Tag Archives: curation

You know, actual curation

Patrick Keiller's 'Robinson Institute' at Tate Britain

Everyone’s going on about curation these days. We’re all curators now. But yesterday I witnessed some of the old-fashioned variety, the kind they do in art galleries, and I was blown away.

I took two of my kids to Tate Britain (four different modes of transport: train, tube, boat and bus – I suspect that’s what they’ll remember about the day). First I dragged them round Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ which, in truth, was my main reason for schlepping across London (like I said, four modes of transport…). I love Keiller’s films (although I haven’t seen Robinson in Ruins yet) and I was really excited to see what he’d come up with in an art gallery. It’s a stunning exhibit – works from the Tate’s collection are brought together with passages from Keiller’s films, books, film stills and artefacts of his own (over 120 works in all).

This is curation as storytelling as art. The connections Keiller makes are provocative, funny, illuminating. Nineteenth century romantic and picturesque imagery (landscapes, landowner portraits, animal pictures) interleaved with documents of resistance to enclosure, maps, signposts and other inscriptions made by humans on the landscape. Also those Keiller signature images of mysterious and desolate scientific and military establishments and quite a lot of post-war conceptual art. And the persistent Robinson cosmic entrainment stuff is here: meteors, geological patterns, lay lines and other psycho-geo tropes. It’s magically done. A situationist people’s history. A visual poem.

And the designers have done simple things to parenthesise the content – the works are offset from the gallery walls in a kind of linear zig-zag that gives the choice a kind of scrapbook-feel. The Tumblr/Pinterest generation will get this. It’s a cheeky, delirious intellectual walkabout.

Next (after the compulsory visit to the cafe for cake, obviously) we walked through to the Clore Gallery and caught what I learn was the second-to-last last day of another beautiful specimen of the curator’s art. David Blayney Brown is the man behind the wonderful ‘Romantics‘, a show that mashes up the work of the Clore’s anchor tenant, JMW Turner, with that of his contemporaries to tell the story of Romanticism in a way that was hugely and pleasurably engaging for an art history pygmy like myself (I notice that the broadsheet reviews for the show when it opened nearly two years ago were pretty snooty about the accessible format – I think this kind of curation with a personality will put critics’ noses out of joint – it seems to be straying onto their territory).

This is (was, sorry!) a highly-visible kind of curation – opinionated and full of information about the period and the context. Big, assertive statements about the context and the work are printed in huge type alongside pictures grouped together in ‘pods’. It’s a really vigorous narrative, full of energy and ideas. I came away with a sense of the flow of events and the interaction of personalities that I’d never have got from the mute curation of the old school. Gripping storytelling about art.

And the whole experience (not the cake, obviously, or the boat) was a quite bracing reminder that this curation business is really not about pointing, in a sort of dilatory way, at stuff we like the look of (I called it ‘the curatorial twitch’ in an earlier post), but about the hard graft of assembling artefacts, information, context and inspiration to tell really important stories (see the previous post about Radio 3’s awe-inspiring week of Schubert output for an example of how to do this on the radio).

Total radio – six reasons BBC Radio 3’s ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome

Franz Schubert

The ‘Spirit of Schubert’ finished a week ago. It was Radio 3’s biggest ‘takeover’ yet – over 200 hours of output devoted exclusively to the work of Franz Schubert. Every one of his ‘performable works’ was played, many in brand new versions, some for the first time ever. It was a remarkable thing – and for a Radio 3 new boy, a very inspiring and energising lesson in Radio 3’s values.

