Silence on the radio is not radio silence

Reading time: 2 minutes

I once had to do a one minute silence on the radio.

It was on Mother’s Day in March 1996, the Sunday following the horrific Dunblane massacre, in which a gunman killed 16 children and a teacher at a Scottish primary school.

We were running Sound Radio – a community radio station – from an empty flat on an estate in Hackney, north-east London. We’d rigged up the studio, and were on air for a month. I worked as a producer and presenter and also drove the desk.

Somebody needed to be at the studio 24 hours a day, so we organised a rota. I was on the nightshift that weekend.

As a tribute to those killed in Dunblane, there was to be a national one minute silence at 9:30 on Sunday morning.

From 8:00 am that day we’d scheduled two hours of pre-recorded comedy.

I wrote a script and rehearsed it a couple of times, timing myself, so I’d know how many seconds beforehand I’d need to start reading it on air.

At 9:29 and 46 seconds I brought down the faders on the comedy programme and faded up my microphone to announce the silence.

For a silence on the radio, you can’t turn your microphone off. If you do, it’ll sound to the listener like their radio isn’t on, or there’s a fault with the radio transmission.

To avoid this, I left the microphone open for the 60 seconds, so the listener would hear ‘atmos’ as it’s called.

It didn’t feel right to go back to the comedy, so I’d put together a playlist of songs which felt appropriate to the moment, starting with the Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel duet Don’t Give Up.


Jobs I’ve had: Car auction driver

Reading time: 3 minutes

[Like many, I’m a firm believer that we learn by doing, and the benefit we gain from the variety of our experiences – both positive and negative – we bring to every new situation. So I thought I’d write about a few of the many different jobs I’ve done since my first in the mid 1980s.]

One of the numerous different jobs I’ve had was driving cars being sold at auction.

It was in the early 1990s, during my second stint at university. As I had no lectures on Wednesdays one year, and I needed the extra cash, I signed up with the temping agency Office Angels. They called me in. The auction house was just off Plough Lane, near Wimbledon Football Club’s old ground.

Over a couple of terms I must have driven about 200 cars, in all shapes, colours and sizes and in varying degrees of roadworthiness. From Minis to Mercs, from Reliants to Rollers.

I’d turn up each Wednesday at the Portakabin at 8.30am, put my overalls on, drink an oversweet instant coffee and smoke two or three roll-ups while reading the red-tops with the rest of the drivers.

At around 9.00am we’d head up to the old multi-storey car park, filled entirely with cars for auction. The supervisor, clipboard in hand, would point at each of us in turn and then point at our respective car. Then, with a bit of luck, the engine would start and we’d spiral down the multi-storey and form a queue outside the auction hall – really just a huge shed, with a carpeted space in the middle for each of us in turn to aim our car at, and a raised platform to the right for the auctioneer and his gavel.

If the car conked out in the queue, then you would be humiliatingly rolled on to the carpet by a few colleagues, causing cackles of laughter from the assembled buyers.

Wheeler dealers everywhere, mobile phones (still on the small brick scale) glued to their ears, sheepskin and leather jackets. A lot of cigar smoke. This was Arthur Daley territory.

“Ere, give it some revs son!”

“Lift the bonnet up will ya! ‘As it been clocked?”

Sitting in a car, that’s being auctioned, is like being on a very strange stage. And for some reason I used to feel slightly responsible for whether or not the car sold.

If the car went for a good price I’d feel quite chuffed. But if it didn’t sell at all, and then you had to be pushed off because the engine had died, I can imagine what it might feel like not to get through to the second round of auditions in Britain’s Got Talent.

Then it was back up to park the car, and pick up the next.

Arts spaces as workplaces – London’s Royal Festival Hall

Reading time: 4 minutes
View from the Royal Festival Hall
A pod from the London Eye (EyePod?) being towed donwstream, photographed from the Members' Area of The Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank.

Since I went freelance nearly four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time working in – and a lot of time talking aboutThe Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre.

Today is the last day I’ll cycle up here from home in London. Next week we’re moving to Bristol, and really looking forward to our new family adventures out west.

I’ve been reflecting on what it is about the Royal Festival Hall, the Members’ Area in particular, that makes it such a great place to work as a freelance.

As fewer people need to base themselves in traditional offices, is there anything you could abstract from this and blend in to other “public” spaces, I wonder?

(It’s not a complete list, but here are some of the things that I like, and few related things that trouble me slightly. It’s a bit cause and effect, and I don’t think I’d try to change it. I’m concentrating on the Members’ Area. There is seating all over the building that anybody can use, members and non-members, and you can access the wifi from most of them.)

