Sep 132013
 
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Radio Researchers BBC BH Tour

Academic conferences are often expected to be dull affairs that leave one soporific. Nothing can be further from the truth than Radio Research 2013. The ECREA hosted conference organised by Prof Guy Starkey and the University of Sunderland, at their London campus, has been vibrant, absorbing and engaging.

In his keynote address Andrew Crissel reassured the attendees that radio has a strong future based on its focus on words and ideas, and despite all the pressure to ‘visualise’ radio.

It’s great to re-confirm why I became interested in radio in the first place and to be reminded that there is more to radio than just youth and popular radio. Reconnecting with other forms of radio, drama, features and reportage has been heartening and welcome.

So I’ll be heading back to Leicester with a renewed sense of vigour that radio is a rich and enriching area to work in.

Jan 102013
 
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No Quarter Given Show Planning Spreadsheet

I spent this afternoons session for TECH3013 Advanced Radio Production working with the programme team to map out roles and task for the coming No Quarter Given Shows. Using Google Docs we have set-up a spreadsheet on which all of the key jobs and tasks are allocated and laid-out in a grid. This means that we can keep a track of who is supposed to be doing what and when. Google Docs has improved loads in recent times and means that we can share the document between us and update information as we go along.

Hopefully this means that the production process for the future content for No Quarter Given will be more efficiently produced and we can think about gaining access to bigger names and events. To help plan each programme we are using a document that gives the running order of the items, their timing and the script information that should be associated with the items. I like the idea of developing the scripted content for the programme. It means focussing before we venture in to the studio and really thinking about what we want to say.

At the beginning of March is the Cultural Exchanges Festival at De Montfort University, which we will be covering extensively for the programme. We are thinking of undertaking some live shows and building-in some more adventurous content, such as a live music performance. All into an hour on a Saturday morning?

Oct 182012
 

One of the less obvious but no less tangible benefits of being a capable and independent media producer is being able to produce content that no one else can produce and which has an essential flavour of yourself as a producer. I was discussing the process of developing sound identity packages for DemonFM with our station sound producer, Chris Longman, as we are trying to give DemonFM a more independent and unique identity. We talked about how station sound producers work and what they bring to the process of creating an aural-soundscape for a radio station – or for that matter anything that uses sound. What would make the station stand out and when Chris is applying for work in the industry, what will make him stand out?

A rather obvious thought struck me, if we originate all of the sounds, music and voices that are packaged into DemonFM ourselves, then in the process we will be able to more clearly articulate a unique identity that can’t be found anywhere else. Think of the top record producers. They each have a unique sound profile that makes them stand-out. They get this because they spend a lot of time customising the studios that they use, they treat microphones in a specific way, they use certain types of processors, the instruments that they use have a unique characteristic that they zone-in on.

If DemonFM can develop a sound style for it’s jingles and indents that are based on original productions, rather than the rather lame canned sound-effects that can be downloaded from the internet, then the station will begin to show it’s rather unique identity more easily. If you can get this sound anywhere else then why are we using it? If you can get this voice anywhere else then why are we using it? If you can hear these messages anywhere else then why are we repeating them? These questions certainly set a challenge in producing unique sound content for the station, but after-all that’s what we are here for.

Sep 272012
 

There are three strands that support learning on my modules this year. The first is experiential-based learning that is founded on the belief that learning can be accelerated if it takes place in an environment that is as true-to-life and critical as possible. This involves a lot of problem solving, reflective analysis and producing media that goes out to an actual audience. This is combined with a detailed analysis of the production issues that students are engaging with using Project Management systems and techniques to promote collaboration, team-building and a systematic approach to the development of radio and media content for DemonFM. The third strand is the use of blogging for reflexive assessment. This is based on the DMU Commons blogging system which I trailed in my classes last year, but which I now want to step-up and really promote as a tool for effective learning.

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Radio Blogging

The great thing about the DMU Commons system is that it is Open Source, and is therefore supported by a community of like-minded developers who see it as their priority to enhance a wide range of skills and capabilities, rather than locking things into a narrow and expensive proprietory system. The DMU Commons system uses WordPress, and enables students and staff from across DMU to set-up and manage their own blog site. This can be customised and stylised in many different ways. Users get to choose from a number of different themes so that the can include personalised pictures, backgrounds and formatting to. I’m trying to encourage learners to take ownership of their blogs and to make them as personal to themselves as possible, and even to use them as a way to present themselves as industry professionals.

If each blog is set with a category RSS feed for Radio, then the blogs that the learners produce and tag with this category will be aggregated into the Radio Production blog site. This then gives us a central point for learners to read about what other team members are doing, and for the module team to be able to promote this work with the wider world. Blogging is a very useful way of developing reflexive skills and to present oneself as a professional and capable producer. This, so the theory goes, is a way of accelerating the learning process so that graduates are able to exhibit a level of skill and capability that gets them started straight away in the radio or media industries.