And that brings me to the required disclaimer. I work at Radio 3. But planning for the Schubert began before I joined and my concern is principally with the interactive stuff, so I can’t claim any credit for the idea or for its on-air execution. So I’m not neutral but I think I’ve got enough distance from the thing to offer some observations. So, here are my six reasons why the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome radio:

  1. It was a pure radio phenomenon. That’s worth remembering. A radio station did this. The radio industry seems to have more-or-less ignored it but it was a huge, joyful, all-consuming radio stunt. Not the first but quite possibly the biggest ever. And I’m pretty sure you couldn’t do this on TV – you’d have to steamroller too many appointments and it would be far too expensive. Radio rocks!
  2. It was a public service wonder. The kind of resolutely public service activity, in fact, that justifies the UK’s hybrid radio ecology and should have made executives at Classic FM as happy as those at the BBC. It was immensely brave – testing the limits of both station and audience (over 1200 performances, nearly 700 of them songs!) but I firmly expect the net benefit to be positive, both for Radio 3 and for radio in general – it raises the profile of radio and reminds everyone that singular, courageous content can still come from the senior service. Incidentally, I think it’s instructive to compare ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ with Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame‘ – two editorially-ambitious classical music offerings that bridge online and on-air and, between them, neatly define the quite exhilarating range on offer from UK radio right now.
  3. It was editorially sophisticated. It was excellent radio. BBC values were on display everywhere. The composer’s story was told in many different ways, using the tools of the scholar and curator, of the music broadcaster and of the radio storyteller. In content terms it was a triumph, presenting the life and work of an individual in ways that will, for some listeners – me, for instance – have been life-changing.
  4. It was packed with innovation. The season saw a step change for Radio 3: in integration of social media, in multiplatform production, in new storytelling techniques and programme formats, in on-air promotion of online content, and in production areas like computerised playout and programme metadata. And that’s just the areas I know about. It was a hothouse for new stuff, much of which will stick.
  5. It made exceptional use of the station’s assets. Dozens of hours of live performance, big OBs from unusual locations, deep music scholarship and a team (on both sides of the glass) comfortable with a big story.
  6. It was real storytelling. An immensely satisfying, impossibly engaging story. Reading the overwhelmingly positive reactions online, many talk about ‘falling in love’ with Schubert and about the emotional difficulty of the final stages of his story and – especially – about missing him now that it’s over. It was the kind of bridge to a distant historic period that you can’t get from a one-hour doc or an evening of output. The word is overused in broadcasting but if ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ wasn’t a ‘journey’ then nothing is.

Highlights. There were many. I loved the nightly Play Schubert for Me – a presented show that blended listeners’ voices, records and live performance beautifully. Really sophisticated night-time radio. The In Tune Salon – a frankly unlikely mix of musicology, history and performance set to a drivetime rhythm that really worked and was only occasionally overburdened with music (there was a lot to get in!). The Schubert Lab – quite a feat: upbeat, fun, live radio packed with real musical scholarship – and packaged in shortform nuggets that will thrive in the long tail.

And, if you don’t mind me highlighting some content from my area: @FranzIsUnwell – the clever and moving use of Twitter to tell Schubert’s story (a Caper production for BBC Radio 3) and the highly-immersive library of ‘Schubert Lab’ videos, an entertaining learning tool that will continue to inspire indefinitely (and should be added to the music curriculum at schools everywhere!).

And the station was on fire throughout. There wasn’t a single slack or lazy minute in the 200 hours of output. Sitting in studio 80B‘s booth – as I was lucky enough to be able to do quite a lot during the eight-and-a-half days – what I saw was a radio station bursting with confidence and passion for its work. It was glorious.

  • There’s a handy round-up of all the online content from the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ on the Radio 3 blog. Richard Leeming, who produced the interactive element of the season for Radio 3, wrote an interesting account from behind the scenes.

Pick of the Week all at once II

Last week I chopped up Pick of the Week and played it back all at once. I’ve tried it again with this week’s programme: selected by Hardeep Singh Kohli. Once again, apologies to all involved!

Radio 4’s Pick of the Week – all at once

All the clips from Radio 4's Pick of the Week stacked up in Garageband

A week ago I speculated here about what listeners might do with BBC radio content if allowed to play with it. I came up with something quite linear – a kind of listener-curated Pick of the Week. Here’s something a bit more playful (or dumb, depending). It’s the fifteen clips from Sunday’s Pick of the Week, selected by Graham Seed, all at once.

