A humbling night

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When you present radio programmes, you often get to meet astonishing people. Over the years I’ve interviewed front-bench politicians, pop stars and international sportspeople.

But the most incredible and humbling of the lot was the lady I met earlier this evening.

Renee Bornstein is eighty years old. Brought up in Strasbourg, at the age of ten she joined a convoy of thirty-six children aged between three and sixteen in the hope of escaping to neutral Switzerland. On my radio show this evening she spoke publicly about her experiences for the first time.

In the small border town of Annemasse, literally yards from the Swiss border, the group she was travelling with was stopped by German soldiers. All of the children and their leader — a remarkable twenty-two year-old woman by the name of Marion Kohn — were imprisoned. Renee, her brother and her three-year old sister and were interrogated by the Gestapo. Other children were beaten. Yet they refused to give the Nazis the information they wanted: their parents’ addresses.

The Mayor of Annemasse, a gentleman by the name of Jean Deffaugt, intervened, persuading the Germans to release a number of the children. The French underground also arranged for Marion Kohn to escape; she refused the opportunity, saying she would not leave whilst some of the children were still imprisoned.

Within a short time, Marion Kohn was taken away by the Gestapo and brutally executed.

It’s easy to think that you know what went on during those dark days in Europe’s history. Yet the more you speak to and hear from people who were there, like Renee Bornstein, the more you come to realise that not only do you not know at all, but that the reality was far, far more horrific than you could possibly ever imagine.

Listen to the full interview with Renee Bornstein (MP3, 24min 22sec)

Happy New Year!

Doesn’t time fly?

I do hope you had a wonderful Christmas and are looking forward to a happy and prosperous 2015.

Over the festive period I’ve taken a few moments to update my audio demos. Just head over to the ‘Listen’ page for some of my ‘greatest hits’ of 2014, including the time I pressed Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps on his “extraordinary” beer and bingo tweet, the UKIP MEP who admits his party’s opposition to HS2 is all about votes and a news bulletin from my current role as weekend newsreader at 106 BOB fm Home Counties.

Mobile: The Future of Radio?

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I’m often told that mobile streaming is the future of radio listening. Any station in the world on demand, advanced codecs, no need for those awful DAB things that sound so much worse than good old analogue FM and do that bubbling mud thing all the time.

So I thought I’d give it a go. Coming home from work a couple of nights ago, I got out my phone, flipped through to the TuneIn Radio app, selected an out-of-area station that I couldn’t receive on analogue radio in the car, plugged in a portable mini FM transmitter to get it on the car speakers and off I went, enjoying this freedom to listen to whatever I wanted.

I’d just got out of the car park when the audio stopped.

Blast. I’m now driving and unable to do anything — to get back to the TuneIn app, now running in the background, I have to unlock my phone with a PIN code and then navigate through the menus. Being touchscreen, it’s impossible to do this by feel as I would on the car radio head unit, so I wait until I’m safely stopped at a set of traffic lights.

There’s no explanation as to why the stream’s stopped, in fact the ‘play’ button is still pressed. I stop it, select the alternative (lower quality) stream, in the hope of a more reliable connection, and away we go again.

Five minutes later, the audio stops again.

This is starting to get irritating. I pull over. This time an error message is displayed: “stream decoding error”. What?

Maybe it’s the radio station. I choose another that I didn’t really want to listen to but hey, I can listen to anything I want. Two minutes further down the road, the stream stops again.

Frustrated, I just punch the OFF button on the car stereo and drive the rest of the way in silence.

Thinking this might just have been an aberration, a quirk of the Internet, I tried again last night. Same result. And this is a journey through Manchester, a city with pretty good 3G/4G coverage.

If this is the future of radio, I shudder to think what the industry’s done wrong to deserve it. I’ll stick to DAB, thanks.

Of near misses and wild hyperbole

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The footage is dramatic. An airliner flutters down its final approach, seconds from touchdown, when a widebodied jet laden with hundreds of passengers suddenly pops out of nowhere and crosses the runway. We see the reaction of the startled pilot of the aircraft on final, goosing the throttles and pulling the nose up to avert certain disaster. Indeed, the HD images are so sharp that we can almost see the whites of the pilot’s eyes as he (or she) wrestles the controls, a bead of sweat rolling down their forehead.

