Monday, October 31, 2011

Exit BBC, stage left

It's 18:00 on October 31, 2011 and as of this moment, I no longer work at all for the BBC. Slightly strangely, I haven’t left the Corporation – the BBC has left me.

Strictly speaking I am a freelance writer but it’s complicated. Perhaps ten years ago, the BBC was my biggest, most regular client and I'd have continued like that but for how they told me one day that there was no more freelance budget. But if I wanted to go on staff, they said, that would be good. I’m wondering now if this was my first real experience of the logic of BBC budgeting but all I thought at the time was that the fee worked out to be the same, so what did I care?
Later I’d care a lot or at least I’d care roughly annually because it doesn’t half make your tax complicated. I’d be on salary for a couple of days a week, then freelance - and oftentimes the freelance work would be for another end of the same company.
But on the other hand, by this time I’d already had the Freelance Coronary: the moment when everything, every client, every job, just collapses. I wasn’t working for the BBC on that day and the worst I’ve had with the Corporation since is the odd Freelance Chest Pain. You don’t forget it, though, so I took that staff post. I’m glad I did, too, because later the recession coincided with one of the BBC’s cost-cutting drives. That wasn’t a remarkable coincidence: the BBC is always cutting something.
For instance, I know it was cutting something when I first joined but I’ve no idea what because I can’t remember when that was. I do remember an earlier approach, I remember being a schoolboy and going to BBC Pebble Mill to just ask for work. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassing. I should stop doing that. 
Sometimes it works, though.
I remember vividly how exciting it was when I got work experience at BBC Radio WM. Don’t ask me, I don’t know when it was. I’m surprised at all this: I suspect my subconscious is preventing me remembering so that I can’t tell you and therefore you can’t figure out how many thousands of years ago it was. Might’ve been 1990s. I think it was. 
I did do a spot of work on Micro Live, a BBC TV show in the 1980s - and met the great, delightful Terry Marsh. If she’s ever googling herself and finds this amidst all the stories about boxers, do please picture me waving. 
Somewhere around this time I think I started pitching to BBC Radio 4. Aghast to think I still am, still unsuccessfully. Though these days it’s drama and then it was documentary: I don’t think I was really suited to docs. Used to find these great ideas and have little interest in actually making the programmes.
BBC Radio WM was much more successful for me. It was definitely my first exposure to BBC politics. It's where I learnt to not to say that in a blog. So moving on... I remember the breakfast show producer Kathryn being tremendous and someone I instantly liked, instantly liked a lot. She was succeeded by someone else I didn’t rate and who definitely didn’t rate me but I am completely blank about her name. I’m okay with that.
At that time, I used to get up around 4am to go to work on the WM breakfast show; then the show ended at 9am but I had a deal whereby I’d leave at 8:30am. That was so I could get over to a technical writing job outside the BBC, an office job that ran 9am-5pm. Then the evenings would either be working at BHBN Hospital Radio or at Focus Newspapers. 
Sudden memory: leaving that office job one day when it was belting down with rain. I ran out of there with a friend who mentioned it the next day, mentioned how overwhelming that rain had been. It took me half a minute to understand what she meant: to her the rain was last night, to me it was two shifts ago.
Oh! Another sudden memory from the same place. That technical writing thing was a very long-term job; you’d have an urgent meeting there that would be about whether you could finish a particular job within the next eight months. At BBC local radio, we might have deadlines no longer than the time it takes to open a fader and take a mic live.
I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I am saying that the perspective I got from having both changed how I saw each.  I don’t know now what I thought I’d get from the BBC but this is one of the things I did and that shaped me. I’m still very good at handling deadlines, I’m still a little scared of running out of time. If I’m due to phone you at 3pm, I’ll phone at 3pm. If it’s now 2:59pm, I know I can write an email in that minute and I will. 
When I’m hanging on the phone listening to muzak and the tune comes to an end, I still sit up a bit, expecting the person I’m calling to wait until the right point in the fade and come in with a back anno about the piece and then into what I want.
Maybe the BBC gets into you, maybe you’re already a bit BBC and that’s why you’re drawn there. Definitely radio gets into your soul.
If you don’t like the BBC and especially if you’ve not felt the tug toward it that so many of us do, let me give you an example of how it can matter to people. Once when I was actually working for BBC WM, when I’d moved on from unpaid work experience, I wrote a letter to someone on BBC stationery. Just another letter, just another day. I suddenly recall noticing the tiniest of black dots on the page: I tried to brush it off before seeing that it was printed on. Right there beneath the BBC logo there was a little dot and it was there because you were supposed to begin all typed letters at that point on the page.
Grief. Typing. Typewriters.
I don’t remember what the letter was now, but it happened to be to someone I knew a little and later I found that she’d kept it. Treasured it. Obviously not because it came from me, I’m pretty certain not because of the content, but because it was BBC. Even though I was the same as her, even as I would’ve felt the same, it was a little Damascus moment because I saw something could be both important and trivial. That things I felt were daunting from one perspective were almost certainly not from another.
I’ll bet you anything that this fed in to my decision to go freelance. That was a gigantic move for me, a huge mountain that I put off for a years. And yet the instant it was done, I was only surprised it had taken me so long. I said earlier that it was 1996 when I jumped out of salaried employment; I now don’t actually remember that date, I remember 2006. By chance, someone asked me about it in 2006 and I realised it was my tenth anniversary. That’s what sticks with me, the actual event seeming so simple and obvious and unmemorable next to the happenstance of spotting the anniversary.
Whatever seems impossibly huge is, well, not. That doesn’t mean it’s achievable. Definitely doesn’t mean it’s easy. Might not mean it’s worth it. Does not mean it isn’t exquisite and delicious and vital.
But it does mean you should bloody well get on with it.
While there’s time.
Hang on, this hasn’t half gone off the point. The straight, simple fact is that as of 6pm tonight, I ceased to be employed by BBC Magazines, a division of BBC Worldwide. This is because BBC Magazines is no longer part of Worldwide, is no longer anything. Radio Times magazine and website are now part of Immediate Media, or at least they will be as of tomorrow and so will I.
Today the RT website team went to Television Centre for one last lunch at the BBC Club.

