It's what people turn to': Lauren Laverne, Iain Dale and others on why radio is thriving in lockdown

Audience numbers for live radio have soared. Presenters from the national to the local talk about the medium’s unique way of connecting

There was a moment, in early lockdown, when everything “live” seemed to stop. No gigs, no plays, no clubs, no classes, no festivals. Nothing happening right now, no moments that brought you closer to strangers, nothing spontaneous and fun and immediate.

Nothing, except radio. Radio gives us, as it always has, a constantly live event, familiar but ever changing. Whether you’re a news junkie, a music fiend, or you just like silly chat, there are stations for you. There are phone-ins if you want to vent, pop quizzes for distraction, sing-alongs, help with schoolwork. Plus, if you find a show you like, a DJ can become a replacement friend – a warm presence chuntering in the kitchen corner, cracking quips over your headphones, blasting tunes out of speakers you’ve put on the window ledge.

As a medium, radio responded quickly to the coronavirus pandemic. Time slots were shifted and simplified: Radio 2 and 6 Music changed their schedules to reflect the lack of a school run or commute. Special shows popped up: comedy slots on UnionJACK, an altered Drive on 5Live; Fun Kids expanded its home school offering. And listeners liked it. Ratings have soared. Recent Rajars (the official radio listening figures), which cover the weeks immediately following lockdown, saw increases for 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne, Radio 1’s Greg James, and Heart’s Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden. Local commercial stations saw digital listening increase by around 40%, with some up 75%; LBC, which talks virus nonstop, has seen its daily online reach grow 43%. (Music streaming has gone down since the pandemic started.)

Some shows have blossomed during lockdown. Some have been born: NoSignal’s live soundclash show 10v10 has exploded into success, with hundreds of thousands tuning in worldwide to hear Vybz Kartel tracks played in competition against Wizkid’s, or Ian Wright clash with Julie Adenuga with 80s v 90s tunes. The excitement across social media, the fun and good vibes… these are live events, and we can all join in, all feel connected, even though we’re stuck at home. Good times, happening in the moment, open to all. Perfect radio. Miranda Sawyer

Lauren Laverne: ‘Sometimes what you need is a kitchen disco’

Presenter of BBC 6 Music’s breakfast show (weekdays, 8.30am-midday)

Lauren Laverne, photographed for the Observer by Pal Hånsen in central London
Lauren Laverne, photographed in central London. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer

Earlier this month, the first set of Rajar figures for 2020 showed a record-breaking audience for Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music weekday breakfast show: 1.3 million listeners from January to the end of March 2020, which included the early days of lockdown. “When people say you’re getting it right, it feels like a massive thing,” she says, when we speak via Zoom on a weekday afternoon.

Laverne is warm and relaxed: she’s on her bed at home, wearing glasses, shirt and dungarees, chatting in between sending emails to sort out guests and running orders for future programmes. She is still presenting from the studio, but her team is split up (she’s in one room behind glass, a producer in another, with other people working remotely). In the early days of lockdown, she walked the six miles home every day to decompress, “but that quickly got knackering. Now my family drive me in and pick me up, bless them.” This involves her husband, Graham Fisher, bundling two sons, Fergus and Mack, into the car before 7am (“Some days it’s easier than others,” she laughs).

Much has been written about Laverne’s hosting of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (since 2018). Not all feedback has been kind, such is the high-profile nature of the gig, but her version of the show really hit its groove earlier this year when revealing episodes with Ian Wright and Daniel Radcliffe made the news (a lockdown special, Your Desert Island Discs, featuring stories of ordinary people, will continue this theme). Less is said about her breakfast gig, which has created a similar, intimate space since Laverne took it over in early 2019. “I like to think of the show as making a new mixtape for a friend every day,” she says, which says a lot about her appeal.

