Dan Gooding

Dan Gooding is a journalist at Greatest Hits Radio in Buckinghamshire. In his blog for newsbreak, he talks about the importance of local news and how seeking out positive stories has helped his mental wellbeing.

Exactly a year ago, as I write this, I got on a plane home from New York, where my boyfriend lives. The girl next to me was wearing a mask and wiping down her seat and lap tray and screen and I remember thinking, “Wow, she’s taking a lot of precaution” – never dreaming we’d all be living with that sense of fear and precaution soon enough.

I landed during Storm Ciara – we’d sped back across the Atlantic at almost-record speed and those huge storms seemed like they would be one of the biggest stories of the year. Once again, little did I realise what was to come or the impact it would have on my own personal wellbeing.

Then I was back at work and coronavirus started appearing more and more in our bulletins. But working in a local radio newsroom, it didn’t dominate. I was blissfully writing articles about roadworks, a replacement for Aylesbury’s long-empty BHS store and the new mums being referred to mental health services in Buckinghamshire. All stories which our listeners engaged with and meant something to them.

But all the time, there was this building interest in the strange, scary illness currently hitting China and Italy. Then in March, it ‘arrived’ in Bucks. And of course we started to talk about it more and more.

At this point, I was just so determined to do a good job, not frighten people and keep the sense of community we had fostered for 26 years. I didn’t really notice the impact the ever-growing presence coronavirus had in my bulletins had on me.

When lockdown hit, I remember feeling a sense of despair, but it was only going to be a few weeks, right? I could make it through that and, besides, I was a ‘key worker’ – something I had never really felt – but this meant I could be in the office, in the studio, just with fewer people about. Looking back, I really took for granted having a few select colleagues around each day across the office. We cheered each other up, managed to laugh despite what was happening around us.

Part of the reason for this: The local stories poured in.

One of the reasons I love real local radio is the ability to connect with listeners and organisations and really make their stories shine.

We got to talk about the great efforts of community food deliveries, the support available, the way neighbours were looking out for one another. I made sure these stories led bulletins wherever possible.

Yes, the stats were in there, the national messaging, but those ‘good’ news stories kept us going through an extremely busy time.

But the weeks stretched on.

I live in a houseshare, but we’re not a social bunch and I felt increasingly isolated as those weeks piled up and those afternoons and evenings alone, well, they brought to light not only my anxieties, but a growing sadness at having to talk about death without comment every half an hour, every single day.

Oh, and my team and me were put at risk of redundancy. As if worries about a global pandemic weren’t enough.

April and early May were particularly dark times. I tried to cope on my own. I walked. A lot. I baked, cooked new things, tried to facetime friends and family as much as possible. But then afterwards, I was still alone with my thoughts and social media didn’t provide an escape, just a reminder of what was happening.

One day after work I felt so hopeless and I knew I needed help, but my impression of mental health services was that they were stretched and the waiting lists were long. I’d let that put me off seeking therapy for a long time, but not that day.

I filled out a questionnaire on the Bucks mental health website. Even that felt like a huge relief, to acknowledge how I was feeling. Then, to my surprise, just a few days later I got a call – they could take me on. I was given options – who knew there was a choice?! – and then I was onto an online Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) course.

But you’re not alone using a web portal and that’s it. There are people like Bill, who I spoke to at the beginning, at great length about all that was resting on me and he just listened, reassured me and we even managed to laugh. I’d never met this person and yet instantly he made me feel I’d taken back a little control of things.

The course took me a few months, with weekly feedback from Bill, and this truly helped me so much. It has given me tools to work through thoughts and feelings – something which is still very much a work in progress, but it’s miles better than before I reached out for help. If you feel this is something you need, I would urge you not to hesitate in reaching out to your local NHS or Mind service.

As the months went by, things haven’t exactly gotten easier in life, though. My colleagues lost their jobs and I now work at home alone and, as I said earlier, I definitely took their presence for granted.

These past few months, it’s been a different struggle of real loneliness, not seeing anyone apart from on a video call, and the shift in the stories we have covered has meant some days are a real slog.

For a while, Covid-19 fell off the bulletin running order but, since that move home, it’s pretty much been all we’ve talked about again. This time, though, those goodwill stories are far fewer. I can understand why – people are just plodding along now. There’s a sense of resignation to what we are all going through, just trying to focus on the way out of another lockdown.

So in a way, I see it as my duty to find those happier stories, the hopeful ones. Not just for our listeners, but for my own peace of mind. If local news can’t deliver the silly, the random, the hopeful – then what can?

This is why I think it’s so important journalists share how they are feeling – because others don’t necessarily realise how tricky it is, to balance the facts and our feelings and to connect with the audience. To remain professional despite the mornings where you sit down behind the mic and just feel dread at talking about thousands more dying, another variant which may or may not prolong this mess, is no easy task for anyone – we just don’t necessarily admit to it.

Then a story comes along about a blind guinea pig and her sister who guides her at a local RSPCA, or a little boy cycling miles and miles because he wants to help people in some way – and those are the reasons to smile. Local news isn’t always the most ground-breaking, thrilling or serious, but it certainly is one thing getting me through it all.