Tag Archives: online

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.

Record label angst

If the last three generations (five years = one generation) of music industry executives had been contestants on The Apprentice they’d all have been fired by now. So many self-destructive manoeuvres, so many technological and commercial dead-ends, so little readiness to try stuff. And I speak as a supporter of the industry: I don’t believe the whole superstructure of music production, packaging and distribution could or should be swept away or that labels and publishers and collection agencies and allied trades are evil or at some kind of Darwinian inflection point.

The 100 year history of recorded music is a glorious episode in the story of human culture and we should celebrate that. The risk, though, is that the current mess turns into some kind of terminal crisis. We might easily wind up remembering that hundred-year heyday as a story with a beginning (recording, mechanical reproduction, Caruso), a middle (CDs and the shift to bits) and a particularly grisly end. Nobody wants that.

There’s a good interview over at Paid Content with Terry McBride, one of the people who could, if the industry were ready to listen to him, help save recorded music. Real wisdom there.

I’ve been really trying to get to like We7, Peter Gabriel’s latest, ad-funded, online music business, but it’s not working. There’s a lot of good stuff there and it’s all free but the ads are utterly intrusive. There’s no way around it, they just ruin the music. Every track has a short ad inserted at the beginning and sometimes this is just bizarre (try listening to Lou Reed’s miserable classic Berlin with chirpy ads between the tracks, or to Shostakovich’s vast, mournful 13th Symphony) but it quite quickly becomes utterly unbearable.

The good news is that if you download a track you’ll find that in a month’s time you can go back to the site and download it again without the ad. It’s also pretty straightforward to remove the ads yourself (and that’s not forbidden in the site’s T&Cs). But it’s all pointless. Most current or popular stuff, such as that from Sony BMG, We7’s first major label signing, can’t be downloaded anyway—you can only stream it, which makes the ads unavoidable.

So I wonder if there’s an audience that won’t be driven crazy by the ads. Is it possible that teenagers live in such an altered musical world, for instance, that they can accept commercial messages as part of an increasingly heterogeneous audio stream? If you’re accustomed to soaking up your beats from the tiny speakers in a mobile phone, maybe ads are less of an intrusion—you just tune them out. Or maybe it’s got to do with the passing of the album—ads are not a big deal if you’re not hung up on the integrity of the carrier. If you consume music track-by-track from multiple free sources they’re not interrupting anything after all: they’re just the cost of the music you love…

Could the competition referral save Kangaroo?

Competition regulators could force Project Kangaroo to open its player to all-comers and trigger a renaissance in British video creation: OpenKangaroo?

The Office of Fair Trading (“acting decisively to stop hardcore or flagrant offenders”) has referred Project Kangaroo to the Competition Commissioner. Sky and Virgin kicked off the enquiry so they’ll be pleased with the result. But there’s a reasonable chance this referral will be good news all round, even for Kangaroo.

First, and most obvious, the 24-week delay (that’s how long it takes) puts launch back to early 2009. By then the entire market will have shifted again: just remember how different everything looked when Kangaroo was first discussed. Back then (almost exactly a year ago) VoD looked fairly simple: it was going to be a paid-for, walled garden kind of business with TV shows delivered in standalone applications, wrapped in heavy-duty DRM.

Now, led by the BBC’s second-generation streaming iPlayer, VoD looks very different: it’s free, it’s delivered in a browser and DRM is fading fast. The OFT’s decision has handed Kangaroo the opportunity to sit out the next six months of cock-ups and dead ends and time travel to a different context all together. Sure it’s risky (and costly) to sit on your hands for half a year in a fast moving business but the opportunity to watch the other early entrants tripping over their laces and going bust surely can’t be missed.

The second reason why a referral might be a good thing will be more interesting to viewers and independent creators. Nobody’s betting on a drastic outcome for the enquiry. Hardly anyone’s expecting the Commissioner to close Kangaroo or break up the joint venture. The smart money’s on some fairly tough pre-launch modifications to the service and back to business. For instance, Sky and other competitors will want access to the Kangaroo player on equal terms. But granting Sky and any limited list of broadcasters slots on the Kangaroo player would require a competition enquiry of its own: every TV broadcaster, every video director, every creator of anything remotely like a TV programme will want a slot too (and that includes you lot with your Qik phones). And if the Commissioner obliges Kangaroo to open the player to all-comers that’ll be something like a revolution. An open Kangaroo will be a very different creature from the planned one.

It’ll be a platform to begin with. And it’ll probably be a tiered affair, with the investing partners’ shows featured at the top and the stuff from the great unwashed further down or out at the fringes. It’ll need a self-service section, something that works more like YouTube than a buttoned-down TV station. So it’ll need to have tools that let creators and uploaders make money, that give them access to Kangaroo’s presumably awesome ad sales resource. It might have shooting and editing tools, workshops and an advice forum. It might even commission content.

Suddenly, a post-OFT Kangaroo looks like a whole different kind of place: Kangaroo 2.0? OpenKangaroo? Sky’s self-interested intervention might have a most unexpected result. It might turn Kangaroo from—let’s face it—a slightly desperate tactical response to the seething grassroots video revolution into a national asset: a focus for the UK’s creative community. The new Kangaroo might be a genuine British hub for the emerging layer of video creators occupying the space below the telly production indies who got their leg up from Channel 4 25 years ago. In fact, it might be ‘a Channel 4 for the rest to us’. I don’t know about you but I’m suddenly finding the prospect of an OFT referral much more interesting than I’d ever expected it could be. Fingers crossed.