Why I’ve shifted my perspective on the dumbing down argument
I’ve often railed against the misrepresentation of classical music wherever I’ve found it – on air or in print, the way classical music is categorised, or the way people emote about it.
My often ranty (some say curmudgeonly) responses have been rooted in a feeling of alienation, feelings driven by my assumption that those who seek to reach out to new audiences reject knowledge, experience or familiarity believing it to be anathema to the newcomer.
Apologists for art aren’t my bag: I want people to be moved, not just entertained.
Such a hardline stance is, I’m proud to annouce, changing.
One converastion online yesterday reminded me of this shift.
If you’re not already aware, a couple of people distributed a clip from a 50 minute documentary spotlighting Britten’s Young Person’s Guide – one a series of programmes as part of the BBC’s Our Classical Century season.
I’ve been critical of the OCC documentary series, though have enjoyed the one of spotlights fronted by Josie D’Arby and Katie Derham. Both docs have immersed the viewer in a familiar work, highlighting familiar melodic, harmonic and textural elements in a way that celebrates the documentary makers of the past and satisfies classical music obsessives like me.
Not everyone agrees. Those who tweeted in response to the clip online – an unfortunate exchange between presenter Katie Derham and a BBC NOW timpanist – saw the thread as opportunity to criticise and berate the presenter.
I didn’t like it. I responded with a defence. It was instinctive. It certainly wasn’t solicited. It saddened me a bit.
Full disclosure. I sometimes chat to The Derham at those events we’re both present. It’s always a pleasure. Katie is always warm. She talks about her love of music with genuine enthusiasm. That Katie re-learned playing the violin for a TV documentary and was game enough to have the BBC document her learning the basics of conducting for a TV programme (Maestro), makes me feel a bit jealous of her. I would have loved to have been her doing that.
And, if you’re looking for the crux of this post, I’d love to have her gig on In Tune.
There. I’ve said it.
That’s probably why I didn’t like the use of the unfortuante clip in question by a professional musician as a way of illustrating calls for classical music to be treated with deference on TV and radio.
There’s a lot of it about. Also, just to make this post even more confusing, I used to do it too.
What’s changed for me isn’t only the fact that I’ve exchanged words with the person in front of the camera, it’s that over the past few months I’ve finally arrived at the insight that not everybody engages with the music in the way that I do. And that whatever way you listen to classical music, that’s good enough.
That might be too much of a leap for a blog post. I should probably explain my thinking.
My shifted perspective is this. A publically funded broadcaster, by and large, isn’t interested in appealing to people who are familiar with, knowledgeable of, or experienced in any particular art from. People like me are members of the choir – what’s the point in preaching to them?
So if I watch something, be it on publically-funded or commercially-driven platforms, its probably by virtue of the time constraints and production values, not going to be something that is pitched at me. There are other people out there who might be interested in classical music who think or respond in a different way to me. And that’s OK.
Also, a production note you may not have considered. The fact we’re able to see that clip isn’t solely because the presenter asked the question. It’s also because the director and cameraman didn’t think to question whether it was worth shooting the sequence again. It might be because the director wasn’t paying attention. It might also be the producer didn’t feel they had the budget to accomodate shooting the sequence again. It will also be because whoever it was at the BBC who was responsibe for the broadcast, approved it and let it be broadcast.
To criticise the presenter (implicitly or explicitly) seems a bit shitty.
Because the thing is, I rather enjoyed the programme.
I was dubious about Our Classical Century when I attended the launch event a few weeks back. I couldn’t really discern the impetus for the season, beyond it being a way of bringing Radio 3, BBC Two and BBC Four closer together and providing genre-based content to populate the new BBC Sounds world.
What I saw of the opening episode of the Our Classical Century series and what I heard from the panel discussion at the launch raised more questions about the season’s over-arching editorial strategy. Skepticism led me to conclude that the year-long classical music features and documentaries season was probably not made for people like me.
Our Classical Century is the BBC answering calls for classical music outside of the Proms season to be better represented in terms of scope and quality. In that respect, it’s a good thing. But, it also illustrates the fundamental problem the broadcaster faces. By advocating classical music to new audiences the BBC necessarily has to create programming that appeals to the widest possible not-necessarily knowledgeable audience.