Click play to hear the cacophony. I think it adds up to quite a pleasing, BBC radio-shaped lump of sound – and another way of expressing the variety and unpredictability that is BBC radio. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could provide tools for listeners to play in this way? Respectful apologies to all the programme-makers involved (and to Graham Seed too, of course).

It’s not entirely unproduced – I stacked the fifteen clips as tracks in Garageband, trimmed them all to 30 seconds each and then staggered them to come in at four-second intervals. This means that the maximum you’ll hear at once is eight. There are no fades, apart from the final clip, which seemed to need one.

You’ll hear: Supermarket Symphony (Radio 4), Composer of the Week, Gian Carlo Menotti (Radio 3), Barbara Windsor’s Funny Girls, Hylda Baker (Radio 2), George Bernard Shaw, Widowers’ Houses (Radio 3), Bird Fancyers Delight (Radio 4), Afternoon Play, Gilda and her Daughters in Looking for Goldie (Radio 4), Twenty Minutes, Romance (Radio 3), Down and Out in the the City of Angels (Radio 4), The Robeson Files (Radio 2), Johnnie Walker meets Neil Diamond: New York City Born and Raised (Radio 2), Tim Key’s Suspended Sentence (Radio 4), A Hundred Years of Mervyn Peake (Radio 4), Afternoon Play, Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You (Radio 4), Desert Island Discs, John Graham (Radio 4) and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (Radio 4).

Allowing listeners to curate BBC radio

A Radio Times radio listing written on Steve Bowbrick's hand in felt pen

It was a quite brilliant weekend for BBC radio – so much good stuff that really stood out. Loads of radio that wasn’t just gripping, interesting, entertaining but was also sonically fascinating – a uniquely radio experience. Sounds that I really wanted to share. Another testament to what’s unique and different about radio (and BBC radio in particular, obviously).

There was the awesome boom and roar of 5 live’s Haye-Klitschko coverage, Craig Charles’ inspired heavyweight Motown vs Stax evening over on 6 Music, Paddy O’Connell’s brilliant riff on the Johann Hari story on Broadcasting House, the oddly intimate sound of sheep shearing on Radio 4’s On Your Farm, Saturday Live’s hilariously unpredictable live broadcast from centre court on the morning of ladies’ final day, a gorgeous Beverley Surprise Minor on Bells on Sunday, Stewart Lee on why comedians are better than everybody else, Jarvis Cocker introducing a concert of electronic music from Radio 3, Von D. May’s favourite synth sound with Mistajam on Radio 1, mindblowing Hindu devotional music at the crack of dawn on Asian Network, and a song about Elvis’s sock by the Valentines on Radio 2.

And it got me thinking about how you get people to share great radio, to tell their friends about it, to spread the loveliness. At the BBC, we’ve got ‘sharetools’ (the palette of social network links you’ll find on most BBC content pages these days) and embed buttons and these days there’s quite a lot of content that you can download and keep forever but rights and agreements and regulation make it difficult for us to allow listeners to share the actual sounds. But could we allow listeners to go beyond ‘liking’ our stuff and encourage them to lift clips, assemble montages of good stuff and share them with friends? I mocked up a sort of sample montage from the amazing output I heard at the weekend – no clip is longer than about twenty seconds and the whole thing is less than four minutes. I’ve added in a little linking element between clips – the kind of transition you might offer listeners to pick from a menu if you built a tool to do this.

Would you share BBC audio in this way? Would you go to the trouble of curating a montage like this if BBC radio provided a tool to do it? And what form would a tool take? A button on programme pages? An addition to the transport controls in Radioplayer? A mobile app?

Download the MP3.

David Hepworth – a Q&A about curating music

Word Magazine issue 100 covermount CD artwork

It has been my privilege, over the last few years, to write a few pieces for Britain’s best music (and arts and movies and stuff) magazine The Word – including, a couple of issues back, an article about the curation boom (my articles about Wikipedia and archiving the web are on the web site).