Some things I like  (in no particular order):

  1. Once you’ve paid your annual membership you know that any additional costs are entirely up to you and will usually involve food and drink from the well stocked bar
  2. It’s a members’ area, but it’s in “public space” and you’re always reminded of that by being able to walk right in, and then the views back out over London’s landmarks through wide-angle windows.
  3. The soundtrack changes, recognisably, throughout the day.
  4. People. The staff are friendly and polite. And there are lots of fellow freelances. You’re never more than a few yards away from then next great television series in the making, a world-changing web project, a language teaching tutorial or a careers counselling session.
  5. You don’t have to book (see below).
  6. You can bring a guest. It’s a great place to meet clients. A great chance, often, for them to get out of their usual work habitat and get a different perspective on things. It’s hard not to be inspired by the place, and all its (hi-)stories.
  7. The river. Just knowing it’s there. Ever-changning, breathing, reflecting and refreshing.
  8. The free wifi. When it’s not being hogged (see below).
  9. You might bump in to someone you know here, friends, family (I once bumped in to my Mum here) and fellow freelances. You can freelance in “parallel” and watch each other’s stuff while you grab a coffee.
  10. The free lunchtime concerts in the Clore Ballroom, especially jazz on Fridays.
  11. It metamorphoses at 6:30 each evening as the day-shift is gradually replaced by besuited and bejewelled concert-goers enjoying a pre-performance aperitif.

A couple of things that trouble me (a little bit)

  1. Table-hogs. People who arrive at 10:00am, grab a table and then often leave it with their stuff on for hours at a time. This does seem to be improving as the membership staff have picked up on it, and so – unfortunately – have a few opportunist thieves, who have the audacity and front to stake out the place and remove unwatched valuable items.
  2. (Connected, but not quite the same) Not knowing if there’ll be a table available. The members’ area has become a victim of its own success, large queues form just before 10am outside the main doors. It’s a bit like Dalyan in South West Turkey, or Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. It’s only a matter of time before best kept are on the cover of all the holiday brochures. And I must confess to contributing to this through my enthusiasm for the place. I understand there are plans afoot to increase seat numbers without damaging the unique atmosphere.
  3. Lunchtime latency. Video viewing and audio listening peak, not surprisingly. If you seriously need to use the internet for your work, get a wireless broadband dongle.

Do you freelance in the Royal Festival Hall, or another public / arts space? What do you like about it?

And if anyone’s got any recommendations for similar places in Bristol (The Watershed?), I’d love to hear from you – in comments or on Twitter.

[Information about South Bank Centre Membership]

The Gnomes, Vaudeville Entertainers

Reading time: 1 minute

The Gnomes, Vaudeville Entertainers

The Gnomes, Vaudeville entertainers (photo on Flickr)

Almost a hundred years ago, my great grandparents (my father’s father’s parents) were in The Gnomes, a group of London-based vaudeville entertainers.

My great-grandfather, Edgar Sidney (standing on the right in this photograph), directed the group. He wrote the words for the “humorous song” I’m going to grow a moustache (photo of front cover).

My great-grandmother Gertrude Clive (second from the left in the photograph), was an accomplished piano accompanist.

The full line-up of The Gnomes (from photo of hire sheet):

  • Gladys Glover, Soprano
  • Mamie Bell, Comedienne
  • Gertrude Clive, Accompanist
  • Geoffrey Arnott, Baritone
  • Marshall Holt, Comedian
  • Edgar Sidney, Entertainer

If anybody has any further information about The Gnomes (sometimes also known as The Merry Gnomes), it would be great to hear from you.

Why I think ASUS Padfone misses the point

Reading time: 2 minutes

I’ve just watched the shiny video promo for the new ASUS Padfone.

It’s a tablet (think iPad, Galaxy) with a marsupial-style pouch for a mobile handset.

No longer will you suffer eye-strain trying to read those tiny words on the handset screen. Just pop it in to the tablet, and read them in large print on the tablet.

ASUS promises seamless data transfer between the devices.

We are reassured that they’ve been using Design Thinking to make the product (or is that products? I’m not sure)

Now… am I missing something here?

As the owner of a mobile (smartphone) handset as well as a tablet, the last thing I want is to have to surrender my handset so I can use my tablet.

I’ve already chosen to carry a phone and a tablet around with me.

I like having both, and choose to have both because they serve me in different ways.

