news

No News Today!

Many of you who regularly read this blog may know that for most of my working life I've been involved in the media business.

And for most of my adult life, news has been something I've been involved in - listened to, watched, written, read out for listeners and viewers, reported on in studios and on locations, investigated news stories and chatted to people making the news for whatever reason. I'm one of those people who when I awake in the morning I automatically reach for the radio and switch on, to catch the latest headlines and commentary.

The news recently, of course, has been dominated by the coronavirus - news of numbers, deaths, hospitalisations, vaccines - it's been relentless. And I have to say, even though I am by my own admission a bit of a 'news junkie', it has all become a bit overwhelming.

Prior to this pandemic, of course, here in the UK our news programmes and headlines were dominated for many many many months by ... yes ... BREXIT!  THAT also felt like a never-ending story! 

With our current rolling TV news channels, it does sometimes feel like it's just a constant barrage of relentless facts, figures, analysis, comment. Often things appear to happen really really slowly, so hour on hour it's the same thing over and over and over again, with obvious clutching at proverbial straws to try to 'freshen up' the newslines being delivered.

I know that for a lot of people this past year, especially, has been quite depressing. A lot have simply stopped watching and listening to the news and have just 'switched off'. I've read comments from so many people who've said that they are just 'fed up' of hearing the same news lines and the same people talking about the same things. And I sort of get it. 

The challenge to current news providers is always to try to keep people engaged, but there is something in the argument that some of the methods of modern news delivery are rather jaded.

You know what I'm talking about. 'Experts' and so-called 'correspondents' unpicking issues endlessly and telling us what they think about it all is one of my personal bug bears, I have to say. Having worked in the news for so long, I'm aware that to be an 'expert' in any particular area is something that often comes with much time and great effort. And I'm not sure these days that everyone who stands outside an important building spouting what they've probably just actually been told to say by their colleagues back in the newsroom are real 'experts'. It sort of diminishes the trust in 'specialists'.

One big challenge is how also to keep people engaged with the news without just delivering scary statistics and frighteners? That doesn't always work either. One way of making news come to 'life' is to turn to 'examples' of people who are living through it. But even that can get a bit jaded because often the stories are framed in the same way - sad looking person filmed doing something that doesn't really relate to what the story is about (making a cup of tea/pottering in the garden, walking in a field), a rather sad little interview with a serious looking reporter, followed by the sad person doing something also unrelated to the story (leafing through a book/looking pensively out of a window).

Part of the problem is that the person's story is always framed through the news story and by the 'line' that the reporter is aiming for, and in the time allotted to them ... usually a TV news story is all done and dusted and shoe-horned into under two minutes. Radio can allow more TIME to really explore a subject, but the truth is much of the news delivery these days feels rather rushed. SO many stories, all covered rather superficially and only really for the purpose of illustrating the top 'news line'.

The other thing that people have often asked me is why the 'news' is so often 'bad.' I've tried to explain in the past that actually it's because 'bad' stuff happens really quite infrequently, so that's why it's unusual and makes the news. But these days I'm not so convinced by my argument. Years ago there was a bit of a debate as to why 'good' news couldn't be more prominent in a bulletin. Especially on a 'slow' news day, why can't our news be full of 'good' news? People doing great things, people making a difference in their communities. And not just covered as your typical 'And Finally ...' story.

On BBC local radio at the moment there IS a move towards more 'good' community news stories. Some bulletins are featuring 'Make a Difference' stories which celebrates the brilliant people in our communities. It was part of what I did towards the end of my time at BBC Radio Jersey and it's a great development.

But sadly, I think I may have actually to create my own 'good news channel' if I want to hear more positive news stories. The mainstream news media DOES have challenges ahead, although how one fixes a broken model is another issue and one that will take more than my ramblings to sort out.

But why am I talking about this today?

Well it's because on this day - April 18th - in 1930, the BBC did have a very slow news day and something rather unusual happened.

It was before television, so this was radio news. 

BBC microphoneIt was 8.45pm and all over Great Britain people tuned it for the radio news but instead heard the announcer simply say these words...

“Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.” 

That was it. Then the rest of the 15-minute news segment was filled with some piano music.

Of course this was before the days of world media. And the BBC wasn't endowed with all the reporters and 'correspondents' we have today. In fact the BBC didn't create it's own news operation until 1934. It's really interesting to read about the early days of the BBC,  when their news gathering was rather constrained by the demands of the newspaper publishers who feared that broadcast bulletins would damage sales.

