Podcast: Demise of the Considered Response

Here’s a piece I did for the BBC World Service on the Demise of the Considered Response.

Dancing Queen and the End of Popular Music

The other night, as I lay sweating in my mum’s flat in boiling England in the early hours, a crowd of 20 somethings spilled out of a nearby club. The usual hubbub of indistinct chatter ensued as they prepared to disperse. Then the females (I assume; I couldn’t actually see anything) started singing something together, and, gradually the song they were singing emerged: “Dancing Queen”, by Abba, released as a single in 1976. The lassies, who can’t have been born when it first came out, all knew the words (no big surprise, perhaps, given it’s been covered by 20 other artists and was rereleased by Abba in the early 1990s) and sang it long after I felt the moment had passed and they should all go home.

Apart from keeping me awake, I realised something more important: I was listening to the last hurrah of popular music. And today marks, at least in the UK, the death of this era. That’s because today is the last edition of BBC’s Top Of The Pops, the long-running television show that broadcast (usually mimed) performances of the top selling single artists of the week. Everyone here in the UK is waxing nostalgic about the show, which first went out in 1964, and has been running pretty much every week ever since. But perhaps its greatest significance will be in its demise, as it reflects the end of popular music as a unifying force.

Ironic, really, given that folk like me weren’t allowed to watch ToTP as kids, at least with the sound on. Even as a late teenager my dad would make a point of walking in to the lounge when I was watching it, to mess about with the grate, or the wine cupboard (necessitating a move of the TV) and would make some sarcastic remark about whoever was on — and his entry always seemed to coincide with a particularly outrageous display by Roy Wizzard or Noddy Holder or Gary Glitter (turns out he was right about him, come to think of it). ToTP was a divisive force in our household, but nationally, culturally, it united. In an era when pop music remained fringe — only a couple of radio stations played it, one of them pirate, and there was scant pop music on TV outside ToTP — the program was a Mecca for anyone who wanted to know what was what. We really cared about who was number one; seeing bands and artists play on ToTP was sometimes the only chance we got to put a face to the voice we heard on the radio. And then there were Pan’s People, the dancers who “interpreted” songs to help fill up the show. They, dancing to the Chi-Lites’ “Homely Girl”, were my first glimpse of sensual womanhood and for that alone I’m hugely grateful.

The point about ToTP was that it gave everyone a cultural reference point. Watch ToTP and we knew all we needed to know to bond with friends, chat up those we wanted to chat up and to sing along at parties. We all knew who The Rubettes were, and while we may have hated ‘Sugar Baby Love’ we all knew it was number one, and hearing it on radios as we went on holidays or tried to steal a French kiss or two at a party, provided a cultural anchor that would forever make that the soundtrack of the summer of 1974 (or was it 1975.) The point? ‘Sugar Baby Love’ meant different things to different people, but it meant something. Listen to it now and I am transported back to the smell of hay (yes, those kinds of parties), feel the excitement of flashing lights and the electrifying presence of females through the gloom.

Of course, a lot of people will see the demise of ToTP as a good thing, the victory of the Long Tail of pop music (or whatever we have to call it now, given it’s not really popular any more.) They’ll say that the Big Head of mass commercialisation of popular music, where a few acts get disproportionate air play, promotion and media interest to the detriment of others, was never what people really wanted, and that now, with the Internet fostering better distribution and an increasingly sophisticated medium of recommendation, we can now listen to what we really want to, rather than what big business wants us to.

That’s true. But when are we going to be able to stand in car parks at three o’clock in the morning all drunkenly singing “young and sweet and only 17” because we all know the words? Or commenting on the silly hats that the Rubettes wore, or complaining about the number of appearances of Status Quo? And it’s not just about the Water Cooler culture — where we all stand around discussing last night’s TV, where we all saw the same thing because there was only one thing to watch — but of something else: cultural reference points that provide a shared soundtrack to our lives. Not a reason to keep Top of the Pops, necessarily, but perhaps food for thought about the world we are entering without it.

Podcast: Memory I

A piece I did for the BBC World Service on the

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Podcast: Web 2.0

Me being skeptical about Web 2.0 on the BBC World Service. Listen

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Podcast: Receipts

How to get rid of receipts, without just binning them.

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The Email Hole

Email is not something to get too upset about, until you lose one to downtime by your provider of choice. And then you realise that it is too important to be left to free services, or even a domain hoster.

