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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Podcasts don't need polish and professionalism; they just need a groove

There have been some very interesting issues raised following my recent post about podcasting, particularly when it concerns advertising. Podcast listeners clearly don't have any problems with advertising. They accept that as long as there is no practical way of charging them to listen to podcasts then they may have to be exposed to some commercial messages. People who carp about this kind of thing have their heads in the sand. If you hold the view that in the future all media will be free than you must accept the concomitant erosion of the traditional division between editorial and advertising (what Time Inc used to refer to as "church and state".)

On the other hand it's not an issue as yet because most advertisers don't see how they can get value out of podcasts. As Phil says, they're afraid of being alongside anything the listeners have a powerful affection for. I'm determined to challenge that with the Word podcast. I can think of quite a few advertisers who ought to be able to see a benefit in having their product associated with the idea of private time. But it's certainly true that the few advertisers or sponsors I hear on the podcasts I listen to regularly (which are mostly football ones) are sports betting sites. They're not seeking to build up brand loyalty. They're trying to encourage people to place a bet and it stands to reason that the people who want to spend a lot of their time speculating about what might happen when Saturday comes have a greater than usual predisposition to do that. In addition these people are just as likely to bet if they support Tranmere Rovers as if they support Chelsea. And these companies' only cost is marketing so they have more money to splash out than anyone at the moment.

Far as I can see the BBC don't do podcasts. They just make their radio programming available to time shift. This is fine but it's not podcasting. Podcasting has an emotional tug that most radio doesn't. I have this discussion/argument all the time with radio friends like Trevor Dann of the Radio Academy. They think radio does most of this stuff and I don't think it does. Radio is organised to minimise the likelihood of people changing the channels. Radio is push. Podcasts are pull. At the exact moment you worry your podcast is getting too obscure or self-indulgent or detailed, it's probably just finding its groove. Face it. If you wanted a balanced diet there are no end of places to get it. Podcasts shouldn't be trying to be professional and polished. I can't abide podcasts that begin with a menu that tells us what's coming up. What's the point of that? It's more likely to make you change your mind about listening to it than persevere. I also hate the feeling that people are reading from scripts. I wince when I hear journalists trying to crack the same kind of jokes that look OK in print. We don't need any of that print or radio or TV baggage. Podcasts are punk rock. They're the first thing that comes into your head. They're an evening down the pub. They blitz the divisions between the speaker, the thought and the personality. They have little use for conventional professionalism. They're so direct they're hardly media at all.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Missing Page

Spoke yesterday to Philip Ball, the author of "The Music Instinct". He's a science writer and his book examines "how music works and why we can't do without it". We talked about the problems of getting permission to reproduce even the shortest passage of published music. For his book he transcribed a little of a Beatles tune and then applied to the publishers for permission. (This is rarely a good idea. What usually happens with a reasonable application to an organisation which holds all the cards and has nothing to gain from an assent is a long delay followed by a refusal. This gives the person dealing with it time to pretend it has been referred to a higher authority.) The book went into production. By the time the Beatles publisher came back with their refusal the book was already printed and bound. To Philip's amazement his own publishers, Bodley Head, arranged to change the page in question, reprint it, take the wrong one and then bind the replacement into the finished copies. We both found it extraordinary that they can do that sort of thing.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Podcasts preach to the converted. That's why I like them. It may be why advertisers don't

I love podcasts. I love listening to them. I love doing them. There are times when I think they're the most perfect form of media ever invented. Gather a few people with views on something around a microphone and let them talk. Then put the finished product in a place where it can be found by the people most likely to appreciate it. People respond to the human voice in a way they don't respond to anything else and because people have pulled it towards them rather than having it pushed in their direction they'll give it slack that they wouldn't extend to anything else.

At the same time I think there are inherent problems with podcasts. They only appeal to people who listen to podcasts. Clangingly obvious, I know. I'll go further. People who don't listen to podcasts don't begin to understand them. They don't know how they work, how they reach people or what makes people warm to them. Mark Ellen has done hundreds of Word podcasts with me and I know he wouldn't mind me saying that not only has he never listened to one, he wouldn't know how to listen to one. It's just not one of the things he does and nothing is going to change that. He's not the only one. Recently we had a guest who asked "is it live?" That's a question I didn't know how to begin to answer. We did an interview with an artist on a podcast not long ago. Three weeks later the PR got in touch asking if we could send him the podcast and asking when it was going to be "released". I had to point out that it had been "released" three weeks before, within two hours of it being recorded. He was dazed. He was twenty-eight, which goes to show that it's not only old gits who don't understand how these things work.

Unlike Mark I now listen to podcasts more than I listen to music. I prefer the burble of speech to music as I walk to the station. I know from talking to Word podcast listeners that they're largely a question of habit. I meet people all the time who tell me where and when they listen to them: walking the dog, jogging, taking the kids to school, enjoying a precious sliver of private time that they don't have to share with anyone else.