That means the end product will always fall short of the kind of content classical music buffs will naturally seek out, because it’s sharing knowledge buffs already know. Just by virtue of the programme being made by the BBC, people like are always going to be disappointed it doesn’t go far enough.
It certainly can’t be said to be dumbed down programming, not by any means. But, there are moments in Our Classical Century feels as though it’s been pulled in so many different directions at the commissioning stage, that in the end there’s insufficient time available to go in deep.
I’m still not entirely convinced about co-presenter Lenny Henry’s contribution to the programme necessarily works either. I get why he’s there, but there are moments in his everyman role when his presence on-screen actually feels a little awkward. The energy returns whenever Suzy Klein appears. No surprise, Klein is an experienced broadcaster. Unexpectedly, Henry’s delivery feels a little too earnest.
Based on the first episode, the Discovery Concerts that compliment the four-part Our Classical Century series promise to be a more fulfilling watch.
A lot of this is down to the format: an unashamed visual programme note providing historical context, and spotlighting detail in the work, before a live recording performance of the work in question.
In the case of the opening episode – George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – the detail revealed around the opening clarinet solo and writing for saxophone trio felt like the right amount of under-the-bonnet stuff to satisfy people like me and feed the curious and the unfamiliar. That the programme didn’t shy away from spending 45 minutes analysing it this way was a real boon. Presenter Josie D’Arby is particularly good too, combining genuine curiosity with an infectious warmth. She is adept at establishing great rapport on screen that looks authentic.
The BBC has also repeated John Bridcut’s documentary about Prince Charles’ love for the music of Hubert Parry – The Prince and the Composer – from 2016. It’s always a pleasure to hear John’s voice – and his eye for visual storytelling makes for compelling viewing. I had no idea until I watched this documentary that Hubert Parry wrote any symphonies. As Prince Charles points out in the documentary, that means there’s a wealth of unfamiliar music to explore for the first time.
Our Classical Century continues until June 2019 – broadcast dates available on the BBC website.
I’m planning on saving my notes and reflections from yesterday’s marvellous Middlesex University/PRS Music #CMIC2018 classical music conference until later in the week, once I’ve got some paid out of the way first.
But a recent change to the BBC website – the roll-out of the web-based ‘BBC Sounds‘ experience – presents an opportunity to share one of the ways attending #CMIC2018 has shifted my perspective.
First, the website change. In some respects its a minor affair. it’s the first change in a longer-range strategy I remember people talking about when I was working at the BBC – shifting audience perceptions by changing the label from ‘Radio’ to ‘Sounds’.
I despise the word ‘Sounds’ (I’d much prefer them just call it ‘Audio’) but I get the strategy behind it. ‘Sounds’ describes the content whereas ‘Radio’ describes how that content is distributed.
And that distinction is important right now.
At #CMIC2018 one quote flashed up on the screen during Sara Lambrecht’s paper on the shifting role of classical music recordings – the idea that record companies had acknowledged how their identity had changed in the music sphere – formerly sellers of products, in 2018 record companies saw themselves as media organisations distributing content.
This may seem like a subtle point to get excited about, but it means to me that in some respects record companies are competing with broadcasters whose dominance of the content world has historically been underpinned by their USP: linear broadcasting.
The live experience acquires importance, perhaps even urgency, when there’s an event attached to it – a news event for example. The rest of a broadcaster’s content – that which doesn’t need to be ‘live’ – is just the same as an album track on Spotify.
Now that on-demand is less of a culture and more an expectation (like getting running water when you switch a tap on), broadcasters need to align their product with the other streaming services available to audiences. That means user experiences online have to be similar to meet the implicit expectations of those users the likes of the BBC depend on.
And that means stopping referring to radio as radio.
I have a fairly good hunch that also means no longer making schedules available online. It means changing the way users access the actual content, signposting types of content as opposed to a point in a schedule. The latter demands newcomers to a platform already possess an implicit knowledge of the schedule. What the BBC wants to do now is fuel discovery with more useful signposting, cutting across traditional schedules and conventional brands to create a content experience that more realistically reflects a user’s mixed range of interests.
BBC Sounds is the first stage in what could broadly be seen as an attempt to break down content silos, acknowledging that its audience likes different stuff and that the only way of meeting that need is to move away from conventional radio stations and pursue a potential listener’s implicit or explicit needs.
