Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On the Mic - Surrey Life - November 2012

Surrey Life's December issue is out, which means I can put my column for November's issue (below) up here.

"I’ve been presenting the breakfast show on BBC Surrey for the last three years. It’s been great, but I’ve decided to move on.
Thankfully the lovely people who look after BBC Surrey have very kindly agreed to let me continue presenting my Saturday show, but my part in hosting the weekday breakfast programme will come to an end. It’s time to give someone else a go.

Presenting BBC Surrey breakfast has been a gas. It really has. The best job I’ve ever had, bar none. In the last three years I have met hundreds of extraordinary people and learned a vast amount about our stunningly beautiful county. I have had the opportunity to visit some wonderful places and record some fascinating stories. 

Here are a few highlights...

- Meeting Dame Judi Dench, the wildlife artist David Shepherd and Springwatch’s Chris Packham at the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield. Dame Judi has been described as the world’s greatest living actress. She also has a thing for red squirrels, she told us, as she officially opened the centre’s new enclosure. 
- Trudging through a eighteen inches of snow to our Guildford studios at five in the morning during the winter of 2009/10. At times like this people rely on BBC local radio, and making sure we were able to get to our own buildings was a major logistical operation. The breakfast team had been gathered from all corners and we were holed up in a nearby hotel. When we awoke and saw the amount of snow which had fallen overnight we realised using our cars to make the half mile trip to the station was out of the question. We got on air on time, and as the morning progressed, it became apparent we were playing a critical part in sharing vital information about the state of our snowbound county.

- Presenting BBC Surrey breakfast live in the morning sunshine from the 2011 Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Our open-air studio consisted of two computers and a picnic table, five floors up, next to the breakfast bar on the turfed roof of the media centre which overlooks the grounds of the All England Club. It was as glorious as it sounds.

- Having a testicle examination live on air. It would be the sort of thing that would make anyone nervous at the best of times. Providing a running commentary into a microphone whilst a doctor had an important part of my body in his hands certainly made for an interesting experience. 
- Interviewing a gentleman in my studio about an amateur dramatic production he was directing. I was convinced I had met him before. I had. He was my old headmaster from when I attended West Byfleet Middle School in 1983. I hadn’t seen him for 29 years. I love the way that radio can bring you into contact with the most unlikely people at the most unexpected times. 
- Providing a live commentary on the Olympic torch relay as it made its way through Surrey for the final time. Our position on the media bus gave us a grandstand view of everything as it happened. It was surreal, moving, inspiring, emotionally draining and the most fun I think I’ve ever had with a microphone.

There have been many more memorable moments, and though part of me is loath to say goodbye, I think it’s the right time. I’ve got a few more things I want to do with my career which just aren’t compatible with getting up at 3.45am six days a week.

I will remember my time doing the biggest show on BBC Surrey with considerable fondness. It’s been a privilege doing this job, and I would recommend it to anyone. If you fancy it… there’s a vacancy. Give the boss a call!"


December's edition of Surrey Life is on sale now for £3.15

You can find some of my previous columns below:

October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth in harmony
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill

Monday, 26 November 2012

Boring 2012

Steward at Boring 2012 "I made the badge myself"

I first came across James Ward (who is not the gentleman above) via a couple of tweets from Caitlin Moran.

Caitlin is successful, brilliant and famous (my younger daughter Abi's middle name is Caitlin, as a tribute to her).

However, not that many people know about James Ward. My son is called James, but this has nothing to do with James Ward. He will be relieved by this, and disappointed.

I read James' excellent blog and got in touch with him.

We tweeted a bit. One night it became apparent we were drinking in pubs a stone's throw from each other.

I decided then we should never meet.

But we stayed in touch. I enjoyed one of James' early projects, London Twirls, and I watched as Boring Conference  became the thing it did.

James is endearing, cussed, shambolic and unapologetically amateur. In spite/because of this, the first Boring conference made it on to the front cover of the Wall Street Journal.

Given I hadn't attended the first two, I was very touched when James asked if I'd like to come along to this year's Boring.

Boring Conference 2012, York Hall, Bethnal Green, London
Thankfully he invited me early.

I will go to most things if a) I know about it far enough in advance (two months minimum) and b) it won't cost me anything. The former is more important than the latter, but the latter usually seals it.

I don't even have to want to go. Last weekend I opened a church bazaar in Limpsfield Chart, purely because I was asked in March (and also because I had turned it down twice in previous years and run out of excuses).