“Jet Disaster Averted in Barcelona Near Miss” proclaimed one news site. Even the normally reserved BBC went with “Planes in Barcelona ‘near miss'”.

It’s important to remember that video alone is rarely proof of anything. This footage was shot with a very long lens; the foreshortening effect is significant and will certainly make the aircraft appear much closer to each other than they really were.

AENA, the airport operator and Air Traffic Control provider at Barcelona, has released a statement saying that separation standards were not compromised and that the arriving aircraft, a Boeing 767-300 of Ukrainian airline UTAir, could have landed safely. Moreover, it stated that neither crew had filed a complaint.

The first inference of this statement is that far from blundering on to an active runway, the Argentinean A340 was in fact cleared across by air traffic control. If so, it’s technically incorrect to describe the incident as a runway ‘incursion’ — which would imply an unauthorised entry.

If it seems unusual that an aircraft would be cleared to cross an active runway with landing traffic on final approach, consider that at London Heathrow arrivals are often spaced no more than 2.5 nautical miles (just under three statute miles) apart. Aircraft routinely cross the runway in these gaps — which would put the next arriving aircraft at the very most 750 feet above the ground and sixty seconds from touchdown at the moment the clearance to cross was issued.

Secondly, whilst UTAir have since issued a statement to the effect that the captain of their Boeing 767 decided to go around because of the crossing A340, up until that point the idea that the two events witnessed on the video — the A340 crossing the runway and the B767 going around — were linked was pure speculation. Go-arounds happen every day for a wide range of reasons, and just because two events that appear to be linked are shown on a video, one should be careful to avoid adding two and two and coming up with five.

Even if the B767 captain did go around because of the crossing traffic, that in itself is no indication that anything dangerous or illegal happened, or that separation was eroded beyond the minimum requirements. All it means is that on that particular day and in those particular circumstances, the UTAir captain saw something he or she personally wasn’t happy with and exercised their right to go around.

AENA have announced that they are investigating the incident and with the benefit of the additional data they will have at their disposal — from radar records, ATC tapes and statements from the controllers and aircrews involved — more facts will undoubtedly be uncovered.

But as far as the coverage this video has received in the media is concerned — “near miss jet crash” seems to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. My personal view is that we’ve got some dramatic HD footage which looks great on the TV — but in the absence of any further facts, no real story. Runway crossings happen every day at airports around the world — at the busier ones, like Barcelona, Heathrow or Gatwick, spacing is tight and a few seconds here or there can make all the difference. Go-arounds, too, are commonplace and the safety-first approach in the event of anything unusual cropping up.

The media has a responsibility to report responsibly: headlines like the Mirror’s “Watch dramatic near-miss as two planes almost collide on runway at Barcelona airport” are inaccurate, over-excitable and unhelpful to anybody.

BTCC 2014: Croft Preview

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IT’S NOT without controversy that the BTCC circus heads north to Croft this weekend.

Much of the disquiet stems from a slightly tepid fourth round at Oulton Park in Cheshire. It’s fair to say that the decision to use the full ‘International’ circuit for the first time in almost twenty years backfired: the longer layout resulted in fewer overtaking opportunities and three largely processional races.

On top of that, eyebrows were raised at the dominance of the BMWs and Audis. With the rear-wheel-drive machinery more efficient at putting power down at the start, teams running front-wheel-drive cars — the majority of the field — have been complaining they’re being disadvantaged.

In some ways, it’s a similar problem to that which F1 is facing at the moment. In order for any form of motorsport to flourish it needs to remain relevant; the only way manufacturers can justify vast expenditure on developing new technologies for the track is if the lessons learnt can be translated to production models. Disc brakes, dual overhead camshaft engines, even the humble rear-view mirror — all technologies we take for granted in our road cars that were originally developed for racing.

The issue F1 faces is that consumers are demanding quieter, more fuel-efficient, more eco-friendly vehicles. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mesh well with the race fan’s expectations of 200mph speed machines, which is why there has been so much debate over the sound of the engines this year (it’s also worth pointing out that people buying Mercedes road cars are probably more interested in fuel economy than those buying Ferraris — which provides one explanation why Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has been one of the more outspoken critics of the 2014 regulations).

Likewise, the future of production saloons is squarely in the front-wheel-drive court. The big problem is that if RWD is seen to be a competitive advantage on the BTCC grid, teams will begin to migrate to RWD equipment, with the series running the risk of losing the support of manufacturers such as MG and Honda.