And to do that means focusing on a user experience both on the BBC Sounds website and in the accompanying app. And aside from the fact that I hate the name of it, I think the content strategy works because it groups BBC content (by which I mean programmes, tracks, features etc) around themes.
The Fall Into Autumn ‘Must Listen’ (I hate ‘Must Listen’ too – quit being directive – I’ll listen if I want to) is a good example. Things grouped around the idea of there having been a change in season, drawing me in with evocative imagery. It’s clickable in itself and there’s the promise of a range of content that I perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have considered seeking out.
And in that way, the BBC is positioning itself alongside streaming services and recording companies, conscious that it has a wealth of content in its databases that it wants users to be able easily access.
And that means that each piece of content the BBC makes available has the same potential as a single track available on Spotify.
As much as I’m sad about the first step in the demise of radio, I’m pleased to see they’ve cottoned on to what the recording industry figured out (and acted upon) a few years ago.
But in terms of my primary destination – classical music – I suspect the change may confirm that the path I’ve already set down is the right one for me. I spent most of the summer only listening to live broadcasts on-demand, preferring instead to listen to tracks and albums via streaming services.
I suspect that while the new BBC Sounds aims to attract the new and the curious, it will only compliment my preferred method for discovery online. Mind you, I imagine they probably didn’t implement it for someone like me anyway.
I’m also wondering whether – and this is just a hunch – whether there will come a time in seven or eight years time when the Charter is up for renewal again, that the only way to access the BBC’s audio on-demand will be to pay a subscription for it. In fact, I might even put money on it.
But, when a BBC bod asked me to have a think and publish nearer to broadcast, I changed my plans.
I also screwed my nose up a bit. Well actually, I threw my arms up in the air and screamed ‘how dare they dictate to me when to publish x, y and z. Tsk.’
Their reasoning wasn’t clear. Was it that they thought more people were likely to watch the programme based on my recommendation? Or was it they feared I’d be damning and do them and it a disservice?
I find it unlikely they thought the former. My hunch is the latter.
That might be because there’s a lot of Worsley-bashing that goes on whenever Lucy is on-screen.
It’s not fair. It’s not nice. It’s not becoming.
It might also be because the BBC’s opera season is a bit of big deal – two years in the making, and a precious thing in the eyes of the partner organisations who have birthed it and the accompanying V&A exhibition too.
Where this two-part series is concerned, those with a preference for carping from the sidelines can sod off. Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera isn’t really made for them – the lifelong aficionados. It’s really made for people like me and for those who have preconceptions about the genre.
Worsley is the strongest element in what is a richly illustrated but fairly light-touch socio-political contextualisation of the operatic genre.
Lucy – a self-confessed opera novice – draws an indomitable spirit of discovery.
Her willingness to participate in unexpectedly entertaining synopses of the operas discussed is endearing and makes the messages conveyed more likely to stick. A more digitally-savvy person would have commissioned the production company to make these bite-size synopses available on social media – a bit of a missed opportunity there. Seeing her eat a big cake used as an illustration of the political map of Europe is as entertaining as any good comic Opera by Mozart.
There are some look-away moments – a painfully contrived scene where Lucy passes some people in the street who break into a rendition of a Mozart aria – but that’s largely down to direction and scriptwriting, neither of which Worsley is credited for.
Similarly, and rather predictably, it is the token operatic expert – the otherwise adorable Antonio Pappano – who doesn’t especially work well talking directly to camera. When reading a script he comes across a little glossy and over-rehearsed.
The irony here is that what this series achieves and the way it achieves it is exactly the fodder the snobs and self-aggrandisers will use to criticise it. The series seeks to introduce a genre to a cynical but persuadable audience. It’s not intended for those who love Opera already.
If you’ve never watched an opera before, or have and left the auditorium wondering why you even bothered, this will go a long way to persuade you to attend, or tempt you back.
If you’re already thinking of reasons why this programme is a terrible idea before you’ve even watched it, then you’ll be seething when I tell you they’ve saved the last 100 years of opera history for (in all likelihood) a second ‘series’.
