Tuesday, 31 July 2012

GBA @ The Edinburgh Fringe

Around a year ago Getting Better Acquainted had it's first Edinburgh Festival Fringe Season. Well, actually is was a Fringe Festival Season because it included stuff happening at last year's Camden Fringe.

This year's Edinburgh Festival Season kicks off tomorrow with a conversation with Lucy Ayrton who's doing some fantastic shows as part of the Free Fringe.

Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry

Flea Circus Open Slam

This is last years Edinburgh Festival Special (Episode 15 of the series). Like all GBA specials it's in a documentary/personal journey style and it's a good listen out of it's original context. That said many of the reviews and people featured in it are doing things up at the Festival this year. e.g. Richard Tyrone Jones Has a Big Heart and Translunar Paradise by Theatre Ad Infinitum (both I strongly recommend) and it gives a taster of the festival  experience so it's great for people getting ready to go up. It is a long train ride after all. Why not fill it with some audio?

This weekend I'm going up to the festival myself! I'll be recording some conversations and the material that will make up GBA Edinburgh Festival Special 2. I don't know what it will be yet as I haven't recorded it yet!

This time I'm going up, not as part of a stag weekend, but to perform at Grant's True Tales Presents Spark London Storytelling and to record some GBAs. This time I'm less an audience member and more active participant in the festivities, so the journey will no doubt be very different. I'll be frantically editing it all (possibly on the train back to London) and it should come out on Friday 10th August. There will also be full conversations released as normal on Wednesdays recorded with performers in the opening weekend.

I am excited. And nervous. And all other appropriate emotions (with a few inappropriate ones thrown in for good measure.) Hope you enjoy this years Fringe Season. If you're in Edinburgh and we bump into each other then you might even become a part of it!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Radio Production Awards

I'm really pleased that my work on Getting Better Acquainted was nominated for a Radio Production Award.

The Awards Ceremony was held the other day and I didn't win. But I did go along and sit in a room filled with people who make radio.

A few things struck me.

The most obvious thing was that I was a complete outsider. I have no radio experience really, apart from making things for Student Radio. I'm not in "the industry". I don't share many frames of reference with many of the people there. I rushed home from my day job, threw on a borrowed suit and hurtled across town into a world I didn't really understand. And that didn't understand me.

People would ask me "Where do you work?" and the first answer that sprung to mind is "In my bedroom" (it wasn't the answer I gave!) or "For the library service." The other variation of this question was "Who do you work for?" The answer to that is either "For myself!" or "For a local council."

Although in a way, despite me doing every part of the show myself, I don't actually feel like I'm working for myself. I feel like I'm working for the show. The show is running me. Dictating where it goes. Revealing itself to me. And I guess I feel like I'm making it for the audience... or maybe the listener would be a better name for who I work for.

Regardless of that, I don't work in radio or for anyone affiliated in radio. Not that I haven't been making audio of one kind or another for 15 years, from music, to dramas, to comedy sketch shows, to documentaries, to music shows, reality style podcast experiments and finally to the show that got me nominated. And I've been nominated for (and failed to achieve) awards before. A drama series I wrote called "Numbers" produced by RethinkDaily was nominated for a Sony Radio Academy Award in 2009.  That awards experience is something I spoke about with fellow 2009 Sony nominated podcasters Helen and Olly from Answer Me This! in a recent episode of my show. (AMT went on to win Silver and Gold Sony's in subsequent years.)

But I don't really listen to radio much any more, although it was a big part of my childhood and adolescence. Which isn't to say I don't consume audio, I do. And I listen to some radio programmes as part of my podcast assortment. I keep up to date with radio matters through podcasts of Feedback, The Media Show and Guardian Media Talk. I listen to Kermode and Mayo, The Infinite Monkey Cage and lots and lots of American NPR type radio for fun too.

But the majority of my current listening intake are either podcasts that have grown out of non-radio branches of the media, springing out of newspapers, magazines, stand up comedy or academia, or fully independent podcasts that are made of what you could call a punk spirit: anyone can make audio and release it on the net, they just need a mic and a laptop. Many people do and some of it is brilliant.

