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REVIEW OF DICK WHITTINGTON – Harpenden Public Halls, Dec 2017

Act One Pantomimes’ Dick Whittington at the Harpenden Public Halls has definitely been tickling some fancies around town. It’s even tickled tweeters in the Twitterverse and led to some unfortunate ruffling of feathers in local media circles. However, I’m pleased to report that no birds are harmed during this energetic production – apart from the turkey that Steve Shappelle’s excellent Sarah the Cook claims to have plucked, basted, seasoned and put in the oven, but not yet killed!  [BADUM – TISH from the orchestra pit. “Oh, that’s a joke then?” mutters my octogenarian father.]

Oh yes, this year’s panto is certainly full of jokes: old and new, good and bad (but bad, in a good way, if you know what I mean) and topical, but not overbearingly so. It can be a challenge, mind you, to hear them over the laughter. I often miss the first word or two and then, of course, struggle to make sense of the punch line.  I really admire all the work that Chris Law dedicates to this annual extravaganza, but just occasionally I glimpse the weight of responsibility on his shoulders through his rather formal delivery of one very funny gag after another as the smoothly respectable Alderman Fitzwarren. Contrastingly, and much as I adore the charismatic Luke Roberts as Idle Jack, his bubbly, rapid-fire joke-telling can be hard to catch. I’d like to put them both into a blender in Sarah the Cook’s mythical kitchen to see what we can create!

The script is oddly present in this production, in that some of the language and dialogue feels a little contrived, and not in a tongue-in-cheek-it’s-only-panto kind a way. For instance, when each of the lead characters appears one by one at the beginning, it’s like a cross between a fashion show and a talent contest.  Taking it in turns to introduce themselves to the audience and explain their backstory feels unsophisticated and clunky. Especially these days when so many of us are accustomed to the multi-layered, split-screen audio-visual concoctions available in the media. It’s quite appropriate, by the way, that the ‘device’ of the good fairy, in this case Fairy Bowbells, confidently portrayed by the always-smiling Jen Pringle, is very much like her job on children’s television – that of continuity presenter. Although I’m not sure we really need regular re-caps of what has just happened in the previous scenes.

A slightly cringe-making moment, albeit very Romeo and Juliet, is when the keen and conscientious Dick Whittington, nicely played (and beautifully sung) by Kane Coxall, first sets eyes on the gorgeous Alice Fitzwarren, so sweetly personified (and again sung beautifully) by Alissa King-Underwood. They immediately fall in love. [“Eurgh!” remarks my 14-year-old son. “As if!”]

Having said that, this panto is an instant hit. It certainly delivers a veritable feast of colourful, artful sets and inventive props, some fabulous, often outrageous costumes, enjoyable and well-performed songs, hilarious slapstick, and of course, delightful dancing performances by local students. Involving local youngsters is an important element of this annual ritual, and The Dance Studio has provided a talented array of confident and smiley dancers. The role of Tommy the Cat is also played by local girls; shared between Adelina Amparan and Megan Flower. Not forgetting the brilliant live band under musical director, Les Arnold.

Overall the performances in this production of Dick Whittington are very strong. Personally, I’d argue that you’re not really acting in panto, it’s more delivering lines and following sets of instructions whilst pretending to be that stereotypical character who the audience has already figured out in their heads. It’s exaggerated role-play, larger than life.  And actually, it’s a lot about smiling. Smiling into the audience, to acknowledge every single one of those people sitting there looking up at you, waiting for the next surprise.  Unless you’re the ‘baddy’, I suppose. In which case, you’re pointing at them snarling and threatening, which Jill Priest does so well as Queen Rat.

Panto is all about audience participation and their reaction to what happens on stage. Sticking to the script helps to stay on course but it’s the ad-libbing and occasional corpsing that makes this style of theatre so adventurous and naughtily nice! And there is a relationship that builds up between the performers and members of the audience; a sort of imagined eye-to-eye contact that brings them into the story too. Act One Pantomimes never fail to create this ebullient atmosphere at the Public Halls; with shout-outs to the attending schools, scouts and guides, the poor chap who gets picked on in the front row and the lucky children who are plucked out of their seats to take part in a sing-a-long. As a family or group outing for the festive season, I can’t think of many events that would top this in terms of easy access, value for money and enjoyability!

