Friday, May 21, 2010

Auntie Matter

The wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted the news that the BBC’s 6Music may close at the end of next year has abated somewhat , but the awards last week for Adam & Joe’s and Jarvis Cocker’s shows have brought the station’s mooted demise into sharp focus once more. Coincidentally, the station’s defenders have another 5 days or so to register their protests with the BBC. If you feel so inclined, you can do so here.

The BBC has been a curious anomaly since the introduction of independent broadcasting in 1954, and never more so than now, when broadcasting is becoming ever-more fragmented, catering to niche audiences on lower and lower budgets. What, now, is the BBC’s role? Is it to compete with the large independent broadcasters (ITV, Channel 4, Sky, Capital etc. ) and imitate their output (talent shows, reality shows, shock docs), thereby satisfying the viewing and listening desires of the majority of the licence payers? Or is it to offer an alternative to the mainstream, thereby leading to accusations of obscurantism and elitism? How can it continue to square the circle between being, in effect, a state broadcaster and yet remaining editorially and politically independent? And can its funding mechanism (effectively a compulsory tax on television ownership) be justified in an age when many liberal democracies are seeking to move services out of the public sector and into private hands where, the arguments runs, they will be better administrated, more efficient and less of a burden on taxpayers?

The latter question, at least, was answered for me when I watched an episode of Michael Moore’s TV Nation in the mid-90s on BBC2. In an early segment of the show, Moore ridiculed the BBC’s antiquated funding mechanism, and conducted a vox-pop on a suburban American high street to ask whether the interviewees were aware that one had to pay a licence fee to own a television in the UK. Naturally, said interviewees were aghast at the thought of state encroachment on what they saw as a fundamental right, i.e. the right to slob out in front of the goggle box. They couldn’t believe it, and said so quite forcefully. Later in the same show, Moore broadcast a documentary piece about the then-current Detroit newspaper strike, and mentioned in an aside that this segment had had to be cut from the US edition of the programme, as the network on which it was being shown had business ties with the newspaper. At no point, needless to say, did Moore join the dots between these two disparate stories, and realise that the reason why he could make reference to the strike on the BBC is precisely because of the fact that it’s not owned by private interests. The BBC's role, in this instance, was thrown into sharp relief. Because it's (largely) free of vested commercial interests, it can be (and often is) a haven for the uncommercial and the marginalised. Which brings us back to the matter in hand.

The whole debacle surrounding the proposed closure of 6Music (and, lest we forget, the BBC Asian Network) is, of course, at least partly political, being widely viewed as a sop to the likes of the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press (and, by implication, an incoming Tory government) over such issues as Sachsgate and various phone-in anomalies. These papers (and the party they support) are naturally opposed to the state, and this distaste for anything that smacks of socialism can be seen in the bogeymen that regularly feature in their pages: social workers, progressive education, Labour-run councils... To the likes of the Daily Mail, the BBC is of a piece with these organisations, taking a lot of money from the public to do a job that could be done far more efficiently and successfully by the private sector.

Bizarrely, the BBC has colluded in this deception, citing (as part of its justification for closing 6Music) the notion that the station is encroaching on commercial radio’s audiences. I’ll address the specific folly of that statement in a moment, but for now, can we please bury the broader canard that public=bad, private=good? Even the Labour party had to adopt this Thatcherite mantra over the last 13 years in order to get (and stay in) power. And despite all the events of the last two years, Labour were still fundamentally committed to devolving power away from the state and towards the private sector: cf. the Private Finance Initiatives, the continuing privatisation of utilities and transport, the selling off of state assets to private investors... All this despite the catastrophic failures of, for example, the selling off of HMRC to Mapely, National Express walking away from its obligations running the Edinburgh to London line, the disaster area that is Capita, the banking crisis... I could go on, but if you ever get Private Eye, I probably don’t need to. And as for the accounting con-trick that is PFI... I’ve visited any number of PFI secondary schools, and they’re all, without exception, crap: lowest-common denominator architecture built of the cheapest generic building materials, all in the name of maximising profit. Who cares if the implicit message to pupils is “we don’t care about you or your education. We’re just going to give you the minimum we can legally get away with”? And yet we (or least our politicians and press) are still wedded to the idea that public ownership is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