DMU Commons is an inspired approach to de-centered learning. It encourages collaboration, participation, reflection and – most importantly – action in a real environment.

Sep 172012
 
Play

For some time now a small group of people who are passionate about Leicester’s cultural scene have been working to launch a show on DemonFM that tells the story of what’s going on each week. Presented by Kirsty Monroe with contributions from Nathan Human and myself.

We have been gearing up to launch the show for a few weeks now. The team, so far consists of Kirsty, Nathan and myself, each with a different experience of the Leicester cultural scene, and with different approaches to the way that we tell the story of what’s going on in Leicester.

So I’ve taken the role of producer at this point. Assembling the material that Kirsty and Nathan have gathered and putting it into a running order. Kirsty and Nathan have been out and about meeting people and recording quick interviews with them. What’s amazing is that the interviews are recorded on mobile phones and then uploaded onto Soundcloud and sent to me to download and edit. It works amazingly well, there were very few issues with the recordings, just a couple of tweaks that needed to be made.

I set myself the challenge of producing the ‘Charity Shop Challenge’, with the aim of going to a local charity shop and finding three interesting things that we can turn into performed pieces. My first trawl brought up a Japanese film Tony Takitani, a CD of John Barry film scores and a book of poems. I put them together as three separate sequences and they gave a nice interlude to the show, a creative reading.

Charity Shop Challenge – Sounds Good Sequence

We had a brainwave on the day when we met to put the show together. With all the fuss last week about the potential unearthing of Richard III’s bones, we thought it would be great to put in a reading from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Mike Leo Brown very ably delivered the reading. I hope we’ll be getting Mike in each week to do a different reading as it’s lovely to hear a reading given by a decent performer.

Shakespeare’s Richard III – read by Mike Leo Brown

Now to start planning the next show.

Jul 292012
 

The London Olympics are probably the biggest event that the United Kingdom will host for many decades to come. So how our broadcasters perform is incredibly important. Not only are the Olympics a chance to show off our national sporting prowess, they are also an opportunity to demonstrate our national proficiency in broadcasting. Leading the way for radio is BBC 5Live’s coverage across three radio channels, one on the usual medium-wave and the other two channels on DAB. BBC 5Live is doing us proud with coverage stuffed with joie de vivre, passion and an honest joy for sporting and national success.

The advantage of radio is that you can get on with other things as you listen of the events being commented on. The vast number of live events, types of sport and categories of athlete have the potential to lead to an over-flow of news and opinion, so the commentary has to be sharp, well informed and directly connected to the listener. BBC 5Live, by any standard has put together an operation that is a marvel of interconnected broadcasting, personality, facts, information and the thousands of stories that make-up the biggest show on Earth.

Drawing on a rich team of presenters and personalities, this is broadcasting on a huge scale. Peter Allen and Collin Murray, Victoria Derbyshire and March Chapman, Nicky Campbell and Rachel Burden, all form the backbone of the daytime coverage. This is fluent, knowledgable and effective broadcasting. There is a real sense that the whole of the station and the BBC Sport team are working together to make this feel easy, based, no doubt, on a huge collective effort behind the scenes.

Presenters interact with each other fluently, from multiple locations, across different venues, both from the official broadcasting studios but also down at the poolside and at street level. Radio is better than television at really getting into the heart of events. Radio is unobtrusive and connects with the general members of the public in a direct and informal way. This is great radio and we are only two days in to the whole thing. How much more exciting can it get?

Jul 252012
 

If you could sum up the range of cultural activities that are on offer in Leicester, what would be the best word or phrase that you might use? Can such a diverse set of events, performances, exhibitions and talented individuals be brought into a singe phrase or word? Some cities and art movements have achieved this. I’m thinking of The Factory, Andy Warhol’s creative space in 1960s and 70s New York. Or Factory Records in Manchester in the 1980s and 90s, with its associations with the Hacienda Club. They each have a connotation that there is a group of people who are passionate about their art. This was combined with a clear sense that the experience that they promoted was social, intelligent, international but aimed at generating a wide appeal.

Fast forward to Leicester in 2012 and the focus in so many forums is on how artists, performers, writers, photographers, musicians and sound designers (and many more) can showcase their creative and commercial talents in a way that gets a wider audience, and provides the people involved with a living. From Dusk To Dawn‘s website is a hub for creative talent in Leicester, and manages to connect people from different backgrounds and with different aspirations in an interconnected network of creative businesses.