To end my review, I will nod to Matt Adams’ review in The Herts Ad*, which is complimentary and supportive overall.  He seems to make a point about making allowances for it being a ‘local’ production. Unfortunately, he is less forgiving, and less perceptive when it comes to understanding Ernie Almond’s involvement this year; in the role of the determinedly unsmiling tyrant Sultan of Morocco. I believe the problem with such a high profile local personality as Ernie being cast in this tiny part, is that it is not even a cameo role, but instead sees him acting against type, as this straight, humourless character, about to have his whole life shaken up by Sarah the Cook, we imagine. He’s on for barely ten minutes at the end, and doesn’t really make it to the front of the stage for long enough to make eye contact with us. The central placement of his photo in the publicity materials has clearly misled the afore-mentioned reviewer and possibly some of us in the audience too.  We had higher expectations, which perhaps explains Matt’s concern.

However, this production of Dick Whittington at Harpenden Public Halls will not disappoint. It is a triumph, in its class. I had a great time; laughing out loud really does something positive to the old psyche. And guess what, the kids in the auditorium absolutely loved it. They were hooked every step of the way, through every scene. What better way toc keep them entertained for the best part of three hours over the holidays!

Tickets are available at Harpenden Public Halls

DW2_blog
The audience are invited to take photos during the finale

 

*http://www.hertsad.co.uk/what-s-on/theatre/harpenden-public-halls-dick-whittington-pantomime-review-1-5318296

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The Community Media Association: continuing to ensure the localness of local media

 

The Community Media Association (CMA) certainly has a spring in its step, I’ve noticed, especially since the AGM in December.  The venue for this meeting was, by the way, an intriguing choice. It was held at Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London; the home of the British Broadcasting Corporation no less.

We were greeted and checked in by security, handed our badges and escorted through portrait-lined corridors to the oak-clad boardroom, the Council Chamber, where countless corporate debates have taken place over the decades; presumably discussing what sort of programmes are best for us, the viewer or listener, and how they can be most efficiently delivered using licence fee-payers’ money.

me-and-dalek-at-bbc

The CMA was set up to perform almost the opposite of the BBC’s top-down programming service, aiming instead to encourage grassroots broadcasting, on much more limited budgets. Operating since 1983, the organisation started out as the Community Radio Association. It was set up to express the growing public interest in, and responding to activist pressure for, more democratic access to the airwaves. In the early days, the association benefited from decent government funding, its HQ and studios in Sheffield were established, the national network of members grew, and until recently many local community stations were awarded grants every year towards their running costs.

Lately that funding has been drastically cut, but some regulatory leeway has been introduced as far as income generation is concerned, and so the potential is there for stations to explore different ways of sustaining their operations.[1] But their mission statement endures: “to enable people to establish and develop communications media for cultural and creative expression, community development and entertainment.”[2]

Judging by the representative turnout at the AGM on 17th December 2016, there must be thousands of individuals across the UK with a genuine commitment to community broadcasting.[3]  Operating primarily in local contexts, most of these practitioners and managers are working on a voluntary basis for a significant number of hours a week, but many are no less experienced and some in fact are as qualified as those doing similar professional work in the mainstream sector.

And they care. These community broadcasters really care about what they do. And not in the paternalistic way of the BBC, whose mission statement established under its first Director General, Lord Reith, was “to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”[4]  In fact, what I notice as I sit at home now, watching the CMA email messages roll in, is how much creativity, technical proficiency and collective industry experience there is amongst the members and how willingly they share their expertise, their station management policies, marketing strategies, programming ideas and even the programmes themselves.

As 2017 progresses, the conversations on this CMA discussion list are as vibrant as ever, with multiple voices seeking information, contributing suggestions, offering advice and airing opinions. Even in the face of currently uncertain, challenging economic and political times as well as potential policy changes relating to technological developments in the field of broadcasting generally,[5] there is no sense of defeatism here. Rather, the members of this association, representing small-scale, non-mainstream, participative broadcast media in this country, are mostly optimistic and standing strong.

In most cases, these community-spirited broadcasters exhibit the determination and bravado of those prepared to go down with their ship. So, let’s hope not too many of them hit the rocks. For running a community radio station, TV or online video channel, is not plain sailing, by any stretch of the imagination.

cma-and-lord-reith

Lord Reith was looking down on us during the AGM that day, and I wonder what he would have thought of the diverse group of people sitting before him. There was some irony in this juxtaposition of course. For apart from facilitating limited regional programming during the first few decades of the BBC’s lifetime, the London-centric vision of the Reithian approach to public service broadcasting rather discouraged localism and what some feared would be overly-parochial programming. Even since the launch of the first local BBC radio stations in 1967 – we’re celebrating their 50th anniversary this year – there remains an institutional tendency to marginalise the local.