On 5 July 2005, I started in my first job at the BBC. To mark my ten year anniversary at the Corporation I thought I’d test myself and recall ten memories which sum up my experience as a BBC staffer.
1. BBC Broadcast
My first job at the BBC was as a webmaster, providing out-of-hours technical and editorial support for the BBC website. On my first day I was shown what to do in the event of receiving an out-of-hours call from the Central Editorial team asking for the emergency homepage to be enabled. I was amazed that so soon after my first day I had access to such an important webpage. My second day in the office, London was awarded the 2012 Olympics. The day after that was 7/7. And the day after that, I bought a bike for my daily commute.
There are many memories about my first job at the BBC – it was an incredibly exciting time – but the most potent is one with someone who worked in the Media Library at the Broadcast Centre who started in her job soon after I did. We both shared a passion for radio. She had just discovered the BBC’s automated off-air recording system – Autorot – and was incredibly excited by it. It sounded like heaven: the ability to catch on any programme on any network from the past 7 days, free to BBC staff. Ten years later that person now produces the News Quiz on Radio 4.
2. BBC Children’s
I spent two and a half years as a webmaster, building websites for UKTV, digital postcards for BBC Resources, building the website for BBC iPlayer’s predecessor, the BBC IMP (Interactive Media Player) and for the set-top box equivalent called BBC Catch-Up TV . I shadowed on Blue Peter and the Graham Norton Show too.
But in late summer 2007, an opportunity presented itself to be a Technical Project Manager in what was then BBC Multiplatform Productions (back in the day when seemingly every TV programme had its own dedicated website built and maintained by an army of content producers). I was offered my new job by Phil Buckley, at a meeting in the Doughnut. I’d be working on BBC TV entertainment websites and on BBC Children’s online projects in the East Tower.
I delivered the BBC’s first Facebook application, the Strictly Come Dancing website, built a site for Any Dream Will Do, and a BBC Learning website called ‘Thread’ about ethical fashion. I also delivered BBC Children’s Adventure Rock (an immersive gaming experience for kids with plans for a linked TV programme).
BBC Children’s was a more challenging environment because the projects I was working on didn’t have the transmission deadlines TV entertainment did. But, many of the people who I worked with then still remain at the BBC doing ground-breaking digital work for Children’s up in Salford. Similarly, there are two project managers who started soon after me who are now Product Managers in Future Media for BBC News. A major achievement for all of them.
3. Eurovision 2008
It’s only recently I’ve come to understand that I’m ambitious. For a long time (especially in 2008) I just assumed that I was restless and ungrateful. Soon after my Technical Project Manager role, I discovered a spreadsheet on a desk which listed all the projects the department I was working in would like to obtain from other parts of the BBC. Eurovision was one of them.
As a Eurovision fan, getting the chance to be the project manager for Eurovision online was crucial. But there was a problem. The website was at that time ‘owned’ and run by BBC Radio. So, I took myself for a self-arranged meeting with the BBC Radio 2 online team. It was a swift meeting along the lines of “Do you want to run the website this year? Because if you don’t, I wouldn’t mind.” Miraculously, everyone seemed happy with my proposal (despite the fact no-one had sanctioned my bid) and a few weeks later I was building and populating the site.
The head of BBC Multiplatform at the time wasn’t too impressed, accosting me in the corridor, “Yeah, you’re a bit of a maverick, aren’t you?” But it was a little late by then. The BBC Eurovision website is now firmly rooted in TV, but before that time its natural home had been Radio 2 Online. See later for why this particular memory is important.
4. A bloke called Kevin
I spent six months as a Technical Project Manager before I ended up getting seduced by the possibility of being an online producer. Why? Because moving from technical to editorial was something which was really important to me. So, I ended up being offered a job complying videos for the Have I Got News For You and Graham Norton Show website in the BBC’s ‘Indie Unit’.
“Once a webmaster, always a webmaster,” said my new boss on my first day in the job, “You’ll never be editorial. You’re a techy. Nothing more.” Fueled by his inadvertently motivational induction, I spent six months in the Indie Unit before jumping ship to work for a bloke called Kevin in Training and Development. The interview for the job was unexpectedly jolly. There was a pay rise. And there was the promise to be as editorial as I wanted to be.