Surely data transfer can be just as seamless by pairing my devices using Bluetooth (or its successors). Sure, every now and then, it would be useful to be able to tap a webpage on my phone screen and it offer me the chance to view it on my tablet.

But keep them separate physically, and I’ll choose how and when I use each one.

Content connections

Reading time: 1 minute

Sketch showing a list of content types

How does a piece of content relate to other content?

Learning, conversations, people, places, events, news, policy and procedure…

Not an exhaustive list, and deliberately format-agnostic, but a helpful start when planning and thinking about web and intranet content.

Let there be no cul-de-sacs.

Ten toes running diary – Day one

Reading time: 3 minutes

I recently bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers running “shoes” after reading about barefoot running on the Britmilfit website. I’m not currently doing Britmilfit, but have done over the last ten years and can thoroughly recommend it.

Today I was able to put a last minute client rescheduling to good use, and finally had a chance to get out and try these odd looking things out.

Will report back

In short…

  • yes, you do get some very odd looks – and not just from your kids
  • no, you don’t have to wear socks (though I may try some Injinji at some point)
  • yes, you can run on the pavements and road, but it’s much more pleasant on the paths in the parks
  • warm down, especially your calf muscles
  • people do not clean up after their dogs down Friern Road (pronounced as in Fry ‘n Laurie)


In more detail…

With a place for each toe, it’s an odd sensation putting them on, a bit like trying to put skiing gloves on your child – where you’re not totally in control of each digit.

I’ve worn them round the house a bit already. I was keen to get used to wearing them and to get used to people looking down and pointing at them (in this case, it was my three children, the 16-month old making the oddest noises of surprise).

You have to get used to not landing heavily on your heels, which are no longer have a thick rubber cushion. I thought this would feel odd, but it turns out that my instinct took over – probably in self-protection mode – and I found my running style altered itself fairly quickly.

Early morning a few Christmases ago in Dulwich Woods I’d popped my right ankle – audibly. It’s never been quite the same since, and I was definitely conscious of it running “barefoot”. But it wasn’t painful, it was just there.

On my way in to Dulwich Park I bumped in to local fitness trainer and Goodrich School Fun Run organiser Liz Stuart, and stopped for a brief chat. She reminded me of the need to get used to this new running style gently. I’m glad she did, or I might have been tempted to add in an extra lap of the horse track – which I’m sure I’d be paying for now.

Sure enough, I got some funny looks – bemusement, pity, derision, outright hilarity… so I was glad I’d trained for that.

I’d worried beforehand about sharp stones, glass, dog dirt. In fact I wasn’t convinced it would work at all running on the pavement. But pavement running is okay, and you just have to be a little more vigilent at spotting sharp or squashy hazards.

I kept my first run slow and on the short side – just shy of three miles. One hour later, after stretching down – particularly my calf muscles – I have a very slight burning sensation on the backs of my heels, and my ankle is still there. But generally I feel fine.


The web – integration not destination

Reading time: 1 minute

If we really want to help people connect with each other, get stuff done, solve problems and make things, then the web is not the destination.

We need to work harder to integrate the web in to people’s lives, when and how they want and need it.

The web can be the fabric. It can be pervasive.

Walled gardens and blinkered cul-de-sac thinking are a hindrance to this.

Find, Understand, Share, Extend

Reading time: 2 minutes

Today is World Usability Day. The theme this year is communication. I’ve chosen to write about something which I find helps teams I work with communicate and explore what we design and put on the web.

Back in 2005, Yahoo! Search announced a “vision statement”.

Enable people to finduseshare and expand all human knowledge.

Somewhat ambitious, sure. A little grand, perhaps. But what a great way to think, not only about search, but also about everything we make on the web.

And it happens to form a handy mnemonic in the shape of the acronym FUSE.

At the time I was working on learning technology and intranet projects at the BBC, and found it was a really useful way to think about everything we designed, built and put out there.

If we design this site, template or widget, if we publish this content, if we make this web app, will people be able to find it, use it (more recently I’ve started using ‘understand’ as well), share it and extend it (which I prefer to ‘expand’)? FUSE?

And on every project I’ve worked in the five years since, it has still come in useful. Whatever becomes of Yahoo!, I for one, have a lot to thank them for.

[For more on FUSE, see this blog post by Tom Coates, not a fan of the acronym! In 2006, the BBC came up with its own version of FUSE – in Find, Play Share (BBC press release, Guardian article) – as its approach to all audience-facing digital output. Both work, but I find FUSE really gets people thinking.]