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11 May 2015

The Original Social Medium

Today we mark a sad anniversary. It's thirty years since the Bradford City fire disaster in which 56 fans lost their lives. They went to a football match to celebrate their team's promotion, and never came home.

The events of that day are etched in our national memory and, as so often, radio captured the raw emotion of the moment so much more powerfully than mundane pictures.

They also highlight something about radio that is too often forgotten in our industry today. Beyond the brands, and the promotions, and the personalities radio has a unique ability to bring people together and to communicate better than the echo chambers and troll-infested swamps of what we now call "social media".

This post explores some of those attributes.

Tony Delahunty's commentary, live on Pennine Radio that fateful afternoon, is one of the most powerful bits of audio you will ever hear. "Don't rush, don't push, watch for the kiddies ..."

I heard those words, live, out of a speaker in the production office at Pennine. I was in editing a pre-record of Sunday's "Holiday Programme" because I was about to fly off on my own vacation. My first thought? I wondered if TD was going over the top. After all, this was a guy who could (and did) find high drama in a game of studio tiddlywinks when all sport was snowed off.

One look at Simon Pattern's face in studio as I walked into MCR told me he wasn't. Simon, now Managing Editor of BBC Radio Humberside, was then a fresh-faced tech op who'd just lost his live feed as Pennine's aluminium Land Rover radio car literally melted from the heat of the blaze. For agonising minutes we thought we may have lost OB engineer Simon Priestley too. Thankfully Simes had got clear before the fuel tank exploded. The filler cap became a grim souvenir in Engineering. It was the only part of the vehicle recovered.

Not long after the doorbell in Forster Square began ringing. I'll never forget the faces of fans who had run into town from the ground, faces smeared with soot and tears, begging for us to broadcast to their families that they were safe. This was an age before mobile phones, and many families didn't have a landline at home.

It was also a time before heads down, text'n'pictures social media, and I'm proud of what Pennine Radio achieved over the weeks and months that followed.

We were the focus of a city's grief. Bradford's radio. Our journalists reported inquests, inquiries and allegations. Above all that we were just there.

Our presenters were part of the Bradford family, a shoulder to cry on, expressing the anguish people felt. Sentiments, in fact, which today appear on Twitter or Facebook, but experience shared live, real voices straining, not cold text on a screen with a sad little emoticon.

That role in bringing communities together is one radio could still reclaim and capitalise on, if only we were prepared to do so. I'm not suggesting we turn back the clock; a lot of 80s radio was poor. But only by being live, local and reactive to the needs and moods of a community can radio reclaim its heritage.

We were, and are, the original social medium. Never forget that.

We'll never forget the 56.

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