The programme is pitched as an adventurous show of musical discovery, in which Laverne plays forgotten classics, obscurities and new releases. More often than not she starts with an unexpected, spirit-raising banger, such as Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People or LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends. But it’s her warm style and inclusive personality that have kept her listeners locked in and that seems particularly well suited to the current times. It’s clear that she thinks a lot about radio’s role in people’s lives. “When something dramatic happens in a film or TV, like a big world event, the scene will cut, and you’ll hear someone speaking to you from a radio,” she says. “It may be an old grand dame in the media, but in these situations, it’s what people turn to. Radio’s what we should do well.”

In early March, as listeners’ messages started to flood her inbox and Twitter feed, Laverne realised she had to respond to the pandemic and cancelled plans to take a fortnight off: “It felt right to do that.”

6 Music DJs were possibly better prepared for the situation, Laverne says, because of their experience responding to the emotional reactions of their listeners after David Bowie’s and Prince’s sudden deaths in 2016. “Those were huge moments of collective grief that we had to work out literally live on air. We turned up for work, put our shows in the bin, and realised we had to talk about how people felt. That was very new for us.”

In the early days of lockdown, her mood and her music choices were more gentle and calming, but as time moved on, she recognised that our pandemic experiences weren’t just about one emotion. “It’s like when you’re sitting in a car going to a funeral, broken-hearted, then someone tells a funny story and you’re all in hysterics. You need different things. Sometimes people want a moment of escape, a kitchen disco, and that’s not necessarily about euphoria. It’s often about catharsis.”

Finding music that was hopeful but not chirpy became Laverne’s goal. I mention her playing Coldcut and Lisa Stansfield’s People Hold On around the peak of the epidemic, and how perfect that felt. She nearly leaps off the bed. “Oh God, yes! I don’t know if I’ve ever played that before, but that was quite a moment.” She’s also been reminded how much great music comes out of struggle. “It’s there in every genre: rock’n’roll, soul, disco, everything. Music can give us such support.”

Listener interaction is a big part of the show – Laverne alternates between asking her listeners “big emotional questions” and having “daft, fun moments”. She mentions a recent “lockdown hair” slot, and a picture she’d been sent of a father who’d given both sides of his hair for different children to cut (“I was in stitches”). She also gets sent pictures every day from a listener of his elderly mum. “She’s 89, she’s self-isolating, called Annelise, and there she is on a Tuesday, waving to me in an amazing hat!” Laverne doesn’t seem to think this is peculiar at all: quite the contrary. “That’s the really nice thing about the job. You’re a part of people’s everyday lives.”

She has also heard from listeners who have come to the show for the first time, and more families listening. Does she think people want an escape from the news? “I don’t think they necessarily want an alternative – they want a counterpoint. We don’t ignore what is happening. We just try to provide the right emotional cushion.”

Nothing illustrates this better than the slot every Thursday that the show dedicates to different key workers. These have included groups rarely celebrated in the media: charity fundraisers; delivery drivers; shop workers. Many have got in touch to thank her for remembering them, which has moved her profoundly. “When you’re sitting there in your little studio you’re quite sequestered from the world, but your voice is reaching out to places you can’t even imagine. And to think of those people wiping the trolleys, putting the bread on the shelves, messaging you to say thank you for thanking them… it reminds you what public service broadcasting is here for.”

Laverne knows live radio can do this like nothing else can. “It’s one person broadcasting to one another person, and that intimacy, but it’s also community. And to be doing it at breakfast time, and getting people up to face the day…” She laughs. “Well, above all, you’ve got to make sure you’re playing the right tunes.” JR

Who’s your live radio hero?
Vanessa Feltz on BBC London is in a league of her own. Whip-smart, not afraid to have fun and with a bloodhound’s nose for a story.

What’s your funniest live radio moment?
My early days presenting with Shaun Keaveny on XFM, doing live indie bingo with his character Roy “Golden Balls” Butler. All I have to do is look at Shaun still, and I’m in stitches.

Your Desert Island Discs is on BBC Radio 4, 5 June, 9am. Lauren Laverne will take part in the BBC’s weekend of music on TV, radio and online to mark what would have been Glastonbury’s 50th anniversary festival, 25-28 June

Iain Dale: ‘I’m literally broadcasting from my bedroom’

Presenter of LBC’s evening show (Mon-Thurs, 7-10pm)

LBC presenter Iain Dale, who is working from his home in Kent
Iain Dale, who is working from his home in Kent. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“Radio is such an intimate medium compared to television,” says Iain Dale. “Often people think of it as TV’s poor relation. Well, in a crisis like this, it genuinely isn’t.”