The magazine’s publisher is David Hepworth (its editor – and the man to whom I tremblingly submit my copy – is David’s long-time publishing partner Mark Ellen). David oversees the selection of tracks for Now Hear This, The Word’s covermount CD: a monthly curatorial gem that regularly stays in our car CD player for the whole month (until the next one comes out).

I asked David a few questions about this rather successful example of 21st Century music curation (and also about his Saturday morning vinyl curation habit #platterday).


SB: tell me about the Word covermount. How does it come together each month?

DH: It’s put together by Andrew Harrison and Alex Gold with ideas thrown in by everybody else.

Are you extensively schmoozed by label PRs? Do bands send you stuff?

The record business is on the bones of its arse but you wouldn’t know that from all the stuff we get sent. Yes. PRs are instructed to try and get certain acts on the CD. it’s one of the few places where they can place unheard music and assure it gets heard.

Are there punch-ups in Word Towers about who’s on it or do you keep it all to yourself until its done?

No punch ups. You chase thirty tracks and you can’t get all of them. You might get twenty possibles which you edit down to fifteen. You need a mix.

What are the economics of the covermount? A few years ago everyone seemed to have one – and the newspapers went mad for them. How do they work?

Newspapers etc. have them for totally different reasons. They pay big money for music in order to outsell their competitors. Eventually they realised that the likes of Prince were taking them for a ride. They cost a lot of money because you have to pay mechanical royalties with them.

What’s the fate of the covermount? Will you replace it with a memory stick or a Spotify playlist?

No. It works because it’s a physical object.

Supplementary question: tell me about #platterday. Is it a model for publishing in the social media era or just what you do with a bacon sandwich on Saturday mornings?

I just got out my old deck and loved restoring the ceremony of playing black vinyl records on Saturday morning. Twitter just seemed an obvious way to share that experience. I posted a picture of a shelf full of my records and people started saying “oh play that one” which is clearly insane.

What is curation in this new sense? Is it different from being an editor?

I dunno. What I’m always trying to do is say something that doesn’t sound like the usual over-heated recommendations. It’s very hard. I find 99% of recommendations don’t actually convey anything about the nature of the thing recommended at all. They’re just endless variations on the expression “it’s brilliant!” Saying something meaningful about music is very hard, that’s why most people don’t bother.

Is there a business in it?

Shouldn’t think so.


David keeps a rather good blog of his own and curates a storytelling night called True Stories Told Live.

UPDATE: I asked David why he no longer picks the tracks himself. He says:

I did it for three years and was only too delighted to pass the job on. If you choose the tracks you have the unenviable job of writing the accompanying blurbs, which is like pulling teeth.

The curatorial twitch

One of George Bowbrick's books - full of newspaper and magazine cuttings

My dad was book mad. He owned a couple of thousand books, mostly non-fiction. He was an old-school, working class, self-taught polymath, a bus conductor-know-all (I’ve written about his dictionaries before). And he had this habit. He would snip cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Almost daily he’d snip a story of some import and file it away inside one of his many books.

And there was method in this compulsive snipping and filing. The cutting always went inside a book of some relevance to the story – cuttings about Kennedy and Nixon inside an American history, cuttings about captured Nazis inside a book about the war. An Alan Coren column in a Thurber collection. Some books were bulging – mum and I used to laugh as we pulled a book down from a shelf and a confetti of cuttings fell out.

But this carefully-assembled distributed scrapbook was pointless – an essentially write-only collection that was destined never to to be seen (the fact that the whole lot was destroyed in a flood at Christmas is just a melancholy full stop to the story). No one was ever going to read or reflect on these cuttings. And there’s an exact parallel with my dad’s manic clipping and saving in the universal curatorial reflex of the social networks. The three-stage process: see something interesting, read it and then – click – it’s shared. It’s a kind of twitch, already so natural that we’ve forgotten how we got started and when.

