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A new report has been published on the role of local radio in supporting messaging about creativity and positive mental health. Robin Simpson shares its findings.

Radio Club Creative Lives Festival 2021
Radio Club Creative Lives, BBC Contains Strong Language Festival 2021

Cody Maycock

Creative expression is a fundamental part of being human; coming together to create, have fun, share experiences and support each other can have a positive impact on our physical and emotional well-being. But the everyday creativity that people practice with family and friends in local communities still doesn’t have a high enough public profile to ensure the message that creativity is good for you becomes widely understood.

In 2020, just as the world shifted entirely due to the pandemic, Nick Ewbank Associates (NEA) began a two-year evaluation of the flagship initiative Creative Lives On Air. It explored how a partnership between BBC local radio and a national sector support organisation – Creative Lives - could improve levels of creative participation, particularly in areas of socio-economic deprivation. 

NEA’s previous evaluation demonstrated consistently positive effects on the well-being of participants with the findings published in Public Health, a journal of the Royal Society for Public Health in August 2021. The new NEA report Creative Lives On Air: Phase Two Report, published this week, reflects on a period when the project played an unexpected and increasingly important role in supporting people in communities across the country during lockdown. 

Over the past two years, we have witnessed both a rise in people listening to local radio and an outpouring of creative responses to the pandemic. NEA’s new report concludes: ‘The project has demonstrated good ability to reach into isolated people’s homes through BBC local radio. Through surfacing and supporting everyday creativity, Creative Lives On Air may have a role to play in helping to reduce health inequalities.’

How does it work?

Creative Lives On Air began in 2009 and since it has worked with 18 BBC local radio stations and reached millions of listeners. The idea is simple: we connect grassroots creative groups with BBC local radio audiences, to showcase the everyday creativity in communities across the country and to explain the benefits of taking part. Our aim is to increase engagement. 

We currently operate in eight regions across England and Wales, reaching 1,027,000 weekly listeners (based on the Radio Audience Joint Audience Research figures). Each week, via live radio and online content we share unique stories of how being creative supports individuals and communities to find meaning and connection.

What did the report find?

Nick Ewbank and Trish Vella-Burrows’ report states: ‘Creative Lives On Air should be conceptualised as a series of complex, multi-faceted, and often nuanced, creative interventions that are frequently effective in supporting delivery of improved health and wellbeing outcomes among target groups, and effective at times at an area population level.’ 

Nine themes are illustrated through 15 case studies giving examples of creativity happening at home, in nature and in communities. The radio content - live interviews, calls to action and in-depth packages - celebrates and explores the connection between creativity and well-being, breaking down the barriers of who art and creativity are for. Two findings in particular stood out to me:

Storytelling is essential to us all

The report highlights the crucial and human need to tell stories, and the importance of having our stories heard and validated (which this partnership provides). The report states: ‘When these stories are broadcast with integrity in the form of on-air content, the story-providers are given a voice with which to tell their truths publicly.’ 

Rachel New, a Creative Lives Producer working with women on an arts and health project in Coventry comments: “It’s been really lovely and interesting working with these women who are desperate to tell their stories, where there’s nowhere to share. They found a sort of kinship by getting together.” 

Radio and creativity keep people connected

Covid brought increased isolation and health inequalities. People turned to the radio for comfort and companionship and to creative activity, putting Creative Lives On Air in a unique position to impact communities. 

Since March 2019, calls to some local radio stations increased by 300%. BBC local radio has an unparalleled reach into people’s homes, as Terry Goodwin, Acting Executive Editor, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire says: “The BBC is in a unique position, telling stories of people who live right here, and local radio has a unique relationship with its audience. We’re close to where people live, and listeners have a very personal relationship with our presenters and shows. 

“A significant proportion of our local radio audiences don’t use any other BBC services, so it's important we make relevant content for these listeners and showcase stories from our local areas on a national scale. Working with Creative Lives enables us to reach further into these communities, celebrating their creativity and discover new voices.”

One case study highlights the success of the partnership during the pandemic, when BBC Radio Leeds presenter Gayle Lofthouse hosted a weekly creative activity show to engage audiences at home. From den building to writing sea shanties. Gayle’s relaxed style allowed audiences to connect.

The way ahead

NEA made three recommendations for Creative Lives on Air which we will pursue.
●    To align the project more closely with area-based health and wellbeing planning
●    To create a publicly accessible online repository of ‘stories of change’. 
●    To adopt an operational model targeted at BBC local radio stations in areas of high socio-economic need.

Creative groups and organisations across the country have the potential to produce engaging and diverse audio content that could reach substantial new audiences directly. Our Creative Lives On Air model has shown it can reach parts of the community that BBC local radio stations don’t usually reach. 

Together we can put local creativity on the map, provide recognition and validation of people’s own creative practices and inspire others to get involved - as well as help address geographical disparities in arts engagement and health inequalities.

Robin Simpson is Chief Executive of Creative Lives.

Read the full report.
Listen to Creative Lives On Air highlights.


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