Podcasts can't be promoted the way conventional media is promoted. It's little use pointing people towards the contents of special editions of them. You want the lot or none at all. You don't dip in and out. Adding a new podcast to your repertoire is like deciding to have a new friend. It's a commitment. As with friends, you don't expect them to be sensational or surprising. You'd find them a bit tiring if they were. You want them to be dependable. You want them to be there.

And as many people have found, they're a nightmare to sell advertising or sponsorship around because advertisers don't understand them, find them too fiddly and not quite mass enough. They're very quick to say that they want media which engages with an audience but can't be bothered to find out enough about podcasts to see which of them do engage and which of them are merely "subscribed" to after a lot of unpaid radio promotion and never listened to. A couple of years back I spoke to somebody at a digital advertising agency and he advised making the Word podcast an enhanced podcast so that we could get a sponsor's logo on the screen of your iPod. "The clients will never listen to it but that way they can show it to each other."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The speaker's fear of the feedback

Last week I took part in an event called The Story at the Conway Hall. This was put together (or do we say "curated" these days?) by Matt Locke who works at Channel Four and was intended to reflect the apparently growing interest in narrative. There was a SRO audience of a few hundred who seemed to be drawn from that loose affiliation of web people, bloggers, consultants and crystal ball gazers who can take a Friday off without the economy grinding to a halt. I told the only story I've polished enough to tell in front of strangers and it seemed to go OK. I couldn't see anyone actually asleep. That's as good as a point away in my book.

What I hadn't banked on is when you get on your hind legs in front of this kind of crowd you are setting yourself up for feedback. This kind of crowd all blog or podcast or tweet. Like all bloggers or podcasters or tweeters - and I'm no different - they have an above average tendency to comment on anything they've seen, read or heard. And thanks to Twitter's hash tags, whereby you can track the debate on any subject as it fans out, plus the desperate neediness that drives people to volunteer to get on stage in front of people at an event like this in the first place, you can follow the subsequent Chinese Whispers as they echo and fade.

Somebody publishes a link to their blog where they've put their "take" on the event and you have to look to see if they've mentioned you and, if so, what they've said. Then somebody else announces that they've commented on the first post and you need to know if they've commented on you. And if they have you are then compelled to track back through their posts and see who they are and whether they matter. It's not worthy, of course, but that doesn't stop you. I imagine if you get a lot of this kind of thing a whole new form of madness lies that way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why American acts never forget the first time

I've reached the chapter of Terry Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong that deals with his first trip to Europe in July 1932 to play at the London Palladium. This could be the template for nearly every trip taken to the old world by an American musician ever since. Buddy Holly would have recognised lots of this, as would Midlake. The pick-up band, the strange food, the sudden exposure to the vulgarity of local taste (Max Miller was on the same bill), the confusing embrace of the press and the realisation of how distance has lent enchantment and, in that process, altered who you are. Armstrong reckoned the first person who called him "Satchmo" was Percy Mathison Brooks, the editor of the Melody Maker. The Englishman was simply trying to get Armstrong's nickname "Satchelmouth" past the creaky gate of his own drawl.

In America they faced institutionalised discrimination. In England it was more puzzlement. They were turned away from the first posh hotels but eventually found one. In the American press they were alotted their place on the cultural map according to where they came from. The British press could only speak as they found, which wasn't always pretty. One British critic described him as being "an untrained gorilla". However another one said, with inelegant perception, his "savage growling is as far removed from English as we speak or sing it - and as modern - as James Joyce".

The experience of their first British tour is something that makes a profound impression on American acts because it exposes them to a sudden blast of curiosity, affection and scrutiny that never happens anywhere else in quite the same way. They learn a bit about who they are and go home changed. If it goes well it's a kind of relaunch. Armstrong kept his British press clippings throughout his life, even the unkind ones. He wasn't the last.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What kids really mean when they say they're tired

There's a big discussion on The Today programme this morning about whether kids are getting enough sleep and how much it's got to do with the TV in their bedroom. Newsround did a survey in which a lot of kids said they wished they got more sleep. I've heard this one before.

In the course of raising three children I've learned that children and young adults habitually claim to be tired, but they hardly ever make this claim in the evening. The time they make a display of being tired is in the morning, which is when you want them to be up and doing, as my mother used to say. The tiredness is in many cases a sham, intended to mask the fact that they would prefer to stay in bed, not talk to you any further and establish the fact that they have no responsibilites beyond their own immediate comfort.

This starts to change when they miraculously get a job. It begins to dawn on them that it's bad manners to be conspicuously tired in the morning because it suggests that the people you're working with must somehow wait for you to get up to speed. The time when it's OK to be really tired is when you come home from work. In fact it's expected of you.

Eventually you have small children and fantasise about how wonderful it would be to go to bed early or spend more time in bed in the morning. By the time the children have grown up sufficiently to allow you to have this time in bed, you are so wracked with anxieties and responsible for so many different things that you are no longer capable of just snoozing.