Dale has been a fixture on LBC, Britain’s biggest commercial news talk station, since 2010 – he presides over the 7-10pm slot from Monday to Thursday. Far from impartial, the 57-year-old stood as the Tory candidate in North Norfolk in the 2005 general election and, though he later quit active politics, is closer aligned to stablemates Nick Ferrari and Nigel Farage than the left-leaning, Brexit-despairing James O’Brien.

But Dale has a soft side too. “One of the first things I learned when I joined LBC was: open up about yourself, make sure that people can relate to you,” he says, down the line from his house in Tunbridge Wells. “So my audience knows that I support West Ham, that I drive an Audi, that I have a jack russell and a miniature schnauzer, and that means that when they phone in on an emotional topic, especially if it’s to do with coronavirus, they will talk to you in a way that they just wouldn’t if they were being interviewed on television. It makes it so much more intimate and powerful.”

That intimacy has only increased since Dale, who has type 2 diabetes and is therefore at high risk during the pandemic, stopped coming into LBC’s Leicester Square studios in mid-March. “I’m literally broadcasting from my bedroom,” he says, “because it’s the only room in the house with a carpet, so it sucks up the echoes. The duvet, the quilted headboard, the curtains – they all make it much more of a studio sound. It’s a bit like that Midnight Caller TV programme: you really have got this one-to-one feel. I’ve had a couple of friends say: ‘You’ve changed since you’ve been doing this at home, you’re sounding much more personal and intimate.’”

Dale has had some extraordinarily raw on-air encounters since the pandemic struck. “I had a guy phone in the middle of April saying: ‘I’ve called you because my mother died of coronavirus two hours ago.’ Your instant thought is, why on earth would you phone a radio station two hours after your mother died? The reason was that he wanted people to obey the government’s instructions, because he hadn’t – he had gone to visit his mother and now he thought he’d passed on the virus to her and basically killed her. Imagine having that weight on your mind.”

The man then phoned again to say he now had the virus himself, and a third time to say that he’d recovered. “One of the things that the audience like, when a caller has a powerful story to tell, is to hear the follow-up,” says Dale.

Politics is still a central part of the show, and Dale points out that his leanings don’t stop him from grilling government ministers over its response to the pandemic and the economic fallout. (He gave minister for London Paul Scully a hard time earlier this month about public transport fare increases, and is critical of Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trips, tweeting that two of his friends used Cummings’ actions as a justification for rule-bending behaviour of their own.) But it’s his dialogue with listeners that really resonates. When I ask if he considers his show a release valve for the 563,000 people tuning in every week – LBC says digital listening hours to the show were up by 44% in April compared to February – Dale replies: “I think this is ultimately public service broadcasting. People think of commercial radio as just commercial, but it isn’t: you are providing a social service in times like this.”

Despite the technical challenges of broadcasting from home, it’s worked very well so far, he says. During the show Dale has two laptops on the go, one to communicate with his producers and another to monitor incoming calls. His audio, captured on the “really good” microphone he uses to record his For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith, is zapped back to Leicester Square with the help of a Mediaport router. “We’ve only had to go to pre-prepared tape twice in around 50 programmes, which isn’t a bad ratio,” he says.

Would he like to continue working from home after lockdown? He does enjoy the lifestyle, he admits – his husband, John, is at home, and he can walk the dogs every day. But if he’s interviewing a politician, “I like to have the politician in front of me, I like to see the whites of their eyes,” he says. “If I was just doing three hours of straight phone-in, then yes, I could [do it from home]. But, no,” he concludes, with a hint of regret: “I couldn’t do my normal radio show like this all the time.” KF

Who’s your live radio hero?
Brian Hayes, the Australian presenter who was on LBC, BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 2. I learned a hell of a lot from him, almost subconsciously, about how to keep an audience engaged and how to talk to people – if you’re going to be quite acerbic, do it in a way that people don’t think is gratuitously rude.

