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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Change at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards

Some of you know that last year I wrote quite a lot about the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. I hadn't intended to... it just kind of snowballed. 


It started as a mild curiosity about how they're run and ended with an unsuccessful Freedom of Information request for the names of the judges - which are still secret - and the story being followed up in the Guardian and The Independent

If you don't know what I mean and would like to find out, or if you'd like to recap, you can read about it here and follow the links at the bottom from one post to the next.

I'd always intended to do it all again this year if it didn't work the first time (and the names of the judges weren't made public), but this year with variations and a bit more creativity. 

So a couple of weeks ago I wrote some emails and made a start. Then yesterday... 

My phone went. The reception wasn't very good because I was on a number 214 bus heading up the City Road but it turned out that it was Fergus Dudley of the BBC Radio Two compliance department. 

This was curious because I hadn't actually tried to contact him. I'd tried him last year but he'd never returned any of my calls so I'd given up, imagining an empty space behind a desk, perhaps a shirt lying Reggie-Perrin-like nearby.

Yes, he said. I'd emailed him about two and a half weeks ago and he was returning my message. I've since checked and my memory wasn't deceiving me. What had actually happened was that I'd emailed Kelly While at Smooth Operations - the contracted in private company that organises the awards for the BBC (and films the Cambridge festival for Sky, among many other things). 

I'd also rung her twice in two days this week because, having left for it a decent period, it was time to follow up the email.

So my reward was a phone call from Fergus Dudley at the BBC. Since cynicism is useless in these situations, I'm trying to be surprised that the interests of a senior producer from Smooth Operations - who receive public money to make the folk awards for the BBC - and the person employed to hold the company to account find their interests so closely aligned that they forget who's who.

Anyway.

He was returning my call, he said.

Thanks. I was wondering whether the BBC will be making the names of the 170 judges of the folk awards public this year?

No, he said. You see (after a scramble through my bag the notebook was out) there was no need for this because the Brit Awards don't make the names of their judges public. And neither do the Oscars or the Baftas.

None of those three awards ceremonies are run by the BBC on public cash are they, I responded? So they're not subject to the same guidelines about transparency. We moved on.

To begin with it felt like a re-run of a slightly daft conversation I had with John Leonard, who runs Smooth Operations, last year. I suppose it's possible that Dudley had looked at the post I've just linked to - which is about that conversation - before ringing. "If the names of the judges were known," he said, "people would lobby them. And some artists wouldn't have the time or the money to do it."

"But, " I said, feeling trapped in a time warp, "the only way one could meaningfully lobby a folk awards judge would be with a copy of one's music. And sending something from Soundcloud or Bandcamp by email is completely free and it travels along broadband wires at the speed of light." What's next?

"Not everyone is across that technology. It's a small industry," he said, taking my breath away, before adding that he thought it was important that the 170 judges were "specialists in the folk area who have the reputation to make these decisions".

Why? Don't you trust anyone else to recognise good music when they hear it?

"You have to have have people who are involved in the industry."

Why? This means that your judges have a financial interest in the outcome. We got really stuck here. He didn't seem to accept that working in the folk world is the same as having a financial interest in it. 

"I never said these people have to have a financial interest in the industry," he said. It began to feel as if the conversation was unravelling.

"They fill out a form declaring their interests," he continued, apparently unaware that this is not the same thing as making sure that they don't vote for any of their mates' bands. After all, declaring one's interests to person or persons unknown is valueless unless the information can be used to hold the judges to account for their subsequent decisions. And since we don't know who the judges are... Oh! Here we are back at the beginning again. 

And then just when it was all starting to sound terribly, well, terrible...

"But there will be some changes this year."

?!

"We will be taking two of the awards away from the larger panel, to be decided by a smaller panel whose names will be made public. And one of the awards will be decided by a public vote. We are doing this because we'd like to make the awards more acceptable to the wider Radio Two audience."

Blimey. 