It was closed.

Tomorrow I’m still working for Radio Times. On Wednesday, I’m still working for them. This Thursday I’ll back to freelancing with big photography collation project for my book; Friday  I have a pitch to make and a script to progress. Saturday and Sunday, more drama work. Then Monday back to Radio Times.
There’s a line - isn’t there? -  that goes something like “a difference that makes no difference is no difference”.
I can readily see the similarities between today and tomorrow, between the work I did and I will do, definitely see that I’ll still be working precisely as closely with precise the same excellent Radio Times people. For at least a while, when I go to London I will go to the same desk in the same BBC building. 
But it will be different.
It’s certainly 15 years since I started doing anything with the BBC, might even be twenty. I cannot tell you the number of times the Corporation has made me livid. Won’t tell you the number of times I’ve made a prat of myself within a BBC building.
(Hint: it's approximately the same number of times I’ve done it outside.)
But I’m happy I worked at the BBC, I think I did some good if ephemeral things there, I know the BBC is part of who I am. It’s not all of me, but it’s a part and it’s a part that I’m glad I have.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jobs in computing

There’s this guy. He thinks I’m a computer geek and I can’t change his mind about it. Normally you’d give up trying, you’d soon shrug but it did start to matter a little bit when he kept consulting me on anti-virus software he was thinking of buying.

“Have you read the back of the box?” I asked him. “Then you know more than I do.”

It seems he thought I was being nice and encouraging, that I was praising his expertise. I know that he actually doesn’t comprehend that I can have not the faintest idea about computer viruses. This is not a conceivable thing for him and he chuckles sometimes like he knows I’m trying to make a joke and he wants to be polite.

I used to work in computing, did I tell you that? Studied the things for a bit, managed to get out and onto computer magazines. I was always a magazine man more than a computer one, more of a drama nut than anything else. More into people than wires.

But you do learn a thing or two and it is surprising what still lurks in the back of my head so when he told me his several new computers were having trouble connecting to the internet and asked me to take a look, I did. How long could it take?

