Through PBS FM, listeners have found their COVID escape

Through PBS FM, listeners have found their COVID escape

PBS legends during the 2020 Drive Live - image by Naomi Lee Beveridge
Words by Augustus Welby

We chat to the radio station’s GM Adrian Basso about the importance of their Spring Clean Your Conscience membership drive.

The past half-year has thrusted many formerly-uncommon terms into high usage, the most prominent being lockdown, self-isolation and social distancing. More recently we’ve added “single social bubble” and “ring of steel” to the list of concepts that circumscribe our daily freedoms.

In this environment, fulfilling our community responsibility means staying indoors, expurgating our social lives and clearing the footpath in anticipation of any fellow pedestrians. Suffice to say, it’s been extremely difficult to feel a sense of social cohesion, never mind basking in the warm glow of community.

But Melbourne’s arts and music lovers have strived to maintain the flow of creative inspiration that otherwise illuminates this city. And community radio has been central to the circulation of this inspiration, while also injecting a sorely-needed sense of connection.

For PBS 106.7FM, which broadcasts out of Collingwood, the objective has been clear – stay on air, whatever it takes. This has meant gaining work permits for its presenters and conceiving action plans to respond to each stage of the COVID-19 restrictions. And it’s been effective – the station’s signal hasn’t dropped out once since the pandemic took hold in March.

“We maintained announcers’ ability to come into a safe environment, knowing that it was clean so that we were able to continue to broadcast as much as we would normally, with the exception of we can’t get guests to come in live and we reduced it down to just a couple of people in the station at any given time,” says PBS General Manager Adrian Basso.

PBS is a music station and in ordinary circumstances, their vision is to “nurture, inspire and champion Melbourne’s diverse music community”. But the station’s purpose has become more urgent in recent months.

“Clearly, it’s not business as usual and we changed that [vision], just for the time being,” says Basso. “And this is what we sent to everyone internally and it was just basically, ‘While providing a safe healthy environment, stay on air and be a respite for our listeners while supporting our community’.

“We said to announcers, ‘Look we’re a music station; stick to music’, but that happens naturally too. You don’t tune into PBS to find out what’s going on in the world generally.”

It’s true – contemporary political analysis is largely absent from the PBS airwaves, but they’ve taken it a step further in recent months. First, they removed the half-hour news bulletins from the weekday breakfast show, and then they decided that all COVID conversation should be left at the station door.

“People have just been going, ‘I love listening to the station’,” says Basso. “A lot of other media’s just COVID-this, COVID-that. You open up The Age and it’s just wall to wall COVID. If it’s not that, it’s Trump.

“We give people respite from the barrage of information that’s out there. It’s pretty hard not to engage with it, but you can certainly do a good job at not engaging with COVID by listening to PBS.”

PBS hasn’t been immune to the effects of COVID-19, however. The immediate and ongoing shutdown of the performing arts sector suspended the majority of the station’s sponsorship income. PBS is a not-for-profit organisation and so this income is crucial for keeping the station on air long-term.

“There’s no denying that we’ve been greatly impacted by it,” says Basso. “Like, you’d normally hear announcements on air about things at The Corner or The Tote or The Gem or this festival or that festival or this launch – all of those things. But people can’t go out to do things so there’s nothing to promote.”

The massive reduction in sponsorship revenue has placed even more reliance on paying members, which makes PBS’ Spring Clean Your Conscience membership drive more important than ever. Throughout October, PBS is asking listeners to join or renew their memberships in an act of community affirmation.

“The listener response has been terrific, and I think the response has been terrific because we’re in people’s lives probably more than ever now too. Our SMS machine’s been going nuts constantly, just people saying, ‘Thank you for not talking about COVID and for playing music’.

“And I think our announcers have been producing probably the best radio that we’ve had ever. We’ve got this great thing going on with the announcers … kind of meeting the challenge and fulfilling a need.”

Along with the drop in income and the increased costs of making the station COVID-secure, PBS is preparing to move into the new not-for-profit arts precinct, Collingwood Yards, in 2021 – a once-in-a-lifetime relocation that’s expected to cost in excess of $1.5 million.

“We have to move – we have an end date where we are currently and it’s full steam ahead with the move,” says Basso. “So the reliance on our listeners has never been greater, but they’ve really stepped up to the occasion and we hope that continues.

“We know people are doing it tough, maybe financially or even emotionally, and every little bit that our listeners can contribute to the station will go to us sticking around for the foreseeable future. We don’t plan to go anywhere.”

Anyone who joins the PBS fold or renews their membership during the month of October will go in the running for some pretty sweet prizes. Local legends Rocksteady Records will be dishing out a gift card and goody bag including a Rocksteady Records jumper, t-shirt, tote bag, slip mat and stickers.

There will also be a luxurious, hand-woven Zen Pod Chair on offer, courtesy of Camberwell Cane that’s perfect for summer backyard hangs. On top of that, Little Veggie Patch Co have got a special DIY veggie garden pack to give away, including a veggie crate, netting kit, organic soil mix, tools and more.

PBS 106.7FM’s Spring Clean Your Conscience membership drive is on from now until the end of October. To support PBS, join or renew here.

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