Thursday, 4 November 2010

Magyar Radio. State Radio under the cosh.

Working in Radio in Budapest. Pretty much like The Mailbox... or Donnybrook... or Oxenstiernsgatan.
Magyar Radio Headquarters
I wrote most of this on the way back from a radio consult gig in Hungary. I’ve done this sort of thing quite a lot over the past twenty years or so, working all over the UK and Europe. Maybe fifty different stations; sometimes it feels like a lot more.

There’s something special about the first walk to work, in a new city, heading to a new client. Budapest did not disappoint, with golden autumn sunshine, mist over the Danube, and people everywhere heading out for the workday.  The work is (almost) always a pleasure, invariably interesting, with endlessly different technical challenges, irrespective of the music programmed. And in case you’re wondering what all this has to with this blog, which is supposed to focus on radio and music in the West Midlands… well, actually, there’s quite a lot.

Back to Budapest… Across Europe, a lot of state radio operations are, to put it politely, being put under the microscope by their newly elected right-leaning governments. That’s certainly the way it is in the UK, with the BBC having a sixth of its funding hacked out of its budget at three days’ notice last month. Times are tough, and that goes for the commercial sector too. Trading conditions are described as, at best, challenging. It’s just not a reassuring time for people who work in radio. 

That said, there are grounds for optimism. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a full-on state radio set up in huge premises – which may not be fully staffed or well-equipped anymore - or a community station with egg cartons on the walls, or a commercial station in a portakabin, or an industrial estate, or swish city centre premises. The people I tend to work with are a passionate lot, with love for the craft and spirit of radio, and often a huge and impressive knowledge of the music they build their shows from. And, once we get to work, we're quickly on common ground, even if the challenges are different for each station. This is radio we’re talking about, with proper radio people.

And sometimes, those challenges are similar. My main client this time out, MR3, or Bar
tók Radio, is  a Classical music station. It has a battle on its hands to play enough… Bartók. Béla Bartók died in 1945, and his work is still in copyright - for a few more years.  This means Bartók Radio can’t play enough of their most famous local boy. In fact, Bartók Radio would love to expose more local contemporary Hungarian talent – and there is a lot of it – but they can not, because of copyright restrictions. This is a problem they share with Amazing Radio in Newcastle, where an artist signed up to PRS can not currently be played – although this may now be subject to negotiation.
It’s complex. I’m not about to start slamming rights bodies: they are there for damn good reasons, and I am the first to want to see musicians get their proper due. It’s also wrong when musicians have to give their work away to get exposed. I’d absolutely love it if the copyright bodies would build in a graduated set of charges that would make the use of new music more affordable, and so encourage its exposure.

Back to the computer work. It was mainly troubleshooting and analysing and debating. I have to say I had me a blast. I love working in this area, because it’s where individual creativity and rational structures collide – passion versus logic, if you will. Reconciling the two is not only interesting and engrossing, it can be a hell of a lot of fun. And although radio feeds on individual talents, those talents work best within a team ethos, where discussion and debate are part of the process. 

Often the people I work with have the hardest of jobs and get the least recognition. Computers are supposed to make our  lives easier, right? 

Wrong. Managing a large database is detailed and exacting work. What makes life easier is clear editorial goals, and I can’t set those for any client. But I can help them implement those goals, show them the fixes, and find the faultlines… and that’s what is so satisfying. 

And the local connection? Well, the second station that I worked with this week, MR7, deals entirely with Hungarian folk music, in great detail. And they were tickled pink to learn that Eastern European music is now all the rage in some quarters of my home town. So I’m going to send them some Destroyers, Mama Matrix, and Bright Size Gypsies just for fun. Hands across Europe and all that :-).

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