The online part of the award I was nominated for is important to me. Podcasts aren't just the Radio-on-the-Internet, despite that being the easiest way to explain them to your grandparents. Radio is very important to their existence of course and many radio programmes lend themselves well to being podcasted, but podcasts do things that the internet does best: interactivity, listening when you like, being playable in multiple formats, getting onto your mobile phones, having extra visual dimensions, being developed by show notes, having archives of freely available episodes and above all else removing the barrier between creator and distribution. That last element essentially makes podcasts a direct exchange between creator and audience. The best radio programmes that podcast themselves know this. RadioLab for example releases shorts to its podcast listeners. Kermode and Mayo prove that some people in the BBC do understand podcasting, as they add extra banter and engagement for people who listen on podcasts at the start and end of what they send out.

This also relates to how podcasts are consumed by audiences. Kermode and Mayo for example receive correspondence from people who use their show to soundtrack marathon running and time they spend recovering from injury in hospital, because their show is downloadable it can be stacked up, binged on, played where and how the listener wants. This also is exemplary of what the best radio has always done, and podcasts do even better, which is talking directly to the audience in a personal way. Podcasts do away with the authorial voice of the presented and make them into a person who the audience relates to on a human level. Simon Mayo is often packing up his things to rush off to Radio 2 at the end of the show and they broadcast these moments.

That is one of the biggest things that online audio offers. There are many more. But this blog is already pretty long and I have a lot more to get through.

I didn't fit in to the awards for the reasons above. And networking isn't my natural forte. I have got better at it recently by acknowledging my lack of skills and just being myself (for better or worse.) But this wasn't a very organic situation for that approach.

I went on my own too, so I could only hang nervously on the edge of groups hoping to find a way in. I wasn't fully on my own - like any good podcaster I had my trusty mic with me. And I recorded some stuff which I may broadcast at some point. Losing the award meant I lost my interest in recording and producing a featurette about it. I felt I needed less the immediacy of the microphone and more the contemplation of silence and the analysis of writing it up as I am doing now.

They played extracts from each of the winning entries after giving each award, so I heard lots of audio.  I thought a few of the pieces were amazing. Nothing sounded bad of course. But a lot of it sounded... like your standard radio sounds. Very well done but very familiar. Of course I'm judging work based on very short extracts. The judges will have had up to 15 mins of material to base their decision on. I fully acknowledge my judgement is biased, based on only a partial part of the nomination, and comes through the twin filters of nerves and disappointment. But I get excited by audio. I spend a lot of time with audio. And only three pieces excited me and made me want to spend time with them.

The winner of the award that I was up for was Flaps Podcast. A show made about aeroplanes with the tagline "Top Gear for Pilots."

The extract from this show sounded like well made popular radio. Something you would hear delivered by the BBC or certain commercial radio stations. It's content is quite niche and I guess it should be applauded for taking that subject and making it assessable for a wider audience. That's definitely an achievement.

But whilst the winner of the Best Online Creator category sounded fine for mainstream radio, what I want to know is what makes it a great ONLINE show? Where were the exciting, different and unique qualities the Internet offers creators?

I don't mean this as criticism of the show. Sure, it isn't my sort of thing but that's not relevant. Having been up for a Sony award in an Internet related category I'm used to the weird chalk verses cheese element of different genres being placed against each other that this seems to entail. But if you're comparing chalk with cheese you at least need a way of measuring them. I feel that how effectively they use the internet should probably be the criteria.

On a personal level I don't feel like a competitor with Flaps. We aren't really doing the same thing. The connection is we are both using the Internet. They are using the net fine, using it to create well-produced niche radio. But is that really what should be rewarded in the Best Online Creator category?

It's not really that I'm being a sore loser. I'd feel much more sore if I'd been beaten by a really great show that had utilised the tools and advantages of the Internet in amazing and compelling ways. That would have been really painful.

