The BBC World Service Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast

Phew. Just a couple of hours after walking home from work on what I think must’ve been the warmest day of the year, I was settling down to listen to a most unusual radio programme.

Just as it was mid-summer’s day here yesterday, in Antarctica (and elsewhere southern) it was midwinter.

Stranded for months in nocturnal eternity, the staff of the British Antarctic Survey get a rather special gift from the BBC. On this day, the scientists, engineers and other support staff traditionally give each other gifts, have a big meal, and get rather merry.

But they also tune in to a special BBC World Service broadcast directly pointing at them. And I mean literally: the Beeb utilises three shortwave transmitter sites around the world, points them south, and broadcasts a special one-off half hour programme directly to Antarctica in the hope that the bases will pick it up.

Shortwave audiences may be shrinking as time and technology move on, but this show deliberately only has a target audience of 50 or so. I’m not sure how long it’s been going on, but it seems to be something of a tradition.

The show features a bit of music, some messages of support from the great, the good and the weird, and primarily plays messages from family and loved ones of the intended audience. I imagine it provokes scenes of joy, tears, merriment and embarrassment to all listening in. The show was presented this year by Cerys Matthews of 6 Music.

As a shortwave listener, this kind of special broadcast is especially interesting. Because although the target audience is the bottom of the globe, the nature of the broadcast meant that other listeners could attempt to pick up the signal as it made its way south.

I was very pleased to get good reception from two of the transmitter sites: Woofferton in England, and Ascension Island, a dot in the South Atlantic. Signals from Dhabbaya in Abu Dhabi eluded me.

I usually get good reception from all three sites, and even though in theory they were all directing their signal south, I was still able to pick up Ascension almost as strong as I was Woofferton.

Shortwave radio has fascinated me for 15 years or more, and it continues to. For every ten relays of China Radio International you have to wade through, there’s always an oddity popping up. And the variations in the atmospheric conditions mean that every listening session is different somehow.

But even more so, special events like the BBC’s Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast can’t fail to intrigue me and I was so pleased to be able to ‘take part’ this time.

My trusty Tecsun PL-380 continues to do sterling work with the aid of the bundled long wire antenna draped out of the window across the balcony. I’m pleased to get pretty decent reception in my ground floor flat in NW London, despite masses of sources of interference, lack in height, and being surrounded by buildings.

The reception quality of the Midwinter Broadcast was less good than I’m used to, but this is to be expected as the signals were directed in a particular way and it was just nice to pick them up on their way.

I made some very sloppy recordings of the broadcast for the SWLing Post blog, and they’re online here. The show itself can be heard in much higher fidelity online here.

Keeping Tracks at the British Library, 21 March 2014

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Last Friday I attended Keeping Tracks, a free one-day seminar covering current trends in the archiving of sound recordings from a number of perspectives.

The event, held at the BL’s conference centre, drew a mixture of folks from the archive and heritage sectors, as well as a number from the music and broadcasting industries, with the rest made up of hackers, programmers and technologists.

I would probably stick myself in the first of these categories; although my day job doesn’t involve sound recordings, it does require overlapping skills such as stock maintenance, selection, curation and the ability to look back just as much as forward.

Initial concerns I had of being discovered as an outsider were quickly allayed, then, and a fascinating day unfolded.

*

The first few sessions, from Pop Music Curator Adam Linehan’s introduction, via AV Scoping Analyst Adam Tovell and Curator of Digital Recordings Alex Wilson, all came from British Library staff.

Adam Tovell’s session was an in-depth introduction to the various formats held by the BL, and the risks and opportunities faced by an institution which holds some 5 million unique recordings across 1.7 million ‘carriers’, held on more than 40 unique formats. Tovell’s delivery had a lecturely tone which belied his age, but was no less fascinating for it. I was enthralled.

His talk was also starkly honest: after explaining that the ideal window for digitisation of these various formats before they degrade or otherwise become unusable was something like 20-30 years, he told us that the current rate of digital transfer within the BL’s vast collection would take them more like 48 years to complete…

As usual, the Q&A session that followed was able to shed some light on the risks and opportunities that had been discussed – one point was that many digital formats (e.g. DATs) could be transferred much faster than real-time thanks to built-in error-checking. Another was the need to appraise the collection and weigh it up against those of other similar institutions such as the BBC and see where efforts can be combined – or standards agreed upon, at least.

One final question queried whether there was room to be selective about what got transferred – could any holdings be conveniently ‘lost’ if it was decided it wasn’t worth the effort? No, was the answer: the item had been added to the collection at some stage after the usual rigorous selection process and, as part of the collection in its current form, was necessary to be maintained.

**

Alex Wilson’s talk went into some detail around collecting music already in digital forms – particularly ‘born digital’ releases – from various labels and distribution methods such as Bandcamp. There was talk of metadata importing, and the use of APIs to standardise and automate the process.

