John Roderick, of several podcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.

I currently subscribe to:

  • The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
  • Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
  • Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
  • Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
  • NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)

That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.

It’s a lot.

*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.

Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.

†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:

It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.

Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.

So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.

‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.

Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.

I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.

I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.

Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.

Peak TV is hard work.


Space. Forced.

BBC Sounds, yesterday

I’ve been struggling for podcasts lately, perhaps because my AirPods make it so convenient to listen at times when I might otherwise not be able to, and so they run out — especially towards the end of the week. For example, I find AirPods quite comfortable to wear in bed, and so I’ll often hear a podcast to the end instead of reading in bed (I can’t do both, obvs).

It’s a weird feeling, to choose sound over reading at night, which is a life-long habit. You feel oddly guilty, but at the same time, there have been times of late I’ve been too tired. And my love of the short story, the science fiction story in particular, has taken a dive of late. I’m currently reading a Le Carré, which is okay, but the chapters are really long, which is not conducive to bedtime reading when tired.

Anyway, lack of podcasts means turning to the BBC and seeing what they have, which can be pretty desperate stuff. Obviously, I’m avoiding the horrid Sounds app and I’m sticking to iPlayer Radio while I can*. In my grumpy middle age I’ve decided that most BBC comedy isn’t funny, so I tend to avoid panel shows unless I’m really desperate. I like Mark Steel’s stuff, and John Finnemore, but the News Quiz and the Now Show can do one, far as I’m concerned.

Most of what I go for is drama, but even then I’m very picky. I’ve never enjoyed “issue-based” radio drama, and I hate those ripped-from-the-headlines ones too. Perusing the current listing under the Drama category, and you’ll see something based on the playwright’s “real life experiences”, which is a turn-off. And then there’s an interminable series of plays “set in the Staffordshire potteries”. I listened to some Big Finish Doctor Whos, if only to remind myself what a shit Doctor Colin Baker was. And I’ve listened to some readings and some literary adaptations, though I often don’t get to the end. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, for example, I didn’t finish. Every single character was just so horrible, I wonder why anyone would read this nonsense. Where’s the pleasure in this? I don’t get it. Daphne Du Maurier’s The Years Between was good, though.

But this is a tale of two Sci-Fis. On the one hand, Stephen Baxter’s Voyage (first broadcast in 1999), a kind of alternative history in which instead of the Shuttle programme, NASA went to Mars. Being adapted from work by a proper science fiction writer, it ended up being quite good, notwithstanding some less than convincing American accents. (Often, I find that the least convincing Americans on the radio are the actual Americans.) On the other hand: Charles Chilton’s Space Force, from the mid-1980s, a kind of redux version of his earlier Journey into Space. Chilton was a radio all-rounder; being unkind, you’d call him a hack. And listening to this stuff is as close as you’re going to get to the kind of Hugh Walters juvenile science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, exemplified by Blast off at Woomera and Destination Mars.

Now, one might forgive Chilton’s 1950s Journey into Space, but this 1985-era reboot had no excuse to be as silly. Space Force is science fiction written by someone who likes the idea of it but appears never to have read any. The absolute worst sin committed by the writer was to include an audience proxy character who appeared to have left school at 14 and skipped all his science lessons while he was there. The character of Chipper, played by Nicky Henson, is supposed to be the communications officer, but doesn’t seem to understand how radio works. One plot point is that he hears voices in his head. The first time this happens, he’s surprised to discover that nobody else can hear them. The second and third and fourth and fifth times it happens, he’s also surprised to discover that nobody can hear them. In fact, he’s incapable of learning that he is the only person who hears these voices, and so we get his hysteria/surprise over and over again. In the final episode of six, he hears a voice in his head, and says aloud, “Who’s that?” Jesus Christ. Chipper has somehow qualified for the astronaut programme in spite of having no scientific knowledge and in spite of having no temperament for it: he panics at the slightest provocation (think Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army) and has to be sedated whenever things get hairy.

It’s not just that it’s stupid, but that it’s so stupid. It’s a hate listen is what it is.

