- 19 Jan 21
In the midst of confusion, fear and isolation this year, people across Ireland tuned into local radio more than ever before. Recognising the power of local radio, and the important work that radio stations have been carrying out over the past year, we spoke to a selection of presenters from across the country – who told us how they rose to the multiple challenges of Covid-19.
For Highland Radio morning presenter Greg Hughes, Donegal’s experience during the pandemic was unique for one very simple reason. The station is, of course, located in the Republic, but Northern Ireland is just next door. The border – and the level of co-operation or otherwise with the government in Northern Ireland – was one of the most difficult issues throughout the year of the pandemic.
“None of us had ever come across anything of this magnitude before,” Greg Hughes says with a sigh. “We didn’t realise how much our show – and our community – would have to adapt. The longer the pandemic went on, as much as you might try to steer away from talking about Covid, it became clear that everything, no matter what you talked about, was going to be filtered through that topic.
“North Donegal has always been a unique place,” he adds, “in that it has Northern Ireland to its east and the ocean to its west. As a result, we were often far more influenced by what was going on in areas like Derry and Tyrone, rather than in the south. People go back and forward across the border all the time. And of course, officially, there’s rarely been a unified approach to it – you might see one set of guidelines in the six counties and another set in the Republic.
“That’s why our Covid journey has always been very different in Highland Radio. Our listeners have strong connections to the North. For a lot of people, Northern Ireland and Donegal is one and the same, so you normally wouldn’t necessarily differentiate. But it’s about trying to strike a balance. ”
Hughes has felt an added responsibility to the Highland Radio listenership since Covid hit.
“You often only see what’s going on in specific regions when something bad is happening,” he says. “Donegal has made national headlines for a lot of the wrong reasons – not least for the high rates of deaths on our roads. But the people here felt forgotten about – in terms of our health services, lack of public transport routes and political representation. Donegal has always felt somewhat left behind.”
That makes Highland Radio all the more important.
“Highland Radio is where the majority of the community get their news,” Greg says, “and that puts an enormous responsibility on our shoulders, especially because the county has consistently had a lot of Covid cases.”
The station became a place where people who experienced loss could express their grief.
“What resonated most was the reality checks,” Greg says, “whereby people who lost loved ones would come onto our show and relay their experience. That tradition of grief, where the community comes together to stand in the same room with a cup of tea – that was all taken away from them with the restrictions. Some people last saw their loved ones in a nursing home, and the next thing they knew, they were standing by their graveside.”
There was one story in particular that stands out – and may well have played a part in keeping numbers down.
“We ran the story of a healthy 41-year-old woman and mother of two who became very ill and ended up in intensive care,” explains Greg. “The gardaí said there was a noticeable drop-off in road traffic after that story came to light. When we elevated tales of what people were having to endure, those stories resonated deeply with the community.
“This virus has changed all of us,” Grag adds. “We’ve re-evaluated our priorities. There has been a lot of talk about mental health, – I just hope that we continue to maintain our focus on these issues. Even when Covid is behind us, a lot of the problems that were magnified by it will remain. We need to hold onto that general care we feel towards the community.”
• Listen to Greg Hughes on Highland Radio’s Nine ‘Til Noon, weekdays on 103.3FM (North Donegal) or 95.2FM (West Donegal).
Read our full feature on the power of local radio during the Covid-19 pandemic in the Hot Press Annual, out now: