Saturday, 30 April 2011

Popping the question: which channel?

I'll declare an interest from the start on this one.  I've worked for ITV as a presentation scheduler for nearly six years, so have had a small hand in the on-air execution of many live national events - sporting and otherwise - since 2005.  Despite the effort we all put in there's always been a sense that when the event is simulcast on BBC One it's all a bit futile, as everyone will be watching the other side.  I can't really argue with that - as soon as you leave the womb it's pretty much drummed into your head that you turn to the BBC at time of national unity, and if you don't you're a bit strange.  And whilst I've had much more interest in ITV's coverage since I've started being involved in it (often recording it to have a look back at later), I've pretty much stuck to that. 
The crowds when we visited Buckingham Palace the night before the wedding

The initial announcements about the coverage didn't sound especially promising.  Apart from an initial furore over David Dimbleby not hosting on the BBC (which somewhat missed the point as he's done mainly funerals and also the Golden Jubilee coverage in the last 20 years) it was more or less business as usual.  Huw Edwards has been Dimbleby's heir apparent for some time now, a veteran of BBC Wales election nights and gradually taking over the coverage of previously Dimbledonian events such as the opening of Parliament.  Meanwhile ITV announced that Phillip Schofield - off of This Morning (makeovers, interviews with reality TV stars, phone-ins about losing weight etc) would host with Julie Etchingham from News at Ten.  It sounded very much like the old order would be preserved, with Huw doing the statesman routine whilst Phillip points at dresses and mentions Diana a lot.  In the event, something strange happened.
The temporary studio complex outside Buckingham Palace

The omens weren't good.  Some bright spark at BBC Breakfast thought that putting Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams - one of the best presenting duos on television - in different locations along the wedding route, and then making them present the programme as if they were still sitting next to each other, was a good idea.  This inevitably led to lots of awkward pauses, and a rather surreal newspaper review where each took turns to show their selection of papers from their part of SW1.  Kelvin MacKenzie turned up later on, charmless as ever, choosing the occasion to go on a rant about the media not being responsible for Diana's death.  In contrast Daybreak seemed a seamless operation, which is something of a rarity.

We had planned to watch the BBC coverage, switching over from time to time to see what was going on chez Schofield.  Within the first hour, it was becoming clear that the old order didn't seem to apply today.  The BBC seemed to have forgotten that today was meant to be a happy day, instead intoning on us what we could expect, when we could expect it and why we should all sit up and be interested in it.  Every so often, someone aged around 150 would be wheeled on to tell us why today was so important.  One of these duffers said "if you watch it on TV you'll forget it, that's why I'm here".  That's us told then.

When flicking over, there was quite a contrast.  Phillip Schofield and Julie Etchingham were having a ball, upbeat and humourous, talking to commentators who were asking the questions we were.  Schofield was in his element here, making gags about the police "not kettling" the public on the Mall as they were brought forward and talking of a woman being smuggled into the Goring Hotel ("we assume it was a lady, the disguise could have been good").  He also started talking us through the Facebook Royal Wedding drinking game as guests were arriving at Westminster Abbey ("you're probably on the floor by now") and pointed out a man with his underwear hanging out behind Granada's Lucy Meacock in Downing Street.  Later on, Julie's News at Ten co-host Mark Austin was assigned the "in the crowd" role, being given a Scout neckerchief to wear and offered vodka and Red Bull before getting completely stuck in the throngs as they moved forward, with Schofield joking they would stay with him continuously.  Austin ended up trending worldwide on Twitter thanks to his amusing inserts into proceedings.

Meanwhile back with Huw, things weren't getting any better.  Fearne Cotton had once again been assigned the "crowd" role, something she's been doing since Live 8 and still seems to ask questions either with straight yes or no answers or completely obvious responses that don't add anything.  It's a time honoured BBC format, having a "light-hearted" insert into proceedings (think of the various embarrassing attempts over the years on election night) but if there was one occasion where they could have changed the tone of the whole thing to match the obvious joy of the crowds outside, this was it.  And here lies the problem - having Cotton, Bowman, Baker et al on location is sod all use if every few minutes you go back to Huw Edwards, AKA Misery Bear, in his bubble of gloom outside the palace.

After a while, we found ourselves sticking with ITV1 more and more, and when switching back to the Beeb just in case we were missing a moment of national unity, immediately found out that we weren't.  Edwards still hasn't mastered the ancient Dimbledonian art of essentially talking to yourself for hours and hours without sounding like you're losing it.  Some basic errors ensured the BBC coverage remained stuffy and aloof, such as basing it in a sealed studio high above the crowds as opposed to ITV's ground level open studio.  Frequently Phil would turn around and interact with the hordes outside the palace, including memorably following the balcony kiss where he gave Julie a peck of her own after much encouragement!  Frequent use of split-screen by ITV was also a straightforward way which allowed you to feel you were seeing more. 

Even the basics seemed to elude our national broadcaster yesterday.  During the RAF fly-past they seemed more concerned about attempting to make contact with Jake Humphrey inside one of the planes (despite the link being barely watchable) than actually covering the damn thing.  Then there was a swift cut to an incredibly pointless news bulletin (who on earth would be tuning in for a roundup, most of which was about the wedding?) rather than carrying on with the coverage.  They let their main parliamentary broadcaster, the knowledgable Andrew Neil, slip through their fingers to appear on ITV instead.  Finally William and Kate's unexpected drive down the Mall - complete with L plates and "JU5T WED" numberplate - was supplemented with chat on the Beeb about how William was driving competently and that this was probably a security risk, rather than simply reflecting the joy of the crowds as ITV did.
Massive wodge of cables taped to railings outside Buckingham Palace - remind me of the YSTV days!

The unusual thing about an eight-hour broadcast, supplemented in today's world by Twitter, Facebook and internet forums, meant that there was time for many to notice this turn of events for themselves.  As early as 10am people were already commenting on the dullness of the Beeb and how ITV were judging the mood far better.  To my astonishment many who wouldn't normally give ITV the time of day actually started switching over.  By the time of the ceremony itself the received opinion was that ITV had already won the day.  So what went right?

Despite the worries about the suitability of Phillip Schofield, it's easy to forget that he's one of the best presenters of his generation, having honed his skills filling for time when bits of film snapped whilst in-vision in the BBC1 continuity announcer's booth.  The wedding coverage can probably be considered his career peak so far.  The snobbery about This Morning I referred to earlier is also misplaced.  The programme today is far removed from the Richard and Judy years - it's a remarkably slick, fairly journalistic operation that is a credit to daytime TV, and essentially importing the format to the wedding coverage worked a treat.  Coupled with the professional Julie Etchingham - also a graduate of Children's BBC interestingly - they made for a formidable team.  In contrast Huw seemed lonely, almost downbeat, with only the occasional ancient posho for company.

And yet, this isn't actually that unusual a turn of events.  ITV's coverage of the General Election and particularly the 2008 US elections was widely perceived to have punched above it's weight, the latter being a particularly dark night for David Dimbleby in Washington, being outshone by Alastair Stewart in Grays Inn Road.  And, before the HD goal fiasco ruined everything (which let's not forget was human error in an external company), the ITV coverage of the most recent football World Cup was much lauded as having a fresh presentational style, in contrast to Lineker and Hansen doing the same dull old thing on the BBC.

The ratings for these were massively in favour of the BBC and as they trickle out the wedding ratings seem much the same (4 to 1 according to early overnights).  That much shouldn't be too surprising for reasons I've already outlined.  But the modern revival of ITV will be much boosted if it can continue to win PR victories like this, with the aforementioned Twitter verdict and newspaper after newspaper after newspaper queuing up to come to much the same conclusion.  With rather unfortunate timing BBC One chose yesterday as the occasion to premiere their new "aren't we great" trailer, an increasingly rare sight in recent years.  The tagline "when it's worth watching, watch it with us", for one day at least, didn't apply.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Video Killed The Radio Star

Since I left York uni and York Student Television many of us have been documenting our time there (and reading about what went on before us) on the history wiki that was set up to mark the 40th anniversary four years ago.  The amount of people who added details of their time at the station was quite remarkable and it really filled in many of the gaps in the history of the place, which had previously been a few key facts passed down through the generations.  When you consider a generation at uni is three or four years it's no surprise that a lot of it was forgotten so quickly.  It's just a shame that the thing is broken at the moment and doesn't allow you to save changes.

Side by side at Freshers' Fair

All of which made me wonder: why is there nothing similar for University Radio York?  The website has a brief paragraph but not much else (unless it's hidden away somewhere).  I'm sure there's plenty to be added about the way the station has developed over the years.  The pictures in the alumni Facebook group are great, so why isn't there a place for them on the main site?  Recently I dug out my old CD-Rs of my later shows on air and it's been one hell of a trip down memory lane.  Some shows are astoundingly crap, others are surprisingly OK-ish.  There's a load of cassettes back home up north somewhere of my earliest shows which I may have to have a few drinks before listening to again though...

Me at work in my room - Eden's Court F21 at some point in my first year
I was involved in both societies (although never "behind the scenes" at URY).  The "way" at York was normally to join one media society, put your all into it and hate all the others with a passion.  Nowadays they all seem to get on well which is a bit disconcerting.  I ended up becoming more involved with YSTV, which at that point wasn't making a great deal of programmes and had something of a change on the horizon with the graduation of lots of members, so it was easy to get stuck in.  URY on the other hand had a pretty full schedule and officership making it more difficult to make your mark.  But I was still keen to have a go at presenting, so given there isn't a URY History Wiki, prepare yourselves for a self-indulgent blog post...

I'd been trained in late 2002 by James Wickham who was already something of a legend at the station (I think he had something like 12 hours on air in a week at one point).  As the schedules got shuffled at the start of every term I made my debut in January 2003.  Because schedule space was scarce the tendency was to give new people one hour slots, but in addition to my Wednesday afternoon show (called "May Contain Nuts"- hilarious) I nabbed a Sunday 7am slot too, which could run for a whole two hours!  Who would have thought there was no demand for prime-time slots like that?

On air - January 2003
In fact a few of us that year, including my housemate Michael, took on what was known as "Early Breakfast" (as the student breakfast show ran 9am to 12pm - I kid ye not) and despite the hours I rather enjoyed it.  I'd roll up at the university security office at about 6.55am, sign out the key from a grumpy security guard, do the show, head home and then go back to bed again till lunchtime.  It felt more like getting loads of time in the studio to practice than doing an actual radio show (because, let's face it, no-one was listening) and you didn't have to contend with the dozens of members you'd normally find staring at you through the glass during the day.  I've always been a good "morning person" and something about the getting up specifically to do the show in the early hours seemed to fire me up a bit.  I later did a one off early show on YSTV for much the same reasons.

It's York, it's summer, there are geese, run!

Sunday Early Breakast became Weekend Early Breakfast the following term, and once it became lighter and warmer those two early walks across campus became almost enjoyable.  The lack of anything approaching a social life probably helped the early starts too (although to be fair most of the uni socialising was done on weekdays - campus was like a ghost town at weekends - and I still did my fair share of shows in a hungover, dreamlike state).  I even did a couple of 6am starts over the Roses weekend, when URY broadcast around the clock and was simulcast on Bailrigg FM in Lancaster, and was also asked to fill in a couple of times for otherwise engaged breakfast show presenters.  To my astonishment I ended up being nominated for a newcomer award at the annual end-of-year campus media back slapathon and was moved to the breakfast show, which was more than flattering as I never really thought I was any good at it.  I joined the breakfast show in October 2003 for a couple of terms, co-presenting first with Adam and then with Tom, both my housemates. 

April 2004 at 17 Carlton Avenue: L-R Me, Adam, Simon, Tom, Michael

Initially I kept my Sunday early show but in January 2004 threw in the towel.  Living off campus meant an earlier start and instead of walking across the idyllic campus, it was down Hull Road with a cold wind blowing in my face.  Michael left his early slot for the much same reason and, having guested on each other's shows regularly since the first term of uni (including doing a Sunday review of the week's news crossed with Wheel of Fortune - it had to be heard to be believed) we decided to do a show of our own.  Michael was keen for it to be slightly different so we ended up doing sketches and spoofs, most of which centred on URY itself, in a show modestly called The Nation's Favourite.  We'd usually prepare ideas all morning, shouting ideas between our facing bedrooms, before walking onto campus and going on air at midday for two hours.  It had a small but loyal audience who seemed to really get what we were trying to do.  The two editions we put out during Freshers' Week 2004 are probably the shows I'm the most proud of in my time at URY (I may do a blog about The Nation's Favourite itself at some point as I've very happy memories of it).

A logo that Adam made for us but I don't think was ever used!
After enjoying the new show so much I left the breakfast show in March that year mainly because my heart wasn't really in it anymore, and I certainly didn't think I was good enough to hog one of the biggest slots on the station.  Basically, I jumped before I was pushed!  That left me with just The Nation's Favourite, which itself been cut down to 90 minutes (that schedule wasn't getting any less crowded).  So I jumped at the chance to do some stand-in shows throughout the term for presenters busy with exams.  Through not really trying or thinking about it too much I ended up really enjoying presenting alone again, after a lengthy period of only doing so with other people - it really built up my confidence.  There was also a surprising degree of listener interaction (i.e. more than none), some of which came from a girl who'd joined YSTV at the start of the year.  After one show she got in touch to suggest we meet up that evening.  Seven years on and Kate and I are still together!

Off the back of the fun I'd had doing these shows stuck my neck out and applied for a Saturday lunchtime show, which turned out to be the perfect slot: it left weekdays free for uni work (which by now was needing some serious TLC) and the studios were deserted.  The Weekender ran for the whole of my final year, after James Brookes's long-running breakfast show.  James joined URY back in 1997 and returned to the station shortly after graduating when he became a teacher, and to my knowledge is still there today.  Back in my early breakfast days I would "warm up" to Brookesy and ever the gent, two years later he was happy to play along with the gag that he was now doing it for me.  The contributions of a fresher called Sarah, AKA the "email female", also featured pretty much every week, so much so that she later started describing herself as my stalker!