To return, then, to the specifics of the proposed closure of 6Music: one reason proposed for its closure is the BBC’s mission to provide quality and distinctiveness*. You could argue that this is precisely the BBC’s raison d’etre, i.e. that it should be distinctive from commercial offerings and shouldn’t feel the need to compete. Another reason given is the financial one: that the relatively small audience that 6 enjoys is expensive when worked out on a per capita basis (its small audience, as the report handily obfuscates, is of course due in large part to its transmission method, i.e. via the web and DAB radios only, not the FM radios most of us have at home or in the car). Yet, strangely, the BBC seems to argue against itself on both the commercial and qualitative fronts when it proposes to migrate many of 6 Music’s shows to Radio 2. To quote Thompson in the report that the BBC commissioned on the station:

The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radio 6 Music confirmed that it is popular amongst its fan base and its music offering is distinctive. However, although it has achieved good growth in recent years, it has low reach and awareness and delivers relatively few unique listeners to BBC radio. And whilst 6 Music does not have a target demographic audience, its average listener age of 37 means that it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience. Boosting its reach so that it achieved appropriate value for money would significantly increase its market impact. Given the strength of its popular music radio offering from Radio 1 and 2 and the opportunity to increase the distinctiveness of Radio 2, the BBC has concluded that the most effective and efficient way to deliver popular music on radio is to focus investment on these core networks.

In other words, Thompson thinks that the best way for the BBC to 'maintain quality and distinctiveness' is to take a high quality and distinctive (but relatively low in listenership) radio station and merge it into lower quality and less distinctive siblings, and therefore make the latter less popular. Christ, even I’m confused. As for the argument that 6Music is somehow eating into the commercial market (and that, by implication, Heart FM is just itching to play Parliament, Bogshed, Arvo Part and Burial rather than heavy-rotation Simply Red, Whitney and Boyzone), that particular fallacy is demolished rather effectively by Steve Orchard of Quidem:

Commercial radio can never replicate 6 Music’s cultural value – it’s not viable for us to do so. The commercial landscape has featured many fine rock music stations that have never made any real money – over time we water them down and gently shepherd them back towards the traditional commercial heartland. We will gain nothing from this closure yet the music industry will lose much.

It all rather seems that the closure is a fait accompli, and that Thompson is throwing around excuses full of public service buzzwords to obfuscate his real reasons for closing the station, i.e. to provide a sacrificial lamb to the incoming administration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of the Beeb alone. Unfortunately for him, its small listenership is not taking this lying down, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. If you were on the fence up until now, and I haven’t managed to appeal to your head thus far, it’s time to appeal to your heart. Just go to the 6Music webpage ( and take a look at the track listings for any random show by Don Letts, Gideon Coe, Marc Riley, Craig Charles, Adam Buxton, Bruce Dickinson, Guy Garvey, Stuart Maconie, Tom Robinson or Jarvis Cocker, and ask yourself where you might hear diverse playlists like these on commercial radio. And ask yourself whether the station is worth saving.

Finally, if you’re still not convinced whose side to take, just watch Mark Thompson’s humourless response to Adam Buxton’s offer of a fight here..

And enjoy this mash-up of the Thick of It, Jeremy Paxman and “Thommo”:

And then, finally, ask yourself, "Am I really going to side with this guy Thompson?" If the answer's no, for any reason, please address your concerns to the BBC Trust here.

*"The BBC should concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and that are most at risk of being ignored or facing underinvestment. It should take significant further steps towards building the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its programmes and services."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Moon rocks

I’ve just finished a fantastic book, Moon Dust by Andrew Smith. I’m a total sucker for any (non-fiction) accounts of the Space Race, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff has, until now, remained the one by which all others should be judged. However I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Smith’s tome (published in 2005) just edges out Wolfe’s earlier account. This is slightly unfair, as we’re not quite comparing like with like: The Right Stuff confines itself to the study of the origins of NASA and the early Mercury programme, where ex-pilots like Al Shepard, John Glenn and Gus Grissom became, essentially, “Spam-in-a-can”, slightly more evolved versions of Laika or Able & Baker, for the first orbital earth flights. Smith’s book, on the other hand, looks at the Apollo missions, and specifically the twelve men that walked on the moon, nine of whom are still alive.