*As to BBC Sounds, you just know there was a meeting at some point in which someone pointed out that the BBC’s audio broadcasting was no longer, strictly, what Marconi called radio. It’s not even radio, really, is it? You can hear them say. Why do we call it radio when it’s not even?

And so they reached for the 1970s slang term for “cool music” after which the absolute worst of the British music press was named: Sounds.


A more prosaically descriptive “BBC Streaming Audio” would have been better. BBC Stuff That You Listen To With What Are Called Ears. But “BBC Sounds” is the Orwellian future of listening to the world’s worst DJ wittering into your ears forever.

This is the way the world ends

Every day, someone reaches the front of the line to have an opinion about Brexit. And every day, it creeps a little closer. Time moves strangely: on the one hand, tick-tocking to the tappety tap tap tap of people paid to have opinions; on the other, coming straight down the tracks with the clackety clack clack of a runaway train.

At this stage, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting it to be over and done with, in one way or another, and yet you can’t shake the realisation that this is how we live now. Whatever happens, the bickering will continue and the tappety tap tap will go on forever.

I still remain (fnar) torn between my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism within the neoliberal culture of the EU and my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism because my neighbours (and yours, and yours) are fuckwits. And so I wish we could stay in the EU, because then at least I could get out of this fucking country and away from my fuckwit neighbours as soon as I retire.

If capital has freedom of movement, then people should too. Why should money have more rights than people?

Another sign of the forthcoming End of All Things is the BBC’s decision to make its popular Fortunately podcast exclusively available on the BBC Sounds app.

Now, the great thing about podcasting, up to now, has been that, as a new medium, it was open and free, and anybody could make one. The cost of entry being low has enabled a burgeoning of independent producers who have carved out their niches and their audiences on an equal footing with the big players (traditional broadcasters).

There have been signs of late that this situation was coming to an end. Large corporations introducing exclusive content on proprietary apps. For example, Jon Ronson has produced exclusive content for Stitcher and Audible.

But this Fortunately fiasco is the first time that something I care about has been taken off the open internet (RSS feed/on iTunes) and put into a “walled garden” that required you to have a specific app to listen. And I hate it, of course. Not just because of the inconvenience, but because it’s so unnecessary. The BBC has a massive platform and has no need to muscle in on the world of podcasting with its heavyweight app: especially as it already had the iPlayer Radio app.

Now, I fully understand that the under-35s aren’t bothering with BBC radio or iPlayer. And I fully understand that the BBC wants to ensure it has a future: hence, the trendy “Sounds” app with its wall-to-wall recommendations clearly aimed at people much younger than me.

I looked at it, as I was encouraged to, and hated it. It makes you log in with a BBC ID, and claims that it will tailor content for you, but then proceeded to show me almost nothing but music and sport recommendations, when I literally never listen to either of them on the BBC. The last time I tuned into a radio station to hear some music was the day Radio Caroline sank in the North Sea. So I genuinely hated it, and even though I gave it a couple more tries, I returned to iPlayer for my BBC listening, and will stick to Overcast for podcasts. Until the bitter end.

The BBC did almost immediately back down and put Fortunately on iPlayer, and claim that the exclusivity will end after a while, but still. Stop messing with podcasts. Free and open and independent podcasting is clinging on, and when it’s gone we will miss it, just like we’ll miss all the high street shops when they’re gone.

Guerilla Media?

220px-Power_to_the_PeopleToday presenter, former political correspondent of the BBC, and obvious Tory Nick Robinson last week wrote an article in which he set out the challenges and attacks faced by the BBC and the mainstream media from the alternative media: the likes of The Canary and Westmonster.

Worth pulling apart.

Robinson raises the stakes to near hysteria when he describes all this with the language of warfare:

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise morale. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

They don’t like it up ‘em, do they?

I’m no fan of sites like the Canary. I’ve always regretted following links to them from Twitter. I don’t like the style or tone of their journalism, and I don’t like their obvious bias, even if I might share it. But they exist because of a well-founded perception that the BBC in particular has been letting us down, not just lately, but for year after year and month after month.