In those early days of the BBC - after the first news bulletin in November 1922 - they weren't allow to broadcast news before 7pm and the British government didn't allow the BBC to have its own reporters. They relied on stories and copy from the wire services like Reuters, the Press Association, the Central News, and the Exchange Telegraph Company, whose ‘tape’ machines spewed out their stories into the BBC News Room. The BBC news teams then chose what stories to run and by all accounts, they were determined only to choose the best stories. 

Obviously on April 18th 1930 there weren't enough good stories to make a bulletin!

I didn't grow up on this story ... it's something I learned about down the line. And I'm not sure that everyone who works for the BBC knows about it.  Some are aware and think it's just rather quirky. Click here to listen to a more modern take on what happened that day.

Even on a 'slow' news day, this would never happen today. Imagine if we switched on the BBC news channels to hear 'Good morning, everyone, today there is no real news for us to talk about, at least not sensibly. So we're just going to enjoy a film or some cartoons, or listen to some great music'.

Now ... THAT would be an interesting News Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Long Walk

Memory is a strange thing. 

It is rather choosy in what it chooses to remember.

I know that, as a person who was born at the very end of the 1950s, SO many things have happened in my lifetime but most of my memories aren't of the BIG events, but lots of little, personal things. Making a snowman with my brothers when I was probably about 5, hanging upside down on the 'monkey bars' at school at about the same age. My first memories of moving to Africa with my family ... more on that another time.

As a person who has worked most of my life in the news business, I strangely find that I don't remember even many of the big life-changing events. Although I DO know where I was on September 11th 2001, when the planes hit the World Trade Centre in New York.

And I remember the events of February 11th 1990 because I clearly recall watching them on the television.

It was the day the world watched Nelson Mandela walk free from prison on Robben Island, in Table Bay off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa, after 27 years in captivity.

The crowds were incredible and then we saw him, holding hands with his then wife Winnie, walking through the crowds. Walking into Freedom.

It was incredible. It really felt like I was watching history in the making.

For my whole life I was aware of South Africa - I had relatives living there and had visited my brother and seen apartheid in action, even the reaction of some black people against members of their own community during these very turbulent times as they worked their way towards independence. I had witnessed terrible scenes on a television screen, an horrific 'necklace killing' which was shown on TV. If you don't know what this is, please click on the link... I can't bear to repeat it here. I still have the images in my mind.

One of the iconic songs of the era, 'Free Nelson Mandela', was a cry for freedom not just for the man, but also for the black population, the nation of South Africa. With the real threat of a racial civil war and pressure at home and internationally, including economic and sporting boycotts, eventually the government of President F. W. de Klerk saw what needed to be done.

And here Mandela was ... walking free. The man who had been imprisoned for sedition and conspiring to overthrow the state of South Africa was a free man. At last!

It was incredible.

But what came next was even more astounding.

It would have been easy for Mr Mandela to insist on power for the black population, immediately, and to rouse them to action.

But instead, he worked with President de Klerk to negotiate an end to apartheid, that system of institutionalised racial segregation that had been formalised in 1948. Eventually there was a multiracial general election in 1994 which resulted in victory for Mandela and his party, the ANC - the African National Congress. Nelson Mandela became the first black president of his nation.

After assuming power, and especially after suffering 27 years in incarceration, one might have assumed that Mandela might then have wanted his revenge on the white politicians and civilians who had made life so unbearable for the black and 'coloured' population for so long. But no.

Instead he emphasised reconciliation between the country's racial groups and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. 

It was barely a year after that 1994 multi-racial election, which my own family members were pleased to be part of, that I visited South Africa again. Life in the country seemed familiar and it didn't feel like much had changed really, but there was hope in the air.

And although it is still a troubled country, with much poverty and even inequality of all kinds, today I remember the man who guided his country through such a momentous era, which could have turned out so differently. Long walk to freedom

In his autobiography 'Long Walk to Freedom' (Little Brown & Co 1994) Nelson Mandela shared not just his life's story but also his wisdom.

He wrote ...

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

And he left us with thoughts which can inspire us all ...

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

 

 


Don't Like Mondays?

If you're as old as I am,  you might remember the 1979 Boomtown Rats hit 'I Don't Like Mondays'.

If not - maybe look it up?

It was the band's second hit and it was Number One in the UK charts for four weeks during that summer.

For me it was an iconic sound of my youth. But it was a song born of tragedy, because it was written by  Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers following a dreadful event on January 29th of  that year - the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in San Diego, USA. 

Geldof is quoted as saying he wrote the ballad after he heard that the shooter who fired at children in a playground, killing two adults and injuring eight children and a police officer, explained herself by saying "I don't like Mondays...."