Instead of being valued as manifold, ideally-placed sources of local information, wellsprings of the every-day lived experiences of particular communities around the country, which could usefully provide authenticity to otherwise over-generalized stories of national significance, the local stations sometimes seem to be viewed as little more than an unnecessary drain on resources. Coincidentally, even in the commercial sector, many of the independent stations of the 1970s and 80s have been consolidated into regional, national and global networks. The deregulation of the 1990s, which was supposed to increase competition and therefore encourage more choice for the listener has only led to an increasing centralisation of stations and blanket programme coverage from a small number of central hubs. Indeed, the extent to which programmes are made locally to reflect and represent local communities is debateable; one could argue it’s not local broadcasting at all – that they’re cheating.

But this is precisely where the community sector can compensate. Community-based broadcasting is ideally placed to produce programming in, by, to and for local communities.  The highly-localised community operators around the country deserve to be supported by the government and the regulators, they deserve dispensation in terms of the fees they have to pay, such as to the music publishers. After all, the community sector is providing what government policy looks like it is failing to deliver in the long term.  This is why the presence of the community broadcast media sector, the energy and commitment of its members is so vital to a healthy media ecology in the UK.

So, it is encouraging to see the confidence of this sector growing and its sense of purpose persevering, even under the steely glare of that Great British broadcasting icon.

[1]https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-boost-for-community-radio-stations

[2]http://www.commedia.org.uk/who-we-are/

[3]It was recently estimated that there are 20,000 volunteers collectively volunteering 2.5 million hours a year, https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/features-and-news/community-radio-at-10

[4]http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/research/culture/reith-1

[5]A consultation is now open, regarding the further loosening of regulation on commercial ‘local’ radio stations: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/commercial-radio-deregulation-consultation

A past report that I’m pleased I did…

noahs-arkhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/threecounties/content/articles/2006/12/20/faith_stalbans_islamic_centre_feature.shtml

Community Access Radio – does what it says on the box

This summer I re-visited Fairfax Public Access (FPA), a community media organisation in Fairfax County, Virginia, USA. I had taken a course there back in 1996, and earned myself a certificate in Radio Broadcasting. With that training under my belt, I had returned to the UK and volunteered as a producer and presenter of my own local community radio programmes for several years.  It was this experience that led to my freelancing with BBC Three Counties Radio as a Broadcast Journalist and Presenter.Me outside FPA, August 2015

Training is one of the primary missions of community media organisations worldwide, and arguably one of the few characteristics that these not-for-profit, ‘third sector’ operations really have with each other.  What I learned about FPA on this latest trip was eye-opening with regards to their economic and financial security. Particularly when I have reaWorkshop marketing and other FPA informationd so much recently about economic sustainability being such a widespread issue in the community media sector.  FPA is funded by the cable companies that have the FCC-granted monopoly to provide local residents and businesses in that area with cable television and internet access.  In the two decades since I was last at the station, the area around it has been substantially re-developed and it occupies what is now a very valuable piece of real estate with ample parking, adjacent to a splendid new shopping and leisure complex.  The premises are spacious and well laid-out with reception areas, meeting rooms, training suites and editing bays, radio and television studios and numerous offices. It was a Thursday afternoon in August, and I spotted only about a dozen people working at desks and screens.

Me in a studio at Radio Fairfax (FPA)
One of the well-equipped studios at FPA

The clean contemporary furnishings and impressive array of state-of-the-art equipment are evidently paid for out of the money that comes in from Cox Communications of Northern Virginia and Verizon Virginia, Inc.  The salaries of the professional members of staff who run the station are also paid from this steady income.  To join as a member or volunteer it only costs $26 a year and there are charges, although clearly subsidised, for Orientation Courses and Training Sessions in specific media skills and practices.

Director Of Programming, Maryam Shah outlined the role of FPA in the community; providing local residents with access to the airwaves.
Director Of Programming, Maryam Shah outlined the role of FPA in the community; providing local residents with access to the airwaves.

According to the Director of Programming, Maryam Shah, FPA has hundreds of members and the Radio Fairfax operation currently has 60-70 volunteer producers. The organisation appears to be a hub for television, film and audio production skills training – providing a great grounding for prospective media students, aspiring professionals and volunteer community producers alike.