But at least I'd have understood why I was there. Why my work was up for an award at all. Because at this point I don't really get it. I'm not saying my work isn't quality, but if the award isn't about using the internet to push and extend the audio medium then why is my work there?

The two shows I was up against were made by people who work in the radio industry. They are labours of love sure, as mine is, but labours of love undertaken by people in the biz. Flaps sounded the most like something that would be on the radio. If that is the criteria then why is GBA there? GBA is the sort of thing I'd like to hear on the radio but at the moment would never get broadcast.

I believe in online. I believe in its exciting possibilities and I want the radio industry to understand them better. Partly for its own survival in a practical sense, but mostly for its development creatively. Being beaten by something that sounded like it was in a completely different category to me was baffling and frustrating.

I don't think my show should necessarily have won but I do think something else should have won. Flaps could, and should, have been up against other audio that does what it does: fun, factual, well-produced radio. It just happens to be released online; that isn't integral to what it does.

At one point during the awards someone commented from the stage on how diverse the people in the room were. At which point I counted one black person and one non-white person. Everyone else was white. I assume that as everyone (including my two rivals) work in the radio industry that they are generally inside a certain salary bracket and a certain media bubble. At this point I questioned what exactly was diverse about the people in the room. The audio I'd heard didn't sound diverse. It may have been produced by different companies, for different stations, but they had a unified aesthetic.

That count I did was a snapshot. I think over all there was a little more diversity in terms of ethnicity than was represented at that moment. If you count the people serving the drinks the ethnic mix certainly rises! In terms of gender the room did well. Women were almost equally represented. So it was more diverse than it might have been in the 30s.

A friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that the person speaking was probably referring to a diversity of talent rather than diversity of people. But I'd argue that without a diversity of backgrounds you don't get a diversity of talent.

One thing that surprised me is how un-internet the awards were generally. There was no mention of Twitter hashtags. I seemed to be the only person  using social media to document the experience. This was another thing that made me feel separate from the people there. But I also found something nice about it. They may be inside a radio bubble but at least they seem to be outside the Twitter feedback loop! I'm not completely unsuspicious of the internet and the changes that are happening to the media.

I don't think radio is dying. Far from it, I think radio will be, and practically already is, one of the big winners in the modern media space. Or at least audio will be, regardless of if it comes to us through radio waves or not.

Smart phones + Commuting + Office Jobs = More Desire for Audio.

Radio, podcasts, audio books or augmented apps, the distribution method doesn't matter.

The Internet means that perhaps the people making audio will need the established media outlets less and less. However, people like myself still need those outlets. We need ways of getting our work out to larger audiences when we have no established fan-base to begin with. So I'm very pleased to have been able to stand in the doorway. Perhaps next year, if I achieve a nomination again, I'll be allowed to step through the door. Because I need them and they need me. Or people like me. The audio landscape could become so much more diverse. And diversity is good for everyone. Most importantly diversity is good for audiences.

If I'd have won I was going to make this brief speech:

"I'd like to thank all my guests for gifting me with their conversations. It is such an honour to talk to people about their lives in a very personal way and then be able to broadcast that to the public.

I'd also like to thank my production team, my promotional team, my editor, my presenter, my script writer, my director and the person who books my guests.

So a great big thank you to me! As a completely independent podcaster making a free show around my day job, I'm the one who has to do all that stuff."

Monday, 9 July 2012

Theme tune search:

Hello musicians,

I'm looking for a catchy 30 - 40 sec theme tune for a new strand of the Stand Up Tragedy podcast.

It can be written especially or it can be adapted from something you already have. It has to contain no copyrighted material.

Ideally it should contain lyrics along the lines of:

Stand Up Tragedy Spotlight / Let's focus on the tragedy.

If possible it would be great to get this by 12th July.

I can only pay you with a credit, promotion of your music and my warmest gratitude:

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Tragedy isn't Over...

I came up with the idea of Stand Up Tragedy at the end of the Summer 2011. I started enquiring about venues and, after a casual conversation with a friend of mine who does freelance radio work, I found myself going for a meeting at the Leicester Square Theatre to talk about putting the night on.