Appalling!

Now, I have to say, many of us might admit that Monday is not our favourite day of the week ... back to work/school after the weekend and all that. 

But I read something recently that helped me put a new spin on Mondays. It's a quote attributed to David Dweck, entrepreneur, investor and speaker ... and I love it.

Just by thinking of Mondays in a different way, putting a more positive spin on the day ... well this says it all really.

SO - Happy Monday!

2016-02-15 16.07.20 - Copy

Oh, and by the way, if you're wondering ... the photograph is one of mine.  It's St Ouen's Bay in Jersey in the Channel Islands.


Time to think about Time

For many years my working life was dominated by The Pips!

Any idea what I'm talking about?

Well it's that series of 'pips' ... five short and one long tone ... that are broadcast by many BBC Radio stations at the top of each hour. 

Why am I talking about this today? Well, it was on February 5th 1924 that the BBC Pips ... the Greenwich Time Signal .. was first broadcast.

Bbc-history-task-pips

As a radio presenter, for many years I had to ensure I met the 'Pips' cleanly at the top of the hour. No talking over them, no crashing into them. They were sacrosanct.  It could be a quite a pressure but you got used to it.

Only a few BBC radio stations continue to run the Greenwich Time Signal now to give us the precise start to the hour.

Some might think that's a shame, because those pips were a way we could check that our watches and clocks were spot on. These days digital time pieces are so accurate we perhaps don't need the Greenwich Time Signal to keep us on track of time.

Back in 1924, the idea for the Pips came from the Astronomer Royal of the time, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, and the head of the BBC, John Reith.

I'm not going to to go into the technical details of this because I don't know them and it might be rather boring. If you're so inclined, there are plenty of websites which can give you that information.

But what I've gleaned is that the Pips were originally controlled by two mechanical clocks in the Royal Greenwich Observatory which had electrical contacts attached to their pendula. These sent a signal each second to the BBC, which converted them to generate the distinctive beeps of the pips. By the way, just in case one clock failed, two clocks were always used and years later an electronic clock was deployed.

Until 1972 the pips were of equal length. Confusion reigned. Which was the final pip? How did we know it was actually the top of the hour? That was when the last pip was extended. Five short pips, followed by one long.

In 1990 the BBC started to generate the pips themselves via what I read is an atomic clock. Wow.

The Pips were at one point featured on BBC TV but that was discontinued in the 1960s, yet the Greenwich Time Signal seems to remain synonymous with the nation that is Great Britain. It was the first sound heard in the handover to the London 2012 Olympics during the Beijing 2008 Olympics closing ceremony. To celebrate the 90th birthday of the pips on 5 February 2014, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 broadcast a sequence that included a re-working of the Happy Birthday melody using the GTS as its base sound.

These days, if you want the reassuring sound of the Greenwich Time Signal, then the best place to go is BBC Radio 4, which uses them at the top of each hour. Sometimes when I can't sleep and I'm listening to the BBC World Service radio I also hear them as well. There are similar time signals used by radio stations in lots of other countries, but I guess the BBC Pips are the most famous.

But what you may not know is that the GTS is available not just on the hour but also on the quarter past, the half past and the quarter to the hour. When you're presenting in a radio studio there's a GTS stream you can fade up on your desk to give you the Pips, and if after the top of the hour you forget to fade that stream down, it'll automatically pop up at those times as well. I have to say, that only happened to me just the once!

The thing about the Greenwich Time Signal, and those Pips, is that they remind us that time is fleeting. Time is passing. Time is short.

Perhaps we don't like being reminded about that. I know I don't. 

But if there's something we need to get done ... maybe we need to be just get on and do it, before we run out of time. And although there may be lots of things that we need to do just because we need to do them, it's also important to use our time wisely.

And on that point ... there are masses of quotes about time on the internet but there's one which I'll leave with you today ...

“Always make time for things that make you feel happy to be alive.”

(Anonymous)

 


Take the first step

I'm starting today's thought with a picture and quote from an awesome woman

Quotation-Rosa-Parks-To-bring-about-change-you-must-not-be-afraid-to-84-42-21

The fantastic woman who is featured above is Rosa Parks and if you haven't heard of her before ... where have you been?

Rosa was an American activist and she was born on this day - February 4th - in 1913.

But it was around 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 1, 1955, that she did something that changed the course of history and human and civil rights in the USA.

She refused to move from her seat in a bus!

Rosa lived in the south of the USA in the state of Alabama where racial segregation was part of the system and the culture.

