A glorious local radio moment

On the 93rd anniversary of the first outside broadcast, some local radio magic — with a famous astronaut, an amateur radio link to space and a load of brilliant school kids from Hertfordshire.

Pupils at Sandringham School, a state secondary school in St Albans, near where I live in Hertfordshire (North London commuter belt), were the first in Britain to link-up with Tim Peake, the Brit on the International Space Station.

And they did it directly, using amateur radio. No fancy NASA uplink and no broadcast-quality video. Jessica, a pupil at the school, crammed an operator’s course into a few days and passed the exam so that she could be Station Controller for the two-way conversation with the space station.

It was impossibly exciting. As it came into view, somewhere over Iceland, Jessica began hailing the space station and, after a minute or so, through 400 km of static, we began to hear Major Tim’s voice. It was too noisy, though, so Jessica switched to a back-up frequency. Clear as a bell (but still plenty of that thrilling space noise).

Pupils quickly lined up to ask Tim their questions and they managed three or four before the ISS began to fall from view, somewhere over Austria.

For everyone at Sandringham it must have been the ultimate thrill. It all came together. Jessica was icy calm under pressure, the children’s questions were amazing, Tim was a gent— and, because the school is participating in the BBC’s School Report scheme, they’ll have a permanent record of the event too.

But you know what the best bit was? It was a radio outside broadcast. St Albans community radio station Radio Verulam sent their radio van to the school and set up a beautiful ten-minute item for the breakfast show. Presenter Jonny Seabrook and his sidekick handled the decidedly unpredictable item elegantly, with intelligent commentary and exactly the right degree of excitement.

It was an essentially perfect local radio moment. I cried a bit, listening on the fast train from Elstree to St Pancras, at the end of an audio chain that started in space, travelled via two different radio links to a studio in a small Hertfordshire town and reached me via an IP link to my phone. Well done community radio, well done astronauts, well done teachers ,well done children! It was glorious.

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