The XX on working together

6 Music ran a lovely series of programmes about this year’s Mercury nominees. They did a simple thing and recorded the artists introducing the tracks, describing the inspiration and the creative process for each song. It’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary switched on. Superb night-time radio (and unimpeachable public service output – could a commercial network play out a whole album in this way?).

If you can lay your hands on a copy (it’s gone from the 6 Music site) listen to the episode featuring the XX. And not just because you’ll hear the quiet and entirely unjaded voices of THE FUTURE but also because you’ll learn something about the creative process that you’d have missed if you’d listened to the unglossed album a dozen times.

Many completely disarming glimpses of the teenage creative process – a keyboard bought for £3 on eBay, at least one song composed when Romy and Oliver were sixteen, the kind of completely obsessive attention to detail that must have had their parents typing ‘OCD’ into Google. And something about the epic luck of finding someone you can work with when young, and just clicking. They’re a quietly inspiring pair: I hear the kind of generosity and trust that makes a collaboration bulletproof.

And there’s also something here about A&R and a supportive, courageous creative context. I don’t know much about Young Turk/XL but to have given these rather unprepossessing kids the keys to the studio while barely out of school was a fantastically smart and open-minded thing to do. There’s the value of the whole, creaking, benighted music business in a nutshell, if you ask me.

Now watch them split up just after I click ‘publish.’

Picture by jamieleto. Used under licence.

Twitter as service monitor

How do you monitor broadcast output on FM, LW (MW in some areas), two DAB frequencies, LW and FM channels for digital TV on Virgin cable, Sky satellite, Freeview and the online versions of the LW and FM streams in Flash and Windows Media? I’m not a radio engineer so jump in and correct me here if I’ve got this wrong but checking playout for silence is easy enough (and explains why you don’t hear 4’33” on the radio very often) but checking that a particular stream is carrying the right audio is an entirely different challenge. Putting a system into the broadcast chain that could automatically check that all those streams (the list at the top is just for Radio 4) were carrying the right audio at the right time and then take action if it finds an error sounds like the definition of a tall order.

And the answer, of course, is obvious. You ask the listeners. In fact, you don’t even have to ask them. As part of my impossibly glamorous day job, I look after Twitter and Facebook accounts for Radio 4 and at about 0645 yesterday morning, while eating my cornflakes, I noticed a lot of tweets mentioning Radio 4 and complaining that there was something wrong with the network’s FM stream on Internet radios and mobiles. These listeners were hearing classical music when they were expecting Today. Apart from the obvious annoyance, some were evidently freaked out by the presence of sombre music (Brahms was mentioned) on the BBC’s primary news outlet – they feared a national tragedy! I responded to some of these tweets, getting a bit more information from affected listeners, then emailed various people I knew to have responsibility for output at BBC radio.

I also tweeted on the Radio 4 account, keeping followers up to date with my actions. There was a to-and-fro of tweets from listeners (using semi-private @replies and public @mentions as appropriate). Although there was no official line on the problem yet, between us we were able to figure out that the only streams affected were the Windows Media ones used by devices that don’t support Flash. So we got a sense of the size of the problem too (pretty small). And somewhere in the middle of all this, BBC staffer James Hart (@syzygy on Twitter) noticed all the fuss and picked up the phone to exactly the right engineer who proceeded to switch the streams back to their proper locations. By 0915 everything was back to normal.

So, to summarise, in this particular minor crisis, Twitter (and Facebook to an extent) did the following:

  • Alerted us us to the existence of a problem within minutes of it arising, outside working hours.
  • Provided some quite specific data on the scale of the problem, platforms affected etc.
  • Gave us a real-time, two-way connection to affected listeners.
  • Allowed us to update other listeners about the problem quickly.
  • Got the problem fixed quickly.

Picture by Paul L. McCord. Used under licence.

The fifth emergency service

19 June 2017 UPDATE: I’ve just taken down the picture of my staff pass that sat at the top of this post – I’ve been advised that these days it’s thought to be uncool to share pictures of your pass online.

I’m quite new at the BBC so I’m still pretty wide-eyed about the whole experience. Actually being allowed into Broadcasting House and TV Centre still makes my heart race. I just wave my staff pass and I’m in. OMG.

