Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Stand up to be counted

Today on Twitter it's #WriterWednesday - it's also the day of major strike action by many union members across the UK. This made me think about Writer & Artist Solidarity. 

Is there such a thing? Do we care about each others' ability to thrive in their own field (or barn or attic)? Seems to me that, in times of economic woe, we need that fraternity all the more.

Many creatives (shorthand for artists, writers, makars of all varieties) shudder at the idea of joining organisations, of cramming their exquisitely individual talents and concerns into any pigeon hole offered, but - are there areas where we should stand together, as workers in other aspects of life do? What do you stand up to be counted for? How, when? 

Between now and December 20th, when the Society of Authors meets the BBC again to discuss the cuts to the short story, can the No To Short Story Cuts petition end on a high note? Can it roll over the 9,000 mark, could it reach 10,000? 

That would require more actors and writers and listeners and arts professionals and generally concerned and culturally aware people to care sufficiently about the issue. That's difficult.. A number of people's response falls into the 'meh, short stories, radio, not bothered' category (if they respond at all). About which my feeling is: okay, but who'll care when your creative form and your livelihood is threatened?

If BBC Radio 4 were a TV station it would be BBC FOUR, and the volume of Sarah Lund fans alone would cause a wave of support to keep it safe.  Radio is a less salient medium - perhaps all the more reason for us to stand up for what it does best. To me, it makes no sense to fill Radio 4 with news & opinion at expense of original and thought-provoking writing and performance.

This ongoing 'short-story-story' is piffling beside greater woes of the world. I know that. But I am angry at how the foundations of the BBC get nibbled away by the same termites employed to build and protect it.

This quote read today via Twitter seems apposite: "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time." - Thomas A. Edison

ps - just a thought... I've seen several letters to about BBC FOUR, but so far none about the whittled-down Radio 4 and the scar left in its schedules now that stories have been ripped out.

Monday, 28 November 2011

"What news on the Rialto?" (it's a pun on Radio & Culture, you see?)

Well, not a great deal. This, from the Society of Authors website, is the latest official info on the campaign: "In response to our second letter to Mark Thompson, a meeting has been arranged with Tim Davie, Director of Audio & Music and Gwyneth Williams on 20 December at Broadcasting House. We will update members on the outcome of this meeting."

Meanwhile, the BBC TRUST is running an online public consultation about their plans for Delivering Quality First - there are six sections, but you don't have to complete them all. If you've been longing to indicate your support for original writing & performance on the BBC, or to complain about the volume of news or 'reality' programmes, here's your chance to be heard.

The Save The Short Story petition is still live, and is crawling back up to the 9,000 figure previously mentioned (duplicate signatures have been and will continue to be deleted) so if you care about the future of literature on the BBC's flagship spoken word radio network, please sign & encourage others to do so.

Finally - historical-crime author Michael Jecks wrote a very good swashbuckling blog post about Radio 4's 'story slashing'

Thursday, 17 November 2011

four months (& counting...)

It's 4 months ago, today, from the time I first read about the BBC's intention to cut the Short Story on Radio 4 - the 17th of July, a Sunday.

Since then, and since the setting up of the petition (Monday 18th) I've been online every day (except for 7 days recently when I essayed a 'holiday'). Mainly I've been tweeting quotes from the people who signed the petition, including those by actors & authors who, with experience of radio and of many other entertainment media, have commented with great concern (or disbelief) at the threat of these cuts.

The cuts are no longer threats. The cuts have been enacted. If you look at the radio pages in the Radio Times, now, stories have stopped being central to the afternoon schedule.

A friend recently sent me the response she'd had to an email to the Controller of R4 about the loss of the short story. The response continued to assert that the cuts  were "from 144 to 104" and therefore were really very small.

Really? From approx 260 short story slots per year on Radio 4, as recently as 2008, to 104, is actually a major cut.

We are now promised an 'average' of 2 a week from April 2012. Until last week there were 3 on weekdays, plus a Sunday repeat slot (3+1=4). Until 2009 there were 5 on weekdays, plus a repeat slot (5+1=6). That's a cut of slots for new writing from five, to three, to two, and a cut to the overall number of listener slots on R4 from six, to four to two.

I think that's right, but it's confusing, because the BBC keeps chucking in somewhat vague details about 'new' stories - employing the word 'new' in strange ways; eg, in 'new strand', on 4Extra, where it doesn't actually seem to mean 'new stories.'

The Controller mentions Afternoon Plays as part of the station's commitment to 'new writing' - which is wonderful, of course, for committed playwrights. But it serves to confuse the issue yet again, as if all forms were the same form.
I'm tired of this number-wrangling, obfuscating, call-a-spade-a-pretty-new-trowel stuff. 
I could go on (and on and on) blogging & tweeting about this issue, attempting to explain it succinctly, persuasively, to use better and stronger analogies and metaphors (see earlier posts) - I could... but.

It's taken 4 months to get it into my head, properly, that my opinion - as a listener, as a writer, as an actor, as a licence-payer - must be quite irrelevant to the BBC.  As are those of the 9,000 people who've shared theirs via the petition over the last 4 months. So I'd only be talking to myself, or the person who stumbles across this blog...(hello, thanks for visiting).