In an attempt to rein in the lightning starts, all the RWD cars — essentially the BMWs of Colin Turkington, Rob Collard and Nick Foster, and the Audis of Rob Austin and Hunter Abbott — will be required to run a longer first gear this weekend. It’s a solution that’s surgically targeted at slowing the initial getaway — other options, such as adding extra ballast, would affect the cars throughout the lap. For their part, the RWD teams argue that their fast starts are only clawing back the advantage their front-wheel-drive counterparts have elsewhere on the circuit and through qualifying.

Drivetrain issues aside, it’s hard to see championship leader Colin Turkington being anything other than the man to beat this weekend. The Northern Irishman always goes well at Croft, having only failed to make the podium in one of his nine previous visits to the North Yorkshire circuit. But keep an eye on Speedworks rookie Tom Ingram, too; fresh from a record points haul at Oulton, the twenty-year-old won three out of three here in the Ginetta Supercup last year and made the podium in all three races the year before.

With a sprinkling — though probably not a deluge — of rain in the forecast for both qualifying and race day though, anything is possible.

For free voice pieces and more, check out the free BTCC voicers page.

BTCC 2014: Disappointment for Ingram as Turkington triumphs at Oulton

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AN ENGINE problem left Speedworks rookie Tom Ingram rueing what might have been after another solid showing throughout the fourth round of the British Touring Car Championship at Oulton Park in Cheshire.

Ingram, who was promoted to second after the reverse-grid draw for the final race of the afternoon, managed only half a lap before his Toyota Avensis cut out, leaving him unclassified in race three for the third time this season.

Yet that disappointment should not detract from what was yet another strong showing for the 20 year old. After qualifying ninth, Ingram never looked in danger of losing that position throughout race one, and showed he had the pace to stay with the leading group throughout the second race, taking advantage of a mistake by MG driver Sam Tordoff and technical problems for eBay Motors’ Nick Foster to grab seventh.

Despite Foster’s woes, however, it was the BMWs that dominated proceedings on the 2.69-mile long International Circuit, with Northern Irishman Colin Turkington winning two out of the three races to go top of the points standings as championship rivals Andrew Jordan and Matt Neal struggled down the order.

In race three it was Irishman Árón Smith, plucked out of the hat to start from pole on the reverse grid, who led from start to finish in difficult conditions caused by a short but intense shower just before the start. Only United Autosports’ James Cole chose to start on slicks, but whilst he was rewarded with a point for the fastest lap on the final circuit, the wets were the better choice.

The final race of the day is invariably eventful, and there was no exception at Oulton with the safety car called in to action inside the first lap after Hunter Abbott, Matt Neal and Jack Goff came together. Ingram’s retirement left Mat Jackson challenging Smith for the lead, but a spin at Cascades effectively ended the Airwaves Racing driver’s hopes of taking the victory.

Smith has shown plenty of talent since his BTCC debut in 2011 and, though unencumbered by success ballast, drove excellently in tricky drying conditions to hold off the challenge of three former champions in the shape of Gordon Shedden, Jason Plato and the man who had already taken two earlier victories, Turkington.

Speedworks, in their home race, had a difficult run up to the event with team boss Christian Dick involved in a massive accident at Zandvoort the week before and a huge rebuilding job to complete on Simon Belcher’s Avensis after his trip in to the Thruxton trees. But there was no hint of Dick’s absence having slowed the team down in a week packed with media and testing commitments.

Ingram, too, looks more assured in the car and more confident racing bumper to bumper with some of the stars he grew up watching. Whilst Sunday wasn’t to be his day, on his — and the team’s — current form, there will surely be plenty more opportunities for him to compete at the head of the field before the end of the season.

“Perfect” start for Speedworks in 2014 BTCC

Tom Ingram's Speedworks Toyota Avensis at Oulton Park

Talk about tight racing — the opening round of the BTCC at Brands Hatch last weekend saw no fewer than twenty-four cars lapping within eight-tenths of a second of each other during practice and qualifying. F1 eat your heart out.

So tight were the margins that the difference between pole and fourth was just nine hundredths of a second. Twenty-nine cars squeezed together on to the notoriously tight Indy layout in an effort to put in a lap time. Which — and I know I’m slightly biased — makes it all the more remarkable that rookie Tom Ingram, in his first ever BTCC qualifying session, was able to stick his Speedworks Avensis in to sixth on the grid.

