Category Archives: radio

Back on the Shelf Again

In which The Author receives a surprise delivery

My regular readers will probably already be familiar with the Cosmic Tigger Library. It’s my personal collection of books, magazines, theatre programmes, records, DVDs and other things which I’ve accumulated over the past thirty-odd years. Like any self-respecting library, it’s split into several parts.
The Cosmic Tigger Lending Library is the biggest division of the 1,300-plus books which live on shelves throughout my house. It’s largely made up of paperbacks, with some hardbacks dotted here and there, and covers pretty much every subject except Chick-Lit and Gardening. Most of them are available for my friends to borrow, with the exception of some rare and valuable editions.
The Cosmic Tigger Reference Library lives (mostly) in my middle room, with some overspill onto the landing. As you’d expect, they’re mostly large hardbacks covering a wide range of topics. Some are rare and surprisingly valuable. Consequently, they don’t leave the house, except in special circumstances (e.g. if I’m working in Aberdare Library and they’ve no longer got the particular book(s) I need).
I’ve also chosen to maintain a tradition which many public libraries observed until relatively recently: the Restricted Access Collection. This is my stash of erotica, which lives in my bedroom and is available for consultation on the premises only.
[A digression: The Restricted Access Collection began life in a rather basic small-town fashion, with copies of top-shelf magazines I’d found in various newsagents during my travels. Mother has never openly mentioned finding my stash, but I’m fairly sure that she must have come across it at some point during my late teenage years. It probably came as something of a relief, to be honest. She might have been initially shocked to learn that I was gathering pictures of beautiful dark-haired women in bizarre leather outfits – but at least they were women!]
I’d been lending books to my friends for several years before I became fed up of never getting them back. I’ve already compiled two incomplete lists of books which are ‘Missing, Presumed Lost’, and every so often I remember something else which has gone astray over time. A few years ago, the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library really came into being. I used my printer to make a stash of little stickers saying ‘Cosmic Tigger Lending Library – PLEASE RETURN’, and now I attach them to any item before it leaves the house.
At first my friends thought it was a bit of a joke, but it’s been a good way of retrieving some of the overdue items. Using the open source Tellico software package, I can log every book which leaves the house, and keep track of who’s got it. After a decent interval has elapsed, I can send them a gentle nudge via Facebook, to ask how they’re getting on with it.
Unfortunately, these technical innovations came too late in the day to identify my copy of Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine. I know exactly who borrowed it – I’m seeing him tonight, in fact, so I might try and jog his memory then. The strange thing is that the same edition turned up randomly in a charity shop in Aberdare ages ago. I didn’t buy it, because I assumed that I’d get my original copy back at some stage. Now, I’m starting to wonder whether the one on offer for a quid might have been the very same copy. If it was, then I’ve certainly seen the last of it, as the charity shop closed a couple of years ago. I’ll have to wait for the reissue, which is due ‘soon’, according to Mr Priest’s own website.
However, my system paid me an unexpected dividend yesterday. Everyone who’s ever laughed at the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library stickers should pay close attention, as this will prove you all wrong.
I need to turn the clock back over four years. My friend Barbara was running her second-hand book stall in Aberdare Market, and I was about halfway through my first year at university. While I was browsing one lunchtime, I came across a copy of a book called The Routes of English by Simon Elmes.
It caught my eye for a couple of reasons. It had been produced to support a radio series of the same name, presented by Melvyn Bragg. I’d heard a couple of editions, but missed most of the series. The book itself wasn’t part of the conventional BBC publishing stable. I remember it especially well, because when I was working in Dillons we’d (eventually) managed to obtain one for a customer, and had to jump through a number of hoops in the process. It had also been quite expensive, because it came with two audio CDs of English varieties through the ages and across the world, along with discussions with leading scholars. I was taking a module called The History and Development of the English Language. It seemed like a good excuse to buy Barbara’s copy – especially as she only wanted about two quid for it.
In my second year I continued my study of English linguistics, but Gill A., our lecturer, had moved on. Our new lecturer was Ayo B., a very tall, elegant Nigerian gentleman who was based at Cardiff University and helping out at Glamorgan for a couple of sessions a week. We were chatting after the lecture one day, and he mentioned that he was also teaching a module called English: Past, Present and Future. I asked him if he’d come across The Routes of English, and suggested that he might be able to make some use of the resource materials contained in the book.
I made copies of the CDs and took the book down to our next session together. Ayo was fascinated by the whole thing, and especially by a small black-and-white photo on the back cover. As I said in an earlier entry, it’s often difficult to get a mental image of someone from their voice alone. Ayo was surprised that Melvyn Bragg didn’t look anything like he’d imagined from listening to In Our Time. I told him he could hang on to the book for a little while, and fillet it for his own course materials.
That was the last I saw of the book, needless to say. My back injury forced me to crash out of the course halfway through the second year, and (as my regular readers already know) I wasn’t able to go back again. I did ask Sarah T. once whether she still saw Ayo, and, if so, whether she could jog his memory for me, but to no avail. I added the book to the ‘Missing, Presumed Lost’ list and resigned myself to scouring the second-hand shops for another copy.
I was in Aberdare Library yesterday lunchtime, when Paula told me that a package had arrived there – for me. It had turned up in the post that morning, with no covering letter. Luckily, Judith had been opening the post. Most people in the library know about the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library, and she’d recognised the sticker on the front of the book. It was my copy of The Routes of English, with the two original CDs still attached.
I know this might sound like an unlikely story, but Geoff E. and Clint were with me at the time, so they can verify it.
My friend Alexis has checked the staff directory at the University of South Wales, and there’s no sign of Ayo. I’ve also had a look at the Cardiff University website this afternoon, but he’s not listed there either. It seems as though he’s moved on as well. I’ve checked my blog stats, however, and there was a definite search for ‘Cosmic Tigger Lending Library’ some time during the last seven days. I can only assume that Ayo was tidying his shelves, came across my book, tracked me down online via my blog to Aberdare Library (where I spend at least two afternoons a week, as a rule), and posted it directly to them, knowing that it would get to me in the fullness of time.
In the absence of any other contact details, I’d like to thank Ayo here for taking the time and trouble to return it to me. I was amazed when Paula showed me the contents of the packet, and even more amazed when she told me that it had turned out out of the blue, with no explanation forthcoming.
It proves three things: that people are far kinder and generous in spirit than we generally give them credit for; that it pays to be a creature of habit; and that the oft-derided Cosmic Tigger Lending Library stickers do have their uses after all.