The BBC has a duty, baked into its charter, to be impartial. But, weasel-like, the BBC always manages to be a tacit supporter of the government of the day. Knowing full well that angry ministers can do a lot of damage to the institution via their friends in the right-wing media, the BBC is notoriously brown-nosed, no matter who is in power. They brown-nosed the neoliberal “New Labour” government too. Robinson tries to argue the opposite, citing times when government ministers complained about the BBC, but he’s being selective with the facts. He mentions Churchill complaining about the BBC during the General Strike of 1926, knowing full well that Lord Reith was ensuring that the broadcaster was quietly supportive of the government:

since the BBC was a national institution, and since the government in this crisis was acting for the people… the BBC was for the government in the crisis too.

Robinson says,

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe “the news”.

This seems to imply that the BBC is spending much time reporting facts. Sure, it might tell us about a hurricane or two, feeding the usual oh dearism, but the real beef these alt. news sources have with the BBC is with political coverage, and in particular its apparent inability to be impartial to the truth.

This is what they do: debate. Perhaps it’s a hangover from their days at Oxford or Cambridge, but notwithstanding BBC editors’ love for them, debates can be rigged. For example, a debate between a completely unqualified and paid-for climate change denier (e.g. Nigel Lawson) and an actual climate scientist is not unbiased. Robinson justifies the airing of Lawson’s lies on behalf of the oil industry secretive charitable foundation he ‘founded’ with the idea that people with ‘alternative views’ should not be silenced:

They should be challenged and if, as Lawson did on Today recently, they get their facts wrong we should say so.

But Lawson didn’t “get his facts wrong”. He’s paid to tell lies on behalf of a powerful lobby, which hides the sources of its funding behind charitable status. By all means, get him on and challenge the “views” he’s paid to have. But make it fucking clear to the listeners that he’s there representing not ‘alternative views’ but the tiny and wealthy membership of a ‘charitable’ foundation that seems to be swimming in mysterious money.

Claim and counterclaim: that’s most often what the BBC reports when it comes to political issues. And they structure reports so that the most ‘important’ person goes first, and any responses to the claim being made are buried further down in the story. And in-studio debates, notoriously, are stage managed and constantly interrupted by hectoring presenters (or other guests who won’t shut up), hurried along, and cut short by artificially generated arbitrary deadlines dictated by weather bulletins and news summaries.

What the BBC could do, but never does, is demonstrate an impartiality to the truth. Rather than allowing, say, Boris Johnson to make a completely false claim about the amount of money that would go to the NHS following Brexit, the presenter could stop him — in his tracks — and point out that he’s lying. Could quote the Office of National Statistics at him, and therefore let him know in no uncertain terms that he would never be allowed to get away with telling such a lie on a BBC news programme. The popularity of a recent clip of NBC journalists challenging a lying contributor shows how hungry the public are for this kind of thing.

But they don’t do that. Instead, they demonstrate ‘impartiality’ by having someone else in the studio to make another claim that Johnson is lying, which just makes it all seem like a game, with the ‘winner’ being the person who repeats themselves the most, shouts the loudest, or speaks last, before the arbitrarily imposed cut-off point. This suits Johnson and his ilk down to the ground, insulated as he is by his family money from the consequences of anything he says.

Unfortunately, the alt. media that have come along are mainly just offering a different kind of bias. For Robinson to talk about these news sources as waging a war against the BBC/MSM is disingenuous in the extreme, because the real and present threat to the BBC has always been from the Murdoch-owned right-wing press, the Dailies Mail, Express, and Telegraph who have no interest in reporting the truth and every interest in destroying a national institution they see as a barrier to their profits.

The BBC follows their news agenda, focuses on their obsessions, giving disproportionate time to the bugbears of the political right: immigrants and the “undeserving poor”, and continually failing to reveal when contributors are representatives of right-wing thinktanks, or corporations, or simply nutty minority pressure groups. They give airtime to the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, offer blanket coverage of everything UKIP does, but more or less ignore, say, the Green Party, which probably has more members and more widespread support. And they repeated the attacks on Corbyn from the press as if they were news, lending credence to the idea that they are all Tories.

