The Strange Success of Prison Radio

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Michael S. Yamashita / CORBIS

The big winners at Britain's national radio awards this year weren't the big name presenters with the national radio programs, but a tiny broadcaster in south London with a (literally) captive audience. At the Sony Radio Academy Awards May 11, Electric Radio Brixton won gold medals in The Listener Participation Award and The Community Award categories, as well as two more silvers. The station broadcasts to 800 inmates at Her Majesty's Prison Brixton and all its hosts, producers and technicians are prisoners. The station carries music, talk shows and questions for the Governor (head of prison) that include probing inquiries such as "why are the portions of food are so small? Is it because you don't want to feed us a lot of food, so we're not bigger than the officers?" As he recovered from an evening of celebration, Phil Maguire, Chief Executive of the Prison Radio Association — the charity that oversees Electric Radio Brixton — told TIME about the challenges and advantages of broadcasting in a prison, what mainstream broadcasters can learn from the station's success, and how radio can change lives.

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What's been happening since your Sony award success?

The way prisoners contact the radio station — of course they don't have internet, telephone or mobile phones — is via postboxes near their cells. I just heard that today every single postbox in the prison was stuffed with comments, questions and requests for the station. In lieu of ratings or other feedback, audience participation through the postboxes is how we judge our success.

What is the idea behind Electric Radio Brixton?

We offer a technical radio production course for a group of prisoners, who run the radio station. They learn how to write for radio, edit and conduct interviews. They gain a degree, but more importantly they develop transferable skills — literacy, organization skills, the ability to work as part of a team, to work to a deadline. What's more our broadcasts act as a forum for agencies — both statutory and voluntary — that help prisoners stay in contact with their families, address long-term health issues, increase financial literacy — all the things that lower re-offending rates.

So the radio is a means of rehabilitation?

I'm a strong believer in punishment, but if we don't teach prisoners anything or give them the opportunity to develop and change, then we are wasting our time. Almost every prisoner in the UK will be released from prison eventually and, when they do, they will suddenly be our neighbors.

What do you think impressed the judges of the Sony Awards?

The two gold awards we won were the community award and the award for listener participation. Obviously our listeners are deeply involved. But there are challenges. HMP Brixton is a Category B prison. It's not quite top security level but security is pretty high. Most radio stations involve some audience interaction — through phone-ins and text messages. We don't have that privilege. But what we do have is 800 prisoners who feel the station belongs to them.

Do you have any security inside the station?

The radio studio is generally occupied by around 10 or 12 prisoners and one uniform officer. In every prison in the UK, each room has an alarm bell. if you press the alarm bell a couple of dozen burly officers storm in. We've been on air since November 2007 and never once had to press the alarm bell.

Do you have a censor?

We're very lucky in that we have a good relationship with the Governor at the prison who trusts are integrity. We've never had to change a program or pull a program because someone in authority has disagreed with it. The Governor comes in at least once a month for a section called "governor's questions" where he answers questions from the postboxes or asked by the prisoner presenter. He's never refused to answer a question.

Do you have any advice for mainstream media?

I don't want to sound arrogant. We are a small organization. We are fortunate in that we work with interesting people — they have amazing stories to tell and we have access to them. But what we do well is keep it simple. We listen to our audience. We believe in what we are doing. And we believe in the power of radio to change people.

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