What’s your funniest live radio moment?
Five or six years ago, we were doing a discussion on homosexuality and I took a call from Margaret in Glasgow. She was going on about how gay people were sinners and they all had to be shot. At one point I said: “Margaret, can I just stop you there, before you dig your hole even deeper, and tell you that you’re talking to one.” The phone line went silent for about three seconds, which in radio feels like 10. And she said: “Oh I didn’t mean you, Iain.” I hope that when she put the phone down, she did some rethinking.

Scully and Henrie Kwushue: ‘We’re definitely on to something here’

Presenters of No Signal 10v10 soundclashes,

Henrie Kwushue and Scully, outside their houses in, respectively, Peckham, and Croydon, south London
Henrie Kwushue and Scully, outside their houses in, respectively, Peckham, and Croydon, south London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Three months ago, no one had heard of No Signal, now a London-based online radio station with a heaving Twitter base and raucously innovative music shows – for the simple reason that it didn’t exist. Launched in late March by brothers Jojo and David Sonubi, it has made creative use of the fact that its target audience is stuck at home thirsting for social engagement, with screens and speakers at their disposal.

“The first time I realised we were making a connection beyond our immediate friends group was Nicki Minaj vs Lil Kim,” says Jason Kavuma, AKA Scully, a host of the station’s breakout show, 10v10, which pits two artists’ songs against each other, culminating in a public vote on Twitter. “Prior to that we were getting a couple of hundred listeners. Then several thousand people locked in. A lot of Nicki Minaj fans started voting and it was like: ‘Oh, this could actually be big.’ Then we featured [UK rappers] J Hus vs Kojo Funds…”

“And that was huge,” says the show’s alternating host, Henrie Kwushue. “We were trending No 1 on UK Twitter,” says Kavuma. “Both artists had heard of the show and were locking in. When we were checking the hashtag #NS10v10, it was no longer just friends of friends. It was random people I’d never heard of coming in and making their opinion known.” It got bigger still when more than a million tuned into Vybz Kartel v Wizkid on 3 May.

Adept, charismatic hosts who maintain a lively pace over 90 minutes, Kavuma, 26, and Kwushue, 25, both got their start on the youth-led radio station Reprezent in Brixton. They learned about production as well as presenting – Kavuma went on to work as an assistant producer at the BBC – though in both cases it was obvious that they thrived in front of a microphone. When the Sonubi brothers, who run the popular Recess club nights in south London, were seeking hosts for their new lockdown radio project, Kavuma and Kwushue were obvious choices.

On 10v10, which airs at 9pm on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (this evening’s battle is between UK and international drill music), each artist or subgenre is represented by a champion who selects 10 tracks and agitates on their behalf. Kwushue describes it as a gameshow rather than a soundclash – a judgment less on the quality of the artist than how convincingly they are represented. If the show is a little rough and ready at times – the participants communicate via Google Hangouts and the resulting audio is streamed to a radio server – it is more than compensated for by the exuberance of the presenters and the sheer fun they have with their audience on social media.

That audience has grown to include the artists themselves. When Nigerian singer Burna Boy was matched against dancehall artist Popcaan, both megastars tuned in and stirred up their followers. “I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy,’” says Kavuma. “‘Two artists that I’m a massive fan of are locking into me talking to other fans of their music from, like, this boxy bedroom. We’re definitely on to something here.’”

Their whirlwind success is testament to the freedom and immediacy of online radio – anyone with a bit of tech knowhow can do it, and fast – but you still need skill and sharp ideas. The genius of 10v10, according to Kwushue, is combining a communal, live radio event with the instant kick of social media. “People love sitting down together, watching each other’s tweets and getting involved in the conversation,” she says, “and I think this is a really new and innovative way to do it.” KF

Who’s your live radio hero?
Zane Lowe. I like that he gets to play a combination of everything that he finds amazing. As someone with eclectic musical tastes, that’s always inspired me.
Kwushue: It’s a toss-up between MistaJam [1Xtra] and Julie Adenuga [Beats 1]. With MistaJam, I used to think I need to be as eloquent, funny and relatable as he is. And Julie is so incredible.