Whilst that performance didn’t quite translate in to the fairytale race results it hinted at — ninth in race one, eighth in race two and a DNF in the final round after a controversial shove from former champ Alain Menu on the exit of Graham Hill Bend sent Ingram in to the barriers — watch this space. The 20-year old has raw pace, that is clear. Ingram may have suffered from a little inexperience dealing with the rough-and-tumble of the BTCC this time round, but as he becomes more streetwise you’d have to say he’s got the talent to be challenging very close to the front of the pack.

I spoke to Speedworks team principal Christian Dick for Pure Sport this evening — you can listen below.

Going Pro

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So you’ve sent your demo tape off, been called in for a ‘chat’, and now you’ve just had a phone call, or perhaps an e-mail these days, inviting you in for your first shift on a professional radio station.

For many aspiring presenters, this is the start of the dream. Sadly, many return from that first airshift feeling slightly disappointed and disillusioned with it all.

From hospital, student or community radio where the presenter is often left more or less to their own devices with just a few basic guidelines to follow, entering a world where the music was scheduled a week ago and you’ve got maybe six links an hour and four different things to promote in that time can seem alien. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like your show any more.

This is the difference between doing something as a hobby and doing it as a job.

At any level of professional broadcasting — whether it’s commercial radio, BBC radio or even television — the role of the presenter can be likened to that of a concert pianist. The pianist’s job is to deliver a performance to the audience, and accept the applause at the end for a job well done.

Yet in most cases the pianist does not write the score — that is the job of the composer.

Nor does the pianist keep time — that is the job of the conductor.

And the pianist, when playing as part of an orchestra, cannot exist as an island. It is no good playing the Moonlight Sonata when the string section is playing Beethoven’s Fifth.

Yet the pianist can impose his or her personality on a performance. The notes may be identical, and any two competent and reasonably experienced musicians may be able to deliver a perfectly acceptable rendition from a technical point of view, but the difference between the anonymous session musician and the superstar soloist is the way in which a piece is delivered. Tiny differences in the striking of the keys and subtle variations in volume and rhythm all add up to a unique performance.

Like the concert pianist, the role of the professional presenter is to deliver content that is not your own as though it were. The musician is the interface between the composer and the audience; the presenter is the interface between the station and its audience.

Just as the art and essence of musical performance is to stamp one’s personality on a piece that may have been the same for hundreds of years, the art and essence of radio presentation is to stamp your personality on everything you deliver, whether it’s a two minute ramble, a ten second speedlink, a live read or a liner card.

Why moving BBC Three online could be a stroke of genius

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So the news that many feared has come true — BBC3 will cease broadcasting on traditional TV platforms and switch to online-only as part of plans to save a further £100m from the BBC’s budget.

The move isn’t entirely unexpected. BBC3 was always going to be a soft target — targeted at 16-34-year-olds, it’s easy to sneer at programmes such as Snog, Marry, Avoid and Don’t Tell The Bride. ‘It’s just drivel’, say the critics — invariably in the throes of middle age and more likely to be listening to Radio 4 than waking up to Nick Grimshaw. They demand the BBC should instead be devoting its time to showing serious programmes about serious subjects, and those young people can just go and watch FaceTube on their smart gnome. Or something.

That’s why it’s a bit sad that the corporation has bowed to this pressure. Ultimately, the BBC needs to continue to draw in a young audience in order to build a sustainable future. They might be watching Snog, Marry, Avoid today, but in ten or fifteen years’ time they’ll be settling down to Strictly Come Dancing. Even if you ignore that slightly cynical view, it’s still reasonable that the BBC should provide some form of service for young people. Even if, as one newspaper commenter suggested, it’s their parents that pay the licence fee and not them.

Fortunately, the BBC has stopped short of axing the channel altogether. Making BBC3 an online-only channel seems to me to be a reasonable compromise — of all of the BBC’s TV channels, the BBC3 audience are most likely to consume content online, rather than in a traditional, linear fashion. If you’re making a TV show, it’s not quite the same as watching your content go out on an actual TV channel, of course, but looking at it from the audience’s point of view it might not be so bad.

