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From Fax to fibre: WRENmedia strengthens its worldwide connections

As WRENmedia is finally connected to fibre, Susanna reviews what this means for a small communications team based in the middle of the Suffolk countryside. And how, when we have been working with clients and partners worldwide, we managed to stay connected in the past.

WRENmedia Director, Susanna, promoting our online magazine New Agriculturalist at a international research conference in Mexico

On a dull winter’s day in mid-January this year, the WRENmedia office in rural Suffolk was finally connected to broadband fibre. The team were jubilant that finally – after two years of having been told of the advent of fibre to our premises and the daily struggle to cope with the slow pace of our old router – we were up and running.

It is as I reflect back over the last (almost) 25 years of working at WRENmedia that I realise just how much has changed in the way we work and communicate. When I first started with the company in the summer of 1995, we did not yet have internet or emails. Communication was largely by fax – sending and receiving letters, scripts, and articles for approving and progressing. I don’t suppose younger members of the team could imagine such a scenario! Nevertheless, we were still working with some of the same clients that we do today – the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), for example – producing Rural Radio Resource Packs (RRRPs) (a compilation of radio interviews/features on a practical agricultural topic e.g. crop storage or soil fertility). We were even using some of the same correspondents to help us produce the radio packs, and we were also researching and writing Spore magazine.

Yes – even 25 years ago, Spore existed, produced every two months in print only and with a focus on the more practical processes of crop and livestock production, rather than agribusiness as it is today. And of course, as well as CTA, we worked for a variety of other clients overseas, as well as in the UK. With a team of 7-8, I am sure we were no less busy than we are now, but the pace of work was no doubt rather slower – immediate responses are more challenging and less likely when you are sending communications by fax or by post!

Over time, WRENmedia’s area of focus has also evolved depending on the clients we work with and the skills of the current team. For example, whilst WRENmedia’s core work is now predominately on writing, editing and design – when I started, producing radio programmes and scripts was a key element of the company’s output. One of my first responsibilities was to co-ordinate the Agfax radio service, which produced 5-6 impact stories each month from research organisations like the World Agroforestry Centre and the International Livestock Research Institute to radio stations across Africa. Initially, the interviews were recorded and edited by the WRENmedia team but, over time, correspondents who had been trained by us, including Busani, Domfeh and Pius, were commissioned to do the stories in the field. And, whilst RRRPs and Agfax (initially produced on ¼ inch tape, then on cassettes and finally on CDs) are no longer produced, we have continued to commission our network of correspondents to produce audio and print stories from the field for a variety of clients, including the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines and the International Development Research Centre.

This month, the World Wide Web celebrates 30 years, and although I cannot remember exactly when we first started using the internet or emails in the office, I do remember the very first basic email system. And gradually, as more people got email and became digitally connected, the large fax machine fell silent. By 1998, we were not responsible for CTA’s Spore magazine, but we were producing the weekly BBC Farming World magazine programme. With this wealth of material covering interesting agricultural developments from around the world, we decided to reach out to a wider audience beyond the radio listeners of the BBC World Service, and so we launched – online – our first bi-monthly magazine, New Agriculturist. Within a year, we were fortunate to secure funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), who continued to support the publication until 2012. They also provided funding for our Reporting Better Science workshops for journalists across Africa to help develop the agricultural journalism skills of young print and radio reporters. That legacy remains with us today as we continue to work with a number of correspondents for Spore and other clients. And, whilst correspondents are predominantly commissioned by email, we also now increasingly use other messaging platforms, including WhatsApp, to keep in touch with progress, if needed.

So as new digital tools appear, WRENmedia’s communicating channels and the way in which we work will no doubt continue to evolve. The landline is almost, but not completely, redundant as calls with clients and interviews for Spore are conducted over Skype. Slides and then photos, which were once catalogued and used for New Agriculturist, have since been replaced with digital photos that we find online – which is thankfully a much faster task now that we have fibre. With the Spore editorial team split between Suffolk, London (Steph), Delhi (Vincent, our French editor) and the design team in Montpellier, Spore files are shared via Dropbox. Projects and task lists are managed using Asana and we have managed to cut internal emails within the team by using the messaging system - Slack.

I have no doubt that we multi-task more than we did when I first started and the pace of projects seems to be much faster. However, although I am fortunate to commute most days along the relatively quiet rural roads of Suffolk to the office, I still feel very much connected to the rest of the world.

And, whilst digital tools are an increasingly integral part of daily life – including the variety of social media we do for Spore and other clients – I think that there will continue to be a role for the WRENmedia team to keep communicating and raising awareness of critical issues surrounding agricultural development for some years to come, and that we are some way off having AI to replace us!

Susanna Cartmell

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