The three radio producers I spoke to were a self-selected group who replied to my email request via Maryam. They appeared to be, I’m pleased to say, your typical community radio presenter with a particular passion they are pleased to peddle (try saying that up close to a microphone!)  I interviewed each of them separately but asked them the same questions. It was interesting that when I asked them about the role of Radio Fairfax in the community, they each explained it to me in terms of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Goddess Genise has global ambitions for her World Reggae Party every Thursday night.
Goddess Genise has global ambitions for her World Reggae Party every Thursday night.
David produces Dr Zarkov's Tiki Lounge; an hour of jazz, Hawaiin, exotica, Mid-Century pop and classic Latin music every Wednesday evening.
David produces Dr Zarkov’s Tiki Lounge; an hour of jazz, Hawaiian, exotica, mid-Century pop and classic Latin music every Wednesday evening
Dave, a former Voice of America journalist, produces Mickey Bo's Rock and Roll Revue every Saturday evening.
Dave, a former Voice of America journalist, produces Mickey Bo’s Rock and Roll Revue every Saturday evening

Community Radio, as far as they are concerned, enables citizens to have their voices aired; it is a fundamental democratic right. Community Access Radio represents freedom of speech.  None of them talked about contributing anything positive to the community; none referred to what has been coined over here in the UK as ‘social gain’.  These three producers’ shows are music-based, which may account for this. Goddess Genise did declare her dream of enlightening the Fairfax community through reggae music and opening up the region to the rest of the world through her show.  She was, in fact, recently awarded a Dennis Brown Award in the 18th Washington D.C. Annual Reggae Music Awards.

A common grumble voiced to me by these three volunteer radio producer/presenters was that there are no listening figures made available for their shows. Their management team does not apparently deem it necessary and on reflection, I think that’s the sensible approach.  For if a producer were, for whatever reason, disappointed by their audience size this might only serve to disillusion and demotivate them and ultimately lead to their quitting.  From a management point of view, since the station’s income does not depend on audience size or loyalty, who needs the hassle of a more rapid turn-over than is already the case?  The workforce sustainability issue is another pivotal aspect held in common with community media organisations around the world: maintaining enough trained volunteers is an on-going challenge.

There are plenty more producer/presenters I would like to talk to at Radio Fairfax, in FPA. I am convinced there must be others who do try to reach out into the community in more demonstrative ways than just playing specialist music and speaking to people they personally find interesting. I trust that there are some radio shows that do contribute in some tangible way towards the local community.  But as it rests now, I have learned that Community Access Radio in the USA is rather different from Community Radio in the UK.  Here, local community licences are a limited resource issued, initially at least, on FM or AM and must also therefore be competed for on the basis that the primary goal is to contribute towards the good of the specified community. How this can be achieved, proved and measured is pivotal to the on-going success of these stations.  For them, economic sustainability is the most challenging issue; funding is not guaranteed, it is limited and uncertain, it has to be competed for and only recently have some community stations in the UK been able to sell airtime for income.

And so, my visit to Radio Fairfax at FPA has led me to conclude that if I am to compare the local community radio ‘scene’ in the USA with that of the UK for my PhD, then Public Access is not necessarily where I should be looking.  Instead I find myself drawn to the new kid on the block, Low Power FM stations. I’m thinking these are a better comparison to the UK model of local community radio. This type of small-scale radio operation has been a long time coming and seems to be facing on-going sustainability challenges similar to those facing community media in the UK. Watch this space…

Northern Soul – a place apart?

The view from Sheffield railway station, upon arrival, at 4pm. It was a grey day. It is a grey* city. This is the most crowded I saw it over a 30 hour period.  (*Note: I have not used the word ‘dull’!)
The view from Sheffield railway station, upon arrival, at 4pm. It was a grey day. It is a grey* city.
This is the most crowded I saw it over a 30 hour period. (*Note: I have not used the word ‘dull’!)

On Thursday 28th May 2015, I took part in The University of Sheffield’s School of English Postgraduate Colloquium on Space and Place.  It proved to be an interesting, enlightening experience both intellectually and touristically.

Having taken the train ‘up North’ for the first time, I was impressed that this unfamiliar city was so accessible.  Despite being very hilly, it was quite easy to walk around although I can see why the trams have been laid on. It was quiet though, this day – oddly quiet, it felt under-populated, half-closed, soulless, as if everyone had gone away. That was my first impression.

From the station, my colleague and I walked through Sheffield Hallam University up towards the hotel where I would be staying. Like a lot of English cities, Sheffield has a mix of fine old buildings, some beautifully restored, some fading away and then the less* charming modern architectural travesties or marvels, depending on your point of view. (*I may just have given mine away there.)

My hotel was a fabulously well-preserved building just behind the City Hall, with a grand courtyard to the rear, full of trendy big-name restaurants. A short walk beyond that took us to the University of Sheffield, very much an integral part of the cityscape.  University departments and buildings are not so much dotted as firmly planted around the district and there seems to be a lot of construction underway.

We received a very warm welcome from the postgraduate students, gathering in the Exhibition Space at the University of Sheffield’s Jessop West building. There was coffee and biscuits upon arrival as well as a goodie bag with our name badge affixed.