Five hours.

And I failed.

I don’t feel very awful about failing to get these PCs online because Dell didn’t manage it either. Some support expert from across the world dialled into the PCs and couldn’t fix them. (How? How can you dial in, connect remotely, but not have fixed the internet? Mysteries. Alchemy.)

What I most remember about that day, though, was sitting there in front of each PC in turn, entirely failing to get them to recognise that there is such a thing as wifi - while I looked up technical advice online through my MacBook. Plopped myself down by the PC, opened the MacBook, told it which wifi network I wanted, was online before I’d really finished opening the lid.

Those PCs never worked reliably with the internet, not over wifi.

And as time ticked by, this guy replaced them all.

Now, on the one hand, I’m still using my Mac from a couple of years before he bought these PCs, but I think the issue is not how fast PCs wear out but how this fella bought three more PCs of the same type.

I did mention Macs.

Quite a bit.

He argues, though, that Macs are expensive and they don’t do anything you can’t do with PCs.

His new PCs had the same problem.

I’m missing an episode now because at some point something did happen to get them online eventually. But the next time I am involved, it’s to set up a couple of laptops.

Two identical Windows laptops, bought from the same shop, bought in the same week.

One of them couldn’t play the sound off DVDs.

The speakers are fine, it could play anything else. But not DVDs.

I downloaded drivers, I changed settings, to be frank I was stabbing wildly at any option presented to me and nodding sagely whenever asked “Is it done yet?”. Eventually, I found a really clever workaround. I can’t remember what it was now, but I was actually proud of myself: I’d thought my way around and over a problem. Immensely satisfying.

For about a minute.

This is what computing is to this guy. A pain. A pain where two identical Windows computers don’t work the same and in fact don’t work.

He doesn’t think I’m a geek because I once studied computers, he thinks it because I spend all day at one and in the evening turn to another. Choosing to put yourself through that, to voluntarily keep going back to a computer, that equals geek.

The difference is that I use Macs. You know this already, you know this is where I’m going with all this. And you know why I’m saying it today. But actually, I want to argue that the difference is that I don’t use computers.

I don’t get up in the morning and think ooh, I can boot up my computer now. I don’t think I’ve got five minutes, I can spend more time at my computer.

Instead, what I’m doing is turning to the book I’m writing. I’m turning to the film I started watching on the train yesterday. I’m reading the news. I’m editing video, cutting audio, photo editing, laying out pages, I’m interviewing people, I’m transcribing audio, I’m listening to the radio, I’m watching TV. I’m doing a lot of work here in the UK and I’m doing some in the States, from that same Mac.

It all goes through my Mac, yes. But it also all goes through my MacBook, my iPad, my iPhone.

It goes through me.

I reach for the work and for the fun, I don’t reach for a computer to geek out over and I never have to.

I have had people ask me to recommend a phone and when I’ve said iPhone, they’ve tutted. Typical, they say. It would be Apple. Nobody needs that stuff and I bet they never use any of that fancy stuff, they can’t, they can’t understand it, it’s rubbish. You’re an Apple fanboy: it’s all style, you’re buying into the Apple hype when I’m being real, you’re a fashion victim and I know the truth that this ten quid Nokia phone and twenty quid PC are far, far better.

“So why’d you want me to recommend a new phone then?” I asked.

I know that I’m not won over by hype. Microsoft hypes a lot more but I don’t get interested in their stuff, probably because they’re better at the hype than at delivering the product. Microsoft hypes away about what they’re releasing next year. Apple hypes away about what they’re bringing out today.

But I did wonder about me when I found I was waiting to hear Apple’s news this week about the next iPhone. So, for pure curiosity, I kept an eye on how often I used my iPhone.

You know it’s going to be a big figure. I knew it would be. Several dozen times, easy.

It was 230.

Exactly 230 times in one normal day, including six phone calls but not including how ever often it was that I used to look at it to see the time.

Apple kit is woven into my life. Maybe it is in yours, maybe it isn’t, I’m not here to tell you anything but how I roll.

Apple is more than one man. But Steve Jobs made a dramatic difference in how I live and we have lost someone remarkable today.