I knew Boring 2012 would be good, because James was organising it, and he has a way of lowering your expectations, but I still wasn't sure I could go. I have three children, and someone has to look after them. Any time I'm having fun away from the family is more childcare for my wife.

It's alright if it's a work thing, or a schoolfriend's 40th, but when the event in question sells itself with the strapline...

"Nothing interesting, worthwhile or important is ever discussed at Boring"

... justifying your attendance becomes an issue of trust.

Still, I got a pass, and having mentally committed myself to going in the week leading up to the event, I asked Matt Deegan to be my plus one. 

Matt is such an early adopter his twittername is @matt, he runs his own conference and seems to spend a lot of time talking at other people's conferences, so I thought he might enjoy going to Boring. 

He also doesn't have any children, so there was a good chance if I asked him on a Thursday whether he'd be free on Sunday, he might say yes. He did.

As we stood in the long queue (all 500 tickets had soldoutside York Hall in Bethnal Green...

... I asked if he knew James or anything about him.

"Not really." said Matt.

When we reached the front of the queue, after about 45 minutes, I said we were on the comp list. The lady handing out the white wristbands said "oh you could have come straight to the front, and I would have waved you through", which by that stage was superfluous information.

The wristband had writing on it which said:

"Boring 2012. If you don't enjoy yourself, at least you have a wristband", or words to that effect, and the legend on the screen at the front of the hall warned us the event wasn't going to be as good as last year.

The buffet was quite plain...

but I fancied a cup of water, so I tucked in.

There was an envelope on our chairs which had an incomprehensible photocopied sheet in it, a couple of badges, some Refreshers, a lolly, a few dull postcards and a raffle ticket.

I am doing some work with one of Matt's colleagues who just happened to send me an email as I was looking at my phone, so I sent him an email back with a "Guess who I am sitting next to?! Yes! One of your colleagues! What are the chances of that?" photo attached.

Matt Deegan and Nick Wallis at Boring 2012

He said we looked quite bored.

Then things got underway. There was no published running order, so there was no indication of who was doing what or what to expect from them. Here is a very quick review:

James Ward on supermarket self service tills. Encouraged us to think of receipts as being more like certificates of achievement.

Peter Fletcher on letter boxes. As an ex-seasonal postie, he had some good knowledge. His diary entries from the time were poignant.

Ben Target - an untitled and unannounced piece of performance art which involved him rollerblading round the room in Rupert the Bear trousers whilst a recording of someone reading out tabulated metal weights was played to the room. It was boring.

Leila Johnston on IBM tills. Leila is doing something similar to James' London Twirls and at first it did seem, as the Guardian says, "stagey" and contrived. Then the presentation took an unexpected turn as Leila revealed she grew up in a town where IBM was the main employer, and how her childhood was enlivened by regular visits to arms fairs.

Ed Ross on toast. Some good research here, and I particularly liked the line "depending on the aspect ratio of your bread..."

Rose George on poo. Or "shit", as she prefers to call it. A brilliant talk. Rose has visited prisons in Africa where the effluent produced by those incarcerated therein is converted into free power for the nation. 14% of banknotes in Britain are contaminated with faecal matter. Now wash your hands.

Neil Denny on five random American breakfasts. Pleasantly untaxing.

Most of the above sessions were punctuated by problematic technicals, which necessitated James ad-libbing as MC whilst the audience sat there. We were encouraged to use the hashtag #boring2012 to tell twitter what an amazing time we were having. As a result twitter got quite confused.

For lunch we went to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (full of children, but not the sort you hear being shouted at in supermarkets, cafe staff lovely, impressive space) and Matt bought me lunch. Thank you, Matt.

We came back and the technical beasts appeared to have been tamed. Also the sessions threw off even the pretence of being boring, and became absorbing. Entertaining, even.

The highlights were Roo Reynolds (who got a short, coherent and informative review of Boring 2012 up hours ago. It also has links to all the speakers, so please go there and follow them on twitter, they're all very clever people).

Roo spoke about his collections, many of them cultivated online, and could well be my new hero. He's a former BBC-er and I think now works for the government. His hobbies include "Things Riding on Things", photos of the insides of peoples' fridges, jokes based on the punchline "No she went of her own accord", "Fuck Yeah Internet Fridge" and plotting the frequency of Out of Office replies to his weekly newsletter.