I use a hoster called Hostway, and they went spectacularly down last week. (This despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that Hostway launched a new service recently offering 150 GB of space for $10 a month.) It was only about a day, but several domains I based there lost email access when their storage failed. Now I have no idea who might have been trying to reach me and couldn’t because of bounced emails, what newsletters I’ve been removed from because of bounced emails, what email newsletters I may have missed

Now this kind of thing happens, but it made me realise that losing one email is the same as losing all of them if you don’t know which email it is, since it may be the important one you’ve been waiting for offering you money/marriage/a new nose. Email is different to hosting a website: a website can go down, and you’ll lose some traffic, but it will come back up again. Email is a stream of discrete bits of information, and there’s no way of telling whether there are any missing.

In short, a good hoster needs to guarantee that, should something go wrong, no email is left behind. Hostway have not, so far not been able to assure me of that. They say that emails lost during the outage have been recovered, but as far as I can work out that does not refer to those lost because of the outage — in other words, those emails that were stored on their servers and not recovered by users before the outage hit. (Emails to their technical staff about this were responded to with pasted notifications from their support team, which didn’t address this issue.

This surprises me, but shouldn’t. They are listed by Netcraft as the second most reliable hoster last month and I’ve not had many problems with them. But they are a domain hoster, which means that bullet-proof email is not top of their priorities. As Syd Low of AlienCamel puts it (declaration of interest: I’ve been using Syd’s email service the past few years, and it’s rock solid), there are three types of email service: bundling services (like Hostway), free services (like Gmail) and paid services (like AlienCamel) which provide Web access, lots of redundant backups to make sure no email goes missing, plus anti-spam, anti-virus and anti-phishing features.

My lesson from all this: email is too important to entrust to people who don’t take it seriously, or who aren’t getting money for your business. Of course, no one wants to pay for something they’re getting for free, or more cheaply, but sometimes free and cheap is not enough.

Podcast: Hotel Access

Another BBC World Service recording. This one’s about

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The Journalist Dilemma

Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine says there are too many journalists and newspapers would do well to cut back on reporters and reinvest digital interaction on the local level — in other words, to build connections with communities and have them report. Cheap/free local citizen Journalists, in other words, replace jet-setting, expensive correspondents:

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

I definitely agree with the absurdity of having thousands of journalists all covering one single-dateline story, whether it’s a convention or a Michael Jackson trial. But I wonder, too, how this obsession with new approaches to media — citizen journalism, community interaction, local coverage vs non-local — is going to look a few years down the track. For sure, there’s a lot to be said for breaking down the barriers between newspaper and community between professional and amateur reporter/photographer/editor. But this movement will also have some heavy long term effects that aren’t really discussed in this blogocratic world.

  • “Going local” is nearly always going to mean narrowing horizons. Newspapers and their portals (and their successors) with thinner or nonexistent foreign pages, what coverage there is based on wire reports. Is this what we want?
  • I’m all for interactivity and respect for active reader/contributor participation. But to me it’s somewhat shortsighted an argument that goes “newspapers are less profitable so fire the people who actually differentiate, or should differentiate your product from everything else out there”. Surely we should be talking about how journalists might raise/alter their game to match this challenge? Since when was responding to a change in the market a question of throwing the value overboard and investing in fewer skills, not more?
  • The issue closest to my heart is international coverage. Baltimore Sun, LA Times etc are cutting back on international staff. Fine, people say, replace them with bloggers. No question bloggers are good, and have good things to say, but who is going to do the legwork to explain, in an objective and engaging style, the complexities of issues such as terrorism (al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah), disaster relief (earthquakes, tsunamis) to an international audience? There may be no interest in these issues right now, but when another disaster happens, who is going to do the coverage? 9/11, anyone?
  • Foreign coverage is only a “worthy” (rather than profitable) investment because it’s seen that way, not because it need be. I certainly agree with one commenter that journalists tend to hunt in packs, not because they lack imagination but because they tend to be rewarded by nervous editors looking for “matching” copy. The result is a foreign news page that tends to look similar from publication to publication. This needs to change; most foreign correspondents work their socks off satisfying editors’ hunger for matching copy (“Java Earthquake Kills Hundreds; Briton Forced to Cut Short Holiday”) and then, when everyone else goes home for the weekend, traipse off to the jungle to weave a telling story about environmental destruction/global warming/species extinction.

In short, I think we need to explore ways of reinvigorating coverage of news beyond our own local niche and recognise that the idea of the foreign correspondent, while dated and definitely in need of updating, has been around since the Boer War because it works. For sure there’s plenty of room for amateurs (some of my favorite writers about Indonesia aren’t journalists) but there’s also room, nay a need, for professional reporters to explore and report back on what they see. In an increasingly complicated world we need them more than ever.

Podcast: The Communicator

A BBC World Service piece I did on the tenacity of a device that perhaps should have been binned long ago:

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Podcast: Handdryers

A BBC World Service piece I did on

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