Friday, 31 December 2010

An INTERESTING year… because we live in interesting times. Don’t we?

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m taking stock. In many ways, this has been an extraordinarily diverse and creatively fresh year. I’ve found myself both trying new things with new techniques, and also handling old-school projects in new ways. I’ve met some truly great people, and worked with new and old friends and colleagues on some inspiring projects. I’ve pushed myself both creatively and technically, and winkled out some new skills. All that’s good, and in some ways a very pleasant surprise. But, as it says at the top… we live in interesting times. There are a lot of clouds on the horizon, both for music and radio. But let’s do the good stuff first, shall we?

Yesterday (Thursday 30th December), I spent a very refreshing and pleasant hour guesting with Brett Birks at BBC WM. It’s on the BBC iPlayer for the next six days or so here – scoot through to the start of hour 3 to hear it. We were talking music, local issues, and trailing the BBC WM transmission of my Handsworth Evolution documentary. This was a commission from Birmingham Music Heritage, and I don’t think that they or I had any idea of how the piece would be received. The doco is permanently up on SoundCloud; you can get there from this blog page. The doco was also aired on WCRFM in Wolverhampton on Boxing day, and it is due to get a further airing on Rhubarb Radio in the new year. That’s lots of stations, and the more the merrier, say I: as I stated when I put the thing upon this blog, the doco is available, free of charge and gratis, to any station that would like to run it – just drop me a line and I’ll get a copy to you.

This was a sweet, sweet project to work on. I have had some truly lovely feedback. There really was something special about the Birmingham Music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, both in Handsworth and Balsall Heath, and indeed across the whole city. New and enthusiastic players emerged from all sides, bursting with skill, creativity and optimism. Rock Against Racism played a crucial role in introducing audiences and musicians to each other.

I’d like to think that time laid some foundations for the sparkling cross-cultural collaborations we enjoy now. It’s too easy to view each new generation as sweeping away the conventions of their crusty and conservative forefathers. In fact, now that we are seeing some of the children of those great 70s and 80s musicians make their way in our local music scene, I know this is not the case. Sometimes, anyway.

Five or so weeks back from yesterday, we launched the Pilot Project website. I’ve written at length about this, and it’s fair to say that the site has had a gratifying impact. Lots of traffic, lots of time spent on the site exploring. I am especially grateful to my fantastic team of advisors and collaborators, some of whom went far, far beyond that extra mile to help the project find its feet. You know who you are; I can not thank you (or, indeed, pay you) enough.

The next steps are already underway. However, I won’t go into detail just yet about these. But if you haven’t been to the site yet, why not go there now? Click around. Read about how it came together. And, above all, explore some of the sensational music from our region.

There’s more: I've seen new and exotic client radio stations for the consultancy side of my business. I’m also now a proud member of the RNIB Talking Books reader panel, and I can’t wait for my next assignment. It’s serious fun, and I work with people, many from radio, who know the power of the spoken word in a way few others do. And I am pleased to be able to report that – tentatively – Rhubarb Radio seems to be building solid foundations for its future. Props to those good people who are making this happen.

Now… the downside. Mmmm. Where do you start?

I mourn for many of my talented radio colleagues, people I trained and worked with back in the day, who now, saddled with mortgages and bringing up families, have to carve out a new future outside of an industry that has decided it has no need for their talents as it rolls its radio ‘brands’ out across the country.

I hate the notion of a radio ‘brand’. It's got everything to do with not communicating... in an industry whose lifeblood is communicating. Maybe the Radio industry thinks its brands are akin to a chocolate bar…something you pick up easily because you know what it is, no matter where you are. And maybe that’s so. But maybe it’s also the case that a brand is such a familiar and known quantity that you can throw it away all too easily.

Here’s a scenario: I’m ditching my long-term fave station. I stuck with it when it suddenly morphed into Flake FM a couple of years ago. But I’m tired of that now, so think I’ll go over to Wispa FM. There’s really not a lot of difference, and somehow I don’t much care for either these days, but it’ll do for now. I suppose. Until something better comes along. Or maybe I’ll just go off cheap predictable sugary bland confectionery altogether, because they do this stuff better on the web or on the telly.  

Closer to home, I hate the way our local music industry is being starved of venues because property developers want to make a quick buck running up shoddy flats, and in so doing, try to get long-established neighborhood music venues declared noise nuisances. I know we need more housing; no argument there. Possibly we don’t need so many ‘luxury’ flats, but I’m not the one selling these, so how would I know?

I do know we absolutely need our venues. We need our talent to be able to work in those venues. It’s all part of the local economy, dammit. The next UB40 is out there. But if they can’t get started, then there’s no chance that the next UB40 will develop into a long-term vibrant business that will generate dozens of jobs and millions and millions of pounds for the West Midlands economy over the next 30 years. But, hey, some property guy from out of town will have sold a few more cheap flats and made our neighborhoods even more sterile. So that’s all right then. If you doubt that this is the case, just read this

There’s more of course: Arts funding, for example. But I think I’m going to stop there. I’ve ended this year in a much better place than I thought I would. For that, and for the talented and generous creative world of radio people, arts and music people and, especially, music makers, that I find myself sometimes part of, I am truly grateful. 

Here’s to 2011. We all need a good year. I hope we get one.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Rhubarb Crumble

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about radio. I’ve been busy with the Pilot Project, of course, but there are other reasons. The overall radio picture is relentlessly depressing. Imaginative and capable broadcasters are being squeezed out to make way for networked output, with less and less sense of an obligation to listeners or communities. All this to allow more er, ‘brand development’ (Radio practitioners who feel unjustly maligned are welcome to reply to this post).