Sharing is now so part of the process that it influences the kind of content we absorb. I’d love the paywalls to work but I suspect they’ll fail because they short-circuit this curatorial reflex. I cancelled my Times subscription when I realised that being unable to share the marvellous stuff in there – Aaronovitch, Moran, Finkelstein – made it less valuable. I enjoyed it less because I couldn’t share it with my friends. The big publishers can’t ignore the curatorial habit – they’ll have to adjust their offerings to accommodate the twitch.

I clip and save obsessively too (is it a heritable trait?). Since we closed Speechification.com I’ve been posting things at Audiolibre.net and at /Reading. Audiolibre’s a bit like Speechification but I’m sticking to sound recordings that are free to republish. Public domain, creative commons, out-of-copyright stuff that’s explicitly shared by its owners (like the RTE programme that’s at the top now). And there’s plenty of this stuff out there too but it’s a bit of an adventure and I’m looking for new sources (send me your favourites).

And /Reading is a straight copy of James Bridle’s Mattins. He’s been reading bits of books he loves into his phone for a while now (although he’s evidently on a break right now). This is a twist on the trusted guide thing. I trust James to switch me onto writing I wouldn’t have met otherwise and the excerpt he reads makes the whole thing more vivid – and I can listen on the way to work. He’s been reading mainly fiction and poetry but I’m focused (like my old man) on non-fiction – and I’m trying to dig up stuff you won’t find on the non-fiction table at Waterstones. Like this out-of-print anthology of writing about the industrial revolution collected by Mass Observation founder Humphrey Jennings.

/Reading is more of an experiment – should I publish my reading with no commentary or should I add a short review or some context? Will people find my selections useful or are they just bleeding chunks too short to inform a decision? Is this legitimate recommendation or self-indulgence? Will publishers be OK with these short readings? /Reading uses Audioboo because it’s just so accessible (and because it’s easy to lift and embed the audio). For Audiolibre I’ve used an HTML 5 player which means it’ll work on an iPhone or an iPad. Both are available as podcasts and that seems like the right way to package this stuff.

I’ll keep collecting and sharing (because I can’t help it) and I’ll see what happens – tell me what you think and suggest new audio sources and books too.

What is Speechification?

Here are some words I wrote to prompt me in a meeting that Russell and Roo and myself went to at the BBC yesterday. It was like the nicest pitch meeting you’ve ever been to. Lots of important and interesting people from the Internet side of the BBC asked many questions and made many suggestions: a really open and positive reaction to what we’re doing with BBC stuff at Speechification and Watchification. Thanks especially to Jem Stone and to Sophie Walpole for putting it all together.

What is Speechification?

It’s curation. For years now visionary-types have been saying that pretty soon people will be curating media. Well, we’re actually doing it. The world’s just been waiting for a large enough and accessible enough bank of content to play with. So we roam the corridors of the BBC’s archive selecting the stuff we think is really excellent, unusual or important and putting it on display at Speechification.com.

It’s cheeky. We definitely push at the edges of what it’s OK to do with BBC content and we do this not because we’re pirates or vandals but because we want to exert some gentle pressure on the corporation’s leaders to do the right thing about rights, access, archiving etc.

It’s shareholder activism. Greens who want to influence the behaviour of smokestack corporations buy a handful of shares and show up at the annual general meeting to heckle the board. We don’t own shares in the BBC but we’re licence fee-payers so we’re at least stakeholders: opinionated, supportive stakeholders.

It’s a celebration. The BBC’s speech output is one of the glories of British culture. I don’t want to sound smarmy but listening to an evening of great programmes on Radio 4 is a privilege: the kind of condensed emotional and intellectual experience that leaves you smiling without knowing exactly why. We want the world to know about this stuff.

It’s unofficial PR for the neglected stuff. Mark Damazer is on record as saying that Radio 4 doesn’t do a good enough job of marketing its own output. He’s dead right. More than once we’ve featured programmes at Speechification that go out at ungodly hours, don’t have any useful information at bbc.co.uk and weren’t important enough to warrant a press release. We’re often the only people to write about a show anywhere. For these shows we’re an unpaid marketing department. We should bill them.