I guess that all that radio listening finally paid off – David Crider, winner of the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) dissertation award.
It’s interesting how your pleasures and priorities change in life. When you’re young, and the world is like an unwrapped present, it’s all about getting in, getting on and hopefully finding a mate for life. Full adulthood sees consolidation and usually the peak of both work and family responsibilities, new pleasures discovered and older ones maturing (maybe). As you hit your 50s you start to reflect what you hope to do, what you did do, and how you could have done it differently – the latter a mostly pointless type of reflection, of, course but probably inevitable. Many studies into mental health have shown that taking in interest in others’ welfare and various forms of altruism produce the most satisfaction and pleasure, and even live longer.
In academic life this is one of the stupendous and underwritten bonuses. Being just a little bit responsible for helping young people gain the skills and confidence that they need and gain a foothold in (in my case) the journalism and/or broadcasting industries makes me almost giddy with happiness and I know I’m certainly not alone in this. It also extends beyond the professional environment, when you meet people who you know almost instinctively could do so much more that have lacked confidence and the social capital more generally to do it. That doesn’t mean, of course, you lose all ego, selfishness and self-absorption (well, I certainly haven’t!), and I suppose the ultimate ego boost in any case is to know that to some degree you become immortal through your actions, because their help and guidance spills onto somebody else’s lives and in turn to future generations.
Attending what was my 10th BEA convention in Las Vegas earlier this month – its 60th anniversary, and I was first there for its 50th, missing last year’s – amongst all the excitement, stimulation, inspiration (and exhaustion!), one of the greatest joys was seeing and hearing David, the young man quoted above, receive his award for his dissertation, and first prize in the radio and audio ‘blind peer-reviewed’ paper competition.
On the whole, American males tend to be a little bit more ‘heart on sleeve’ in their emotions than are their British counterparts, and there was barely a dry eye in the hall when David thanked his fiancée for making the process of researching and writing’s dissertation “a little less lonely”. I first met David I think (well, he thinks!) at the convention five years ago. He was then a young, eager student and obsessed with radio, so naturally I warmed to him! He sat bright eyed and attentive during one of the panels in which I was involved and we chatted quite a lot. I’m not saying that in his case I made any material difference to his work or research, excepting that when you’re starting out in anything I know from my own experience how extraordinarily important it is to have people who take you seriously and ‘get’ what you are doing. As a very late starter in the world in the academic world and particularly in research, it is been enormously important to me to have the encouragement and support from established scholars, as well as the interest of those of the start of their working lives. I was there this year partly to receive a prize for a paper I had submitted in the open competition in one of the divisions and take part in a panel on teaching broadcasting and use of social media in the UK and New Zealand. Receiving positive (although critical!) feedback both before and during the convention is a tremendous boost and an important motivation, of course, to push further on in what – as with most academic work – can feel like a lonely and isolating experience.
As always, the convention had an almost dizzying, rich mix of interest areas, ranging from broadcast history, to pedagogy, to the latest technologies, research, industry practice, and so much more. It was very full on, with one day in particular sticking in the mind, which began with an 0730 breakfast meeting for our international geographic division, followed by non-stop panels, presentations and guest speakers, with five or six sessions running in parallel in each slot, no lunch break and continuing through till 6 pm: at which point we were supposed to have a reception outside – which would be nice having been in the and naturally chilled indoors was a long period. But a desert dust storm prevented even this relief and this was also hastily rearranged for indoors by the astonishing and formidable Heather Birks and her small team.
There were many highlights, but one of the top ones for me was the two-part session by that force-of-nature Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, who is a true inspiration and also provided much material that I can re-version for my UK students (thanks, Al!), on how we can and must be sceptical about so many dubious claims in stories that are presented as fact.
The convention is also a festival of media arts and this is what brings in the students and their tutors to show off their best work and receive their prizes, often with parents and other family in attendance, so it also a kind of rolling graduation day type of atmosphere! Running alongside ‘our’ convention, and the reason for it being held in Las Vegas at that time, is the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) annual convention. A great deal of this was to do with promoting the latest kit, technologies and techniques in the broadcast world, demonstrated in three huge hangar like halls, and dominated this year by drones. There are clearly lots of ethical issues here, but the NAB is mostly about the hard sell of how the hardware can be used to get into places beyond the reach of mere mortals and beam back high-quality video. It seems to be the future, but then a few years ago all the rage was for 3-D television and we hear rather less about that now!
