Gooood morning, Afghanistan (and Abingdon and Bicester)
Jack FM is the first local radio station to broadcast from a war zone. Matthew Bell meets the team
Sunday 14 November 2010
If video killed the radio star, the news has yet to reach Oxford. Scan the airwaves of this student city – population 150,000, of which 40,000 leave for the holidays – and you'll find four separate local stations, of which two are privately owned.
The competition is fierce: as you walk into the spartan premises of Jack FM, a privately owned and self-consciously off-beat station on the Woodstock Road, you can't help but notice the coffin acting as a coffee table. Closer inspection reveals it is a left-over from a publicity stunt that was mounted when rival station FoxFM was swallowed by the nationwide network Heart. That explains the fox'a brush poking out the end. "We paraded it through the streets of Oxford," laughs Rosie Tratt, one of Jack's tiny founding team.
In the summer, the output of this concrete carbuncle was momentarily the talk of New York, when someone had the bright idea of renaming Glide, Jack's women-orientated sister station, as Glee FM, and only tracks from the hit US drama were played. The stunt became a Twitter phenomenon, and was picked up by The New York Times and the gossip blogger Perez Hilton. Originally planned for a day, it was extended to three.
Today, Glide is more conventional, and the creativity is left to Jack. In the lexicon of most local radio stations, that might mean a mega-chart weekend or a sponsored gig in the park. But at Jack it means heading out to Afghanistan for a week of special broadcasts. It's the first time a local radio station has sent its entire breakfast-show team to a war zone. Beginning a week tomorrow, for five days, the prime-time, three-hour breakfast show will be hosted at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, and beamed by satellite back to Oxfordshire. "We're doing it for the troops as well," says Tratt, "It's our Vera Lynn moment."
It is not, though, just a gimmick. Oxfordshire is home to several major Army and RAF bases, and part of the point of Jack's mission is to connect families with troops currently deployed on duty. Its team of four – anchor Trevor Marshall, 40; newsreader Greg Burke, 30; programme director Sue Carter, 38; and producer and roving reporter Tratt, 29, plan to take messages and gifts from families to the troops. Only Burke has visited Afghanistan before.
"When Greg went out previously, he talked to the families back home beforehand," says Sue. "They were then able to hear Greg out there, talking to their sons. Usually, families might only snatch a couple of minutes a week with their sons, so it was a really nice thing to do."
This visit has been a year in the planning, and is being organised and supported by the RAF. It will not be cheap: although they are being flown out by the RAF from nearby Brize Norton, personal insurance alone costs upwards of £1,500 per person for the week, which will eat into the station's tight margins. For transmission, they will be using the equipment of the British Forces Broadcasting Service already based at Camp Bastion. Fortunately, BFBS's live morning show finishes at 10am local time, 6am British time, when the Jack breakfast show begins, meaning they can flick a switch and use their satellite.
This week, the Jack team will put the finishing touches to their preparations, such as buying satellite phones, though the RAF provides flak jackets and helmets. "The first time you put on the body armour is as you fly into Afghan airspace," says Greg. "A voice comes over the loudspeaker, they plunge the plane into total darkness, and you sit there in silence. Of all the times you get nervous, that is it."
The team is in high spirits now, but what if tragedy strikes? "If a soldier dies there is a total lockdown until their relatives have been informed," says Greg. There is a lot of MoD paperwork to sign, but in the end, the show will be broadcast live and uncensored. "There's a certain amount of trust involved."
Mixing light entertainment with war is not easy, but since Jack's inception it has explored such contrasts. "We've always tried to walk the line of trying to find the lighter side of serious things, but also not being scared to cover what is real," says Trevor. "At other stations, you might get a boy and girl talking about what happened on EastEnders last night. We do that, but we are also not scared to have a conversation with David Cameron about the troops and the R&R they need."
Jack FM does not, understandably, take a political line on the war. Its interest is in the people of Oxfordshire, and the welfare of their troops. Of that, Dame Vera would be proud.
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