The BBC Anti-Playlister

In which The Author decides to hack the system

The BBC has been plugging a new piece of technology recently, primarily on Radio 2, but also between TV programmes. It’s called the Playlister, and has probably come about as a spin-off from the spread of DAB radios and online listening.
I haven’t tried it out myself, but in theory it sounds like a great idea. If you hear a song you like being played on the radio, you can go straight to the BBC Playlister and add it to your ‘personal jukebox’. You don’t even need to remember the details, because it’s all done for you. How many of us have scribbled down vague notes of half-heard titles, only to draw a blank later on? With the BBC Playlister, those days are behind you.
I say that it sounds like a great idea in theory, because the Radio 2 playlisting policy seems to have changed radically over the past few years. Britain’s most popular radio station has been actively chasing a younger audience for several years now, driving established listeners away by a process of gradual attrition.
One of the station’s elder statesmen, Terry Wogan, was shunted from his weekday breakfast show to a Sunday morning some years ago; his place was taken by the frenetic Chris Evans. There seems little doubt that Terry took the majority of his TOGs with him. I wonder how many Radio 1 listeners followed the hyperactive ginger nut to his new home.
Meanwhile, Sir Michael Parkinson’s Sunday chat show has been dropped altogether. Michael Ball and Richard Madeley have tried to emulate Yorkshire’s master of the intimate interview, but without success. Long-established favourites like Listen to the Band and The Organist Entertains have been moved around the schedule so often that not even the presenters seem sure when they’re going to be on the air. Only Brian Matthew’s Sounds of the 60s seems to be safe in its Saturday morning slot – for the time being, at least.
Some of Mr Evans’ former colleagues, like Trevor Nelson and Sarah Cox, are now presenting regular shows on the sister network. I assume that the station bosses are hoping that their Radio 1 audience will follow them to their new home.
If their output doesn’t drive away the existing audience, there’s worse to come. Following the 6 Music débacle of a couple of years ago, much of the new Radio 2 schedule is a relentless campaign to bring ‘new music’ to the people – as demonstrated by Dermot O’Leary’s Saturday afternoon show. If I was feeling generous, I’d say that 70% of the ‘new music’ sounds scarily reminiscent of old music. (Since I’m not feeling generous, I’ll revise that figure to at least 90%.) In fact, as I told my friend Gareth E. a few weeks ago, the only genuinely new music on the BBC can be heard on Radio 3’s Late Junction. Try as I might to keep an open mind, it seems as though these forty-something ears have heard it all before.
Therefore, I’ve decided to try and hack the system. It’s an idea which I came up with a few years ago, when one of the online jazz stations introduced a similar feature. Apparently their interactive feature would enable you to customise your listening experience by foregrounding your favourite artists (Miles Davis, say) and shoving others (George Benson, to pick a name at random) onto the back-burner. It occurred to me then that the idea had legs, as they say in the business. It didn’t go far enough, though. Here’s where the Anti-Playlister comes to the fore.
The Radio 2 Playlister seems ripe for hacking. I don’t know how it would work in practice, but that’s an issue for my IT-savvy friends. The way I see it is something like this: if Radio 2 were to play a song which you really, really disliked, the Anti-Playlister feature would mute it – not just on that one occasion, but every single time Radio 2 decided to air it.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Radio 2 announce that they’re going to play ‘Dakota’ by Stereophonics. As soon as that opening riff kicks in, I hit the ‘Kill Song’ button, and I get three minutes or so of dead air until Ken Bruce or Jeremy Vine pick up where they left off. Any subsequent plays of that song will immediately fall silent for the duration. If I did the same with ‘Have a Nice Day’, ‘The Bartender and the Thief’, and ‘A Thousand Trees’, the system’s smart software would learn my listening habits and automatically kill every song by Cwmaman’s finest. Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?