The main reason that adolescents spend such an unbelievable amount of their time sleeping is that they sub-consciously know that never again in their lives will they be able to. It's not the sleep of the just but it's sleep nonetheless.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"It's out of stock"

Before Christmas a small publisher put out a picture book called "Lost London" which was largely given over to pictures of London before the wrecking ball and the developer. It attracted very good reviews and in the run-up to the festive season it sold out entirely. I've been trying to find a copy ever since. Amazon have none, nor do any of the book shops in London. The publishers have been trying to distribute a second impression for two months now. I keep calling into Waterstones in Islington to see if it's come in yet. I tried for the third time tonight. They still hadn't received it but they did tell me that this one shop had placed orders for sixty-six copies. That's sixty-six copies of a book with a list price of £29.99 ordered by just one shop. That's nearly £2,000-worth of turnover. In one shop. Assuming this is replicated all over the London area, that's a quite decent profit for the publisher and a nice feeling for the author. He'll probably never again do anything quite this popular. It beggars belief that in this day and age, with supply overwhelming demand in every other area of the economy, that the book publishing industry thinks it can still get away with keeping people waiting this long.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Apple, Sony and Desire

I'm a judge for the Sony Radio Awards and they've sent me all the entries in my category pre-loaded on a Sony MP3 player. It's actually what they call a Sony Walkman these days. It's certainly a good idea to send the entries in this fashion rather than expecting judges to juggle cassettes or CDs. The Walkman's very neat. It has a radio, it records and probably makes tea as well. Playing with it just now it struck me how difficult it must be in the personal electronics space these days, having to compete with Apple. It doesn't matter how many qualities your product might have, Apple is the one that holds the high ground where dwells desire. A year ago a young friend demonstrated all the features of his iPod competitor, many of which were superior to Apple, but he did it more in sorrow than conviction, as if he knew that the playground prestige battle had already been lost. I stand on the Tube platform looking at the huge cross-track posters outlining the features of something that looks a bit like an iPhone but isn't, feeling sorry for the marketing man who has to persuade a 17 year old that this is what he wants. We were talking about this with friends at dinner last night, the way our rational side pretends to weigh the arguments over how we spend our money while our emotional side waits, drumming its fingers, knowing that in the end it will always win out.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Dreaming of a 48" TV

On Saturday I found myself at a home occupied by Young Professionals. This was evident by the size (48") and quality (HD) of the television in the living room. It occupied prime position, pretty much as proper hi-fi might have done thirty years earlier, defying everything else to make the best of whatever space remained.

My parents' generation preferred TVs that could be pushed into a corner, preferably disguised as traditional items of furniture. In my flat-renting days TVs were distressed portables, the signal often delivered by an arrangement of wire coat hangers. New ones were too expensive to buy and so they were rented.

Whenever I catch "lifestyle" programmes on television I am left with the impression that the majority of the nation now live in a converted terrace house with a living room knocked through to the kitchen. The floors have been stripped and polished and the fireplace is occupied by a big flat screen TV. What was previously a source of actual warmth is now replaced by a flickering digital version of the same thing.

This is not to say I wouldn't like the 48" HD. I would. I have, however, been married long enough to know that I would be left to enjoy it on my own.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Global warming: it's all superstition

A survey says that 25% of British people are sceptical about global warming, reports the BBC website with an audible tut. But if any more than 75% of us did believe in it, wouldn't that be worrying in itself? The idea that the whole population should, in the space of a few short years, adopt a belief in something that can't be proved makes you deeply concerned about our gullibility.

I behave as if I believe in it, not because I've examined the evidence and come to a rational conclusion. Of course I've seen "An Inconvenient Truth", avoid taking the car anywhere if I can and get ill-tempered and messy sorting rubbish every Monday night, but I could no more explain to you why the earth is getting warmer than I could let you know the workings of the internal combustion engine. My belief in it is as scientifically grounded as my mother's economics. That is to say, she knew nothing about it but she believed, with some justification, that if you'd enjoyed a period of prosperity without working for it then it was bound to be followed by a period of relative poverty. She was always right. I think her economic views were shaped, not by any examination of the facts, but by a combination of her youth in the depression, in-bred northern scepticism and the drip-drip-drip experience of chapel-going christianity. If you'd spent like a drunken sailor you were bound to face a reckoning at some point. This is true but it's not rational. It's what they used to call superstition.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Anybody want to buy the world's most famous recording studio?

Today's announcement of the travails of Guy Hands' EMI is about more than the decline of the CD selling business. It also indicates that all companies bought on borrowed money are facing potentially catastrophic problems as the economy threatens to flatline. This applies as much to Manchester United and the government as it does to EMI, who paid £800 million in interest last year. If the banks decide to cut their losses the company will be passed around the business world like a fizzing cartoon bomb with everybody hoping that when the music stops they'll be left with the profitable bits and not the loss-makers. I've written a big piece about the decline of the recording studio for the next issue of The Word. One of the things I discovered is that the company's legendary studios at Abbey Road would be "in play" if anyone came along and was prepared to make a sensible offer. The problem, as in the case of the aforementioned football club, is that they can't afford to take a sensible offer when there's the distant prospect of an offer that attempts to put some value on the place's mystique. Any offers?