People tell me I should take that staff pass off when I leave the building. I think that’s actually policy, in fact. Health and Safety, privacy and so on. But I don’t. I leave it hanging there and wander round like a big BBC dweeb. Partly because I’m proud of it (showing off a bit really) and partly because it gets me into the most interesting conversations.

And in the time I’ve been wearing the thing, of the literally dozens of encounters it’s triggered, only one has been even slightly negative: the old guy who leaned in close on the Central Line and said, quite loudly, “British Bullshit Corporation innit?” But even that one wasn’t really negative, since it developed into an excellent ten-minute chat about spin in politics.

And there’s more. Not only do people react in a positive and friendly way to my BBC pass, they go further and routinely provide evidence that they trust me more because of it. Evidently, working for the BBC puts me in that category of near-public servants, the AA men and commissionaires and bus inspectors and Salvation Army buglers who are routinely asked to help in public places. The other day, a woman practically jogged across Tavistock Square to ask me how to get to Euston Station: “I saw your badge, I knew you’d help.”

On the train to Birmingham I was asked to watch two small children while a bacon roll was fetched, an American asked me how to get a tour of Parliament, two women asked if it was OK to reverse on a one-way street. I’m the fifth emergency service – the one you ask to hold your brolly or steer your car while you push it (I’m not making this up). I was asked “Is this a good book?” in Foyles at St Pancras. There’s a kid on the till in a Central London supermarket who grills me about current affairs every time I go in.

And the message, of course, of all this happy, trusting behaviour (I can recommend it, it’s a proper cheer-up) is simple. Almost every day, my BBC staff pass provides me with evidence that the Corporation is not the Great Satan that some (even people who’ve got their own BBC passes) would want you to believe. And this, of course, encourages me hugely. The political classes and the haterz in the pop media may have scented the opportunity to topple the whole eighty year-old, self-contradicting edifice but the general public thinks it’s all right and would even trust it to help them top up their mobile (there’s another one).

Am I deluding myself? I don’t think so. I’m sure that some of the nice folk I meet harbour misgivings about executive pay or dumbing down or crowding out and it’s not inconceivable that some of my fellow commuters would like to work me over with a rubber hose or push me under a train because of where I work. It’s just that the data doesn’t support it. I’ve got data and you can’t argue with data.

Do people wearing the staff passes of British Gas or The Telegraph or Schweppes get this treatment? More to the point, do people stop Jeremy Hunt in the street and ask him where the oil goes in a Honda Civic?

Three reasons #PromsXHQ is important

Panorama taken at Prom 62, Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2010

April 2022 UPDATE: the super-high-quality PromsXHQ stream went on to replace the standard Radio 3 online stream for all output and, if you listen on BBC Sounds these days you’re listening in this extraordinarily vivid quality.

Radio 3 have improved the quality of their live online stream – it’s an experiment called #PromsXHQ (‘XHQ’ for Extra High Quality). For the final week of the Proms you can listen at 320kb/s AAC: a big improvement but not, on the face of it, a big deal. I think it’s important, though.Why?

1. It’s awesome. I don’t want to gush and I didn’t expect to notice much difference, but the higher quality is stunning and addictive. I’m no expert – in fact, I have cloth ears – but the additional detail is genuinely gorgeous. Listening to the Berlin Phil last night (a quite awesome Prom, by the way), tiny details of the sound jumped out with an uncanny vividness – the mental scene created by the audio seemed more complete, more involving – a quite delirious experience, in fact. A simple but massively effective product enhancement.

2. It’s from the BBC. There are 320kb/s classical streams on the net but none is from the BBC. This experiment is engineered to BBC standards, from end-to-end, with BBC professionalism and passion for the output. That’s a big deal. Audiophiles and classical fans will want to try it for that reason alone (and I like the fact that it’s a change that came from the engineers, not from a focus group or the marketing department).

3. It’s agame changer.’ This is the kind of incremental improvement that could change the behaviour of listeners. Once they’ve tried the improved service, listeners will want to drag computer and hi-fi closer together so they can run the 320 stream through their stereo or home cinema system. If that happens widely, manufacturers will make hi-fi quality players, streaming to your stereo will become a mainstream activity, players will be incorporated into high-end integrated devices, TVs and so on. It’ll be like when LPs went stereo or when CDs arrived.