Metadata was a constant theme throughout the day’s sessions. In one question following Alex’s talk, someone asked why BL curators should be able to alter the metadata sent through with files when they are coming direct from source, e.g. the labels and artists themselves. Naturally, it was explained that the curators, as trained, experienced individuals, reserve the right to correct and adapt metadata to suit the needs of the library and its users. The counterpoint was also raised that even metadata from the source isn’t always 100% accurate anyway.

The other main point from Alex’s session was twofold: UK legal deposit laws do not cover audiovisual materials (this was news to me), any such arrangements being therefore voluntary; and the relationships between most of the major labels and the BL have, in recent years, “fallen into disrepair.” This was slightly alarming. But despite this, it was said that building bridges with the more innovative and flexible indie labels would provide a solid foundation on which to build stronger relationships with the majors in future.

One audience member repeatedly asked, “but whyyyyyy?” with regards to the fact that legal deposit doesn’t cover sound recordings. He was subsequently told by exasperated BL staff who happened to be in the audience, increasing in seniority, that it had been lobbied for time and again, but was just not deemed necessary by the powers that be, due to the volunteer agreements in place. Chicken and egg.

***

After a short break came probably my highlight of the day. The Quietus writer Rory Gibb was onstage to interview Lesley Bleakley of Beggars Group (a British record company that owns or distributes several other labels, including 4AD, Rough Trade Records, Matador Records, and XL Recordings) about the label’s attitudes to archiving its own material across the entire length of its existence.

From Gary Numan to Biffy Clyro, via Pixies, The National, mclusky and the White Stripes, it’s fair to say I have quite a number of Beggars releases in my collection, and I have a lot of respect for them. Lesley was a fantastic, passionate speaker who clearly has the right mix of business nous and respect for the history and heritage Beggars has created – she was the CEO of the American arm for many years, and had recently taken time away from her career.

In setting the scene for Beggars’ archive arrangements to date, Lesley talked about the Beggars offices of old having a large room where things were just stored with no real order, nor forward planning. She also said how one of the senior staff had kept his own trainspotter-ish collection of two of each release.

But she explained that the recent vinyl resurgence, along with the need to monetise old recordings via videogames like Rock Band, had meant increased attentions on archive materials from a business perspective. She emphasised how both these use cases rely on maintaining the original master tapes to work from. She explained how many early masters were just not kept – the 2″ reel-to-reel tapes being wiped once deemed finished with.

On the other hand, the amount of duplicate materials held in their offices was vast, due to multiple copies of things like promo video cassettes being produced for distribution to various worldwide media channels in the days before digital file transfer.

But the great news was that Beggars Group has recently been given planning permission for a purpose-built archive building, and are in the process of compiling archive materials from the various offices to finally put it all in one place. She talked briefly about the technical issues encountered along the way – from storage conditions to cataloguing protocols – before explaining how in the process she’s become something of an archives nerd.

She made two cracking points in summing up: “I’m fed up of people thinking archiving is dusty and boring – it’s brilliant! It’s fascinating, and it’s necessary.”

And, having talked about the archive from a largely business perspective, she also came back to the point of such a collection being part of the wider national (and international) heritage: “It’s music… It’s culture… It’s not ‘ours’… We do need to look after our copyright though!”

****

After this inspiring chat, things were brought slightly more down to earth, but no less inspiring, with a session from the National Library of Norway. We were told by Trond Valberg and Lars Gaustad that unlike here in the UK, Norwegian legal deposit has covered audiovisual recordings since 1989, and the Library now collects pretty much all of the country’s cultural output, from books, newspapers and music, to radio and television broadcasts and the web.

Interestingly, we were told that the number of CDs being taken in by the Library was now decreasing, while the number of vinyl LPs was increasing. The vinyl resurgence was probably the other main theme of the day, alongside metadata.

The Norwegians went into some detail regarding the technology behind it all – with some ‘bragging slides’ with mind-boggling numbers, such as a server farm of 3 lots of 6 petabyte hard drive racks keeping it all backed up, with approximately 6 petabytes a day being added to the archive – or 10 petabytes at peak.

They also talked about partnerships with software and database designers in coming up with bespoke metadata and cataloguing programs. Really, the National Library of Norway sounds like the perfect model for other countries to follow with regards to a complete digital national archive of cultural output.

*****

Sacha Sedriks, of BBC Future Media, was up next to tell us all about their recent experiment Playlister, which enables radio listeners to track down a song they heard, add it to a personal playlist, then stream it via the likes of Spotify.

What began with a cutesy PR rundown of a fabulous new service for all BBC fans to start using very quickly evolved into some fairly deep data chat – stuff like establishing and maintaining unique, canonical artist, track and works IDs to ensure consistency of metadata across all the myriad services the BBC operates.

Sedriks explained that the service had been a hit particularly among listeners to the UK Top 40, along with the kinds of slightly more nerdy, discovery-based radio shows from the likes of Annie Mac and Gilles Peterson, with users wanting to investigate the new sounds they’d heard.

