because they can start a conversation. They can alert everyone to what the problem is and why it’s a problem. On the American ones, people jump in right away say ‘this is problematic and this is why it’s problematic’. And I was expecting that to happen for the British one, but people just send me a very thoughtful individual email when I was expecting a reply all to the whole group.”

That’s why the survey can help steer the group’s future — armed with information about what the 1,400 and counting members want from UKAN, Ames says she can make plans to improve things. In an audio scene that to date has been very dominated by the BBC and its big providers, it’s valuable to have an open conversation in a place everyone can access, like their email inbox. “I think it’s really important when you’re disrupting power dynamics that everyone is involved in the conversation. The higher ups are reading,” Ames said. “They’re watching those posts. They’re watching closely.”

UKAN is a relatively young listserv, and the unique aspects of the UK audio scene probably make it inadvisable to read across too much to other communities in other places. But as a case study for what a listserv can offer in 2020, it’s a fascinating example of how an old-fashioned technology is still facilitating innovation. At a moment when there’s a movement in some quarters towards greater unionisation, listservs can provide that solidarity and collectiveness for those who don’t have other options to organise.