March, 2006

Sony Awards (and Ed Reardon)

I work in the radio industry, and Tuesday night was a very important night. Arsenal completely trounced a tired, lacklustre and aging Juventus team in the first leg of the Champions’ League (I prefer The Fiver’s “Big Cup”) quarter final.
But that’s not what this is about. Tuesday night was also nominations night for the Sony Awards. Think of them as the Baftas of the radio industry. Except with more squabbling and in-fighting these days.
The full list of nominations can be seen here. What reports that there’ve been about the nominations have tended to mention the resurrection of Chris Evans with his two nominations prior to his controversial move to Radio 2’s drivetime slot. But I must be honest, and say that I agree with some of the commenters on Media Guardian’s Organ Grinder in finding the list somewhat predictable and bland.
Since I work at Virgin Radio, I won’t comment on any of our three nominations, but I did enjoy the comment about stations that don’t have a team of “20 people to work on a two hour” show as having unfair advantages. And the idea that Jamie Theakston is a radio “personality” is a bizarre idea, however successful his show actually is.
The thing about the Sonys is that there’s this forced inclusion of awards to make sure that the BBC doesn’t walk off with absolutely everything. So while the odd commercial programme is included in, say, the news and current affairs award, you know that the only possibility has to be one of the BBC’s shows. Similarly, the competition award includes a “competition” (actually, more of a poll) from the Today programme, but it’s really there because commercial radio stations run paid-for competitions on most of their big shows (indeed this can be quite a contentious issue since clearly many BBC radio shows give away prizes supplied by commercial companies who get some kind of recognition in return – why do you think Jonathan Ross has such a great selection of CDs and DVDs to give away to callers on his programme?).
Anyway, the best radio comedy programme of the last year, and I think you know the one I mean, wasn’t even nominated, so what do the Sony judges know? (Incidentally, is the first series really going to be released this time next year and this Amazon listing suggests? Why is it so far off..? Maybe not BBC Audio Collection direct, and it seems that Amazon has it right – it’s released in March next year. Quite why it’s so long in coming defeats me. Isn’t it normally a good idea, if you don’t release something pretty instantly following broadcast (e.g. Hitchhikers), then releasing series 1 on CD around the time of series 2 broadcast would seem to be smart. Still what do I know?)

Waterstones/Ottakers

The Competition Commission has provisionally cleared (PDF) the sale of Ottaker’s to HMV (owners of Waterstones), and I for one am pretty disappointed.
I used to love Waterstones – it was a great bookshop to browse at – but bookselling’s changed and it’s lost the sparkle now in places like Waterstones. I’m very lucky to work close to the flagship Waterstones in Piccadilly, but even that suffers from some of the sad things that have come from bookselling.
Once upon a time there was a great display of new books at the front of every Waterstones. You’d pore over shelves and display tables with the very latest books. All kinds of books would be displayed, not just the latest blockbuster titles. But today, we have the omnipresent 3 for 2 offers. These include titles that are largely “paid for” by publishers to be included in the promotions, and while some new titles are always included, the familiar Da Vinci Codes and whatever’s in the Richard & Judy or Daily Mail bookclub are more standard fare.
I’ve no problem with these offers, but by the time shelf-space has been allocated to the top 10 fiction and non-fiction titles, in hardback and paperback, the “offer of the week”, the 3 for 2s, the kids books section, the seasonal bit (Mother’s Day books or Get London Reading), and you have little or no room for new books. Only the likeliest titles feature.
Ottaker’s has many of the same problems, but they have a broader range of new titles to browse at. They do make a real effort to promote local books. They have books of the month that aren’t necessarily titles that will inevitably appear in the top ten lists. They have a crime novel of the month, and a science fiction novel of the month. They publish little magazines aimed at both these genres too. Some of their larger stores have Daleks in them! My local store regularly has signings for sports books by ex-Arsenal and Spurs players (I live in that hinterland between both teams – my allegiances should be clear even if I didn’t write at length about the superb performance on Tuesday night). And you get the feeling that their staff recommendations are genuine choices (I can’t prove it, but I suspect that in Waterstones, the staff recommendations, with their handwritten note cards, are selected from a list sent down from head office – you never see anything too unexpected on them).
I realise that as someone who pays at least one visit a week to a bookshop (and consequently has far too many titles awaiting reading at home), I’m very much out of the ordinary – the ordinary being someone who makes an annual pilgrimige to buy a couple of books at Christmas. But as a regular buyer, I’ve been forgotten by Waterstones. I still love the depth of range of backlist books that I can get in store, and I still regularly go there, but it’s just not as good as it was when I was at University in Bath popping in and out of both the academic store on campus, and the marvellous Milson Street store in town.
On Five Live this morning they had someone from the Competition Commission defending their decision. They mentioned the supermarkets as usual, which is fine if you somehow want to read a Dan Brown novel and haven’t got round to it yet (Is there anybody left? In the US they’ve only just released a paperback edition of the book, having finally seen demand for the hardback drying up). You’re also OK if you want to read the latest chick-lit title, American thriller, or whatever. But if it’s not in the top 30, it’s not going to be stocked. Then they mentioned Amazon. Amazon, is of course great, but it’s not the same thing. Amazon is great if you know a specific book that you want to buy, especially if it’s a current hardback release or a back-list title that could be difficult to come by or expensive in store. But it’s not really built for browsing. Amazon does its best of course, by giving you “other customers also bought this…” and customer lists. Even with their feature that allows you to look inside the book, it’s trying hard to let you virtually do the equivalent of picking up a book and flicking through it when you’re browsing in a bookshop. But it’s much harder to do. Personally, I tend to know already about a particular title when I go to Amazon, or I’m seeking other books by the same author. Online book sales are not the same as retail ones.
The other things mentioned by the CC spokesperson were Borders and WH Smiths. Borders, it’s true, is trying to grow its brand in the UK quite significantly. But it’s a US company, and even with it’s largest store in Oxford Street, it’s difficult for it to stock the same level of depth as the largest Waterstones. They have significant stocks of music and DVDs. Their magazine range, however, is very impressive. WH Smiths is a different kettle of fish altogether. Their book section, to me, is neither one thing nor another. It has a greater range than a supermarket, but not so great that I could ever be sure of finding a title I’d like in store. The CC spokesperson mentioned that they were trialling book-only branches, but you get the feeling that this is desperation on their part, rather than some clever strategy. It’s just about the only thing they haven’t tried so far.
The one other significant player on the high street – in London at least – is Blackwells. This is probably my favourite bookshop. It’s a shop which still has a really wide range of new and interesting titles on display. They have an exceptional science section – a byproduct of their raison d’etre really being the sale of academic books – and their political section is also very strong. When you go into Blackwells you just know that you’re going to come out with something unexpected.
I don’t hate Waterstones. I still like it a lot. But it’s not as good as it used to be, and in a fair fight, Ottakers is better. Most towns and cities don’t really have much choice aside from these two, with a few honorable exceptions in some of our university cities, and that choice is set to shrink substantially. There are small independent bookshops of course, and many of them are very fine. But they’re set to suffer to an even greater extent as our choice diminishes. I hope that no such merger actually takes place.