"I can't be more specific about who the people on the smaller panel are at the moment. I don't need to tell you that and it hasn't yet been issued as a press release. But we've taken action following your considerable interest last year in the way these awards are run. We have opened it up."

Is this perhaps a prelude to making all of the names of the judges known in the near future? 

"Every two years we review the way the process works. We will be reviewing it again next year and it's possible that we will make this list public. Maybe we will and maybe we won't."

And breathe...

This is good. It's promising. 

However, fobbing people off with a small change after a larger one has been asked for is an age-old tactic.

Some observations.

Large organisations change slowly. I know I wasn't the only person to have raised the issue of the transparency of these awards over the years and don't deserve all the credit for these small changes. I hope they are the beginning of a larger change in the culture of the awards and will result in complete transparency about the judges' names next year. But it's also seems possible that the question of financial interest in the outcome will remain - since Dudley for one doesn't seem to understand that making one's living in any industry is the same as having a financial interest in it and that this, in turn, is a corrupt and conservative force on the awards. There must be other people at the BBC involved in the decision-making process and perhaps they do understand - Dudley wouldn't tell me who he answers to. But I'm guessing that the controller of Radio Two, Bob Shennan, is his line manager.

Secondly, when Dudley told me that what we were talking about was "a small industry" I thought uh-oh. If he thinks the folk awards have been catering only to a small number of people since they started in 2000, that accounts for a lot. The aim should surely be to show off the best of British folk, defined as broadly as possible without making the term meaningless, and promoting it to anyone who takes an interest. And by that I mean the world's music-lovers. The awards should feed people's souls while spreading the word about British folk, which will ultimately benefit everyone involved. And that means promoting fresh takes on old music with as much vigour, creativity and enthusiasm as we can muster. No more Don McLean and his ilk please... for any number of reasons.

This country's creative output is one of its great exports for reasons involving language, culture and history. We should see these awards in that context and be prepared for interest from everywhere. The British folk scene is stuffed with world class musicians who barely make a living and there's just no excuse for it.

Thirdly, the more transparent the folk awards are the better for all concerned. It's to be hoped that scrutiny will mean better communications, the weeding out of any judges who don't leave their homes or use the web, the resulting exposure of  the judges to more and a wider variety of music and that they will not feel able to restrict themselves to voting only for the bands they've seen and heard the most of during the previous year.

There's something in the air. Let's see what it is.

* Read last year's posts about the folk awards starting with this one and following the links at the bottom to the next.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

4 comments:

  1. The bit I find most scary about the proposed changes is "to make the awards more acceptable to the wider Radio Two audience." I suspect it was this sort of thinking which resulted in the award to Donovan and subsequent embarassing performance we had to put up with a couple of years ago. If they intend to follow that logic we will end up with awards determined by people who don't actually enjoy folk music. Although in practice it probably means as voted for by the audience for the Mark Harding programme.
    Mike Heseltine

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. In other news, the internal culture of the BBC is obviously under close scrutiny this week because there is overwhelming evidence that it is poisonous to the public good.

    Not the same these days?
    -Hardly, judging by Bob Shennan and Fergus Dudley and their ilk's wilful resistance to transparency, their chumminess with entrenched interests (John Leonard/Mile Harding and co) and the disdain with which this public corporation treats anyone among the great unwashed who is impudent enough to question them.

    And notice their feat of misdirection where they imply their own audience is technologically incompetent and out of touch with the modern world, when all the evidence points to it being they themselves who hold on to attitudes that pre-date Wikipedia and the like.

    Take for example the superb Facebook campaign mounted, largely by more senior listeners, against BBC local radio's decision to Stalinize regional program making and cancel BBC Derby's magnificent Folkwaves programme.

    If anything, it seems that these complacent bureaucrats are concerned that democratization will diminish the patronage at their disposal -as if their stomach-churning monopolization of national airtime by friends-of-friends wasn't enough of a liberty!

    John Peel's legacy seems more and more like an accident of history.

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