A humbling night

Auschwitz_gate_june2005

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?

HTC_One_Max

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

nearmiss

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.

Going Pro

Classical pianist

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

bbc_three

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.

Fader Fiddling

faders

Ran in to one of my pet hates as I was driving in to work the other day.

You’ve heard it before.

“Emma’s requested a song… I’ll play that for you”– an intro starts–“next.”

Intro plays.

Suddenly the jock comes back. “After this one.”

Up comes the music again.

And down. “Love this song.”

More intro. That’s it, surely?

Nope. “Thanks for your texts.”

Song fades up.

And down again. “New one from U2 on the way.”

Up.

Down. “After this.”

Up.

Down. “Libertines.”

Up.

Down. “For Jake. On…” I’ll spare the blushes of the presenter and station at this point. In comes the vocal. At last.

By this point I was almost screaming at the radio. Let me hear the song, dammit!

Riding the faders like this is possibly the most annoying thing you can do as a presenter. If you’re going to talk up to the vocal, that’s fine. But don’t make it there by blurting random words in between massive pauses. Either you’ve got something to say, or you haven’t, and if you haven’t worked it out by the time you’ve started the song it’s a bit late.

My rule is this: once you fade the music up all the way, you’ve given the song to the listener and you shouldn’t take it away again. Pause (briefly) if you need to — but keep the music low whilst you do so. Resist the urge to ramp that fader up for a second or two. It’s far less confusing.

Leading Britain’s Conversation?

LBC logo

The big news this week is that Global Radio are to take LBC national on DAB.

That’s bad news for fans of Birdsong (which is the service making way) but good news for listeners living outside the capital in places where LBC wasn’t previously available on DAB.

It’ll be interesting to see if, and how, the output changes as a result. LBC has built heavily upon being a station for Londoners in the past; from comprehensive London travel news to getting the Mayor to take calls on the breakfast show once a month. One would have to assume that both of these features would be out of place on a national station.

It wouldn’t be impossible for the travel news to be split, with a London bulletin on FM and a national bulletin on DAB; but short of providing a separate breakfast show I imagine it would be rather more difficult to do the same with ‘Ask Boris.’

Individual features aside, it seems obvious the the station will have to appeal to a broader audience outside the capital. The question is — will a loss of local content have an impact on the station’s core London listenership? And will listeners outside the capital accept LBC as a national station, or will they just consider it another London-centric outlet with little to say of relevance to them?

Digital ‘Switchover’: The Truth

A DAB digital radio

I’ve finally reached breaking point over DAB.

In just about a week’s time, the government will set out plans to change the main transmission platform for radio in the UK from analogue to DAB. It’s a move popularly — but inaccurately — called ‘FM switch-off’.

It’s a controversial issue within the industry, with some groups and stations opposed to a change they fear may incur additional transmission costs — whilst other stations, generally those with a presence on DAB already, are in favour of a move.

Listeners, too, are split. Whilst many appreciate the extra choice offered by DAB — which is far more efficient in terms of frequency usage — others complain about poor audio quality, stations broadcasting in mono and ‘bubbling mud’ interference which can occur in low signal strength areas.

Unfortunately, there’s also an awful lot of misinformation flying around. Take a look at this BBC News report, for example. Here, Ceri Hurford-Jones, MD of Spire FM in Salisbury, complains about the extra transmission cost that his station would be faced with in the event of a switch to digital broadcasting.

The problem is that, as Mr Hurford-Jones well knows, stations like Spire FM — with a coverage area of barely more than 100,000 listeners — will not be, and have never been, expected to move to DAB.

FM is going nowhere. This is not, as even the copy beneath David Sillito’s report suggests, a plan to ‘switch off FM transmitters’.

Small commercial stations, like Spire FM, and community stations around the country, will continue to broadcast on FM just as they always have done. In fact, some areas where applications for community radio licences have been turned down or restricted to AM due to a lack of available space on the FM band may see new stations launched.

Yet still the misinformation flows. Speaking in the House of Commons, Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, said on behalf of her local radio station Mix 96 that ‘DAB is fundamentally the wrong platform for local radio stations at this time due to the coverage difference from FM’. Yet, like Spire FM, Mix 96 broadcasts to just 125,000 adults, and just like Spire FM, Mix 96 would not be expected to move to digital.

When this debate comes around on December 16th, it’s crucial that MPs understand the issues and are not swayed by a small but vocal minority of commercial stations spreading, and I’m sorry to put it this way, at best misinformation and at worst downright lies.

DAB is the way forward for radio. The vast majority of listeners consider DAB audio quality to be as good, better or much better than FM. The more efficient use of frequencies means more choice for listeners — both on DAB and on the FM band which would be freed up for more local and community radio services. Stations currently paying for transmission on both platforms would see their transmission costs cut. Tuning by station name, rather than by frequency, offers usability enhancements, and exciting new developments driven by technology such as RadioDNS give stations the opportunity to enhance listeners’ experience of radio in all sorts of ways.

It’s not right for every station — there’s still no good way for small-scale stations to transmit on DAB. But that’s fine. They’ll stay on FM, with no change to their transmission costs or equipment, and their listeners will continue to listen — manufacturers of DAB radios show no signs of removing FM functionality.

So let’s get it right, shall we — and stop talking about ‘switchover’ and ‘FM switch-off’? Neither term is accurate, and both simply serve to raise unjustified fears and tensions amongst listeners and broadcasters alike.

Radio Festival: Trust in the BBC debate

Richard Bacon at the Radio Festival 2013

The Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get-together, took place at the Lowry in Salford Quays this year. One of the features of the event was a debate about trust in the BBC, hosted by Richard Bacon and broadcast live on Radio 5 live.

It was an interesting listen (and watch – pictures of the discussion were broadcast live on the 5 live website and really demonstrated how far visualisation in radio has come since the days of grainy webcams stuck on studio ceilings).

That said, the direction of the debate was rather predictable. At one point, The Sun‘s Trevor Kavanagh claimed that ‘everybody at the BBC is left-wing and reads the Guardian before any other newspaper.’

Really, Trevor? Everyone? All twenty-odd thousand of them? And you’ve advanced that as a serious argument?

Perhaps even more out-of-touch, however, was Belinda Allen, Managing Director for the Thames Valley region at Celador Radio.

Now, I’ve got a lot of time for commercial radio, and to be honest I was disappointed that Belinda didn’t get to say more during the course of the debate. But her suggestion that BBC Local Radio is ‘overstaffed compared to commercial radio’ just seems such a tired, predictable whine. And an out-of-date one, as well – DQF, the BBC’s cuts programme, has had as much impact on local radio as it has anywhere else.

Thing is, Belinda, I’m sure you’re right that it doesn’t take as many people to bang out twenty hours a day of automated music on Jack FM as it does to staff BBC Radio Oxford. But you’re comparing apples with medicine balls. They’re both round, but they do very different jobs.

When Ofcom mandates that you have to provide sixteen hours a day of live, local, speech-led programming with at least an hour of all speech at breakfast and ‘content’ means more than presenters reading stuff out of the newspapers, then you can complain about how much it costs and how difficult it is to compete with the licence fee.

It’s entirely legitimate to debate whether the BBC could spend licence fee-payers’ money more efficiently. But the commercial sector does itself no favours with such lazy arguments.