World Have Your Say — Top 5 moments

I first heard of World Have Your Say towards the end of 2006 when an application to the BBC’s work experience web site was answered with an e-Mail asking if I’d be interested in doing a couple of weeks on WHYS. I was pretty pleased with that. Leaving an IT career for a journalism degree in your thirties usually means you’re going to get pigeon-holed in the box marked geek. I was approaching the end of my journo course and was starting to think about jobs and I was being realistic about my prospects: reviewing gadgets for Stuff mag would be fun but probably not very fulfilling, documenting the UK IT world for Computing sounded crushingly dull but was probably the best I could hope for. In quieter moments I thought maybe, just maybe I’d get a gig on the tech page of one of the broadsheets or a business weekly but broadcasting, for some reason, never really registered in my job hunt despite the fact that I’ve been listening to R4 since I was knee high and 5Live and LBC for many, many years too. I was firmly in the print / online mind-set until that e-Mail popped into my inbox.

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(Word of advice to anyone else who finds themselves in this position. Listen to the show mentioned in the e-Mail before you call back. I went home and tuned in at 6pm and heard something about floods in Pakistan –so far all very World Service but what was different was that the voices were raw, unedited and live. I even caught an early attempt to get callers in the same area talking to each other — something that WHYS would try again over the years. I think it was Anu Anand behind the mic.)

So I headed over to the World Service for an interview and a few weeks later found myself in very uncharted territory. If you’ve come from the world of corporate America then the rough and tumble of a BBC editorial discussion can leave you reeling not to mention the ramshackle, maze-like corridors of Bush House. The language of radio for a newbie is pretty confusing too as I noted some months later once I’d recovered from the initial shock.

It took a while but I eventually got what WHYS  and its innovative editor Mark Saholndell were trying to do: let listeners have their say on the topics they wanted to talk about. This even extended in the early days to letting listeners dial in to the editorial meetings (didn’t last long!). The only real criteria for putting a topic on air was that people had to be talking about it somewhere in the world. There were of course frustrations: Africans love to talk and air their views but sadly the continent is beset with the worst phone lines imaginable. On a given night we’d be able to put on air 1 out of 30 African callers. I started to learn by heart the country codes for places like Zambia (260) and Zimbabwe (263).

 

Over time this call-in aspect of WHYS faded away. The US partner stations didn’t like it — the word “ranting” was bandied about by people in media organisations who really should know better. Just because someone isn’t as eloquent as you doesn’t mean they should be denied their say. Other news organisations were no less snooty — the Economist called WHYS a “dumbed down horror”. Understandably there was a move to more pre-recorded, produced segments but personally I thought losing the call-ins deprived the programme of a little bit of its edgy USP and unpredictability.

 

But WHYS gave me a chance and I owe it bigly, so on this day when over a decade of programming has come to an end I’d like to thank Mark Sandell, Ros Atkins, Richard Bowen, Priya Shah, David Mazower, Rabiya Limbada, Fiona Crack, uber listener/contributor Lubna and all the others who helped make my introduction to radio so memorable. Here’s my top 5 WHYS moments:

 

5. Being asked what a uterus was. Lin was on work experience and was from China. She had poor English and sidled over one day while moderating some comments and asked this startling question. I heard giggles behind me and turned round expecting some support from the female members of the team but none was forthcoming and in fact one or two exited stage left very sharpish! Fortunately Lin was pretty perceptive and as I shaped my hands into something (don’t ask!) she twigged and spared me from going any further.

4. Risk taking. Mark Sandell was an editorial risk taker. The more audacious the scheme the more it seemed to appeal and I can tell you there were considerably more hits than misses. Top of the list was choosing to air messages of support for Alan Johnston not long after he was  kidnapped in March 2007. We had no idea how long Alan would be gone and therefore no idea how long we could keep up the airing of messages from the likes of Tom Stoppard, Brian Keenan and Freddy Forsyth (recorded by myself in one smooth take btw) but the gamble paid off. When Alan was finally released we learned that he’d been listening. Other risks included seriously provocative debates — such as was Africa better off under colonial rule? Letting Ugandans speak freely about homosexuals in their country and discussing why Britney had shaved off all her hair (well done to Rachael Harvey for presenting and enduring that particular night!). Innovative and daring radio.

3. Co-pressing WHYS. Perhaps Mark Sandell’s biggest risk came one day when WHYS’s presenter Ros Atkins had dropped off grid somewhere in Africa. It was 30 minutes to air and Mark asked me — a few weeks into my time there, fresh faced and still unsure of a studio’s basic layout– if I fancied presenting the programme? I nearly had a heart attack and declined but thankfully Ros eventually appeared. Did I miss my chance? Maybe but I got many chances to co-pres WHYS over the next few years (including one night with the one and only G Money) and it was always a pleasure. Thank you to Ros, Rachael, Peter Dobbie and all the other occasional presenters who put up with my ridiculous and puerile puns.

