Education Through the Airwaves: Britain’s National Prison Radio

Image courtesy theguardian.com
Image courtesy theguardian.com

By Christopher Zoukis

Given the choice between studying math and improving literary skills, or producing a radio show, it’s not too hard to guess which option most prison inmates would go for. Yet in Britain, National Prison Radio has found that the two make excellent partners.

Radio Feltham pioneers prison radio

The history of prison radio in Britain dates back to 1994 when Mark Robinson and Roma Hooper decided they wanted to find a way to show inmates in the Feltham Young Offenders Institution, just west of London, that the world had not forgotten them. At the time conditions inside the institution were difficult, with rising rates of violence and self-harm.

The pair mooted the idea of a radio station for inmates to the prison’s governor, and with his support Radio Feltham was born. Programs were broadcast to inmates by inmates, and consisted mostly of music and banter. Over the next several years a few other prisons established similar stations.

A radio partnership

While locally successful, the stations had no professional support and no coordination, and quality and content were variable. There was clearly potential to do more, and the critical step to realizing this potential was the formation of a partnership between

Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the U.K. Probation Service, the BBC, and a number of education providers in 2005, tasked with expanding and professionalizing prison radio. Phil Maguire, then a radio producer with the BBC, was appointed to lead the project.

Maguire knew only too well the importance of communicating with individuals who may feel sidelined from society from his earlier days as a residential social worker in children’s homes.

Maguire’s remit was to develop additional prison radio stations while, at the same time, shifting the focus from entertainment to education. As expected, he found that very many inmates had poor academic skills, stemming from a poor experience in school, and no great enthusiasm for getting back into a classroom.

Fun and purposeful learning

Learning to be a radio producer, however, was a whole different ballgame, and one which the inmates took to with gusto. Yet as they learned the techniques of radio journalism, writing scripts and preparing for interviews, their literary skills soared. As they calculated timings to fit program schedules, their math skills grew. And since many of these activities had to be done on computers, their IT competencies improved too. At the end, inmates graduated with a formal qualification in radio production.

As more and more orisons sought advice on how to set up their own radio stations, Maguire left to set up his own charity, the Prison Radio Association, to advise prisons on how to set up and operate a radio station, and how to maximize the educational and rehabilitative potential.

In 2007, the Prison Radio Association was asked to set up a radio station at Brixton Prison in London. The station launched later that year as the first 24 hours a day, 7 days a week prison radio.

The birth of National Prison Radio

The success of Electric Radio Brixton finally convinced the U.K. Ministry of Justice to establish National Prison Radio (NPR). The first broadcast hit the airwaves in May 2009, and now NPR broadcasts to about 75,000 of the U.K.’s 85,000 prisoners out of the Brixton studios.

Since then further production houses have been established at three other prisons, including a women’s prison near Manchester and a young offenders’ prison in Wigan.

The Prison Radio Association receives no funding from the Ministry of Justice for running NPR, so must raise its own funds. To help with this PRA established a production company which produces radio documentaries, webcasts, and podcasts for clients including the BBC’s national radio stations.

Awards and honors

Through all these activities National Prison Radio provides the inmates who run it with fantastic training and experience.

In return, the inmates give the best of themselves. Over the last five years they have won ten Sony Radio Academy Awards, and NPR was named Station of the Year for London and the South East by the Radio Academy for both 2012 and 2013.

From small beginnings, designed to bring hope to a few hundred young offenders in West London, has grown a network that brings education, information, entertainment, and companionship to tens of thousands of inmates throughout the British prison system. Now that’s something worth listening to.

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