Partial Eclipse of the Sun in the UK 2006

They’re in my Flickr stream anyway, but here are the best of the photos I took this morning out in Golden Square of the eclipse.
I’m pretty pleased with the results considering the lack of proper equipment and heavy cloud cover.
The maximum magnitude of the eclipse in London was only 16.8% at 11:33 BST and, as you can see, the sky was pretty cloudy. I had to wait quite a few minutes before a sudden opening in the clouds allowed me to glimpse the eclipse.
This shot was achieved simply by pointing by Nikon Coolpix straight at the sky with no filter. It’s probably the best of the three decent shots I managed to get.
Partial Eclipse 2006 from Golden Square London
I’ve kept my mylar glasses from a nice little book I bought around the time of the 1999 eclipse produced by the Royal Greenwich Observatory. I dug the book out the glasses were unscratched so still safe to use.
In between taking photos, I used them to observe the eclipse with my own eyes rather than via my camera’s LCD.
Then I simply held the glasses plush to the camera’s lens, and of the ten or so photos I attempted, this was the better of the two that actually worked. This was in fact the last photo I took before cloud cover came in and didn’t look like lifting.
Partial Eclipse 2006 from Golden Square London
So Easter Island in 2010 perhaps?
More in the full entry…

ITV Battles C4’s Paul O’Grady Show With…

…Paul O’Grady Show repeats. Yup. ITV really is so devoid of ideas that the best it can do to combat C4’s signing of Paul O’Grady is to run repeats of previous shows directly up against it in the 5pm-6pm slot. Brilliant.
I seem to remember them doing something similar when they got miffed that Tricia went to Five.
Get over it, and find something worthwhile to broadcast for five hours of teatime telly every week.

Free Books with The Times

The Times seems to love giving away free books at the moment. They’ve been running a promotion with their sister company HarperCollins whereby you can pick up a different book each week for 99p when you buy The Times in WH Smith. This is nothing new, as they’ve run this promotion a couple of times before – and I’ve made full use of it.
This week they’re also packaging a couple of books free with the paper. Today they had The Discovery of Chocolate, the first novel by James Runcie. The curious thing is that Runcie’s forthcoming novel, Canvey Island, out next month, is published by rival publisher Bloomsbury. It seems surprising that News Group would want to give a promotional push to an author who’s now signed to a rival. Surely there are plenty of authors in house who could do with the push?
Anyhow, The Times’ 99p book this week is Giotto’s Hand by Iain Pears which looks interesting, and they’re packaging another free book with Thursday’s paper – The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn – although the Amazon reviews aren’t exactly encouraging.
It’s all another weapon in the armoury of keeping your newspaper’s ABC numbers up high. Witness The Guardian’s DVD of the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much at the weekend (Hitchcock’s own 1956 remake is somewhat better). The Independent has recently taught us French, Spanish and Italian, so I look forward to getting Russian lessons over a forthcoming weekend.