Whether the channel’s popular imported shows such as Family Guy would be available online is unclear at the moment, but either way it will be fascinating to see how the audience reacts. I suspect that this might actually turn out to be a rather smart move by the BBC — and if any channel can make it work, it’s BBC3.

BTCC 2014: Ingram leads Speedworks charge

Tom Ingram's Speedworks Toyota Avensis at Oulton Park, 4 March 2014

With just under three weeks to go to the start of the BTCC season, many of the teams decamped to the Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire on Tuesday for a day of testing and tweaking, and Stockport-based Speedworks Motorsport were no exception.

This year the Bredbury team are providing engineering support to Handy Motorsport’s Simon Belcher, but the main focus of the operation will be on BTCC newcomer Tom Ingram. The 20-year-old from High Wycombe was picked out as one of the BRDC’s Rising Stars at the age of seventeen and nominated this year as one of just fourteen BRDC ‘SuperStars’ — a support and mentoring programme for British motorsport’s brightest young talents. He won the Ginetta Juniors championship in his first full season before taking the Ginetta Supercup title twice, in 2011 and 2013. In short, this kid is quick. Seriously quick.

Everybody you speak to at Speedworks is full of praise for Ingram. Since signing at the start of the year, he’s impressed with his professionalism and the quality of feedback he’s been able to provide the team, despite the fact that Tuesday’s outing was only his second time behind the wheel of a touring car. ‘He’s very relaxed with his attitude,’ team boss Christian Dick told me, ‘but don’t confuse being very relaxed with how intense and concentrated he is on getting the job done.’

Speaking to Ingram, you get a sense of a young man very much at ease with himself and with the task facing him this year. ‘With seven previous champions on the grid it’s going to be a tough year,’ he says. ‘Today’s the first time I’ve been able to drive the car in dry conditions, so I’m taking today as another learning day as much as anything else.’

Don’t be fooled in to thinking he’s just turned up to cruise around the 2.69 mile lap, though. ‘There’s a little gremlin in that back of my mind going, “what’s he doing, what time’s he doing”,’ he says. ‘I kept saying to Christian over the radio, “what times are they doing” and he had to remind me, you know, we’re not doing lap times… the racer in me wants to just crack on and try and put some lap times in but I’ve got to be sensible and know that, yeah, we’re still learning it.’

Speaking with an easy confidence, he admits that he’s still getting to grips with the technical aspects of driving a touring car. ‘The settings we’ve got on the car — there’s so many to choose from,’ he explains. ‘On the Ginetta, we’ve got a little bit of understeer, we’ll just take a bit of rear wing off — on this, we’ve got understeer, what shall we do — well what do you want to do, we can change anything you want. So it’s getting my head around that as well.’

Throughout our interview, Ingram has lived up to his billing — relaxed, professional, mature, unflappable. Yet he still retains a boyish enthusiasm that comes to the forefront when asked what it’s like to be starting his first season at the pinnacle of tin-top racing. ‘This is the first day there’s been other touring cars here, so I was going round earlier and seeing some of the BMWs come past, thinking “this is so cool!”

‘It’s been my childhood dream to get to the BTCC. It’s what sparked my interest in the first place — watching Alain Menu, Jason Plato and these type of people, and to be lined up on the grid against them is going to be pretty cool.’

Ingram’s aim is to become the BTCC’s youngest ever champion. When the lights go out at Brands Hatch on March 29th, he’ll be aged just 20 years, 7 months and 9 days. That gives him at least three seasons to achieve that goal — Pirtek Racing’s Andrew Jordan became the current holder of the record when he took the overall championship last season, aged 24 years, 4 months and 19 days.

What’s particularly exciting is that by all accounts Ingram has taken to touring cars like a duck to water. The times from Tuesday’s session are not available to the public, and with every team running different test programmes it’s difficult to judge precisely where everybody stands. But chatting with Speedworks team principal Christian Dick, he’s quietly confident. ‘We’re right in the mix. You don’t want to be too confident, though, because you don’t know who’s sandbagging, how much ballast or what equipment other teams are running and so on.’

There is one thing he’s sure about, though. Nodding towards his young driver, standing chatting to the engineers whilst the latest adjustment is made to the car, Dick smiles. ‘Tell you what,’ he says, ‘he is seriously good.’

Below: photographs from Tuesday’s BTCC test day at Oulton Park. All (c) Simon Kelsey, 2014.