In addition, the software would be smart enough to recognise patterns and linkages. Over time, a true Expert System could be compiled. There are plenty of online and print resources in existence already, using reliable sources like Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees and Martin C. Strong’s incredible Great Discography series of books. We could draw on these and similar sources to build up a vast relational database of musicians, bands and songwriters. This would allow the system to make connections for itself, and extrapolate an enormous potential playlist to suit the listener’s personal tastes.
Let’s say (for example) that it was possible to blacklist every Fleetwood Mac song made after Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer left the band. A really smart system would extend that to include all of Stevie Nicks’ solo output and Lindsey Buckingham’s egregious single ‘Trouble’, among others. As the user’s tastes became established in the system, Fleetwood Mac’s daytime output from his/her own radio would become vanishingly small.
The beauty of this proposal is that the vast resources of the BBC’s archive could be fully exploited. They say that somewhere within their enormous vaults, there’s a copy of every record every released in the UK. If that’s true, and Radio 2 scheduled a blacklisted record of three minutes and twenty-six seconds’ duration, the software would instantly select a candidate to fill that exact gap. Out go Danny Wilson*, in comes…
Well, that’s the interesting part.
The potential for pleasant surprises is almost infinite. Imagine what would happen if (say) Earth, Wind and Fire were on your personal blacklist. While the rest of the country grooved to some old-school disco, you might experience the terrifying rush of ‘Death Valley 69’ by Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch. With the Anti-Playlister fired up, records which have been forgotten by just about everybody not involved with the bands might pop up out of nowhere.
Here’s a hypothetical example: My friends’ old band City Giants released a self-financed single, ‘Little Next to Nothing’, way back in 1987. That might get some unexpected airplay courtesy of the Anti-Playlister. I can just imagine the look of shock on their frontman Andy Matheou’s middle-aged face when his minuscule PRS cheque arrives in the post, nearly three decades after he and his bandmates buttonholed John Peel outside Brainwashing Broadcasting House and asked him to give their disc a spin.
It doesn’t have to end there. Anti-Playlister 2.0 would be even smarter, not only discarding every post-Green/Spencer Fleetwood Mac song, but also that new Nell Bryden song which sounds like a discarded session from Rumours. Meanwhile, totally unnecessary cover versions (q.v. Calexico’s carbon copy of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’) would never darken my door again. I’m sure they’ll be heartbroken.
Anti-Playlister 2.0 could herald a uniquely tailored listening experience, pulling lost nuggets from the ground and giving every individual listener the music they want, while leaving the speech content completely unaltered.
I don’t have the programming skills to make this idea into a reality, as I’m the first to admit. However, I’ve got a pretty strong background knowledge of music and musicians, which would help build the core of the expert system. I just need to recruit some friends of a similar kidney to work on the details of the system. On paper at least, I think it’s a goer, and would certainly shake things up a bit. Radio 2 could actually live up to their boast of bringing you ‘new music’, all day long, seven days a week. Who’s in…?
* Note to Rob H, my regular proofreader: Danny Wilson were a Scottish pop group, not an individual, so the noun and verb do agree!