Andrew Male did a talk on double yellow lines, which started off as a conceptual joke, and became a painstakingly researched discourse on 50s counterculture and his own personal loss.

James Brown, the former editor of Loaded, spoke of his joy at discovering Antiques Road Trip and its format soup, which was made all the better by not including any clips from the programme at all.

The best talk I saw in terms of sticking to the brief came from Rhodri Marsden (the Independent columnist). Rhodri stumbled across this thing called Auto Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR (youtube it, but not alone), which is compelling and terrifying in equal measure.

ASMR is, superficially, stultifyingly boring, but is actually a quasi-fetishistic subculture which to me was like pulling up a tear in the earth and finding an entirely undiscovered world going about its business (think the Doozers, or even the Fraggles themselves, but with added, and rather intense, anxiety).

I say Rhodri's was the best talk I saw - I had to leave before the third and final group of sessions so I could look after the children, as my wife had to go to a confirmation service.

It meant I missed some wonderful-sounding talks, including Cathy Clugston, shipping forecast reader, on the shipping forecast (see Roo's list for more on that and the others), but such is life.

James had indicated on twitter a few weeks back that it would be nice to finally meet me at Boring, and I thought perhaps it was a good idea. But today he looked busy and quite stressed most of the time, and besides, I wouldn't really know what to say, so I didn't go up and introduce myself.

I would, however, like to thank him for the invite, and indeed all the speakers for a very different and inspiring afternoon, and I suspect this is the best way of doing so.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Profile pics

Nick Wallis by Andy Newbold Photography dot com

All pics taken by Andy Newbold in Oct 2012.

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

Nick Wallis (photo: Andy Newbold)

The first BBC Radio 1 Student Radio Awards

I first wrote about this here in 2008, and three years later was asked to write about my recollections of the first two Student Radio Awards ceremonies for the 2011 awards programme. As you will see, my memories of the second event are particularly patchy. If you have some hard information you can provide, or photographs of either, please get in touch. 

The following post is a tidied up version of the history that appeared in the 2011 awards programme:

Details of the first two Sudent Radio Awards are largely lost in the mists of time, with most of the participants now dead, or having faded into insignificance.

This was in the days before your social medias, your Facebooks and Twitterspaces. Mobile phones were the size and weight of gold ingots, with about the same functionality.

There were no digital cameras (thankfully), and because the water in the last century wasn't safe to drink, most students survived on a form of methanol suspended in food colouring, known as Mad Dog 20/20.

As a result almost no records of the first two Radio 1 Student Radio Awards exist, and the ones that do are a little hazy. But ULU '96 and Oxford Brookes '97 did definitely happen, much to the surprise of almost everyone involved.

This much I know:

In November 1995 I was elected Chair of the SRA. In December 1995 I wrote (when people actually conducted business by sending letters in the post to each other) to Matthew Bannister, the then Controller of Radio 1, suggesting the SRA and Radio 1 set up a student radio awards. 

Matthew sent a letter back, two weeks later, saying it was a jolly good idea and that we ought to come down to Radio 1 to discuss it.

For a student with far-off dreams of working in the radio industry this was like receiving an invitation to the Emerald City. 

A month or so later, armed with the Secretary of the SRA and a nice man called Dan McEvoy (now a high up at 5live) who independently had the same idea as me, we converged on an office somewhere in Yalding House (or was it Egton? It was probably the now-demolished Egton). 

There we were welcomed by the poshest woman I had ever met. In a faintly disinterested manner, she told us Matthew Bannister was sorry he couldn't come to our meeting, but he really wanted the awards to happen and so they would. And that, was that.

We went away and did everything we could to make sure student stations entered the competition and came to the event. Radio 1 put a genuinely fantastic team on the case, who provided patient, friendly and expert guidance as we worked towards making the very first Radio 1 Student Radio Awards worthy of the name.

The first ceremony took place at the University of London Union in November 1996. The Evening Session's Jo Whiley and Steve Lamacq hosted. The gig afterwards featured the bands Shoot, The Longpigs and Space. 

The compere at the gig was a chubby, cheerful northern fella called Peter Kay (now the UK's biggest-grossing comedian ever), who had recorded childrens' TV theme tunes onto a dictaphone, and spent most of his act playing them out through the PA, saying "Remember that?"