I accepted the job offer two hours after the interview. After which I worked out who it was. Kevin Marsh, former editor of the Today programme. Had I known who he was when I interviewed, I would have fluffed the interview. Now I knew, I was stunned I was a getting a chance to work with the man.
5. Reporting for Five Live
The job in Training and Development was to design and build a website, and occasionally write stuff for it: the BBC’s College of Journalism website. We opted for white text on a black background (see above), because that’s what Kevin wanted. It broke many of the online guidelines about accessibility. I did try to persuade him that it might be best if we moved away from black (feedback later confirmed the site as a whole looked a little austere, even funereal), but to no avail.
It was because of Kevin that the possibility of doing some journalism came closer to a reality. Childhood goals suddenly became within my grasp. Everything started to make a little more sense.
I went off to The Next Web conference in Amsterdam a couple of times. And, on the third trip, the greatest experience of all (the one I’d trained for before I joined the BBC in 2003) – the chance to make a radio package for Five Live. I recorded the material in Amsterdam and sent it to Jamilla Knowles in London via a drive share. She suggested the linking script, I edited it and then recorded it in my hotel room. Jamilla brought the package together. The piece went out on Five Live 24 hours later. An incredible trip.
6. The Proms
I had a bike accident in the spring of 2007 which ended up with me being off sick for a fortnight. During that time I quickly became incredibly bored. Off the back of some quirky video diaries I’d made getting a job at the BBC and during my time doing work experience on the Graham Norton Show, I figured I’d fill the hours of recovery time making a video about my love of the Proms brochure. YouTube was new – something which might possibly help get me a job in TV or radio at the BBC, I thought. The video went down surprisingly well (considering it was cobbled together quite quickly and without a plan) and is something I still look on with pride. All sorts of things followed as a result.
7. Leaving Television Centre
The first day with BBC Children’s was the day Mark Thompson (then DG) announced that the BBC would eventually move out of Television Centre. It seemed so mean. I’d always wanted to work at TVC and to finally start there on the day that the DG announced our impending departure seemed like a cruel twist of fate.
The BBC develops its staff through executive and career coaching by encouraging individuals to reflect on themselves, their behaviours and their goals. Anyone who has been coached or coaches will know what an incredibly valuable and rewarding process it is. I received some coaching in 2012, a few months after I’d started as a Digital Editor in Communications and Public Affairs, running the About the BBC website and Blog.
The coaching uncovered my goal to become a coach myself and – bizarrely – to get a job at the ‘beating heart’ of the organisation, the then newly built New Broadcasting House. I completed the training last year and am now a practising coach at the BBC. It is my most important personal achievement over the past ten years. It’s the thing I’m most proud of.
9. Moving to Broadcasting House
When I was on holiday in Tunisia last year I received a text message from a colleague in the department I now work in – Communications and Public Affairs. “We’re moving to Broadcasting House,” the text said. I couldn’t believe it.
Without having to change jobs, it turned out that our department was taking up residence in the very building I’d described in my coaching sessions as ‘the beating heart’ of the BBC. We moved in in November 2014. I love working in W1. No surprises I get a sudden charge of excitement whenever I see the countdown video played out on the BBC News Channel. Home.
10. Eurovision 2015
So to the last memory. The most recent. Radio 2 ran a pop-up radio station last year for Eurovision which I was asked to work on. I ran the live blog and helped out on social media.
This year, I got the chance to go out to Vienna to help out with radio producers and presenters for the second year of the digital pop-up service. It was the fourth time I’d been to Eurovision and it was the most special. I had a glorious time.
What I learnt during the trip was how difficult it is to drive listeners to websites. How people instinctively know what a website address is (ie www.bbc.co.uk/eurovision) and getting Eurovision fans to listen live to a digital radio station’s output is only possible if you get the radio station promoted from the BBC’s Eurovision website. I didn’t have to broker that – other people did that bit.
But, I did wonder to what extent that brokering would have been necessary if I hadn’t seven years before had a meeting with Radio 2 Online wresting the Eurovision website from Radio to TV. Had there been repercussions today for my own ambition in 2008?
My temporary station in the Eurovision Press Centre in Vienna.
So, what next?
It’s surely no coincidence that approaching my ten year anniversary working at the BBC has posed far more questions than I anticipated. The most potent is predictable: what next?