Worth one’s Salt

soldierWhile I take the point that the paint-by-numbers furore about BBC staff salaries is drummed up by the exceedingly well remunerated Murdoch and Dacre as part of their ongoing destruction of British culture, I still think there are questions raised by the extraordinary figures received by some so-called “talent” who work in the media (not just the BBC).

There are small questions, such as what makes Chris Evans worth £2.5m?

I really don’t know the answer to this. Radio 2 reaches 28% of the age 15+ listening population, and has over 15 million listeners per week. But I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that very few of those people would actually stop listening if Chris Evans was lured away to some other broadcaster, one that had loads of shitty adverts and a far more budgetarily constrained playlist. But even if Radio 2 lost 3 million daily listeners, so what? Who fucking cares? The BBC likes to think it’s “for everyone” and Radio 2 is a good example of that, but a DJ? Really? As history as shown, people can be replaced. Wogan fucking died and Radio 2 still gets 15 million listeners. I simply cannot fathom his worth. It’s not as if he has a golden touch: his Top Gear was an abject failure and he’s clearly not as popular as the BBC think for that to have happened.

Substitute any name, mix and match the programmes/channels, and this is my response to all salaries.

As to the gender pay gap, yep. Big surprise. But also, those “lower” salaries are still way high for reading an autocue, throwing underarms at politicians, or saying things are “cool” at Glasto.

Then there are the bigger questions. The main one, for me, has always been, why are people in the media paid so much? They fit into a special class of people who are apparently worth more to our society than teachers, nurses, firefighters, police, civil servants, social workers, people who collect the bins, people who unblock drains, and even most doctors.

Of course, the pragmatic answer to the question is the same one that applies to the political class, who get to vote for their own pay rises. People who work in the media get to determine the salaries of other people who work in the media. I mean, if teachers got to decide teachers’ pay, we’d be laughing, of course we would.


Yes. One can’t help thinking that all these luvvies are laughing at us, even as they tetchily respond on social networks to snarking from the lower orders.

I once drew a diagram on the board for my Media Studies class. A tiny circle representing the wealthiest 1%: the owners, landlords, CEOs, politicians. And a much bigger circle for the rest of the population who have to share their smaller proportion of wealth. Then I asked the question, why don’t the 99% rise up and kill the 1%?

The answer, of course, was hegemony, and I went on to explain how the rest of us are convinced that violent revolution is a bad idea by TV shows like Strictly. It’s complicated.

In between the big circle and the small circle, I put the security apparatus, the police and armed forces, who are the last line of defence between the two sides in the class war. And the police are indoctrinated in a special way to ensure that they feel a certain contempt for ordinary people, and are not averse to hitting a few of them over the head with batons during protests and marches. That way, going out on a protest march looks sufficiently dangerous and risky to put most people off.

Anyway, I included “the media” as part of the “thin blue line” between the poorer classes and the 1%. It’s important, if you work in the media, that you feel special and different from the rest of us. Enormous salaries and an easy working life which means you never feel like retiring are part of it. So I’m fond of pointing out the enormous proportion of BBC presenters and journalists who are long past the state retirement age. John Humphrys is 73. David Dimbleby is 78. The youthful Chris Evans is is 51.

It’s also important for people who work in the media to feel like they know more than the rest of us. When people can’t be named for legal reasons, they know the names. When there are super-injunctions in place, everyone who knows anyone who works in the media knows (a) the story and (b) the names.

So it’s about being in the know. And it’s about being paid more so you feel separated from regular people and stop empathising with them. So then you can do the job you’re paid to do, which is preventing violent revolution. Because if just one person is discouraged from, you know, putting some oligarchs to the guillotine by a witty link between the news and the next record, Chris Evans’ salary is worth it.

All the Jacks. Jack. Jack. Jackety Jack Jack.

csuite-jacksI have almost literally run out of anything to watch on my NowTV box. I was filling in a survey the other day and one of the questions was about the amount of live television that you watch in a typical week. And I realised that the answer was almost none at all. Even stuff that is being broadcast now I tend to watch on catchup or otherwise time-shifted.

So we’re down to watching a soapy show called Betrayal from abc. That and new episodes (as they come along) of Modern Family, Futurama, The Blacklist, Elementary and Stalker. Even The Leftovers has finished now, as has the preposterous The Last Ship. Last night, I even watched an episode of The Flash. Everybody* in these shows is called Jack.

