When Sheffield City College decided to trial its own radio station earlier this year, it quickly became a magnet for students. "To think that I was worried about how I'd come up with a regular supply of current shows," laughs Matt Hine, digital media lecturer. "From the start, students at all levels and of all ages were requesting to come in and record shows at lunchtimes and after classes. Many of these students would previously be off just as soon as class was over."
Most of the 50-strong learners involved in the trial week of broadcasting are studying a digital media course or an e-communications foundation degree. But the radio station, which continues to air a limited number of shows, has also attracted students from completely unrelated subjects. In fact, Hine believes one of the radio station's major benefits has been improving literacy skills. "Students interested in presenting were asked to create scripts that they would follow in talk shows or between songs in music shows, which I helped them with. The improvements in literacy were often significant."
He adds: "A further benefit has been confidence-raising. Initially, some students were a bit nervous about learning how to work the equipment and were very wary of hearing their own voice. When you first walk into the radio station it is so well equipped, it looks like something from the Starship Enterprise. But by the end of our trial week, we had students who were too nervous to talk in class doing radio shows that they knew were being listened to all around college and online."
James Burns, 16, admits he was anxious at first. "But the stage fright passed quickly. Now I'm doing lunchtime shows when I can and I love it. It looks great on my CV too."
While many students were keen to play their hip-hop or dance music collections, others put together talk shows on a range of topics – and while most were pre-recorded, others were live.
"One 16-year-old with very basic literacy put together a really mature piece about knife crime," says Hine. "He talked about how he feels out on the street and then created an interesting debate about messages in hip-hop songs. It was fantastic. Meanwhile, a group of access course students put together a really good show about how many of them had had an awful time in school, but had made the decision to come to back into education and that other people could do it too. Other students got involved by doing things such as making their own jingles. There was a real ripple effect."
Hine is currently trying to persuade the college to air the radio station full-time. "But if it is to be successful, we'll have to put trust in the students. A college radio needs to be somewhere they can call their space, rather than being taken over by lecturers," he insists.
In this sense, Castle College Nottingham is one step ahead. Its radio station has previously aired for just a week during the spring term – with the aim of encouraging media students to put into practice their technical, production and presentation skills – but from last month it has been broadcasting full-time on 1278AM from the college's purpose built studios. For 26-year-old Jayne McCormack, who is studying a basic radio production course during the evenings, spending time in the radio station has become a favourite pastime. "As someone who's never done anything in radio before, it's a great opportunity to improve my production skills."
Graham Collis, the mastermind behind Castle Radio and a local radio presenter himself, says, "Students like Jayne now get a much wider radio experience and people from all kinds of courses use the station as a marketing tool or an opportunity to run shows on issues that are important to them."
The student union regularly promotes its services, for example. Likewise, the college's weekly magazine, Exchange, wants to broadcast a radio version.
"Colleges have a lot of students, so when the radio is aired in corridors, canteens, foyers and student union areas – as well as online – you're talking about a strong listening public," says Yan Szczesnowicz, lecturer in media at Park Lane College Leeds.
This radio station has very different roots to most. "The college management came up with a Dragons' Den idea, with 12 teams each putting forward an entrepreneurial idea. My idea was a radio station and we won," says Szczesnowicz. "We have everything from cookery slots to people from horticulture courses talking about gardening. You name it, students are showing interest."
Kallum Greenwood, an 18-year-old student studying a national certificate in animal care, has his own weekly music show. "I'm such a big fan of music that I'm always getting told off for continually listening to my MP3, so I thought why not get involved. Basically, I play music and talk in between about newsy topics – whether local or national. I've learned masses of new skills and would love to do more with radio when I leave."
College radio stations are not all plain sailing, as Steve Grantham testifies. "We were recently given the money to buy equipment to the tune of £7,000. The problem is that students get overwhelmed by its sophistication. I'm hoping it's just teething problems because what we could achieve is really exciting."
Jack Foster, a 15-year-old media studies student, is confident interest will pick up. "I've been to local radio stations and this is the same set-up. It's an amazing opportunity and it won't be long before students realise that."
'Everyone can get involved – not just the media students'
When Martin Jay, Choice FM's Breakfast DJ, was invited to the launch of SC Radio, founded by students from Southgate College, little did he expect the level of professionalism he encountered. But the dedication of Chris Offiah and Jojo Mukeza – both studying BTEC National Diploma in media at the college – was clear from the outset
"We wrote a proposal to the principal with the idea and he called us in to bounce some ideas off him. I think he was surprised by how many we had," says Offiah, 19. "A few weeks later, he gave us a £2,000 budget. We had never managed a budget before – it was big news."
Setting up the radio station was not without its hitches, admits Offiah. "There were problems with the equipment. But eventually we started recording podcasts and after a while we got the news that we'd be the first London college to livestream over the internet. That was amazing. People can listen to it on their iPods too."
SC Radio now runs full-time, specialising in music, interviews and news. "Everyone has the chance to come in and get involved in recordings – not just media students."
The students got their first big interview the day after the launch, when John Denham MP, Secretary of State for the Department of Innovation, University and Skills visited the college. "That was great – he has a lot of good ideas for education," says Offiah.
Mukeza, 19, shares his enthusiasm. "There's a real 'wow feeling' to having founded a radio station that will be around for years to come. What's also exciting is that everyone keeps saying, 'The radio is inspirational.' It's like the college is alight."