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."

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