Still, Smith’s book just trumps Wolfe’s, to my mind, because as well as outlining the facts and sketching in the characters of the astronauts, the author also considers wider questions of what it meant to travel to the moon, to the individuals concerned but moreover to mankind as a whole. Of course, for most astronauts, their Apollo flight and landing was an early peak in their lives, one that would be impossible to surpass in the decades that followed it. All coped in different ways, but patterns recur. Many went through divorces not long afterwards. Buzz Aldrin succumbed to alcoholism. Neil Armstrong became a virtual recluse. Others, such as Charlie Duke, found religion. Alan Bean turned to art, painting moonscapes over and over again to try and recapture the feelings that he experienced on the lunar surface. Edgar Mitchell turned into a UFO nut. Along the way, there are some revealing vignettes: tales of NASA’s bureaucracy and parsimony abound, never more so than in the story of Aldrin’s framed expenses receipt, with deductions:

PAYEE’S NAME: Col. Edwin E. Aldrin 00018
FROM: Houston, Texas
TO: Cape
Kennedy, Fla.
Pacific Ocean

That these men, who put their lives on the line time and again (and who, lest we forget, were totally uninsurable) were little more than glorified civil servants on relatively meagre wages goes some way to explaining why David Scott and the crew of Apollo 15 sought to profit from Stampgate.

The book’s not all doom and gloom, though. Far from it. Smith has a terrific deftness of style, always finding the right metaphor or simile. As a former rock journalist, he’s good at leavening the heavier stuff with moments of bathetic relief. He manages to include elements of his personal odyssey too (as a child of the 60s who can remember the events around the moon landings, he’s able to also address the question of what the space race meant to him, and how profoundly it affected his life and relationships) without ever interrupting the main thrust of the narrative. And he includes one terrific, and spot-on, passage about the nature of modern celebrity and our relationship with celebrities. It’s occasioned by the author’s presence at a dinner in Nevada, ostensibly honouring many of the Apollo moonwalkers, including Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong who are all there in person, and upon which space-fans and autograph hunters have converged: Armstrong becomes uncomfortable and leaves the auditorium, later to be found staring at the slot machines in the casino.

“Old fashioned fame was acquired., but celebrity is bestowed: it only exists in
relationship with the audience-jury we supply and comprise. Thus, we’re
the arbiters. They owe us. We voted them in and we can vote them
out, more immediately and effectively, in fact, than the politicians who
themselves look and behave more like celebrities every day (perhaps in an effort
to revive our waning interest in their show). Of course, Neil Armstrong is
not a celebrity in the strict sense; because he did something to earn his status
his fame has a hinterland, but the boundaries between the two conditions have
become so confused that we no longer recognise this distinction. So you’d
better sign the autograph, sucker. You’re lucky I even ask.
A widely
reported study in the UK found that people who earn over £35,000 a year feel
more deprived than those who earn less, because they feel licensed to compare
their lives to the more fabulous existence of their democratically appointed
celebrities, and they wonder when their turn’s coming. Is it possible that
our adulation of the famous is no more than a Trojan horse for our own
disappointment and anger? Is this what Armstrong runs from?

Most of all though, Smith’s book boils down to one question- “What was it like to stand on the moon?” On the face of it, this is the most banal and meaningless of questions, on a par with asking a losing X-Factor contestant “How do you feel right now?” Neil Armstrong assiduously avoids the question, and the sort of people that might ask it. Pete Conrad of Apollo 12, Smith reveals, had a stock response to deflect the questioner: “Super! Really enjoyed it!” But at its heart is a real desire to engage with the question of meaning and intent behind the space race. Why exactly did we—i.e. they—i.e. the Americans—travel quarter of a million miles into space? To beat the Soviets? To invent Teflon? Was it political? Scientific? Capitalist PR? And what does that say about us as a species? Are we emboldened by it? Diminished? Ultimately, the effort to get to the moon raises more questions than answers, but whatever it was about (and Smith has a few suppositions), Moon Dust is an engaging, thoughtful and reflective meditation on the subject, mixing three parts of hard-headed science to one part psychology, one part psychedelia, and one part childish wonder.

Smith’s book, while it (of necessity) concentrates on the American half of the space race, gives due credit to Russian pioneers, too, in particular Yuri Gagarin. I knew about Gagarin’s status as the first man of space. I wasn’t aware that he died aged 34 during a routine flight, and that conspiracy theorists posit that he was deliberately killed in the aftermath of a botched, fatal attempt to send one of his compatriots into space (a story that’s too long to repeat here, but which you can find on pp. 129-30).