Last month, there was more bad news. Like many community stations, the eccentric but occasionally quite wonderful Rhubarb Radio is feeling the cold winds of recession. The current managerial team is bailing out; an intensive effort is being mounted to build a new and solid structure for the continued existence of the station. As I write, there are positive signs. The latest revival news is here.

I really want the Rhubarb revival to succeed, for a number of very good reasons, listed below. But I have been struck by the harsh cynicism, and sometimes malice, with which Rhubarb's bad news has been met by many of my colleagues in mainstream and associated radio sectors. I want to challenge that. 

It must be said that a number of community stations seem to be not so much about community as about layers of control-freakery and ego-tripping. Rhubarb is certainly not immune. But, to be brutally frank, not one of the 70 or so stations I have worked at or advised could be said to be immune either.

Truth be told, I don’t know anyone who puts a show out who doesn’t have ego drive. Ego drive can be a very good thing. It should encourage competition; it should make you strive to make your show, or your station, the very best that you can make it. .So rivalry certainly comes into things. But it should not extend to barely disguised glee at a fellow broadcaster’s troubles. When I was programming at BRMB, I wanted to take the opposition (at the time Radio 1) down, big time, and it felt really good when I put a serious dent in their figures. That did not extend to wanting to demolish the BBC or shutting Radio 1 down.  There were those in commercial radio who did, and do, want it shut down, but that’s another story.

The spectrum of ability and impact in radio is continuous and seamless, from beginner to practised. There’s no clear division between the big boys and the tiddlers, much as the big boys would like to see it that way. But I have a problem with hearing one radio person tearing into another operation – no matter what reasons they may have. A bit of humility might be nice. It’s only radio, after all…..

We all started somewhere. Chances are it was a tiny station, online or otherwise, a whole world away from today’s glossy radio factories. Dumping on stations like Rhubarb, especially when they’re on the ropes, is an ugly way to thank the people who put your first college or community or tiny local station up, so you could start to practise your craft. I started in student radio. It was not perfect then; it’s not perfect now. But you won’t find me dumping on it.

We need those community stations. We need the room to allow people to experiment, to try new tricks, to learn their craft, to practise until they’re perfect. And we need community stations to reflect and support their communities, to champion the music from their town, to float new ideas.

When a station folds, it’s sad, but the world does not stop turning. But when a small station folds, yet another door closes that might admit brave, fresh and idealistic talent to the world of broadcasting.

When I was putting the Pilot Project team together, I approached a lot of stations. From the mainstream, apart from the gracious and constructive help afforded me by the BBC Introducing team at BBC Shropshire, I drew a blank, even from areas where I might have expected some kindred spirits. But four of the fantastic advisors who worked with me on the Pilot Project were or are community radio djs. They were and are valuable to me because of their knowledge and enthusiasm. This knowledge and enthusiasm also took them into radio, and their stations were the richer for it. Three of those advisors were from Rhubarb. All of them do excellent shows.

I want to keep listening.

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go

Monday, 13 December 2010

More Pilot Project stuff. The lessons we learn...

It’s fascinating how people use website information. We’ve had the Pilot Project site up for coming up on four weeks as I write this.

We’ve just added a new link – you can now email to

I’ve been monitoring usage with Google Analytics. It’s telling us all sorts of stuff about where people are tapping into the site from.  But the nice story I have to tell today is that, placed at the very bottom of the Advisors page, accessed off the About page, is a small paragraph thanking some of the people who went above and beyond the call of duty in offering comments and advice. You kind of have to dig to get down to this section. But people have been digging. 

Mike Davies is a long-standing West Midlands Music journalist. He was down to be an advisor, but had to withdraw from our first shot for personal reasons. But happily, towards the end of our first curatorial period, he was showering us with ideas, which were most welcome. Yesterday Mike dropped me a note, because a band he worked with back in the day had been digging deep into the site, and turned his name up way down at the bottom of the Advisors page. And emailed him.

Not what I planned. But very nice to hear about. It shows how something like the Pilot Project , which is pretty damn well connected up, due to its fab team of advisors, can turn up even more connections. We saw a lot of synergies on launch night, and there have been more since then.

Another piece of news smacked me round the head this morning. I’d been double checking a couple of details on the site, and found out that the really excellent Senses, from Coventry, have called it quits. Sad for their followers, and it represents another tiny milestone for the Project.

Any site that takes a snapshot of 'now' is going to have to deal with change. Our approach this time around? We note that fact that with regret, the Senses are no more… and keep their music online for the time being. If there is any justice, the talented individuals from that band will go on to do other things, and if and when they achieve some success, it’s a nice to think that some of their earlier excellent work will have been archived for posterity. In a way that is the whole point of the Pilot Project. In the meantime, I’m racking up more feedback to evaluate as the Pilot Project progresses…

I mentioned some stats, didn’t I? Well, now... 

We have an average of well over four minutes on site per visitor. That means a helluva lot of people are sticking around for rather longer. Even at average durations, that means more than one track being checked out by each visitor. Not at all bad in these days of dysfunctional site surfing. 

Most popular page once you get past the home page? Well, it’s the Artists page. But the next most visited page is a surprise: it's the About page, which covers the whys and wherefores of the whole project.   

At the start of the site’s life, two thirds of visitors were from the West Midlands. Now it’s about 50%, which tells us that the site is rippling out across the world wide web rather nicely. And initially, most of the traffic came from Facebook and Twitter and blog plugs. Now we can see a small but growing slice of interest directly from Search Engines.

I could go on. I will, next time….  

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