So, things are getting desperate. You know something’s bad if the lead character is called Jack and everybody keeps reminding you that his name is Jack, in case you forget, Jack. Because all the characters, Jack, are interchangeable, and it might have been better not to use such a common name, but no Jack, instead they pepper the script with the word Jack, as if that somehow builds character. Betrayal: all you hear is Jack-ack-ack. Stalker: Jack-ack-ack.

So I endured the painfully slow iPlayer software (what is that written in? Hypercard?) to watch Intruders, the already-a-flop BBC America thing starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino. The lead character is called Jack. Mira Sorvino plays his wife, also Jack, and there’s some kid running around swearing and saying, “What comes around goes around.” She’s called Jack-ack-ack.

Hey TV writers, here’s a fucking plan. Why not avoid the name Jack for the rest of time? It has been done, my friends.

Intruders is rubbish, like most things the BBC produces. Someone should take the BBC out back and shoot it, seriously. If this is an example of their commissioning process, there is no hope.

Now, I don’t mind a bit of the old enigma code. I like a long-running mystery. I stuck with Twin Peaks through two seasons, even though the second wasn’t very good. And I went to see the film. I stuck with The Leftovers through all 10 episodes even though it was from the Lost people and even though it took till episode 9 till we got some of the back story filled in. The thing about Intruders, you don’t really get a handle on what’s really happening until episode 5, and that’s a little bit too late considering you lost half of your audience by the end of episode 2.

This is woo-woo sci-fi written by people who have never read and don’t understand science fiction. Characters you don’t care about, with some clichéd Jack back story, and nothing at stake but a bunch of horrible people who all deserve each other. And it’s photographed like everyone is dead already. Everyone looks like warmed over corpses and it’s monotone. Anyway, it’s about people who jump their souls into other peoples’ bodies or something. It’s all woo woo. Invasion of the Body Snatchers it is not.

Here’s another suggestion for TV writers. Ditch the high concept shows. Tell me a story.


*may be an example of hyperbole for purposes of humour.

My nine favourite podcasts (and two more I tolerate)

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an ideal world, I’d just listen to the radio when I was on holiday in France, but unfortunately we only have occasional access to wifi, and the 3G I get through Orange France (using a French SIM) is not that fast on top of our hill and relatively expensive.

Which leaves me downloading podcasts whenever I visit my brother-in-law’s (aka the internet café), and working through them over a couple of days. Here are my favourites, and some I sometimes use but enjoy a lot less. I admit there’s a preponderance of BBC output, but wading through everything else in search of something I’d enjoy seems like too much hard work. I generally dislike the American broadcasting style, and find interruptions for sponsor messages irritating. The BBC provides high quality output and, after all, I paid for it.

Podcasts are not just for holidays, of course. They’re perfect for Richard Bacon avoidance, or Radio 4 Sunday morning output avoidance. My new kitchen radio has Bluetooth, so I’ll be able to broadcast podcasts from my phone whenever something shit is on.

In Our Time

The Big Daddy of podcasts, In Our Time is by now a vast resource of interesting discussions on a high variety of topics. Sure, you have to put up with Melvin Bragg, and you’re never going to get any depth, but you’ll learn enough to catch an interest, and might be prompted to further reading and research. You have to love the concept: get three experts in the field together in a studio to discuss a topic. The only real problem is the 45 minute running time, which is never long enough. I tend to pick and choose and prefer the science topics, but I’m not averse to a bit of history. This week, I listened to one about the Medicis. The great thing about In Our Time is that it’s a good listen while you’re rustling something up in the kitchen, or you can put it on as background and have a nice sleep. It can be very soporific. There are so many of them that you’ll never run out. Probably.

More or Less

One of my favourite Radio 4 shows is this brilliant half-hour about statistics in the news. Never fails to leave you better informed, and is key to taking all figures and statistics in the media with a pinch of salt. The show often asks the question, is it a big number? A classic example of this was when Osborne was railing about waste in the CPS and complaining about the amount of printing they do every day. Turns out not to have been a big number at all. When not on R4, there’s a 10-minute version on the World Service.