Since the turn of the 20th century, the former southern Confederate states, including Alabama, had adopted new electoral laws and constitutions that disenfranchised black voters, and even many poor white voters. The were called the 'Jim Crow laws', and they imposed racial segregation in shops, public facilities and public transportation. Under the law, bus and train companies introduced and enforced strict seating policies with separate sections for black people and whites. In fact, there was no school bus transportation available in any form for black schoolchildren in the South, and Rosa Parks herself remembered going to elementary school where school buses took white students to school, but black kids had to walk.

In December 1955 those rules were still in place in the city of Montgomery, where Rosa lived and worked. On the buses, individual conductors were allowed to assign seats to ensure the races stayed apart. The first four rows of seats on buses in Montgomery were reserved for whites. There were 'coloured' sections for black passengers, even though around three quarters of passengers on any bus were black people. The sections could be changed if the bus conductor saw fit, they had movable signs which meant that if a white person needed a seat, a row was re-assigned and black passengers had to move. People of different colours were not even allowed to sit in the same row of seats on the bus!

If the vehicle filled up with white people, basically black passengers were forced to move further and further to the back so that the whites could have their seats. If the bus got overcrowded, it was the black passengers who had to leave  - by a rear door. Black people could only enter and leave by the back door.

On that evening of December 1 1955 Rosa Parks was on her way home from work. She paid her bus fare, and sat in an empty seat in the first row of back seats reserved for blacks in the "coloured" section. She was sitting near the middle of the bus, and her row was directly behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers.

As the journey progressed, more and more white people got on the bus and soon all the 'whites only' rows were taken. The bus driver ordered Rosa and three other passengers to leave the row they were sitting in, to make way for white passengers.

The three other passengers in her row moved to seats behind. Rosa refused.

She argued with the bus driver but stayed in her seat. The police were called and Rosa was arrested.

Now just to explain, Rosa was already involved in the civil rights movement. She was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was a secretary in the local NAACP branch and had been involved in civil rights and other political activity for a couple of decades.  But her main job was as a seamstress at a local department store.

And, as she explained in an interview with National Public Radio  in 1992, Rosa remembered that she hadn't set out that day to cause a ruckus. Here's what she told NPR's Lynn Neary  

'I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time ... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn't hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.

The actions and orders of the bus driver James F. Blake that day was the straw that broke the camel's back for Rosa. Although hers was not the first arrest on a bus of a black passenger who refused to give up their seat for a white person, Rosa Parks' defiance was to be a turning point in the civil rights movement.

After her arrest for civil disobedience, with the backing of the NAACP, Rosa began a prolonged court battle. Other court cases were also underway and nearly a year after her arrest, the federal Montgomery bus lawsuit Browder v. Gayle, which was a court case separate to Rosa's, led to a ruling in the US Supreme Court that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

But what followed Rosa's arrest was the clincher in the whole saga, because it was the catalyst that sparked a boycott of the Montgomery public bus system for almost a year.

Remember, although they were treated badly, black passengers made up around 75% of the bus company's business. Black residents just refused to take the bus and eventually the bus company's finances were rock bottom, but it was only the repeal of the law following that Supreme Court ruling that forced the transit company to change its rule. On December 21, 1956, Montgomery's public transportation system was legally integrated and black people could ride the bus again, without segregation.

So Rosa has gone down in history as an icon of the American civil rights movement. She would became internationally famous and work alongside, among others, Martin Luther King Jr. In later life, the US Congress would call Rosa Parks "the first lady of civil rights" and "the mother of the freedom movement".

But life wasn't always kind to her. She was fired from her job and struggled to find work and she received death threat for years afterwards.

From 1965 to 1988 she also continued to be involved in civil rights and in politics, including the Black Power movement. This former seamstress who took a stand for right would go on to receive national and international honours including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

When she died on October 24, 2005 aged 92 she became the first woman to lie in state in the Rotunda at the Capitol building in Washington DC and a statue was posthumously erected in her honour in the United States Capitol's National Statuary Hall.

Today the States of  California and Missouri commemorate Rosa Parks Day on her birthday, February 4, while other states - Ohio and Oregon  - commemorate the anniversary of her arrest, December 1.

The quote from Rosa Parks which I've used at the top of this thought says it all I think.

'To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try'

I'm inspired by that idea.

So often when we know there are things that need changing, in our life, in our communities, in our world, we are scared by the prospect of getting involved. It'll be too hard, it'll take up too much time, it'll be beyond my ability.

Maybe I just need to take Rosa Parks' advice and take the first step. 