In terms of my favourite medium – radio – there seem to be good news on its survival in the rapidly changing media landscape, especially in local talk stations. These aren’t by any means solely the province of the infamous right-wing networked talk-show hosts. There is a great variety of services on radio, not least in the perhaps evermore vital National Public Radio (NPR) network. My visit always coincides with one of their ‘pledge drives’. This essentially involves browbeating their listeners into sending the money, ideally on a regular monthly or annual basis. The local ‘Vegas station, KNPR, is perhaps one of the best in the network and I’m not just saying this just because I visited there and been wined and dined by their excellent staff! But how important are such stations, when so much of the once mighty television news broadcasts are so poor and so limited in their agenda. Even the once hugely respected nightly CBS News is dominated by crime and human interest stories. The night I watched it, only one non-US story appeared in its 22 minutes of editorial: the safe-box heist in London. How galling it must be to anyone on that show who listens to public radio to hear these stations staking their claim to be the true inheritor and main outlet for impartial and comprehensive news and discussion. As one of the presenters on the KNPR pledge drive put it: “The CBS evening News is fine for entertainment, but if you want to know what really is going on, and for a service that is always there for you, that you can rely on, you need NPR.” Ouch! The local television news – which I so admired when I first visited the states in the late 70s, for its vigorous and fearless investigation of what the great and the good were up to – is even more dominated by dramatised crime stories, prurient coverage of various scandals and exploitative human interest pieces.
To this Brit, even after all the exposure had to US media, it also still jars when you have entertainment shows – I had Jeopardy burbling in the background as I was unpacking – juxtaposed with hard-hitting political commercials, lambasting in this case a US senator for his alleged lack of support of Israel. There is not even a cordon sanitaire of a caption or a couple of seconds silence before your straight back into the merriment of a mindless quiz show. And then of course to listen to talk show supremo Rush Limbaugh monstering Hillary Clinton – this was just after she denounced her campaign to be the Democrat Presidential nominee – without any countervailing opinions is still quite gobsmacking. There was a time – quite a long time – when US commercial radio, with its huge range of stations from rolling news, to high energy, personality-driven Top 40, laid-back minimalist presentation heavy rock, to classical and many variants in between, was the shining beacon that many of us in the UK spied to. No longer! UK radio is overall streets ahead of the US overall in its variety, its public service and creativity. What a treat for the ears and intellect (and possibly overall state of mind) it is here to have so many stations that are neither selling you stuff in interminably long commercial breaks, or having to beg for your money. And how good it is too that, whatever the flaws and shortcomings in the UK political system – and there are certainly many, about which more no doubt before long! – at least the success of candidates is not largely determined by who has the deepest pockets and can afford the most television time. It is quite hard to explain to most Americans that, in the UK, the political parties have their own time prime-time TV slots, in between and during election campaigns, which they do not have to pay for and indeed you cannot pay for such slots, and that all broadcast news is required to have due impartiality, whether it be BBC, commercial, under public service remit or not. So, yes, you can say that my love affair with the US in terms of its broadcasting is well and truly over. Maybe that is partly a condition of age.
Radio – or at least audio, very often now in the form of podcasting – retains though that unique ability to grip and hold the intellect, imagination and empathy, without visual distractions, as was amply demonstrated in a top session on radio documentaries. This included a presentation from Siobhan McHugh, whom I first met in a radio conference in New Zealand and is now part of a group that promotes and distributes documentary-making from her Australian base.
In the BEA a itself and to some extent at the NAB and other roughly concurrent conferences, social media and versioning material for mobile devices seem to be the focus for much of the broadcast world, and therefore needing to be the focus for educators. Social media brings many perils as well as possibilities, not least because of the incident and often hostile responses to postings and output. I discussed some of this with leading educator and long-standing BEA person Mary Rogus in an interview which you can find on my new podcast page.
One of the key functions of radio is still as ‘medium of last resort’, in particular for times of disaster – man-made or natural. One of the unnatural methods was by the long period if terror of nuclear war. One of my few ‘off piste’ activities before the convention got underway was to visit the National Atomic Testing Museum in ‘Vegas. This is one of those great museums that combine serious, scholarly facilities – a reading-room and library with extensive archives, lots of top exhibits, including nuclear weaponry and all the associated kit and caboodle associated with the testing, which, amazingly, used to attract huge crowds of tourists to ‘Vegas in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Folks used to gather on hotel balconies to watch the explosions in the Nevada desert , and there was even a ‘Miss Atomic Test’ beauty pageant! (“This young lady’s vital statistics are 38-24-38…and Strontium 90”?).
Rather closer to the action was this guy I met there, Ernest, one of the museum’s trustees, who visits every week. He experienced some 400 of the 800 underground and atmospheric tests and looks a remarkably well 85 year old on it! He talks you through a film show, where you (sort of) experience the flash of an atomic blast, followed by the noise. For fun, there is an ’Area 51’ section, complete with ET-type ‘alien’.
One of the new bits of kit demonstrated during the convention was a new app to fit in Smartphones, to receive emergency broadcasts. Although the Cold War may have been over for some 25 years, we still live with the threat of attack or accident by nuclear and other weapons, as well of course and including by/from terrorist groups. There is still no simpler, more easily accessible or more reliable method of reaching the population at the same time than radio, even if it’s not received on something called ‘a radio’.
Outside the convention halls and meeting rooms there is much more to try and squeeze in and socially it is a wonderful get-together of those well-known therefore for a number of years and always new faces, new interests and new inspiration. So, although I began this blog talking about the pleasures of helping in guiding young people, I have to say this still a lot of new tricks that this dog is very willing to learn and a huge amount of excitement about what could – if a few things, not least the economic environment can be got right – lead to a true new golden age in broadcasting.