Music in Podcasts

A quite hilarious “Crib Sheet” from last week’s Music Week about Radio One making unsigned artists available on a special podcast.
It’s all behind a pay-wall, so here are a few choice extracts with my thoughts:
Isn’t that illegal? Hardly the kind of behaviour I would expect of the nation’s favourite.
Well not if – as Radio One is doing – they are from unsigned artists.

I realise that this isn’t actually a genuine question and answer, but surely the record company bigwigs are aware that if they don’t own or publish the music, they can’t get any cash from it.

I don’t know about all this podcasting stuff though, I can’t get my head around it.
[Answer follows, not explaining anything about what podcasting actually is] I really hope that the write of this piece was letting his or her imagination run away with themselves. Again, if the constituency of readers of Music Week doesn’t know what podcasting is, then they seriously need to think about whether they’ve made the correct career decision.

Unsigned is all well and good but I can’t help thinking I’d like something a bit more, you know, familiar. Can’t they get any artists with a deal?
Ask George [Ergatoudis, Radio 1 Head of Music]. “At the moment we can’t use copyrighted or licensed music,” Ergatoudis answers helpfully. “We would like to do that as soon as possible. We are talking to record companies and all licence holders to be able to do podcasts with licensed music.”

So, no, Radio 1 can’t put that music on their podcasts because you, the record company big-wig reader of Music Week won’t let him.
But didn’t MCPR-PRS come up with a licece for exactly this sort of thing?
Indeed they did – the Joint Onlince Licence to be precise – which allows podcasters to use the society’s 10m musical works until the end of 2006. But – and it’s a big but – willing podcasters still need the permission of either record labels or Aim [the Association of Independent Music].
Yup, if you pay 1.5p per track to the PRS, you too can have your podcast feature copyright music. That’s 1.5p per track per download. And you’ve also got the small matter of going to the record companies for each and every track, and negotiating a deal with them. How much will that be? who knows, but from a 79p iTunes track, the lion’s share goes to the record companies, not Apple. And who’s to say that a record company is going to let you distribute your DRM-free mp3 podcast irrespective of how much you pay for the music. Even if you do negotiate a price, how are you going to ever make your podcast pay for itself?
That’s not to say that musician don’t deserve to be fairly recompensed for their work in podcasts or wherever else. But as it stands, it’s not a workable solution.
Incidentally the MCPS-PRS scheme requires the first and last 10 seconds of each track to be obscured by speech or a “station ident”. Wouldn’t want people getting the full track for free would we? And this is a great solution for tracks with a proper ending.
For some reason, the podcast must be at least fifteen minutes in length. The reason for this is unclear. Is it because anything less and I might keep replaying the podcast to hear a specific track. Let’s hope I don’t have a copy of Audacity then.
You can read the full rules and regulations here. Has anyone used the licence yet?