The day’s talks commenced with a thought-provoking keynote speech by Dr David Forrest, who gave a well-illustrated lecture on the portrayal of ‘The North’ in British film and television.  He spoke of the “malleable space myth” relating to perceptions of this contested region (a part of the country which is not ‘South’), as perpetuated by how it is represented in films and television drama.  Citing the work of Barry Hines, Forrest described how the northern narrative is imagined and constructed in nostalgic and historically male-biased ways.

With reference to the theme of the colloquium, Forrest went on to argue that in the UK now, we are producing TV in a “post-regional space” which denies acknowledgement of the specifics of place, disallowing engagement with the politics of place. Forrest stressed the importance of place-specific narratives, particularly in this globalised multi-media world and called for a renewed emphasis on regional specificities.  What resonated with me especially was his comment that speaking of ‘the local’ is an act of resistance.

Of the ten other talks I attended during the day, particular highlights for me were Jack Cortvriend’s “New Romantics and Rural Realisms”, Cath Badham’s “Occupying the Periphery” and Ruth Solomon’s “Simmel’s ‘Stranger’”.  These touched on issues of affect and texture, subjectivity and inter-subjectivity, roles and performances, and community, which all feature in my research.

Cortvriend argued that contemporary heritage films, or post-heritage films, are diverging from traditional ways of representing a rural past.  He suggested that there is a new romanticism to be found by, for example, paying closer attention to texture, colour and movement as found in Jane Campion’s Bright Star.  He also referred to the foregrounding of characters over landscape. He used an example from Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, a scene when Heathcliff and Cathy go on a horse ride together. We were supposed to hear the sonic foregrounding of the characters as they ride and handle the horses. Unfortunately technology let him down and we could not hear the sound – I volunteered to make some heavy breathing sound effects for him… my offer was not taken up! But this accidental lack of sound certainly proved how strikingly obvious it is when sound is lacking from audio-visual material – no matter how lush the sight, the scene palpably lacks texture and definition.

Badham’s research involves how the peripheral spaces of a theatre’s backstage – crammed rehearsal areas and the darkened wings – are considered as marginalized, transitional spaces.  The Stage Manager, who must facilitate and keep an eye on all proceedings is squeezed into the corners of these spaces in order to observe. She explained that this positioning of the SM in the periphery gives the impression that their work is also peripheral; the actual importance of it is negated somewhat. The SM must hide in the shadows during the live performances.  Yet as a practitioner she attests to, and is arguing for, the equality of these peripheral spaces in relation to the stage.

Solomons presented a stark account of living in a crumbling East London tower block. Her being able to find cheap accommodation was thanks to a housing scheme for artists which is now suspected to have been part of a strategic institutional move towards gentrification.  She explored the precarity of the artist’s life in terms of the housing opportunities that are currently available and shared how residents have come to view people like herself as outsiders who do not and never will belong to their community.  Being considered as ‘wanderers’ (and not the ‘stranger who stays’) by their fellow tower block residents, means they are expected to be nomadic by nature and therefore will not be too badly affected by the experience of being decanted from their homes.

The day ended with a drinks reception and poetry reading hosted by the School of English and creative writing lecturer, Dr Ágnes Lehóczky.  She and several of her students read out some of their work on themes of space and place.  It was a fitting conclusion, situating us firmly in the literary heart of Sheffield – this rather grey but certainly not dull Yorkshire city. There is clearly more to Sheffield than meets the eye – and more to it than is communicated on TV and in film. So that’s why being there yourself is important, to experience its texture and listen out for its soul.

Interpretations, interjections and intersubjectivity: observations on a hustings

A hustings event was held recently in Harpenden, which required the Parliamentary candidates to comment on local issues rather than their parties’ national strategies. The auditorium was brimming with residents: some there just out of interest and others there to demand action on school places and other infrastructural problems relating to on-going development programmes. Arguably they were not wholly representative of the town’s population. As the event was hosted by The Harpenden Society – which consists mostly of ‘senior’ citizens – the audience likewise consisted primarily of more mature residents. One of the reasons for holding this event had been an attempt to recruit younger members, under the age of 50. Publicising the event in the local press brought in dozens of this target group as well as a handful of teenagers.

The collection of short vox pop-style interviews that I recorded afterwards, shows that reactions and impressions differed enormously. This indicates the different motivations and expectations of the attendees as well as their various political persuasions. The issues that were raised from the floor during the Question and Answer session were all linked to the perceived over-development of Harpenden: the lack of school places and of affordable housing; concerns over the increasing pressure on water, other resources and sewage plants; traffic congestion and the threat to the Greenbelt.