DemonFM has run a show for the last two years that aims to cover events in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter. In the past we have covered events taking place at the Curve Theatre, at Phoenix Arts, at De Montfort Hall, and the many other arts and culture venues, including De Montfort University’s Cultural Exchanges festival. This year we are looking at renewing the Cultural Quarter show for a new generation of producers and volunteers on the station. With a new name and a new approach, our aim is to reflect the growing sense of community around the creative and cultural sector in Leicester, and to provide a platform where issues are discussed and broadcast as part of a weekly show that will be broadcast on DemonFM.

Kirsty Monroe, Nathan Human and myself met at the Phoenix for a coffee and chatted about what we want from the programme. The first thing we’ve done is decided that the foundation of this programme is going to be based on social media. Using the FD2D site as a central network – the programme is being produced in association with FD2D – we want to collect ideas for stories to be told and discussed on the show by following hashtags in social media. A couple of ideas for these tags range from the mundane to the ridiculous. What do you think of #onthepulse, #coolture #lestart #noquartergiven or #doleicester?

At the same time we are determined to ban some words. So we can’t use ‘culture’, ‘arts’, ’embedded’, ‘accessible’, ‘relevant’, ‘sector’ or ‘engaged’. These all sound like terms that are used in local government strategy meetings, and come across badly on a live radio programme.What other words should we ban?

The next stage is to get out and about and record some content and to put together a couple of pilot shows. Watch this space and follow #noquartergiven for ideas.

Jul 232012
 
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BBC 5 Live Olympic Coverage

BBC 5 Live is running trails that claim that with the BBC you won’t miss a moment of the London Olympics. With the launch of BBC 5 Live Olympic Extra to supplement the main BBC 5 Live station and 5 Live Extra – as well as all the online content that the BBC is churning out – this is going to be a huge chance for radio to do what it does best. Radio and sports coverage go hand-in-hand, and can often be more exciting than sitting about watching the television pictures, or even sitting in the crowd. It’s all in the commentary, the sense of occasion and the excitement that the presentation teams deliver.

At this Olympics communication and broadcasting technology has moved on. The development of mobile communication links, often via mobile phones, is going to be brought to the fore like never before. Reporters and presenters will be able to link to more events and get into hidden-away places more easily than television can. At large events like this radio’s ability to bring live feeds directly and unobtrusively from the track-side is unrivalled. Plus, you can listen to the radio while you are doing other things. The big screen might be seductive, but you can’t go walking or driving with a television on your back.

I’m going to listen to as much of the Olympics as I can on my portable DAB radio. I’m going to keep some notes about what stands out in this coverage and what lessons we can learn for Radio Production at De Montfort University. After all, this is not only a showcase of great sporting talent, it’s a showcase of broadcasting talent as well. If you have ambitions to be a broadcaster, then I’d recommend that this is a great opportunity to listen and learn.

Jul 222012
 
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BBC Radio Four’s From Russia With Love

The latest adaptation for radio of Ian Flemming’s From Russia With Love, pits James Bond against some pretty imbecilic Russian hoods, as they attempt to undermine MI6 by brining down and trapping Bond in a sex and murder scandal. While Ian Flemming’s fantasy creation of James Bond isn’t a patch on the detailed realism and depth of John Le Carre, and his chief protagonist George Smiley, Bond is still, after all this time, full of brutish charm and a blasé attitude to violence, murder and misogyny.

This third adaptation of a Bond story for BBC Radio Four by Jarvis & Ayres, is superbly dramatised for audio and handsomely cast. While there is some sense of hamming-it-up, it’s clear that the cast relished the chance to perform these roles and tell this story. There is a clear need to achieve a balance between performance, extemporisation and action in the adaptation of a Bond story. In cinematic adaptations the over-blow spectacle rules. In an audio adaptation the director and cast have to achieve a heightened sense of narrative intimacy or danger in the dialogue. This adaptation has a great sense of interaction between some truly larger than life characters.

It’s a pity that Bond is such a shallow character and that his brains don’t kick-in earlier, enabling him to follow some well voiced suspicions that Tatiana might be a double agent. The chances of Bond being led into such a shallow and obvious honey-trap seem obvious. Perhaps this seems more obvious now when we are more familiar with the levels of corruption and destruction wrought by the security services, but which Flemming couldn’t imagine when he was writing in the mid 1950s?

It takes Kerim, Bond’s minder in Istanbul, to voice these fears. Flemming’s story only gives a hint of the risk and associated violence that would be wrought on the heads of a failed agent in the field. It is left to Kerim to reflect on Bond’s willingness to be led by his more physical, sexual urges. This is a world of British gentlemen spies who can’t imagine double bluffs and double agents, and in which the truth of a woman only comes out when she is being made love to in bed.

Directed by Martin Jarvis, who also narrates the story, and adapted by Archie Scottney, there is just enough control and restraint to hint at some pretty terrifying consequences for the players involved in this game. Indeed, Scottney in his well balanced script, draws direct references to chess and gaming, with a vivid analogy of the balanced powers being like a game of billiards – all balls in motion and pre-set rules of engagement. Flemming’s story, however, feels like a warm-up for a much more complex and larger scale game that will carry on once this local skirmish is over – as is pointed out, beyond the confines of the ‘billiard table’.