2. Broadcasting from Issa’s place. WHYS realised early on that it was engendering the kind of listener attention and feedback that to date had been a rarity in the World Service. It was decided to reward some of that loyalty by broadcasting from a listener’s location. Issa in Uganda was chosen and Ros Atkins and a couple of others headed over to somewhere in the Ugandan bush and broadcast live from his back yard. I live-blogged the show — sadly it’s no longer available on the web site but it was memorable for the fact that all through the prog you could hear fires crackling, the low murmur of insects chirping and people generally chilling with beer and food (if memory serves a goat was being roasted in a wheelbarrow) while talking on air. It showed to BBC bosses just how nimble WHYS could be but more importantly this was atmospheric radio at its best which set the bar for the years of outside broadcasts to come.

1. Alan Johnston’s release. This was an epic day. The BBC’s correspondent kidnapped by a Palestinian gang was free and joined World Have Your Say live down the line from Jerusalem (I think). I was co-pressing with Ros Atkins and in the studio with us was was the BBC’s then head of journalism Mark Byford. Alan revealed that he’d been able to listen to WHYS during his captivity and had gained some strength from the messages of support. I’d persuaded Mark Sandell to let me take a bottle of champagne into the studio for some end of the prog larks but the cork popped early and champagne spurted out nearly covering Byford who seemed to take it all with good grace. A wonderful end to a great day.

Technology: capability v expectation

Have you ever gone on the hunt for something fully expecting to be overwhelmed by choice, dazzling features and multiple pricing options only to have your aspirations shattered by a pitiful array of products?

The digital picture frame market is a classic example. Customer expectation has vastly outweighed the available product capabilities and has done so for over a decade. It’s tempting to say digi frame manufacturers have rested on their laurels but that assumes they had some to begin with . . . complacency and a shoddy disregard for what customers have been telling them has been the order of the day for a long, long time.

Remember that bit in Mad Men season 4 when Don Draper dashes off a late night missive to the New York Times all about why his company will no longer deal with cigarettes? The letter was a crafty way of differentiating the firm from the crowd in the middle of a crisis but amidst all the self-serving guff about not being able to sleep at night there’s this line which  has always stuck with me:

A product that never improves, that causes illness, and makes people unhappy.

True for tobacco in the 1960s. True for digital picture frames in the noughties. I concede the second point might be a bit harsh but a decades worth of buyer’s remorse on a global scale surely counts for some kind of affliction?

Speaking of buyer’s remorse….In 2005 I wanted a digital picture frame and I bought this:

 

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It’s a Nokia SU-4 image frame. It cost £149 and if memory serves you transferred your photos via infra-red which means this product must be one of the few ever sold that came with built-in obsolescence! I remember the frustration of not finding something that could even connect via USB let alone use Wifi. But back then it was about the only thing I could find that would come close to displaying digital photos the way I wanted. It wasn’t that good a device and it prompted me to write my first ever Amazon product review. I gave it 3 stars which was generous. They’re thin on the ground these days which may be this thing’s only saving grace.

 

Fast forward a decade and I dipped my foot into the digi frame waters once more:

 

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This is the NIX Advance 12 inch frame. Now this cost £99. In other words 33% cheaper than the Nokia but a better product by a factor of 10 or more. Bigger screen. Sharper image and a very useful remote control. This device sat on our shelf and was unused and unloved….why? Quite simply it was a pain to update. It comes with a tiny USB mem stick onto which you load your images . . . naturally I did this once and then never again.

With the vast majority of casual digital images these days being taken on a smartphone owning a NIX meant you needed to import from the phone onto your PC and then transfer from the PC onto the mem stick. A real hassle. Lovers of the NIX will point out that it also has an SD card slot on the side but to me this is a not-very-good sop to the serious photographer community and honestly . . . has anyone, anywhere in the world ever used this feature?

Now we’re in 2016.

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This is the Aura Frame. It’s a superb bit of engineering: from the box it comes in to the cord on the power lead…everything screams quality. The tiny, suede pouch in the box containing the wall-mount fixings is made with more thought and precision than the entire Nokia product range. It costs £300 — it’s definitely at the premium end of the market.

It’s got high resolution and a quality screen which means even though it’s half the size of the NIX your images will look way, way better on this. Also somehow it seems to get the brightness just right for each image (is there something going on automatically there??). There’s gesture control (kids love this!) and some nice sensors which mean it displays a different photo each time you wake it up by motion.

What really seals the deal though is the smartphone integration. Basically you send your images to it using the App and this can even be done automatically — the App can scan your albums, detect a new photo containing the face of someone you know and zzzzip . . . up it goes with NO WIRES and NO USB STICKS. Wonderful.

11 years since Nokia rushed out their crummy product, finally the technology has caught up with the customer.

Interestingly the tobacco industry has also finally started to move. In the past 3 years or so we’ve seen vaping technology grab significant market share and just this past week we’ve seen a major firm launch a new HNB (heat-not-burn) tobacco product. For an industry that was at the fag-end of its life so to speak, there’s a surprising amount of innovation going on.