Interestingly, of the four candidates who spoke that evening, none particularly stood out, to me or to the people I spoke to, as being able to deliver ‘what Harpenden needs’ (and that itself is not a universally agreed concept), without irrevocably altering the character of the town or further dividing the community along the fault lines….simply because for all their declared commitment to the local area, each politician wants to make a positive contribution to society as a whole and help to create a better Britain.

Rachel Burgin for Labour was first to speak and rather nervously rushed through a speech, which began confusingly with a comparison between Harpenden’s on-going planning crises and the land rights struggles of an American Indian tribe. “How we reach decisions is as important as the decisions finally reached,” she declared. She was very aware of the problems facing Harpenden in terms of congestion and other manifestations of increasing pressure on our infrastructure. In the Question and Answer session she came across as intelligent, intellectually and emotionally, and she diffused a couple of awkward and contentious situations for two of her rival speakers. To her credit, she emphasised the importance of taking personal, anecdotal experiences into account, not relying solely on statistical evidence (following Lilley’s suggestion that one cannot rely on anecdotal evidence in relation to issues such as traffic congestion.) Rachel later showed a talent for diplomacy when she followed Pauline Pearce’s racially-charged outburst with a clarification as to why addressing an audience of Harpenden residents might feel intimidating to some people. We are, she tried to explain, generally, relatively affluent and therefore also highly intelligent, astute and wealthy in terms of social capital. For some reason the audience reacted against this comment, but in my opinion, Rachel’s analysis was accurate.

Conservative MP Peter Lilley, as the incumbent since 1997, seemed to be resting on his laurels somewhat. Clearly, out of all the candidates, he has the most experience of public speaking and of what it means to work in the Government. But over these last 20 years Harpenden has become more and more popular for London commuters and has been subjected to substantial and, it would seem, poorly planned development to the point where we are now facing infrastructural crises including a severe shortfall in school places. What role could he have played in better management of this process? Most of the hustings audience would not argue with his statement: “We have an enormous privilege to live in this area.” But they should, I believe, take issue with his follow-up comment: “Everyone wants to come and live in and around Harpenden”. Surely, the truth is, you would be a fool to move to Harpenden now to start a family, or if you already have young children, unless you are happy to spend hours driving them to and from a non-local school every day or you are already planning to pay for private education.

Pauline Pearce, for the Liberal/Democrats was straightforward, honest and sincere. But the particular ‘community’ she was referring to in her speech, who need her help to defend their rights because they don’t understand how the system of government works, were not present in large numbers at the meeting. Having said that, most individuals there, I would say, were very welcoming towards this brave, outspoken lady, visiting us from Hackney. We were prepared to give her all due respect and imagine how supportive her forthrightness and genuine commitment to good causes would be across our broader constituency. So when, towards the end of the Q & A, she admitted to feeling intimidated by all of our “pale faces and grey hair” there was uproar. This unfortunately animated her further to the extent that she betrayed her lack of experience as a ‘professional’ politician. But her battle cry did resonate: “You can please some of the people some of the time, not all the people all the time.”

John Stocker, bringing up the rear guard, presented the UKIP case effectively enough through commenting on Harpenden’s problems in the wider context of the UK. “We have to look at the wider issues and the wider field.” But despite his ‘wise’ truisms and calling for a common sense approach to development issues, his advice that we must be realistic doesn’t really solve any of the emotive issues that are currently dividing this community. He urged the audience to “look rationally at what we need nationally and what we need locally.” And he admitted that if it meant using some of the Greenbelt then he would have to go along with it. He came across as a modest, thoughtful person, however he appeared to lack the mental agility of the Labour candidate, the decorum of the Conservative and the passionate fighting spirit of the Liberal/Democratic representative.

As I stated earlier, some of the local residents attending the hustings found the event interesting and enlightening. But others were disappointed and disheartened. To listen to the vox pops, see my previous post. Here is a link to the audio of ‘highlights’ from the speakers.

Recording local democracy in action

Long story short – I’m researching a PhD in sustainable local-centric programming for community radio on the internet. I’ve worked in radio for nearly thirty years and in that time I have also volunteered in the local access/community sector. Currently I do it for love – I’m a true “amateur”.

I was invited, by Nickey Radio, to cover a hustings in the apparently very well-off commuter town of Harpenden, a Tory stronghold. Armed with my now old-fashioned mini-disc recorder and a mobile phone with voice recorder App as back-up, I set off for the Rothamsted Conference Centre.