TV Gaming

There’s a worthwhile piece in Mediaguardian today about my new latest bugbear – “participation television”, or rather, premium rate TV quizzes.
We all know that Richard & Judy and GMTV have for years run premium rate competitions asking you to answer a trivial question with the promise of many pounds if you win. But things are surely getting out of hand.
With the success of Deal or No Deal, garnering upwards of four million viewers a day, the paltry prize of as little as 1,000 a day for what is essentially a guessing game seems poor value. Quite where the skill comes in with this is unclear to me.
There are several elements that seem to me to need clarifying:
1) the chace that you get through to a given phoneline
The National Lottery has some very tight legislation governing it, and the probabilities of you winning specific levels of prizes are published. Yet most of these phone games involve only a limited number of players “getting through” to the studio.
The reality is, of course, that the proportion of callers taken to air is probably changed according to the level of prize, the time of day, and the call rate that the programme or channel is experiencing. Yet I believe that people need to know what their chances are before entering the competitions.
Again, if I go into a casino, I know in advance what my chances are of winning if I play roulette. Fruit machines also have to pay out a minimum of 70%.
2) after a question has been answered correctly, explain your reasoning
OK, this probably doesn’t need much doing when the question is “name the city” alongside a picture of the Eiffel Tower and the letters P–IS. But there’s a particularly nasty little “quiz” that’s common on these channels that asks you to “Add all the numbers” and then presents you with a phrase that includes words and numbers. Simply speaking, there isn’t one correct answer to these questions. The “solutions” from what I can gather revolve around you summing all the numbers that you can see, plus those you can’t including Roman numerals and hexadecimal numbers.
Any number of callers, of course, simply do the obvious and get it wrong.
Perversely, these “quizzes” are surely the most annoying for viewers since they’re not trivial to solve and frequently last for hours of airtime.
and 3) the legality of these channels
Are these channels running competitions or lotteries?
A competition involves using “skill” to solve a question. If there is no “skill” involved, then you’re actually running a lottery.
The TV channels would no doubt argue that they’re running a “competition” (the aforementioned Deal or No Deal, by contrast, has no skill attached, so must be considered a “lottery”). But currently “skill” has no statutory definition. Hence the trivial answers to some questions. What is clear is that these are effectively pay-to-enter games. Sometimes free entry is available via other mechanisms such as web-entry, but this is limited to those with internet access. And the trivial GMTV-type questions are phone number alone.
Let’s hope that future legislation, currently in the making, sorts out this mess.
Recently ITV spent a couple of months chewing over whether they should close down Men & Motors so they could keep the ITV News Channel alive on a Freeview slot. In the end, they decided that Men & Motors was doing well enough to deserve to survive, and ITV News was chucked off Freeview. The knock-on effect was to close it down completely. So isn’t it “ironic” that just a couple of months on, Men & Motors itself is to be closed down and ITV Play is to launch – a full channel serving this pointless gaming.
This comes not long after Channel 4 launched its own gaming channel Quiz TV – not that you’d necessarily know from watching the channel as they seem strangely coy about their links with their parent company. There certainly aren’t any familiar C4 presenters plying their trade – rightly, as it happens, because nearly every C4 presenter who might present such shows would be a T4 presenter appealing to kids. In any case, can anyone honestly say that they aspire to present this pointless trash?
Essentially this is all gambling. While MPs find themselves struggling to reconcile an increased number of casinos, with the increased gambling addiction that afflicts the nation, our broadcasters are simply coining it with little or no regulation.
Do random checks go on at studios to inspect computer software? Do we know how many people are spending hundreds or thousands of pounds a month on these games? Do channels take responsibility to stop them?
Commercial television has always been a money-making concern, but can this direct charging of viewers be a smart business move in the long-term. If I run up a bill of several hundred pounds which I then can’t pay, am I going to feel all warm and fuzzy about ITV or C4 when my phone gets cut off?
I have no overall aversion to gambling. However, I think that it’s currently too easy to spend a lot of money playing these games, with little or no regulation.
If you want to go into a Bingo hall you have to register.
If you buy a lottery ticket, there’s someone to check you’re over 18 and you can’t buy your tickets with a credit card (you can pay your BT bill this way).
There are various bodies in charge of making sure that horse racing or greyhound racing is fair.
TV gaming goes basically unregulated, and, frankly, does a disservice to the viewer.

Parallel Worlds


Michio Kaku is one busy guy. When he’s not presenting a weekly programme on US radio, he’s presenting a four part BBC series on Time.
In the meantime we’ve got this book, who’s subtitle is The Science of Alternative Universes and Our Future in the Cosmos. What we get is a whistlestop tour through basic cosmology, learning a lot about Einstein, Hoyle and others along the way.
It’s the latter part of the book that really brings us up to date and if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to get completely lost. I admit that I did in a few places.
Kaku is fantastic at using science fiction novels to illustrate some of the ideas, and I have a long list of books that I feel must be worth reading after hearing Kaku on them.
I think that it’s things like this that make the book as accessible as it is. I note that it’s on the long list for the 2006 Aventis Prize – the shortlist is revealed in a couple of weeks or so.
I certainly came out understanding a lot more about the multi-dimensional nature of the universe, and things like dark matter. Exceptional.

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick


The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History to give the book its full title, explains how one of the most famous tricks on earth has actually never existed yet has continued to develop a life of its own.
Let me direct you to a great review from a last year from Teller – the silent half of Penn and Teller. This does the book far more justice than I could ever.
The book is written in an enormously chatty style and is excedingly accessible. Author, Peter Lamont, has plenty to say about lots of other things along the way too.

A Matter of Death and Life


I’m a bit behind on keeping up to speed with the latest books I’ve read, so here’s a whistlestop tour.
A Matter of Death and Life is the latest Andrey Kurkov novel. This time around our hero decides that life is meaningless and contracts a hit man to kill him. Things quickly get complicated and once more we’re faced with the strange life of a contemporary Ukranian.
This isn’t so much a novel as a novella. As such, I think it’s a bit cheeky that Vintage feel able to charge a £6.99 on it. Recommended nonetheless.