Jarvis Cocker, at the time one of the most famous people in the country, was on the guest list that night. I remember seeing his name and asking the Radio 1 press person "Why is Jarvis Cocker on the guest list?" 

She said "Dunno, we thought he might like to come. We invited him and he said yes..." 

Never going to happen, I thought. A few hours later I was standing at the bar and Jarvis Cocker walked past. "Jarvis Cocker!" I blurted, in amazement. 

"Hello." he said politely, and walked on. I couldn't believe it. The man who wrote Common People and who, the previous year, had headlined Glastonbury with Pulp, had just popped his head round the door to see what was up at an event I helped put together.

Whilst we were organising the event I had another interesting conversation with Radio 1, which went like this:

Me: "Is the ents manager alright with us coming here and taking over most of his union for a private function on a Friday night?"
Radio 1 person: "yeah he's fine. He's a really nice bloke actually..."

The ents bloke was called Ricky Gervais, eight years away from giggling helplessly in front of Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, clutching a Golden Globe for The Office.

It was a good night.

The second Radio 1 Student Radio awards was the centrepiece of the 1997 Student Radio Association autumn conference, held at Oxford Brookes University. Word had spread through the student radio community (using a form of rudimentary semaphore) about the success of the inaugural event and loads of students from all over the country piled into Oxford. 

All the talk was of Oxygen 107.9, the student radio station which had broken out of closed-loop AM broadcasting and FM RSLs to win a permanent FM licence. Oh well.

The star turn at the awards was Ed Byrne, a brilliant young comedian who went on to become the voice of Mowbli in the Carphone Warehouse adverts, and despite never having to work again, is a now an older, but still brilliant, award-winning comedian.

Ed was effectively hired to give us all a laugh before the awards started, but when Dave Pearce dropped out of presenting duties due to illness, Ed was forced to announce himself as the host, a job he did with aplomb, given it had been sprung on him at the last moment.

There are rumours that Oxford Brookes marked the first sit-down dinner at a student radio awards, but I don't remember it like that. At ULU the refreshments were basically crisps, nuts and beer. I seem to remember us being seated theatre-style for Oxford Brookes. 

Having trawled around for peoples' memories, that recollection appears to be in dispute. 

As I say, it's all a little hazy now.


NB: The Radio 1/student radio awards relationship actually existed well before the "first" ones in 1996. I didn't know this when I first approached Radio 1, and neither did the people at Radio 1. At that time there was something of a scorched earth policy towards Radio 1's previous regime and everything it represented.

The previous existence of an older awards scheme became apparent when we were working on the new ones. The discovery that Radio 1, in its incredibly naff phase, had held a relationship with the Student Radio Association's predecessor NASB (National Association of Student Broadcasters) filled me with terror. If Radio 1 discovered the previous regime had also thought holding a student radio awards was a good idea, they might feel it was tainted by association and drop the new one like a shot.

Nonetheless I felt I had to bring it to Radio 1's attention. After all, knowing the awards had existed previously hardly meant we could launch the new awards as the first.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Er... I've discovered that Radio 1 used to have a student radio awards scheme which it ran with our predecessor organisation."
Radio 1 person: "And...?"
Me: "Well that means this isn't the first Radio 1 student radio awards, like we've been calling them."
Radio 1: "Oh, I don't think we need to worry about that now."
Me: "Er... okay."

And so the new awards were born. The first between Radio 1 and the SRA, and the ones that have grown into the extraordinary talent-sourcing behemoth they are today.


Jonny Dymond

Jonny Dymond is a brilliant journalist. When I worked at Stage 6 in Television Centre I learned a lot from watching his lives and listening to his dispatches. He is also the author of the best biog I have ever read:

Jonny DymondJonny Dymond, Washington Correspondent, BBC News
Jonny is currently Washington correspondent for the BBC, magically becoming North America correspondent when he leaves the capital. Jonny is that rarity within the BBC, a white, male, privately educated Londoner.
He joined the BBC way back in the mists of time (1995) working first at Millbank as a researcher and producer, then at Newsnight and various election and budget programmes. He became a reporter at Westminster for the World Service and then Washington reporter in 2000. He covered 9/11 from Washington DC, then went to Istanbul to cover Turkey and the Middle East between 2001 and 2005.
He spent five years in Brussels as Europe correspondent leaving, with impeccable timing, just as Europe became The Biggest Story in The Whole World. In the States he files largely for BBC radio programmes, but is allowed onto television when no one else is available.