I made some interesting observations – not caught as audio but worthy of sharing in any case. The organisers of the public meeting, The Harpenden Society, were clearly hoping to raise their own profile through this event and recruit more young people (i.e. under the age of 45) to their club. As a middle-aged parent myself I can attest to how younger adults, in the early stages of their careers, who have perhaps not quite settled down, do not feel rooted in community until later stages in their lives. One big change occurs if you start to have children. For me, that was when the focus of my attention fell to more ‘local’ affairs, beyond whether the train to work was running on time and what time the supermarket stayed opened until. It was only really then, when home-life became more of a priority that I began to notice and value the immediate community around me such as the doctor’s surgery, playgroups, schools and, dare I admit, neighbours!

As an exercise in community engagement for the parliamentary candidates, the hustings in Harpenden should have been an opportunity to display their knowledge and understanding of the central issues that are currently bothering, and in some cases dividing, the town’s community. Through expressing their interest and sharing our concerns they were also bound to reiterate their respective party policies. In terms of this being part of a process of facilitating local democracy, some members of the public who attended may have felt able to ‘have their say’ but whether they will have been ‘heard’, and whether it will make a difference to their community, is another matter entirely.

My purpose was to record vox pops of audience reactions to the event for broadcast on the local on-line community radio station. I am only too aware of the limitations that will necessarily affect what ends up on-air, as a reflection of what happened that night. Were the attendees a representative cross-section of the population in the town? Were those that raised their hands and voices to speak, doing so on behalf of the silent majority or an agitated minority? Did I encounter and encourage a good balanced variety of interviewees to be recorded for my vox pops?

The old adage, ‘you had to be there’, holds true. But here I present what I hope illustrates a flavour of reactions to The Harpenden Society’s Hustings event, held on Tuesday 21st April 2015 …

The parliamentary candidates who attended were: Rachel Burgin, Labour; Peter Lilley, Conservative; Pauline Pearce, Liberal/Democrats; John Stocker, UKIP. Apologies: Richard Wise, Green Party.

War and Peace: kill or cure?

I am a life-long committed listener to BBC Radio 4, which I gather must say a lot about the kind of person I am.  What also says a lot about me and my gendered status in society, and Kate Lacey (in “Listening Publics” Polity Press: 2013) would concur, is the fact that I am mostly listening at home as a secondary activity whilst doing housework.

I have come to trust the station to serve up the sort of listening fayre that I will find interesting at most times of the day. There are very few occasions I can remember when I have actively decided to switch off (unless I’m at work).  Generally this will be a play in a dialect which I find hard to understand or a political programme that I don’t have the appetite for or can’t be bothered to listen to actively.

But the main time I switch off is when I am in company or need to concentrate on studying.  I experience Radio 4 privately; as a distractingly fascinating companion and a stimulating accompanist to the daily drudgery of chores.

So can you imagine my dilemma on New Year’s Day when I realised that the station was intending to broadcast ten hours of drama?  An epic dramatization, no less, of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.  I don’t often find fault in the Radio 4 scheduling – some programmes simply do not appeal, have no resonance for me and do not draw me in – but I am content to fit into the broader, what I assume is well-thought-through, corporate scheme of things. However I did stop to question the common sense and logic of the decision to schedule programming in a way that perhaps is more suited to BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Surely that is precisely what this relatively new station is there to do – to act as a depository for the arty farty drama and literary programmes and features that the straight, more serious (though happy to be amused under the right intellectual conditions) Radio 4 audience might find too much? Did I also mention that dramas are my absolute favourite type of programme – so maybe I shouldn’t be one to complain?

Yet I had a dilemma.  I was forced into a situation where I had to choose between socialising with my family, who were all lounging around at home after the NYE late night, or shutting myself away to treat myself to this epic aural orgy.  One might ask why couldn’t I wait for the Listen Again opportunity that now inevitably follows a ‘live’ broadcast? Well, this was an event wasn’t it?  A well-trailed and extraordinary broadcast event. And besides I knew I would never find an entire 10 hours ‘free’ again or even get around to catching up on-line, to avail myself of this dramatic experience.

So I admit, I found a whole host of jobs around the house that needed doing on New Year’s Day and was able to sustain this activity for one or two full episodes and dipped in to several more.  I have to say at one point over lunchtime I tuned in to listen and was actually cross that something else was on, news or something tiresomely real and tragic.

I missed a few segments – but did manage to hear the final instalment, so I know how things worked out for everyone in the end. I thought the adaptation was very cleverly handled, producing an atmospheric, moving narrative through the very long historical novel. The cast was brilliant (and enormous…it took several minutes to list everyone at the end and they had to use different voices to get through the list so that we listeners wouldn’t get bored) The technical and artistic quality of the production of course was brilliant – but we would expect nothing less from the BBC or any independent company commissioned by them.

