Monday, 5 July 2010

How my friend Chris saved BBC 6 Music

There were obviously a few significant strands to the campaign to save 6 Music. The grassroots efforts of the listeners, with their Facebook campaigns, twitter hashtags, real live demonstrations and flashmobs. Adam Buxton was the perfect poster boy for the campaign, and he rose to the challenge admirably, somehow successfully articulating the listeners' rage through his deafult filter of knowing lunacy.

Other important pop culture figures like David Bowie and Damon Albarn weighed in to save the station. Jarvis Cocker's impassioned "rant" at the Sony Awards in May (hear my interview with him about it here) left the BBC hierarchy in no doubt that the fuss over 6 Music was not going to die down.

In fact, the sustained level of support the Save 6 Music campaign enjoyed from the moment this story was leaked to The Times in February, to today's decision, is a tribute to the passion (and savvy) of its fans.

But I would argue the BBC's plan to can the station was fatally holed by an email my mate Chris wrote to Ed Vaizey MP, who was then the Conservative Party spokesman on culture. Ed's response gave the campaign hope and momentum.

Every day for the last eight years, Chris's company, CMU music, has sent out a free daily email for people who work in the music industry. At the last count he had around 18,500 subscribers. Within a week of the decision to close 6 Music being announced by the BBC, Chris wrote an open letter to Ed Vaizey. In the email, he explained why he thought the BBC should cherish, rather than close 6 Music, and asked Ed for his help.

The email itself, (published on Chris's personal blog) is worth reading. It is a long, beatifully-pitched and incredibly well-informed piece of writing. Ed may not have known about Chris, or his blog, before he received Chris's email, but he clearly felt it was a credible enough forum to send a strong message to the BBC and the BBC Trust about what senior Conservatives were thinking about all this. Ed's reply is also posted on Chris's blog.

Chris press released the email exchange to all his contacts. Within minutes he had a call from someone purporting to be from BBC News online who said (breathlessly, I'd like to think):

"Is this genuine?"
"Can you send us those emails?"
And he did.

The exchange was confirmed at Vaizey's end, and the story was taken up by The Guardian and The Telegraph (probably picking it up from a PA re-write) before gaining wider currency in the broadcast and online media. I cannot find the orginal story (if it was ever published) on BBC news online at all.

In seems in that period in early March, Ed Vaizey wrote a number of emails to outraged listeners who contacted him. You can see one of Ed's emails on the Facebook campaign to save 6 Music, but the email to Chris, as far as I am aware, was the first, and it was a damn good scoop.

I think Chris's initial contact may have gone some way towards persuading Ed Vaizey to come out in favour of 6 Music. It was certainly the very first shaft of light for 6 Music's fans. What was originally presented as a fait accompli suddenly looked shaky and the station's supporters found they had gained a powerful friend in a very high place.

The CMU website doesn't really break stories. I was having lunch with Chris a week or so after he sent his email to Ed Vaizey and asked what other exclusives he's nailed, expecting him to reel off a list.

The best, no, the only one he could come up with was when Anthony Hall resigned from the BPI over their "three strikes and you're out" policy on illegal file-sharing. Anthony sent a copy of his resignation letter direct to CMU, rather than the paywalled Music Week, ensuring maxiumum online exposure. Clever Anthony.

But that was it. Which makes the Ed Vaizey email and its subsequent impact all the more interesting.

So hats off to Chris and congratulations to everyone who fought the campaign. I worked at 6 Music as a freelance music newsreader and had a great time there, and I'm pleased it's going to remain part of the BBC's radio portfolio.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

John Inverdale and Alison Booker

Last week John Inverdale made his second visit to BBC Surrey since I started working there. Although he lives in Kingston (just outside our patch, and despite what anyone tells you, including many residents, NOT in Surrey), John is also Chairman of Rugby at Esher RFC. Esher are the most successful rugby club in our patch, and last season were promoted back to the Championship in stunning style, winning every game but one.

I approached John at the Sony Awards in May and asked if he would like to drop by BBC Surrey in the run-up to Wimbledon, to talk about Oxshott Andy's chances of winning the championship and Esher's plans now they were promoted. He asked if we'd like to have him in on the Monday Wimbledon started. I jumped at the chance.

John actually ended up coming in a day later than planned, but it was still great to get half an hour of his time on a day when he would be working long into the evening, presenting live television.

Why am I telling you this? Well, John Inverdale is the reason I work in radio. Many years ago during a summer break from university I was watching Wimbledon at home on TV. The match being shown was a little dull, so I wandered into the kitchen where the (then) BBC Radio Five was on.

Having picked a match, TV is more-or-less bound to stick with it to its conclusion, but radio can abandon a tedious error-fest, ping out to commentators and their co-hosts at the other courts, bring in some interesting studio guests, range off into the furthest reaches of the grounds to get a flavour of the non-tennis side of the tournament, all the while keeping you informed of every single significant score as it happens.

That kind of style has almost come about out of necessity - tennis doesn't lend itself to radio commentary (the time between each stroke is too short to describe it), so unless it's a really big match where listeners are hanging on the outcome of every shot, the presenter has to tell the story of the whole tournament as it is at that exact moment. And John Inverdale did it in a way that seemed almost magical. He kept his eye on the scores and would link fluently to the court commentators, who all seemed to be as articulate, warm and well-informed as he was.

John injected interest into meandering conversations, let them flow when they deserved it and asked exactly the right question of whoever he was talking to at the time. The light bulb went on and I decided there and then that I was going to try and make a career in the media as a radio presenter.

A few years later, in 1997, John won Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Awards. I was there (a young, wet-behind-the-ears wannabe, working, I think, as a general gopher for the Radio Academy) and was absolutely thrilled that the radio industry rated him as much as I did.

After a long night, I was trying to find my way out of the Grosvenor House Hotel when I bumped into John and his wife, possibly as refreshed as I was, clutching his Sony, and trying to do the same. I blurted out that he was my inspiration and how glad I was for him. He thanked me, shook my hand and gave off one of the happiest grins I'd seen in a long time, before his wife dragged him out to their waiting car.

Nine years later I started presenting at 5live and although John and I had the odd chat on air, I never met him, because he would be on location at whatever sporting event he was covering and I would be in the studio.

When he first dropped in on my show at BBC Surrey, it was during my first week on air so it didn't seem appropriate to say anything, but when he came in last Tuesday I introduced him adding something like "and purely for the purposes of embarrassing him, John is the reason I decided to become a broadcaster, so everything about this show is entirely his fault."

Given he was there to talk about Wimbledon, it felt right to do it. As I expected, a set up like that quickly led to a discussion about how many Wimbeldons he'd covered (25) from when it was on Radio 2, then Radio 5, then 5live and his subsequent shift into television.

A dear ex-colleague of mine, Alison Booker, died of cancer on Thursday. Ali was the best broadcaster at the first BBC radio station I worked at - BBC Oxford. We lost touch, but thanks to Twitter and Facebook, regained it. She lived with her disease for years and wrote a very droll blog about it. Just over two weeks ago she won a major radio award for her cancer diaries. She was too ill to attend the ceremony, but was ambushed on tape with the news at Sobell House hospice. In her impromptu acceptance speech, she thanked her tumours "for making it all possible".

People like Ali and John are the benchmarks for the sort of presenter I want to become. I've got a long way to go, but I'm grateful for the way they've influenced my life, as broadcasters and unwitting mentors.