Freshers' Fair 2004: L-R James Brookes, Kate, Owen Murphy (boss of URY at this point)
It was at this point that my continued involvement in both campus TV and radio started to make the experience a bit less enjoyable.  There had always been a bit of "banter" towards YSTV on campus from the other media societies, particularly the papers (some of it not without foundation in the days when the station seemed to show a lot of The Simpsons and little of it's own programmes, but less understandable in it's modern incarnation).  I'd never really understood the point of this when we were all essentially trying to do the same thing - it seemed like two bald men fighting over a comb.  I'd always shrugged it off or tried to encourage co-operation but by my final year this was becoming more and more difficult.  The Nation's Favourite was ticked off a couple of times for pushing things too far when referring to internal politics, and by my final term both of us were sounding increasingly bitter and off-message, embarrassingly so in restrospect, before finally we finally shuffled off air at the end of June.  Michael had (quite deservedly) got a job at BBC Radio York presenting a weekly show by this point, which naturally led to him losing interest somewhat.  Gradually it stopped being so much fun. 

Doing the "Amarillo" on my last show: L-R Kate, Tom, Simon, Adam
My final show aired at midday on 2nd July 2005, not only the final show for me but also the final show on URY that academic year.  My housemates Simon, Adam and Tom, and Kate also (that girl who used to email my show!), all graduating that summer too, came along too.  Towards the end I said my goodbyes, and I played the same song I started with nearly three years previously (You Get What You Give by The New Radicals - oh the irony) before ending with the sound effect of a door closing and the fading "URY, URY, URY..." jingle.  At 1.59pm the transmitter was turned off for the summer and that was that.

About to go off air for the final time, 2nd July 2005
I've lost count of how many times I've been back to YSTV since I left York but I've never returned to URY.  Looking at the website it all seems very different now - most of the Mini Disc and CD players have gone as has the massive CD library behind where we sat.  Everything seems to be held on a playout system which of course makes perfect sense - I've no idea how many times I went to find a CD and it had either gone missing or was in the wrong place.  For a while I wanted to work in radio - my nearest city Liverpool had no major TV broadcasters so my "plan" (as much as it was) was to transfer my YSTV production experience to radio instead, and from summer 2004 I did around six week's worth of work placements at BBC Radio Merseyside, spread over a year.  Ultimately it wasn't to be - Kate moved down to London for work and shortly afterwards I followed her, joining ITV in the September after graduation, and I'm still there now. 

But listening back to some of the old shows has brought back how much fun it all used to be, and I do miss it, although I think I perhaps more enjoyed the act of pressing the buttons than actually presenting.  One of my ideas to bring YSTV and URY together that never got off the ground because of the rivalry and also the technicalities was to simulcast key URY shows on YSTV using the studio webcams, more or less how Radio 1 have done recently on BBC Red Button.  Now that relations seem more cordial, and technology is frankly light years ahead of what it was, that sort of thing could be possible. 

On his final URY show Tom kindly played a song for each of the people he'd presented with over the years. Of course mine was Video Killed The Radio Star.  I'm not sure about the "star" bit, but the rest of it wasn't far off.

I've recently discovered that with interesting timing, as I was writing that blog URY were ripping out the remains of the Studio 1 that I used to broadcast from (seen here just before refurbishment) and installing a new, very minimalist setup (which can be seen on the webcam) to reflect the move away from CDs and Mini Discs that I describe above.
Funnily enough Tom and I ended up returning to URY just six months after I wrote this blog - read about it here.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

"Roof terrace" - yeah right

Like many Londoners we don't have a garden.  We do however have a balcony and it's this time of year that the tiny scrap of space starts to become of use (it's the exact opposite during the winter as the the doors let out so much heat, and the landlord has never got round to replacing them like he said he would...but enough of that).  It was described as a "roof terrace" by the estate agents but it doesn't really qualify as that.  Partly because it's not on the roof.

Kate's spent a lot of time lately cleaning it up, as it was pretty grotty when we moved in. This it what it looked like a couple of weeks ago...

...and this is what it looks like now...

I should point out that the reed-things at the back were put in by us in an attempt to add some privacy to it, as if you're sitting out there it can be a bit exposed to the road and next door.

This weekend Kate has added some solar-powered, water-proof fairy lights (I kid ye not).  The girlification of the balcony is complete, although credit to her, it looks great!  The only worry is - once we have our own place, is this how I can expect entirely rooms to be styled?!


What with blogging having become popular nearly ten years ago, I figured now would be a good time to dive in and set up my own.  I'll create my My Space profile tomorrow, and the Friends Reunited account will just have to wait I'm afraid.

Basically, I've found myself often thinking 140 characters on Twitter isn't enough to fit in what I'd like to say, or that a Facebook status just hits too many people at once with an opinion (many of whom probably don't want to see it!).  So a blog is a good place for me to blather on and not run the risk of too many people actually reading it.

Time will tell whether this will remain a lonely, solitary post!