I wonder what Don would have made of it?

 

 

 

PS — this is the initial Aura release and I feel there’s many, many great things to come including bigger, thinner frames. I’d also like to see:

  • Cut the cord! Could be challenging technically but a photo frame on your wall with a power lead dangling down is an eyesore. How about a battery option?
  • License the Aura app technology out to the high-end photo manufacturers. Wouldn’t it be great if Nikon’s SnapBridge technology could incorporate the Aura tech? In other words straight from your D700 to the frame . . . no need to go via the smartphone.
  • Android version of the Aura app. At the moment it’s iOS only.

 

Rediscovered track of the month: Nov ’16

Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

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Rediscovered track of the month: Oct ’16

The Rolling Stones, The Harlem Shuffle

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Rediscovered track of the month: Sep ’16

Manic Street Preachers, A Design for Life

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70mm Panavision — BBC World Service

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what I do counts as work . . this is one of those times. Special thanks to Michael Mannix of the Odeon Leicester Square for showing the skill involved in getting Hateful 8 screened. Read more

Rediscovered track of the month: July ’16

Paul McCartney, Jet

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EU Referendum 2016

WRITTEN BEFORE THE EU REFERENDUM ON June 23rd 2016

 

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My last attempt at predicting a vote was a dismal failure. But this time I’ve been out and about and speaking to people a bit more than in 2015. Having just spent 4 days in Edinburgh with the indefatigable World Service UK correspondent Rob Watson (@robwatsonbbc) I think I’m on reasonably firm ground saying Scotland will vote for remain but with a higher vote for Brexit than people are generally predicting. In other words, no matter what happens in rUK (rest of the UK), the vote for Brexit in Scotland will be too high for anyone in Scotland to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum. Why? Let me explain . . .

Last week in Edinburgh I encountered some strong feeling from the SNP that I hadn’t expected. Basically, many in the nationalist camp feel that in 2014 the EU hung them out to dry by plainly backing Westminister’s Better Together campaign.

Nobody holds a grudge like the nationalists: on a cold, dark night in Clarks Bar you’ll still find certain types of indy voter with grievances to air about the Duke of Cumberland (show offs), the malt tax (brainy) and the poll tax (bolshy). At just 21 months ago September 2014 is a fresh, bleeding wound for many. So despite Nicola Sturgeon’s order for SNPers to vote remain I feel that many, once they get into the ballot box, will defy the party line and vote Brexit just to stick one in the eye for the EU.

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Some of course have suggested that indy voters would do this anyway, as a means of causing a Brexit which would then trigger IndyRef#2 — on the whole I don’t think the nationalists are that cynical and not all buy the Alex Salmond line that if rUK goes Bexit then Scotland would automatically get IndyRef#2. A prime indicator being just how much more circumspect Nicola has been on this than Alex and the more vocal SNPers. Consider also the fact that the pro-indy percentage of the population hasn’t really changed since 2014 (around 44% which means winning IndyRef#2 is not a done deal); add in the desensitising effects of the ‘neverendums’ and it all points to IndyRef#2 being far, far off. Unless there are hundreds of thousands marching in the streets of Glasgow and Edina on June 24th demanding it, there will be no #Indyref#2. I would say any Scottish Brexit vote of over 40% means Indyref#2 is a dim possibility. 

Cards on the table: Scotland in the EU referendum

Brexit 43%

Remain 57%

 

And what of the UK as a whole — will Brexit nip it as the polls have shown in these final days? I think Brexit might, but it will be ultra tight and there will be no end of squabbling over the result. Lawsuits will fly.

Cards on the table: UK wide in the EU referendum

Brexit 50.8%

Remain: 49.2%

 

A final thought. . .

Many have commented that if the UK votes Brexit then Cameron and his pals are finished. Boris is waiting in the wings to pounce etc etc. That may be true but there is a certain class of politician whose bum will be squeaking way more than those in Westminster on the night of June 23rd. I’m referring of course to those EU powerbrokers: Merkel, Tusk, Juncker et al. Cameron came to them earlier in the year to negotiate his ‘better deal’. Only the most die-hard Conservative would concede he got anything significant. What he in fact got was piecemeal at best. If the EU had really wanted Britain to stay in the EU they should have said “Dave, old pal, what can we do for you?” and welcomed him with open arms. The niggardly shreds of soon-to-expire restrictions on this, and various opt-outs on that were a bit of an affront. Cameron of course could hardly have returned to the UK saying Hey, I’ve negotiated nothing — let’s vote to stay! He swallowed the gruel and soldiered on. Brave yes. Foolish? We will see but if Brexit happens Tusk and his pals will face incredible pressure to account for their role in nudging Britain to the exit and a resignation or two at the top of the EU could well presage a wider EU crumbling . . . interesting times!

 

 

 

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