Who knows where that might take me?


The Day the Music Died

I'm always fascinated by how creative people come up with their ideas.

Plots for stories and novels, film scripts, song lyrics.

Although I know that sometimes inspiration appears to come from nowhere, and characters and music just appear in ones head or even dreams, at other times the idea might come from nature, real life characters, and even news stories.

And today I'm thinking about one of the best known rock and roll songs ever recorded ...  American Pie written and recorded by Don McLean. It was inspired by an event which shocked the world on this day in 1959.


I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

So bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey 'n rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

On February 3rd 1959 some of the biggest stars of the time, performers we now recognise as pioneers of American rock and roll, were killed in a plane crash.

Buddy HollyThe Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were on a national tour with a host of other musicians - what was dubbed the  Winter Dance Party tour. They had been on the road since January 23rd, travelling from city to city and venue to venue in draughty and unreliable buses. It was all turning a bit disastrous, everyone was exhausted, morale was low and drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalised with frostbite in his toes - caused by the freezing conditions on the bus!

The next stop on the tour was Clear Lake in Iowa and Buddy Holly, who had organised the Dance Party, decided to charter a four seater aeroplane so that after the Clear Lake concert, they could fly to the next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota.

For Holly and two of his friends this would mean they could rest before the next show. But who to take?

Holly had gathered around him a band of fantastic musicians including Carl Bunch on drums, Waylon Jennings on electric bass and Tommy Allsup on guitar.

Jennings was to have a seat in the plane, but he gave up his place to J. P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper), who had the flu. Allsup flipped a coin for the third seat and he lost to Ritchie Valens.

So it was that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper were the trio who took their seats on that plane. Shortly after take off, just before 1am on February 3rd, the aircraft crashed into a cornfield.

When the news broke, the nation and certainly the world of entertainment and music went into mourning. Three of the biggest stars and the brightest talent had been lost. Buddy Holly was 22. Valens even younger ... just 17. And although Richardson was one of the older members of the band, he was only aged 28 on that fateful day.

Don McLean has revealed that he first heard about Buddy Holly's death on the morning of February 4th, from the newspaper headlines. The songwriter was then a 13-year-old and he was folding the papers ready for his newspaper route. Hence the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver..."

Years ago, to mark a big birthday, I was treated to a night out at the theatre in Pretoria in South Africa with my brother and sister-in-law and enjoyed the musical 'Buddy', based on Holly's life and untimely death. The musical is around 30 years old, but it was a couple of decades before its creation, in autumn 1971, and 12 years after the fateful crash, that Don McLean released his iconic album 'American Pie' from which comes the single of the same name. 

On January 15th 1972 it reached number one in the US Billboard charts and it stayed there for four weeks. The song also topped the charts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the UK, the single reached number 2, where it stayed for 3 weeks on its original 1971 release. The song gained more popularity and a new audience when it was re-issued two decades later, in 1991. It was also listed as Number 5 in the Recording Industry Association of America Songs of the Century project and in 2017, the original recording of McLean's 'American Pie' was chosen by the American Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry, being cited as "culturally, historically, or artistically significant"

As I said at the start, it's interesting where people get their ideas for genius, but I've always been more than intrigued by this song, not just because it mentions the events of February 3rd 1959, but also because it appears to have hidden references to other events and characters which influenced American culture.

Over the years, experts have endlessly unpicked and prevaricated over 'American Pie' and it's lyrics, trying to unravel it, especially the references which don't appear to relate specifically to that plane crash.

Don McLean consistently kept silent, but eventually, when the original manuscript of the song went up for auction in New York in 2015, he finally revealed the meaning of his lyrics,

He told us that it's a 'morality song' really ... it's not just about the loss suffered on that day, but its key theme is the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation which the Feb 3 1959 events epitomise. Apparently, we now know, there are mentions of Elvis Presley ("the king") and Bob Dylan ("the jester"), and McLean also confirmed that the song culminates with a description of the death of Meredith Hunter,  an 18-year-old African American who was killed at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert. That controversial death and subsequent murder trial happened ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.  

Today, I remember 'The Day the Music Died', which is how, thanks to McLean's song, Feb 3rd 1959 will forever be remembered. And I think about and give thanks for the many talented people who have entertained us down the years and have left creative legacies in music, prose and poetry.  Some have made a tremendous impact on our lives and on the world. Others not so much, admittedly, but we can't have it all.

Oh and by the way, that 'American Pie' original manuscript sold for $1.2 million! Well-deserved I would say, for a song that pays tribute to those who have gone before and given us so much.