Friday Night Comedy

It’s either going to be the News Quiz or the Now Show. Neither are top drawer, but both are enjoyable enough for a bath time, or can be listened to during a meal. The kids enjoy them. We’d all rather have I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – what’s up with that not being a podcast.

The History Hour

One of my favourites, this, collecting the World Service Witness strand into one hour of podcast joy. A variety of historical topics, mini packages, complete with interviews. Always interesting, and even if not, there’s be an interesting topic along in a minute.

From Our Own Correspondent

Could be considered worthy-but-dull, and is not always the most cheerful experience, but this is a great listen for soft news, background, and colour, and far more interesting than the hard news and breaking news that obsesses the media. It offers a wide variety of content, and the best of 2013 supercut was a great listen.

The Talk Show

I rarely listen to an entire episode of John Gruber’s The Talk Show, but when I’m in the mood for a completely obsessive discussion of Apple/tech minutiae, this is where I turn. I might survive an hour of the typical 90-100 minute running time. There are usually three sponsor messages, which can be irritating.

Thinking Allowed/The Media Show/Feedback

These afternoon half-hour shows are usually worth a listen. I’ll happily stick with these if they’re on when I happen to be in the car or kitchen, and they’re worth downloading as podcasts. Laurie Taylor is a fine broadcaster, and his sociological strand is generally interesting. The Media Show, along with More or Less, should be essential listening to all students of Media. Feedback is also a useful resource for Media students, as you often hear BBC News bods squirming when confronted with criticism of their preposterous overspending and ridiculous reporting. All three programmes are presented by people who are more independent voices – not necessarily spouting the standard BBC line.


In the absence of Eddie Mair’s PM, which would be a joy to download the day after it’s broadcast (please, BBC), I usually enjoy this, the weekend show that “starts with its listeners”. One of PM’s reporters puts together a package following contact from a listener. It often appears as if this might be an unpromising listen, but I’ve yet to actually be bored by an episode of this. The PM production team know how to put a package together.

What the Papers Say

Presented by different journalists each week, this 15-minute slot used to be a staple of late night TV. I don’t think it’s quite as good as it used to be in its television heyday, and some of the journos can be objectionable, but it’s still worth a download, and is perfect for shower time.

Kermode/Mayo Film Reviews aka Wittertainment

Hmm. I’ve gone through stages on this. At the moment, I can’t stand listening to Kermode, having fixated on his habit of not finishing sentences. If he’s got a cold, he can be a bit of a drone, too, not interrupted often enough by Mayo. On the other hand, it’s far more entertaining as a podcast than it is when broadcast live, interrupted as it is by news, sport, travel, trailers, stingers, etc. Best experienced when some of the substitute reviewers are in town during one of Kermode’s frequent holidays.

Best of Today

I generally hate this, but in the absence of regular news from home, I’ll download it in a pinch. It’s just a selection of packages and/or discussions, but rarely offers anything intelligent or properly interesting, and is frequently infuriating in the way of most of Today’s output. In desperation only, because the truth is, there is no “best” of Today. It’s all “worst”.

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That Morecambe and Wise Thing

English: Eric Morecambe, Morecambe Bay and the...