Gagarin had a profound effect on another boy, but slightly earlier and thousands of miles from Smith (who grew up in California). That boy was Dave Formula, born Dave Tomlinson in Whalley Range, Manchester. Gagarin actually visited Manchester in the early sixties and Formula was there (he can actually be seen in one of the photos taken during the visit). Now, some 50 years later, and after a long career that takes in 60s R&B band St. Louis Union, 70s post-punk nihilists Magazine and 80s proto-New Romantics Visage, it's inspired Formula's debut solo album. Featuring turns from old Magazine hands including Howard Devoto and Barry Adamson, as well as Robert Wyatt and Clint Boon, it’s a concept album of sorts, entitled Satellite Sweetheart, and it documents the romance and optimism of the early years of the space race. The track Elvis In Space captures something of the rock-star status accorded the cosmonauts (and, to this day, to the Apollo astronauts), and it’s presented here for your delectation.

Download Elvis in Space by Dave Formula (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

And, for some light relief, see when Buzz Aldrin met Ali G....

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Radio Silence

Noodling around Spotify this afternoon (and I'm greatly enjoying its new interface), I went looking for Fred Frith and Fred Maher's Massacre. I didn't find them. However, I did find another band called Massacre, and noted that one of their songs was the optimistically entitled Fucking Machine (radio edit).

Which begs a question. Exactly how much radio play did they think they were going to get, given the song's title?

Savage: re Public

If I lived in New York, I'd be going to see this; a fantastic-looking retrospective of John Savage's and Linder Sterling's work: The Secret Public.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Party piece

Many radio reports this morning stated that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg may play Kingmaker within the next few days. I wasn't aware of his enthusiasm for the group. But I look forward to David Cameron revealing a hitherto-undeclared liking for Diesel Park West and Crazyhead, and Gordon Brown asserting that he always had a fondness for early Cud.

Fish-in-barrel indie jokes? We got 'em.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Stile Counsel

I recently attended the opening of Ben Kelly's exhibition International Orange: Please Shut The Gate at the Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh Gallery. A re-mixed and extended version of a similar exhibition held two years previously at the Stanley Picker gallery, it was in part a retrospective of the designer's career, and, you won't be surprised to learn, references the Hacienda on more than one occasion.

However, like his former Factory colleague and sparring partner Peter Saville, he seems to have come to the conclusion that having less enlightened clients than Factory inevitably leads to compromise, and so for the most part this show was a chance for Kelly to work through some of his personal motifs and stylistic signatures, unencumbered by commercial considerations. It also saw this most urban (and urbane) of designers turning to more personal and autobiographical sources of inspiration. As such, the show was a surprise and a delight.

An accompanying talk earlier in the day, at Glasgow's Film Theatre, provided an overview of Kelly's career, from attending the RCA, to designing Seditionaries and the first Paul Howie shop in Covent Garden, to his recent reworking of Fac251. The talk also gave some context for some of the more esoteric items in the exhibition show, and in particular those of most personal significance to the designer. His cast plaque bearing the words "Craven Cottage", which I initially took to be a pledge of allegiance to Fulham FC, turned out to be a reference to the name of the cottage in Appletreewick. Yorkshire, where Kelly grew up. Two coracles, a collaboration with designer Michael Marriott, both hand-hewn and a long way from his more familiar formal language of girders and hazard stripes, were apparently inspired by holidays in Ireland as a small boy. A chrome-plated bronze walking stick, placed on a rectangular reflective frame, was similarly baffling until I learned it was a cast of his late father's own stick. The latter exhibit also showed off Kelly's penchant for rendering a familiar and prosaic object in another, unfamiliar material; his Duchampian urinal, remoulded in orange plastic rather than the more usual ceramic, was another example of this tendency.

Possibly the most personal exhibit was a large, farm gate, its rotten parts removed and replaced with new wood by the original manufacturers on Kelly's instruction, so that it resembled a patchwork, and then branded and inlaid with logos and symbols, from the peace sign to the "Use Hearing Protection" graphic that was ubiquitous during Factory's first few years. This new-found penchant for the countryside gave the exhibition its subtitle (Rural Studies), and this subtitle was rendered in different styles by 5 or 6 different designers (including Peter Saville and Graphic Thought Facility) on another wall of the gallery. The most recent piece, a meticulously-measured country stile reproduced in miniature by a 3D printer, was the most succinct piece in tying together the modern and the traditional. The exhibition has now closed, but given that it seems to resurface every couple of years, there's every chance it may reappear at some point in the future, suitably revisited and with additional new items. If it does, go and see it, as Kelly remains one of the most interesting and thoughtful industrial designers in the UK.