Although radio is naturally Playlister’s bread and butter, some TV shows have added implementation as well, and interestingly, the first ‘big hit’ of the service at launch was Peaky Blinders. Indeed, this was how I first stumbled on and used the service myself – Playlister enabled viewers to identify the Nick Cave and Jack White tracks used to soundtrack the gritty Birmingham drama series.

****

Next up was something of a sales pitch from Decibel Music Systems, whose admittedly clever software can rip apart traditional relational databases and retrieve results from a graph database, allowing queries of increasing complexity. Examples were given of drilling right down into segments of tracks, or grouping results by seemingly abstract links.

They also produce editorial content to go with the ‘facts’ used on the system, and this revelation spawned quite a fascinating Q&A session asking about the differences – legally and financially – between ‘facts’ and ‘information’, and whether such things were only ever produced in-house, or were perhaps sometimes collected from the wider Internet?

***

A slightly choppy link-up via Skype was next, with the Music Tech Fest in Massachusetts providing a panel-for-hire for us to put questions to. Led by music/tech/future/past guru Andrew Dubber, the gang tackled some of our dustier queries with a slightly more American music/tech conference vibe. It was nice to get a different perspective on things, and although the Skype connection was a touch shoddy, it all worked quite well, considering.

Quite a staggering point from one Stateside contributor though – with us all running around madly trying to archive EVERYTHING, he simply explained that throughout history, the loss of the majority of our heritage is normal, and inevitable. I’d argue that just because this has been the case in the past, it doesn’t mean we can’t do all we can to try and get better at it! His subsequent analogy that the Internet may well go the way of the telegraph was perhaps a little severe, but his point was pretty solid. It’s always good to get a little perspective when you’re knee-deep in discussions of this kind.

**

The final session was a hoot. A roundtable chaired by the Wire’s online editor Jennifer Lucy Allan, between three niche record label bosses: Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records; Spencer Hickman of Death Waltz Recording Company; and Roger Armstrong of Ace Records.

All three labels produce releases destined to be heard by only a small few, and they revel in this, producing really nice packages of rare sounds that will not just be listened to in the background, but enjoyed and consumed. Jonny Trunk rescues dead library music and other oddities; Hickman rebirths the otherwise excellent-in-their-own-right soundtracks to horror films of questionable quality; and Armstrong pumps out compilations of vintage music to fans who want to check out a scene and read the liner notes: “We sell booklets and throw some music in with it!”

Actually, what was most interesting was that Armstrong, older than the other two, had arguably the most progressive views, repeatedly trying to win them over to his idea of really well-made, hyperlinked digital booklets to accompany their releases. Trunk and Hickman were having none of this however, happier to put out short runs of beautiful LPs to the small community of fans out there waiting for them.

Along with some funny anecdotes and asides, there was some interesting stuff regarding how hard – or easy – it can be to get music licensed for release. Armstrong explained that Ace Records’ compilations accompanying Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour were able to secure the White Stripes’ contribution thanks merely to Bob’s name being on the cover. Trunk mentioned having spent mere minutes emailing the right people to get access to what he wanted. And Hickman had stories of friendships forged with composers and producers having spent months tracking them down and earning their trust in re-releasing forgotten gems.

I thoroughly enjoyed this discussion to finish off the day’s sessions. More than anything, it left me wanting to go out and buy some LPs, just as Lesley Bleakley’s enthusiasm made me more enthused and excited than ever by the sound archive sector.

*

…Unfortunately, things weren’t quite over. Although the official sessions were complete, Mark Fisher was scheduled to give a brief, closing speech.

Having found myself soaring on the optimism, enthusiasm and vitality of a sector many see as dusty and unnecessary, Fisher kind of bummed everyone out with a jolt back to ‘reality’, talking about stuff like constant distractions from cellphones and “the Mark Zuckerberg universe…” – stuff we all already know, and can deal with in our own way.

He made some valid points, but it felt unnecessarily negative to round off a day which been all about embracing potential with a talk like this. Further, much of his talk blamed technology for all the negativity of shortened attention spans and so on, ignoring the many benefits, and particularly the benefits within this sector that had been referred to by many of the day’s speakers!

He also made points about nothing musically innovative – on the creative side, at least – having occurred since the turn of the 21st century. Fine, but not at all what we had gathered to discuss. He briefly touched on the ways that music consumption has benefited from technological advances, but hardly celebrated it. This, coming at the end of a day geared towards innovation and best practices in music storage, discovery and consumption was perhaps a little misguided. Overall, his rant felt unplanned, illogical, and certainly poorly targeted.

But no matter. Ignoring the closing words, the day was a huge success. I found myself fascinated, intrigued and inspired. It was everything I’d hoped it would be, and even exceeded my expectations. I came away full of new ideas about the specific challenges and opportunities of the sound archiving sector, and with a renewed enthusiasm towards the entire libraries, museums and archives sector in which I find myself engrossed.

The fact that the day had gone so well, and been so varied and fascinating is to be celebrated and commended – the fact that it was free… That’s truly remarkable.

Thanks very much to all the contributors, to Alex Wilson and Andy Linehan, and to all at the BL who made the event possible. It was fabulous.