Quite enjoyed the two part M&W documentary, though can’t help feeling three hours was an hour more than it needed. Television schedules, though, eh?
We played “Bring Me Sunshine” at my dad’s funeral earlier this year, and I don’t suppose we’re the only ones to have chosen it.
The story of M&W is a tragedy in three acts. Eric Morecambe suffered from something more than heart disease. It was a fear and anxiety brought on by early struggles and three big failures. Their first failure was on the BBC, their first attempt at a TV show. They also failed to crack America in quite the same way that other music hall act, The Beatles, did. Finally, they failed to make it in the movies, though they tried.
In the end their huge success was about keeping it simple, keeping it comfortable. And as the audience grew towards peak proportions (28.8 million in 1977, the kind of numbers you’d expect for a World Cup Final) their shows got more and more elaborate. By 1977, they were not keeping it simple, and this gave Eric the heebiejeebies.
He was a high-energy performer, a smoker, and a worrier. Inevitable that he would die young. He was right when he said that 1971, with Glenda Jackson and André Preview, was unbeatable. The documentary could have skipped through the rest. The programmes were brilliant, their audiences huge, but they were riding the wave they’d first hit in ’71. By the time you follow the newsreader-can-dance joke with more newsreaders, the writing was on the wall.
So they moved to Thames. The documentary elided something there. It wasn’t just Billy Cotton at the BBC who felt betrayed. I think a lot of the general public did, too.
The documentary did put the historical record straight by reminding us that the BBC failed them and that it was ITV, who understood Britain better through its regions, who made them a television success. It also reminded us yet again that the BBC managed to lose a lot of early Morecambe and Wise shows through their policy of destroying master tapes. Fucking idiots.
But by the time they moved back to Thames, they belonged to us, the public, who had paid for their lavish shows through the TV licence. When they left Billy Cotton, they also left us.
You could see how ill Eric was on the Penelope Keith show in 1977. Retirement would have been kinder. I remember that by 1981, the public loved them a little less. I also remember hearing how Eric had turned up to a book signing in Canterbury that year, and nobody showed up. Badly publicised, no doubt, but a poignant episode, especially as he was promoting his novel Mr Lonely.
Those days! Oh to live in an alternate universe, the one in which Eric kicked smoking and stopped worrying, the one in which he got to retire after 1977 and write comic novels and appear on Wogan to promote them.
He was always afraid, wasn’t he, that they’d be forgotten? And they never have been, though in his lifetime, Ernie became the forgotten man. I don’t suppose people could bear to see him. Spontaneous sobbing.
I was crying by the end. Amazing how the news of Eric’s death, even though you know it’s coming and it was 30 years ago, still has the power to shock tears into your eyes.

Sunshine on Reith

grayson_pot_304So I quite enjoyed Grayson Perry’s series of Reith Lectures. I don’t particularly care about whether they were properly Reithian. That old toff showed his true colours when he supported the government and not the people during the General Strike of 1926.

I don’t know what it was caught my ear with Perry’s lectures. Probably something about the trailers (they were heavily trailed on R4), but also someone on Twitter who went to the first one, and mentioned it before it was broadcast. I’m not particularly interested in art. Some of it is engaging, some of it is funny, some of it is, what? Trying to provoke or shock? As Perry pointed out elsewhere, shock wears off. Impressionism was once shocking, and is now everybody’s default favourite. I don’t like the hullaballoo of popular exhibits, and I don’t like the trust fundiness of private galleries.

I wasn’t really all that aware of Grayson Perry’s work. I’ve looked online at a few of the pots, and the stuff with the teddy bear, and I actually quite like it. I’m not sure if my liking it now follows my liking him, if you know what I mean. What I really like about him is that he comes from Essex and went to ye olde traditional Polytechnic, came away with a 2:1, and is now at the top of his field. Like Jonathan Ive, in a completely different field, he’s living proof that the public school and Oxbridge route through education is not the best option. The kind of education he got at Portsmouth Poly has made him a well-rounded, down to earth individual with an engaging manner and a well-adjusted sense of his place in the universe. So it might have required a few years in therapy to put his demons in order, but that could be true of anyone. Listening to him on Radio 4 was a breath of fresh air. I could listen to him talk about anything, and heard him say quite a lot of things that I say myself.

The first lecture, on the theme of taste and democracy, was definitely my favourite, though reading some Twitter reactions, it seemed that many people enjoyed the last one, about what it means to be an artist, the most. I liked the first one so much I played it to my Year 13 media class. I thought its themes of elites and democracy, curation and gatekeeping, obfuscation and discourse, were very relevant. My class seemed to really enjoy it, though I’m not sure how many of them went on to listen to the others. I played it because it seemed to neatly summarise a lot of the stuff I’ve been lecturing teaching them about this year.

