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Bursting Point: what the closure of BURST says about the future of student radio

Epigram investigates the history, breakdown and potential rebirth of the University of Bristol’s radio station that has been off-air for seven months.

By Jake Paterson, Music Editor

Excluding the pandemic, BURST, Bristol University’s radio station, had been in constant operation since 1997 until the end of the 2022/23 academic year when after months of financial difficulty the station closed indefinitely.

Enjoyed collectively by thousands of students, who had the opportunity not only to enjoy hosting their own show but to develop skills for a future career in broadcasting, its departure from Bristol’s student media group alongside Epigram and UBTV was a sign of the times as independent radio competes with streaming services for student’s attention.

The past successes of the station cannot be underplayed: students broadcasted 84 shows a week from politics commentary, hangover chat shows, sports reviews, and eclectic music hours, alongside interviewing the likes of Sam Fender, Lewis Capaldi and Blossoms live on air.

Yet trouble began in the first term of the 2022/23 academic year when, for many regular hosts, broadcasting was cut externally mid-way through their shows. This came to be as a result of accumulated debt over previous academic years and left the station without the finances to maintain their broadcasting licence.

After brief stints of hoisting the station back on air for a few days here and there, BURST finally collapsed at the end of term and was not re-affiliated to be a part of the University’s Student Union for 2023/24.

Epigram investigates what went wrong with BURST and what this represents for student life, with interviews from the current Station Manager and previous hosts to see how it may be possible to bring the station back on air.

At its height, BURST was an integral part of the student experience at Bristol. Both for those broadcasting or those tuning in, it gave students the opportunity to find their individual voices and develop a collective spirit present on campus.

It was also an essential place for discussion and political discourse, where national issues effecting students can be debated in front of a student audience. The diversity of voices was as impressive as the diversity of shows broadcasted.

But perhaps the most important part was the enjoyment of being part of the station. To hear someone’s experience of their year abroad or night-out horror stories, takes on the weekend’s Bristol City match, or musings on relationships over the lunch-hour, was to be ingrained in a real community.

‘BURST is rich with history and vibrancy’ Flora Guildford, the current Station Manager, told Epigram. ‘In the mid nineties, we collaborated with UWE to form Fresh FM, and then separated to two years later to form BURST as we know it today. Through the years BURST grew in size and popularity, including a collaboration with BBC 6 Music for its switch to AM in 2007.’

‘There is, of course, the obvious importance of student radio,’ Flora continues, ‘a way for us to gain experience in broadcasting and discover a passion for music and media, leading us on to opportunities in our career later in life’

‘However, I believe it is so much more than that. It is no secret that a University’s ‘voice’, literally and metaphorically, is one of the most important things about its identity – and BURST is a catalyst for that voice to be heard. The student radio is a way for any member of our community to share their passions and develop their skills in broadcasting, as well as make friends and be part of a really magical piece of Bristol University.’

‘It wasn’t just a platform of self-expression, but also a community for friends to come together.’

This view was consolidated by the students who have previously hosted a show on BURST that Epigram spoke to. For a third year History student it was ‘just really fun. I can’t think of anything better than sitting in a room and playing and talking about music. It didn’t matter that no one was listening, the act of hosting was fun in and of itself.’

‘Being a student is about experimenting with new potential careers or vocations and the studio contains professional equipment, which many student could not normally afford access to,’ a second year English and Philosophy student told us.

They described how ‘student radio is vital in promoting the opinions and work of so many different groups at university. If we lose student radio, we lose the chance to open countless people’s minds to new thought, art and areas of discussion.’

So what exactly went wrong?

Flora addressed the issues by saying: ‘We take a lot of pride in that BURST has run self-sufficiently for over 25 years. However, because of this, it was very easy for expenses to creep up, and unfortunately over the past few years BURST slowly became financially unsustainable.’

‘There were a series of unprecedented circumstances that brought the society into some debt, and now we are working very hard to implement a rigorous financial plan that ensures we do not make the mistakes of the past.’

Yet whilst the issues on the face of it were financial there were also many other factors at play.

One of the most significant is the reliance on the station being student run. In 2022/23 this allowed much miscommunication between those on the committee and the hosts when it came down to what issues were occuring, how long the station would be off-air for, and whether their show may ever run again. For a long stretch of time, a host had to play it by ear week by week whether their show was to air or not – disheartening for them and their listeners whilst also reducing the popularity of the station.

The question of popularity is also important. For those interested in student media, BURST was a well-known entity within the University. But for those outside of it, there was almost no awareness at all. The show that I hosted for Epigram last year consistently had between 5 and 15 listeners throughout the two-hour slot, with a chunk of that being friends and family.

Marketing for the station was non-existent outside of the station’s Instagram account, and for many of my friends there was a gap in knowledge even for how to listen in - not aware that the station was run and broadcasted online.

In a world dominated by personalisation, where your listening history can be analysed to put new music in front of you, putting faith in the taste of a student was evidently not attractive for many.

This is particularly the case when the hosts were not adequately trained. In total for 2022/23 we received a 15 minute briefing and no further guidance nor check-ins to ensure we were running correctly alongside no committee members being present in the studio during broadcast. It was very much an opportunity to take on the station in your own way and not follow the conventions of playing the news on the hour, nor implementing bespoke jingles. A listener giving the radio a shot could easily encounter something very unprofessional and inconsistent.

This could also explain one of the key absences of funding: hosts refusing to pay for their membership. With the station more a collection of individuals doing what they liked, the lack of group cohesion meant that paying for something you do on your own in your free time with almost no one listening was out of the question for many.

A full structural rebuild, awareness campaign and training programme would be essential for the re-implementation of BURST.

This is a huge undertaking for anyone, let alone students who must prioritise academic commitments and who are not paid for their work on the station. The story also points to wider implications at universities nationally to avoid the fate of BURST.

Fundraising for the station has begun, with a JustGiving page linked at the bottom of this article, so that broadcasting licence fees can be paid and the station can once again go on air. Your support to get the station back to its place on campus is invaluable.

With a new committee hired to address the non-financial issues too, there is reason to be hopeful for BURST to return to our campus. A huge part of the student community, the return of BURST would bring joy back to so many who hosted or listened in and presenting them with the opportunities to develop a career in media. It is crucial that we support its return as a more organised and prepared society to extend its history within our University further.

Featured Image: BURST

Find the JustGiving page here!