After my act of devotion on the 1st January I now hear they are broadcasting the episodes on Saturday nights, again on BBC Radio 4, over the next ten weeks.  They have created another event, or series of events, which would probably, in hindsight, have been more convenient for me to ‘attend’.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wz7q2

Clearly the BBC Radio 4 management team were aiming to create a dramatic start to the New Year as well as making good their investment (a drama production on this scale is likely to have cost tens of thousands of pounds).  I am a big fan of drama on the radio but am now concerned that this forced immersion (albeit only FM/digital, since I could have tuned in to LW, wherever that is, to hear ‘normal’ programming) will create antipathy?  Will there now be pressure to remove drama from the news and talk station entirely and house it on 4 Extra?

I would love to be a fly on the wall at the wash-up session after the dust of this epic Radio 4 venture has settled – will there be war or peace in the boardroom?

Listening in to ‘Serial’

In my Masters’ thesis of 2010, I explored how the production conventions of dramatized documentary radio features have developed over ninety years of British radio broadcasting history to the point where digitally- and artistically-complex radio docudramas are now also available on-line, often accompanied by complementary visual content. My point was that the value of this particular genre lies in its purposefulness; it is “intimately involving and resonantly meaningful” and thus warrants sustained investment to extend the shelf life of such programmes.
Several years on and the BBC are ensuring longer term on-line availability for a whole range of programmes, not just the expensive-to-make docudramas, but everything from the news programmes to comedy quizzes, soaps to philosophical round table discussions. In a converged digital media environment which now plays host to vast array of competing audio content it has been imperative for the BBC to lead the way in some respects but also to keep up and to jump on the odd bandwagon or two.
A recent case in point has been the podcast phenomenon that ‘went viral’: ‘Serial’, from the Chicago-based producers of ‘This American Life’. I first heard about it on a random Twitter post and was immediately, immensely captivated. I had no idea who Sarah Koenig was, but I totally bought into her authenticity, to the truth behind her mission to investigate the questionable sentencing of a young Muslim man for the murder of his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago. http://serialpodcast.org/
Like the commentator who tweeted about it, I listened to the first five episodes almost back to back one Sunday. I was addicted. The entire soundscape of the piece was so immersive: the captivating music, real-life background sounds, the entire audio architecture of the production, Sarah’s off-the-cuff musings and excerpts of interviews skilfully interwoven with recordings of telephone conversations and correspondence.
‘Serial’ is not a radio programme although it feels like one. It is a podcast. It is essentially a fact-based documentary series, taking a journalistic approach, produced using creative, dramatic techniques by an independent team who usually, I gather, work for a public news organisation in the USA. In this case they were apparently being funded by sponsors, not being paid by any news organisation. It is (I got the impression) almost a personal project.
The top-and-tail promotional messages of the sponsors and the adverts ‘make’ the experience a wholly Americanised one. But haven’t we all become so used to that in the American model? It feels quite exotic and in some way has added to my enjoyment of the experience. Commercial/independent radio stations here in the UK rarely make these sorts of programmes at all as the costs involved outweigh the perceived revenues.
Indeed a week before Thanksgiving, Sarah did that American thing they do with public radio in the USA and asked me (and her audience) for money. In a really nice way. I was very tempted but didn’t quite get around to it. After all she was asking for investment in a future project not for funds to enable her to complete this investigation. The production team then took Thanksgiving Week off as a vacation.
During which time BBC Radio 4 started talking about the ‘Serial’ podcast as a sort of news item in its entertainment/arts slots and then it was announced that BBC Radio 4 Extra would be broadcasting the programme every evening at 9pm and making it available on-line for 30 days thereafter. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4extra
The BBC and National Public Radio have shared values and a history of co-producing and distributing each other’s programmes, but it is a credit to the ‘Serial’ team that the BBC have also, literally, bought into the project, paying for the privilege of sharing the phenomenon. The BBC seal of approval has been stamped on this American podcast but the BBC in turn have tapped into the hype that this project has created too. The excitement, engagement and conversation in social media that has been drummed up over this investigation into the Truth and whether justice was or ever can be achieved, proves the fact that real life stories can be just as compelling, and more dramatically effective than anything one could make up.
As I was writing this, there was an event being organised in a Chicago café, planned to coincide with the time the final podcast of the series is posted on-line, followed by a discussion about the journalist’s findings. http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/
I wish I could have been there too but I will have to accept my spatial and temporal dislocation from this main event and “listen in” from here, when I get round to it!

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