Bringing this to life is a brilliant cast of performers. Tim Pigott-Smith is larger than life as Kerim, while Eileen Atkins is nothing but viciousness personified. Toby Stephens brings his calm assurance and charm to Bond, who after all is actually a bit thick and is dependent on his quick reactions, the strength of his fist and a lack of scruples with a gun. Jarvis brings this world to life with an unobtrusive and fluid sense of sound design, and while obvious echoes of the Bond theme of the movies is never far away, the world and the story are immersive and very entertaining.

Jul 212012
 

One of the great things about running media courses in a Faculty of Technology, is that you get to look at the delivery of learning opportunities from an engineering perspective. I’m not an engineer myself, my background is humanities and media studies. But I enjoy working with engineers, technologist and designers because they have a very specific way of looking at the world. Rather than seeing the world as an opposing set of political forces, or as a set of signs leading to deeper rooted meanings waiting to be unravelled, engineers tend to see the world for what it is – a space to be occupied, with problems to be solved. There is nothing that an engineer would like to do, in my experience, than to make the occupation of the social and physical space we occupy more tolerable, sustainable and efficient.

Engineering doesn’t just stop at maintaining a degree of comfort. Engineers seem to have a drive to want to occupy more space in more interesting ways. Engineers are transfixed on getting from a-to-b and places that are further away in some degree of comfort. They want to build things that are bigger, stronger and faster than before, and do this in a way that is less resource intensive, more efficient and using a minimum of forces to achieve what they desire. In the twelve years I’ve worked in a Faculty of Technology at De Montfort University I’ve come to know that engineers are chiefly pragmatic and practical people.

Engineers don’t see their mission in grand, metaphysical or historical terms. Instead they look at the myriad of problems that shift and change as we interact with the physical world and attempt to come-up with solutions that can help us master them. The world is full of big and small problems that need constant attention and which require innovative design and technology solutions. The challenge of engineering, so I’ve seen, isn’t to explain things about our lives, but to do things with our lives. Engineering is about using and deploying resources effectively for clearly recognised gains at the end of a pragmatically managed process. A good engineer looks for simple and elegant solutions that keep the chosen process as well integrated as possible. A pragmatic engineer, however, will be prepared to change and adapt these solutions as circumstances require.

Complexity isn’t a problem per-se, but an experienced engineer will work on the assumption that there is always a trade-off between efficiency, technical capability and the minimum requirement that it takes to get a cost-effective solution into general usage. This approach was brilliantly exemplified in the latest edition of Material World on BBC Radio Four. Reporting from the Farnborough Air Show, the focus was on how airports are looked at as a design and engineering problem. The complexity of moving physical objects, information, power and people through a building in a rapid yet seamless flow was brought to life in vivid terms.

Ove Arup, the British engineering firm that builds airports around the world, talked through their approach to modern airport design. From heating and lighting, to check-in and immigration; from shopping and retail, to noise management and acoustics. What was interesting was the focus that was given to the experience of the passenger. This is ‘experience engineering’ on a grand scale. Not content with merely bolting-on the solutions to an otherwise already established systems approach, the engineers at Ove Arup want to start from the ground-up, making all the technological interventions that they manage fundamentally integrated into the infrastructure of the airport experience itself.

This means that Ove Arup engineers have to analyse data about the movement of people, airplanes, luggage, provisions, power, fuel and many more products and services that are the blood in a massive circulation and respiratory system. At the same time the engineers have to model and plan for different eventualities. How will the designs that they advocate cope in different circumstances? What happens if there is a terrorist incident? What happens in poor weather? How do you make ordinary passengers feel as comfortable as visiting dignitaries? How can the retail operations capture passengers for longer so that they spend more money?

From a purely systems point of view many of these problems can be solved quite easily, but the challenge is to make the airport feel human, intimate and exciting. This architectural approach to design has to give a sense of progress and advancement. The acoustic design has to maintain the balance between isolation and comfort in the passenger areas, and a sense of being within the centre of a major international transport hub. Likewise, security has to be efficient yet unobtrusive. All of which mean that the engineers, designers and architects are facing significant design challenges in their own right, at each stage of the process, and in the context of the expectations of the clients.

The Material World gave a well balanced sense of wonder at the smart solutions that contemporary engineers are dealing with and the need to be sceptical that these solutions are there to serve not only the business operation but not the people who use these airports. The fact that people can so confidently ‘engineer experience’ in this way is a testament to the future, and is something that I will consider worth developing in whatever field I find myself working. Courses in Creative Media Technology can definitely benefit from the approach I’m sure.