I have to say, Radio is a joy to deal with in terms of time shifting. You can either use the iPlayer Radio app, or download podcasts, and can usually catch up with things. The ability to save up something has transformed my Sunday mornings, and being able to put on Grayson Perry while I was cooking the evening meal in France last week, or pottering around on a Saturday morning was excellent. This was a programme, at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday that I’d otherwise never have got the chance to hear. Yay for modern technology, yay for public service broadcasting. One of the few things the BBC has done right in recent times.

Perry’s talks weren’t University-style lectures with lots of intellectual content, theory, and difficult concepts. Instead, he gave a whistlestop tour of the art world, how it works, what art is and what it means, and, finally, what it means to find yourself (as) an artist. To begin with, he encouraged people to engage with art, and to understand that it was okay not to like all of it. An important idea, this, in terms of the general public. An old git writing in the Telegraph disapproved, so, well, good.

Some people at work were kind of skeptical and didn’t want to engage, just because of the transvestite thing. Interestingly, at least one of these people was disapproving of Russell Brand for similar (i.e. lifestyle) reasons. It’s fascinating how people will use irrelevant and trivial details as an excuse to dismiss interesting ideas. “Why does he have to dress up as a woman?” she complained. Well, why are you so insecure that you find him so threatening? Apart from anything else, he’s challenging your conventions in a direct and hard-to-ignore way.

The last lecture was the most personal, and he spoke of how he finds it heartening that people still want to study art at university, even though the prospect of having a career as an artist is remote. And just as I found his first lecture to have a broader relevance, the final one chimed with my own attitude to education. I tell my students –every time: follow your interests, do what you love. Don’t think about whether a course of study will lead to a successful career. What will come will come. I don’t suppose George Osborne, who studied History at Oxford, ever expected to make a living as an historian. And his lack of expertise in the field of economics doesn’t seem to have held him back. The cold dead hand of careers advice is the absolute worst thing you can heed. “All the places on the bean counters’ course were gone, so I became a careers adviser.”

Grayson Perry finished on a typically wry note. When talking about the kind of feedback artists crave and sometimes don’t receive, and the related need to market and publicise yourself effectively, he pointed out that dressing up as a woman gave him an edge. At a small exhibition, it’s often difficult to pick the artist (dressed in jeans and a T) out of the crowd, so even if you wanted to, you might not be able to just walk up to them and praise their work. By dressing as a woman, Perry said, at least people always knew who the artist was.

Non-news update news update

BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fortnight into my news holiday. I deleted the folder of bookmarks I have in my browser that took me to the front pages of three of the broadsheets, the BBC, and other news sites. I haven’t switched on the Today programme in the morning, nor the PM programme in the afternoon. I haven’t listened to Richard Bacon or Drive on the drive home from work.

I removed Tweetbot from the home screen of my iPhone and iPad, and relegated it to the last screen, along with all the Apple shit you can’t delete, like Stocks and Game Centre.

I have been on the Twitter, but mainly reading things from people I’ve known the longest. I flick through the updates rapidly, no longer spending the time to read each one. I haven’t followed any links to news stories, opinion columns, or newsy blogs.

I’ve been aware of things happening. Bombs, earthquakes, collapsing buildings. I know about these things, but they seem distant and abstract, like all the other bombings, earthquakes and collapsing buildings there have been in my life. Have I ever been able to do anything about these events, which seem tailor-made for news? Does knowing about an earthquake stop the earth shaking?

It’s odd to see the snarky comments sometimes before being aware of what they relate to. People make jokes about boycotting Primark, and you know it must relate to something in the news, but the connection doesn’t come immediately. You realise how pointless it is to listen to The News Quiz, or watch Have I Got News For You.

Two weeks in, and I don’t think I’ll be putting the browser bookmarks back any time soon. I’ve enjoyed finding things on the Radio iPlayer and listening to them instead of the news. I won’t go back to the Today programme, with its dreadful agenda-setting drivel-driven manufactured debates.

I do miss Eddie Mair. I don’t miss Kermode and Mayo. I tried to listen to their podcast, which edits out the news, but Kermode is so fucking irritating, isn’t he? Labouring and repeating every point like a sledgehammer smashing into a carpet tack.

When the month is up, I will allow myself to listen to Eddie Mair on PM, and I will continue to skim across the surface of the Twitter, but that will be all.