What’s your funniest live radio moment?
A couple of times while broadcasting out of [shipping container community hub] Pop Brixton for Reprezent, guests would forget to pay for parking. We’d see the ticket warden downstairs and I’d be like, “We’re going to go to a song real quick,” and cut to the song while the artist ran downstairs to plead with the warden.
Kwushue: I have a feature on my Reprezent show called Sing the Scenario. When I had [comedian] Mo Gilligan on, he absolutely smashed it. He went far beyond my expectations and it was absolutely hilarious.

Petroc Trelawny: ‘We will be back in the bluebell woods again’

Presenter of Breakfast, BBC Radio 3 (weekdays, 6.30–9 am)

Radio presenter Petroc Trelawny at BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London, for New Review, 18/05/2020
Petroc Trelawny, photographed at Broadcasting House in central London. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Every weekday, not long after sunrise, Radio 3 breakfast presenter Petroc Trelawny leaves his house in Camden and walks 25 minutes into work at the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Because he doesn’t need to use public transport, he is one of the few BBC radio presenters still able to go into the studio. In some ways it is spooky: “I’m getting out of the lift, and wandering down empty corridors,” he says. “But I know how lucky I am that my life hasn’t changed very much, although it’s very odd to get here walking on such silent streets. But you should see the way the light falls on Regent Street first thing in the morning. It makes you feel very lucky.”

Trelawny’s warm, gentle style, and his commitment to his listeners, have helped his show come into its own during lockdown. His audience has been telling him the show is “a lifeline”, he says. “Someone said: ‘There’s something very reassuring about the new day starting with this familiar voice. I hear you, and this lovely music, and I know we’ve got through the night.’”

Classical music radio listening was already rising before the pandemic: in February 2020, Radio 3 posted its highest audience ratings in years, at 2.13 million listeners. And perhaps it is no surprise that many people are preferring Beethoven and Brahms at breakfast to the unrelenting news cycle (Breakfast now has only one bulletin, midway through the show).

Trelawny has noticed his audience broadening, with an increase of messages over social media and email; parents and children, who would have otherwise been in work or in school, are listening, as are families far away from each other, who tune in together. He mentions one 87-year-old self-isolating far from her daughter, who requested a special birthday song for her mother – a memorable moment. “These loved ones are three or three hundred miles away from each other, but they’re sharing the experience. That’s very moving,” he says.

Trelawny has worked hard to strike the right tone. “I realised early on that there’s no need to be going: ‘This is a national emergency!’ Everyone knows that. There’s a grave danger in being too portentous.” Often, he lets his music choices speak for him. He has been playing Schubert songs about the importance of working through our relationships, and others about the value of life, or the beauty of the countryside. A recent series of compositions about bluebells was particularly popular. “There’s a sadness and grief there, of course, but we will be back in the bluebell woods again.”

He has also added new, more rousing segments such as March of the Day (“which came after a silly conversation with my producer about people missing Match of the Day”) and the show’s Friday sing-along, which has featured Scarborough Fair and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. The tunes are first played during the week so listeners can practise, but Trelawny has been at pains for this not to be a public, shared experience. “It’s more about the lovely familiarity of sharing a song in strange, unfamiliar times. This is not about tweeting videos of yourself. You could be an out-of-work operatic tenor or someone who is literally embarrassed by their singing voice at a wedding – it’s just about sharing this lovely, private moment. It’s been oddly profound.”

Trelawny regularly recommends online performances that his listeners may want to access and recently played a series of songs inspired by museums around the country, which are in need of support. It’s his duty, he feels, to support cultural institutions and practitioners “going through a terrible time” and he believes his listeners want to support them, too.

He hopes that a renewed enthusiasm for live radio will have a cultural impact long-term. “People have realised that the sense of an experience being live, and sharing it together, and being there at the same time as the person who’s guiding you, of being human beings together, means so very much.” JR

Who is your live radio hero?
Paddy O’Connell on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House. He brings humour and an easy spontaneity to his work, and intelligence. He never sounds overly important.