My over-riding sense about all this, 4 months on, is: what a shame - what a shame that the BBC doesn't use this challenge as an opportunity to engage with and learn about its audience, and feed that back into the way it decides to use our money.

And what a shame that the important idea of consent - implicit in the contract between broadcaster & listener - seems to be disregarded.

The Society of Authors, Equity & The Writers' Guild will - soon, I hope - have further discussion with the BBC about the impact of these cuts and the meaning of the BBC's charter, which speaks of its duty to "to foster creativity and nurture and support UK talent across a wide range of genres." Of course, if I were the BBC's Director General, I too would probably attempt to delay further meetings in order to say 'Too late, fait accompli, I'm afraid.'

On a personal note, I'm aware that the intensive months of campaigning (at a pitch some have described as obsessional, lunatic, detrimental to my wellbeing, etc) have - yes, certainly - taken their toll. I haven't had time to think about my own work. Haven't had time (or peace of mind) to write any fiction. [Insert sound of Vincent Price-like hollow laughter here. Ed.

So - I'm not for a minute giving up on the possibility that logic and reason might prevail - but I'm no longer waiting with my ear to the wind for the screeching sound of the BBC doing a sudden u-turn as they understand the error of their ways.

If I'm a little less visible for a while, it will be in order to encourage the muse. This is not adieu, it's 'a tout a l'heure'.

Just as I finish typing this, through the letterbox comes a review copy of the paperback edition of an award-winning first novel, plastered with quotes and garlands of praise. The author is someone I follow on Twitter. But not, so far, someone who's demonstrated generous fraternity by signing to support the petition. I feel the inclination to ask, remind, nudge, suggest, sink my terrier teeth gently into that author's sleeve and shake a little. It's surprisingly hard to stop thinking as a campaigner, once you've begun.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Letters, pray (Sorry. I don't usually do puns)

This afternoon the three General Secretaries of the Society of Authors, Equity UK & The Writers' Guild sent a  second joint letter *to Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC & cc'd it to Lord Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust.

We await their considered response.

Meanwhile, here's the traditional TV 'waiting for something to happen' filler, the Potter's Wheel

{light musical interlude}

(*it's a PDF, click to download)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Making a fuss

The latest BBC Radio 4 press release spells out the meaning of the story-cuts I've been tweeting and blogging about since July. There's a big bold picture of a very happy Martha Kearney, (happy at the extension to The World At One by 15 minutes) but scan down the page to the Friday offerings and you see this: "3.45pm Short story (the other short story slot is now Sunday at 7.45pm)"

Now picture my face... not so happy.  (Author pic not supplied. Ed.)

Two whole stories a week. TWO. For this bounty we must thank Radio 4's Controller. It could, after all, have been ONE, as in their original press release. 

It's possible to imagine a scenario in the not too distant future when, stories having become so random as to be unfindable in the schedule, the next logical action will be to see them as unwanted, unremarkable items, and to axe them completely, except as archive material on 4Extra or for 'special ocassions', such as the headline grabbing National Short Story Awards, sponsored - naturally, with great pride - by BBC Radio 4. 

You can offer your own comment on that new schedule, if you want to, on the website. You can write to R4's Feedback programme. About a hundred did that already, though their names were never read out during the (rather tame) interview with the Controller. (Well, she IS the Controller, I can see how that happened). You might sign the petition against the story cuts, as nearly 9,000 have already done. You might even write directly to Controller Gwyneth Williams - gwyneth.williams(at) -  if you feel strongly enough about it. Write to the Director General Mark Thompson, too, though he's a little busy right now, hasn't yet even replied to the joint letter sent to him in August on this topic; or you could write to Lord Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust - who replied saying he'd forwarded that same joint letter to Mark Thompson, and awaited with interest the response he would give.
Response? What response? Will you - or we - get one, other than 'thank you for writing/caring, but we're running this and we think you're wrong'? 
Will any of this letter and email writing and petition signing make any difference? Hm. 

It seems to me that the BBC, like many large organisations, particularly in the media industries, is adept at simply ignoring complaints or uncomfortable questions, no matter how articulate or informed the complainant, and no matter how many of them stir themselves from the spectacle of light (or indeed highbrow) entertainment to make their voices heard. And in this instance, to make not only their voices heard, but those of the people whose stories they value, the actors and writers who create the entertainment, and the host of characters they bring to life, bring into the living rooms or cars of listeners.

I've been writing and blogging and campaigning about this since July. Before that I wrote three commissioned stories for Radio 4, which were broadcast in August this year. That collision of events explains in part my passion for this cause, but the other aspect, the one that I think many of us share, is the feeling of 'THIS IS NOT RIGHT.'  I'm very heartened and grateful for the evidence, via email, twitter, petitioners, private conversations with writer friends and public comments by famous names, and with the support of three major unions/guilds, that I am not alone in this feeling, or in this protest.

I'm not a great fan of Winston Churchill, (though I share his difficulty with black dogs) but here's a quote which feels apposite: "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."

Despite the huge commitment of time and mental energy it's taken, I'm glad I made a fuss. A fuss had to be made. I'm still making it. You can join in, if you like.