Radio without the ga-ga: why I love local, independent radio

“I’d sit alone and watch your light/ My only friend through teenage nights / And everything I had to know / I heard it on my radio” – “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen

radioI remember the day the music was born. It was December 25th 1978 and my parents had just given me a cassette recorder for Christmas. I tried recording theme music from the TV but soon gravitated to my little transistor radio and the local independent radio station – Pennine Radio – in Bradford in the North of England. The DJ was one Julius K Scragg; I have never heard of him since but he rocked. He was reviewing the year’s music: Grease had been the Word and Love had been Unkind. I was hooked. I’m sure I still have that first tape today locked away in an attic somewhere. You can even hear my dad in the background yelling at me to turn the music down.

cassetteFrom them on I’ve surfed the airwaves wherever I’ve been. Why radio? Well, it’s not as distracting as TV (I did my homework to it), it’s more portable and leaves more to your imagination. Being in the UK, I listed to BBC Radio One – to David “Kid” Jensen and to the Late John Peel. I also found the pirate radio station Radio Luxembourg and remember one particular occasion when listening to Stuart Henry, who unbeknown to me had multiple sclerosis. I knew that he slurred his words and that his slurring was getting worse, but one night he just stopped talking mid-show and never appeared on radio again. Up until earlier this year I had assumed that he’d died on air, but he actually died a good few years’ later.

johnpeelOther radio DJs I admired were Andy Kershaw, who first exposed me to world music and Annie Nightingale, who DJ’d an eclectic request show is currently the longest serving female DJ on British radio. At university in Manchester I listened to Piccadilly Radio, supplementing my “homework” on a Sunday evening listening to the emerging House music scene and the Hip hop show. In my first job in London, I tuned in to another pirate radio station, Kiss FM, the only station at the time playing Acid House.

My cassette recorder had evolved into a radio-cassette recorder. I accumulated hundreds of tapes of my favourite music, enabled by pressing “play “, then “pause” then “pause” again when I heard a tune I liked. Many of them I would edit out the DJ’s intro and “outro”.

Fast forward twenty years to the present and I’m living in Melbourne Australia and listening to independent community radio station Radio 3RRR. It is commercial-free and plays an eclectic range of music, from lounge to hip-hop, together with a variety of chat shows. Triple R started in 1976 within RMIT University in Melbourne and has since grown to one of the largest independent, subscriber-based radio stations in the world. It does not receive any government funding. Once a year in August, it holds a week-long Radiothon subscriber drive which begins this year on the 15th. The theme for this year’s Radiothon is “Local and Vocal Radio” to emphasise its place in the Melbourne community. Having said that, anyone in the world with a digital radio can listen to current or past shows. My favourites are The Skullcave with Stephen Walker on a Friday evening and Vital Bits with Tim Thorpe on weekend mornings.

3RRR-logoOccasionally, while trapped in a taxi, I am reminded what the alternative is: commercial radio with its short, repetitive play lists, opinionated DJs and endless banal advertisements. You can keep it; I’m going local and independent.

I am also playing my own small part in the 3RRR family. In addition to being a paid-up subscriber, I am a regular co-presenter on the Sunday science show Einstein A Go-Go. I am a tiny part of what I love. I also recently found a great, themed request show on another local community station – Centrelinked on North West FM and like the in old days, I still get a kick out of hearing them play my song.

And do I have a “secret” ambition to host my own show one day? You bet. However, for now, I’ll stick with listening to the radio. Morning, afternoon and evening.

You had your time, you had the power / You’ve yet to have your finest hour.” “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen

Fact, fudge or fiction: understanding medical research news

Every day we are bombarded with stories of medical “breakthroughs”, cures for cancer and claims that substance X causes disease Y. But how do we know which reports to trust? Are we being fed the truth or has it been bent beyond all recognition by PR departments, journalists and headline writers? Below is a rough guide to getting to the bottom of news stories about medical research.

Cartoon by Jim Borgman, first published by the Cincinnati Inquirer and King Features Syndicate 1997 Apr 27; Forum section: 1 and reprinted in the New York Times, 27 April 1997, E4

Where is the study reported?

Whether the study has been reported on television, radio, print or online, you must first judge the quality of the media outlet on which the story is presented and whether bias may be present. Gone are the days in which “mainstream” media was more reliable than online media but you can still choose a news source you know to be trustworthy. Sites such as Newstrust and mic can help you identify these. Examples of trustworthy sources include the New York Times, Reuters and BBC News. In addition, The Conversation is an independent source of news and analysis written by academics and research scientists. It features topical stories and corrects misinformation emanating from less rigorous media sources. Specific medical research institutes may also have blog posts written by their own experts in the field.

At what stage is the study?

Sometimes researchers may issue a press release before they start their research, when research is in progress or before their work has been reviewed and published. These situations are the least reliable. Ideally we will know whether the researchers are the first to find such results (they will definitely say if this is the case). If so, it’s possible that a single study may not be able to replicated by others. As a research area matures, researchers will spend time writing a “systematic review” or conducting a “meta-analysis”. Systematic reviews are “studies of studies” which identify, appraise, select and synthesize all high quality research evidence relevant to a specific research question and make conclusions about whether sufficient evidence exists to support a research finding. Among the most trusted examples of these are Cochran reviews. New treatments for diseases must go through these processes before entering the clinic.

What organism has been studied?

This may sound like a strange question but medical research often starts with human cells in a dish. Showing that a drug can kill cancer cells in a petri dish does not mean it will kill cancer in a real person. And new drugs require testing on animals before humans and surprisingly, news reports may sometime fail to mention whether the study is of mice or men.

Is sensationalism used?

Studies labelled “breakthrough” and “cure” rarely are. Research takes years and the vast majority of research is achieved in small advances. See also “what stage is the study at” above. Check the language used; researchers often suggest that their research “may lead to” a cure.

How thorough and critical is the news report?

A bonus if an independent expert is quoted; this provides a valuable independent assessment. Lazy news sources may not even speak to the original researchers and will quote the original press release verbatim, so if in doubt look up the study.

Go to the source

Another bonus if the source of the news story is quoted. Journalists may include just the journal name but if you are lucky, the story will link to the article itself. However, there are a couple of barriers to overcome once you have come this far. Firstly, if the study is not freely available, you can search for it. Most journals are, however, still pay-per-view but at least you will be search for and read the summary or “abstract” for free. Once you have done this, there are excellent guides that can help you understand and evaluate research papers.

“But I don’t have time to do all this checking!”

In this case, someone may have already done the checking for you. The searchable Behind the Headlines from the UK National Health Service’s NHS Choices web site is the one site you need. It breaks down each story into sections of where the story came from, what kind of study it is, what the basic results were and how they were interpreted. Each short article ends with a conclusion summarising the strengths and weaknesses of the study followed by links to the original research article and examples of how the mainstream media has covered the story.

Finally, if I were offering two pieces of advice: start skeptical and if you disagree with the way the story is covered, write a comment on the story’s web site or complain about it. After all, every news outlet should share the motto of the New York Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print”.



Many thanks to Anne Byrne for proof reading