What’s your funniest live radio moment?
Having to fill for 15 minutes on a broadcast, as the solo pianist due to do a live concert was still fast asleep.

Clare Lynch: ‘Local radio brings a sense of community that’s been lost in recent years’

Presenter of The Soho Hour, Soho Radio (weekdays, 9-10am)

Clare Lynch, who is broadcasting from her home in Soho for Soho Radio London
Clare Lynch, who is broadcasting from her home in Soho for Soho Radio London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

One of Clare Lynch’s worst – and best – moments of lockdown so far happened on 9 April, less than a fortnight into her new “self-isolation daily” show on Soho Radio. A regular presenter on the central London online station, who has increased her output fivefold during the pandemic, Lynch was midway through her hour-long breakfast programme when disaster struck. “My sound desk literally went up in smoke,” she recalls. “It just completely cut out.”

Lynch, who has lived in Soho for 20 years, was broadcasting from her flat on Brewer Street, where she’d cobbled together a home studio. After lockdown began on 23 March, she had grabbed a sound card from the now-empty radio station, procured a studio-quality microphone from eBay and covered her bedroom with sound-absorbing fabric and egg trays from the local dairy. She already had a sound desk from working on podcasts – Lynch produced the art series Sculpting Lives – and by the end of March she was operational, connecting with guests via Zoom and Zencastr and with listeners via Twitter and Instagram.

The sound desk packing in felt like a catastrophe, but help wasn’t far away. “One of my listeners, who lives on the other end of my street, messaged me on Twitter even before the show had ended, saying: ‘I have a spare sound desk, do you want me to loan it to you?’ Within an hour, the box was outside my door and next morning I was up and running again. It was incredible.”

For Lynch, this gesture underlines the strength of community in Soho, a part of London that people don’t often think of as residential. Normally thronging with shoppers and revellers, the area had fallen disconcertingly quiet since lockdown. “It’s very absent and strange – I’m still not really used to it,” she says. But as she has reached out to the neighbourhood through her show, the other residents – “we have around 3,000 people living here” – have been tuning in and displaying their appreciation.

Local radio has played a vital role in the pandemic, unearthing inspiring tales and forging connections in a crisis. The story of Captain Tom Moore, who raised more than £30m by walking around his garden before his 100th birthday, came to us through BBC Three Counties Radio, while BBC Radio Devon helped connect a frontline NHS worker whose car had broken down with a mechanic who rode to her rescue.

The Soho Hour takes a similar approach. “I’ve tried to be extremely local in one sense,” says Lynch. Her guests – she has three on each morning – have included the local MP, the headteacher of Soho’s primary school, and a lawyer from a nearby practice, attempting to clarify the government’s lockdown guidance. She encourages local traders to send in homemade ads informing customers about opening hours and delivery services. Meanwhile, listeners get in touch to share information on where to buy bedding plants or find the nearest functioning post office. Lynch reads out obituaries, of which there have been a distressing number lately, but also celebrates births, birthdays and other happier occasions.

The focus may be local but the appeal of the show, like that of the neighbourhood it represents, is much broader. “So many people think of Soho as home, even if it’s not where they actually live, and the show is speaking to them as well.” You may not be able to go to Bar Italia, or Gerry’s Club, or the French House, but by interviewing their owners and staff, Lynch has been able to give listeners a connection to the landmarks they love.

“It’s been a way for people to hear each other,” she says. “Local radio brings a sense of community that has gotten lost in recent years. People are reconnecting with their local community under lockdown, and radio is the perfect entry point.” KF

Which radio presenters are seeing you through the pandemic?
Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music for a whole world of music and sound, and Jane Garvey on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour for Covid-related news.

Who’s your live radio hero?
I grew up listening to John Peel in my bedroom. His programmes were an education. From my parents’ home in a suburban cultural desert I was able to enter an extraordinary other world.


Miranda Sawyer Interviews: Jude Rogers and Killian Fox

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