The next thing I knew I was booked downstairs in the Lounge Room on the first Monday of each month for the first five months of 2012. The easy bit was over. Now I had to produce and market a show, basically on my own.

Luckily I persuaded a few people to help me out which probably just about kept me sane at the end of it all.

But even though I threw myself in at the deep end I luckily just about managed swim. I managed to put together a series of really interesting nights. Even the third night, which sadly had very little audience, still deserved to have had one. Apart from that night the rest of the SUT run was really well attended. I also managed to raise some money from a crowdfunding campaign which, whilst it got no where near it's target, did allow me to pay the performers. Only a small amount. But something never the less.

The task was to book people from a variety of creative disciplines to performed short tragedies. Basically what you see is what you get, audience members who came to SUT and saw a series of people standing up and "doing tragedy". What each act considered tragic was up to them. I sourced both established and unknown creators who I thought would fit the night and booked them in to perform. We had comedians, musicians, authors, true storytellers, cabaret acts, aural storytellers, live art, improv, spoken word, and acts that you can't really pin down as any one thing. And the variety of what they did didn't just come from their style, it came from how they interpreted the concept. The more varied the interpretations and styles the better the night worked.We ended each night with a cathartic sing along. Audiences laughed a lot, occasionally cried and generally had a really great evening.

I'm pleased to find the format worked. I really loved the anarchic variety and the atmosphere it created. So I fully intend to do more with the show.

The current plan is to take it up to the Edinburgh Festival as part of the Free Fringe in 2013. It will be a nightly show made up of tragic acts that are mostly sourced from the vast variety of talented shows up at the festival. Both a cabaret and a showcase.

Before I take the show up I intend to hold some London based nights to raise money for the adventure. I'll probably hold them in pubs in different parts of the city, in what I guess you could call a very localised tour.

I recorded the night  and released it as the free weekly The SUT Podcast, the last podcast of the 5th show came out on Friday 29th June 2012 . When we start the shows up again in 2013 we'll be recording and releasing more, and we'll be recording during the 2013 Edinburgh run too.

In the meantime, to keep the tragedy going, I'm going to be releasing Stand Up Tragedy Spotlights. These will go out every other friday.

Stand Up Tragedy Spotlights will be short form podcasts, between 5 and 15 mins long, that shine the focus on a performance from the first 5 months of shows. Tasty little tragic morsels to wet our appetites for the future shows. They'll go out in the same feed as their older siblings which can be downloaded from iTunes, downloaded or streamed from the soundcloud or streamed via your mobile on the free stitcher smart radio app.

10 things I've learnt from Stand Up Tragedy's first run?
  1. To crowd fund you need a crowd as Amanda 'Fucking' Palmer will tell you.
  2. It's a tough sell to ask people to crowd fund a project and at the same time ask them to support you with their patronage. Not if your tickets cost £10. 
    You also need better perks/products to offer people than I came up with. 
  3. Your friends and family are not your fans. The maths of crowdfunding needs to account for this. 150 fans will give you £10 each. 150 friends and family will not. Although those who do give will give a lot. And those who can afford it the least will give the most. 
  4. If price of entry and of drinks are very expensive this doesn't mean anyone is making any money. Or at least not the people running the nights and the acts performing.
  5. The number of people who say they'll attend an event on facebook has nothing to do with whether they'll attend it in real life.
  6. Bank Holidays are bad days to do shows on. You should remember to look out for them when booking Monday slots!
  7. The show is at it's best when it has a real variety of acts, veering from one feeling to a different one, whilst linked by a central theme.
  8. Artists will be really pleased/grateful for small amounts of money. 
  9. Doing an interview with a newspaper doesn't mean they'll run the story.
  10. In London people will leave a show they are enjoying at the interval due to the trauma late night transport.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

A scene from the last weekend:

Me: Do you believe in God?

My niece (7): Yes.

Me: What does he look like?

Her: I don't know but he's friends with Zeus, a Greek God who does really cool things like go on adventures.