Yesterday Martin Belam made me smile a lot with his post on MyBBC. I It reminded me I had this draft waiting to go about just how long it can take for things to get out to the public or even into awareness. t’s not always possible to know when the beginning of a story is. And although I’m researching the first twenty years of the BBC on the internet starting in 1994, the story certainly does not begin there. Generalising madly it’s often said that things usually start about twenty years before they become noticeable to the public.
So in my case 1974 would be a good year to choose. But wait! No , actually 1954 looks like a good beginning. It’s in 1954 that the BBC first sets up a Working Party on Electronic Computers. Whilst this bode well it took a full further seven years before the first computer was bought by the Corporation. According to Asa Briggs (History of Broadcasting in the UK Volume 5 part 2) it was a National Elliot 803B and it belonged to the “Central Establishment Office”. I am thinking that the story of that seven years worth of meetings , papers and even the appointment of an expert to tell the Corporation it was OK to buy a computer is one which would be repeated throughout the period I am looking at.
So, what was 1974 about? Apart from being the end of the period Asa Briggs covers in his last volume he suggests there are three areas of development that heralded the application of computers around the BBC . They were: that the Engineering Division had begun to use computers in their designing of of aerials and analysis of equipment faults, generating electronic music and computer graphics; that management had set up a “management information service” in Television (TMIS) ; and that Radio (External Services) had installed a microcomputer to control the output from all the radio studios In Bush House.
I think it also meant the BBC would increasingly need staff who knew how to work with computers , and those who were interested in exploring some of the new technologies as they began to emerge, and even possibly those who would be able to think about how computers would change the nature of communications in domains outside the military and academia.
When I worked at the BBC from 1993 to 2008 I was repeatedly told that the BBC is an Engineering Organisation with some programmes atttached. In 1974, as the significance of some of the developments were being realised “Information Engineers” were asked to explain the implications of their work to the public so that an “informed discussion” could begin about what the BBC does and has done for the public.
There are moments during this project when it feels like time has stood still. This is one such moment.
I’m looking for examples of good storytelling within and about organisations. Mostly you find the CEO has written an autobiography or someone has written his/her (mostly his) biography. My hunch is that historians of the present and future will look to blogs and tweets, social media and digital traces for clues and a way of deciphering changes in strategy or direction. But what of intranets? Or internal oral history projects? Memories of employees past and present? History from below? How will they be found? We can’t just rely on Google.
I’ve been looking at an interview, or more precisely, piece to camera that Frank Gillard lay down for his own BBC Oral History project. He is very lucid about his own role as a BBC employee and the terms under which he conducted the interviews. It was recorded in 1995 and feels like another age. The BBC is making excerpts available under its 100 Voices page
I have now recorded some interviews for this same archive. Looking at the period from 1994 to 2014. But I’m not concentrating on the people at the top of the organisation or politicians like Frank Gillard. Rather trying to choose people who , whilst not voiceless, may not historically have been chosen for such an archive. I did also go to the then top. You have to to understand the BBC . What is interesting about this period and the subject I am looking at – how the BBC became aware of the World Wide Web and the internet and what it did about it is how a rather divergent group of people could unite around the implications of a new technology and create clusters of interest which would, eventually , get together and get the organisation moving. I only realised after interviewing Professor Lizzie Jackson that she is related to Frank Gillard. Which is a nice piece of history in its own right.
I have been filming a series of video oral history interviews asking interviewees to recall events of twenty or twenty five years ago. Some people have total recall it seems “as if it were yesterday”. Others are hazy and generous enough to talk about the effects of aging on memory. Some want a good old natter about the old days whilst others remember documents or artifacts during the interviews and rush off to get them which triggers another round of memories.
Now the tables have been turned and I am being interviewed for some different research leading to a book and being asked questions about thirty years ago. Daniel Rachel , musician and author of the wonderful Isle of Noises, is writing a book about music, politics and counterculture of the 80s in the UK. I have met him a few times now but only just had my interview. A taste of my own medicine.
I have shown him old rough-cuts of video, articles, photos but the crunch came when I was asked to remember and think and put it all together in words to be recorded. Its hard. I remember so many moments and so many people, but the chronology- that’s another matter. I don’t even know who owns some of the footage I produced or some of the photos I have kept – can I publish them, or not? Who knew I was the only person with an old VHS copy of a 90 minute rough cut of the Red Wedge Tour?
We talked about the setting up of Red Wedge and how I got involved. Why set up a video group at all to make a video diary of the tour? The growth of independent film and video in the context of the new Channel 4. How Red Wedge did or didn’t relate to Artists Against Apartheid. How did I end up in Senegal simultaneously interpreting on stage at a gig for 60,000 Youth with Harlem Desir of SOS Racism which was linked to Paris and New York? What was it like making Jerusalem with Paul Weller and the Style Council and did I really know what it was about? Were you hurt by all the criticism of the film? Were the band? What did I do during the AAA concert on Clapham Common, where was I during the show? Why did I go to Naples with Red Wedge and etc Of course I was asked a lot about the experience of the tour and everyone on it but mainly during this interview a series of flashes of memory and sensations, feelings and conversations and a lot of fun. And actually just how well everyone got on and got the job done. I remember seeing Elvis Costello sing Shipbuilding in a community hall in Newcastle – and that is something I shall never forget.
This frontier of interview , oral history , history and memory is the territory of my work about the BBC at present. But its hard at the moment not to get sidetracked into my own memories of the me before the BBC. I still need to work out some sequencing. But being asked why there is no footage of the Smiths playing at our gig in Newcastle has really put me on the spot!
I’ll post photos just as soon as I track the photographer down.
A couple of years ago I had the idea to chart the history of the BBC’s first twenty years online as a research project. Why? A couple of approaches to me since leaving the BBC in 2008 and as Professor of Digital Media and Innovation at WMG made me think. First could I answer a few questions to help a then PHD candidate at Kings College London Department with some background for his research on Blogging and War reporting and the BBC? I gladly helped out and it was fascinating to see how contemporary history is codified. It’s somehow different when its your own history that is being laid down however. It compelled me to turn to my own archives of how we set up the Blogging Platform at the BBC , who came to me first with the idea and what the confluence of influences were that brought the platform out into the open. I shall write about that separately another day.
The second approach was from Tim Jones, an Innovation Expert and practitioner whom we had worked with at the BBC but who ran an Innovation practise and who was working on a group of people writing a book called Growth Champions: the Battle for Sustained Innovation Leadership. Someone had got sick or left the project and I was asked to co-write a chapter at very short notice in the summer of 2011. My chapter was about Apple and Lego subtitled “Bringing Magic to the Everyday” the book looked at how companies kept sustaining their innovation leadership. It was a great time to look at Apple rising as high as it gets. I had a problem though. They don’t grant interviews. They didn’t even reply to my email request which is a bit of a first in my experience. To cut a long story short I turned to desk research to start out. And what did I find? Only people who loved Steve Jobs, or people who did not love Steve Jobs – hagiography and its opposite. Then thankfully I found an open archive in Stanford containing Engineers memos and then I found Folklore.org. Far from ideal not being able to get new material but it taught me a big lesson and raised a few questions. How is the story of digital change being told? Is it only CEOs who get to publish their autobiographies, or have their biographies written? In the age of the computer where is the history kept? On hard drives? But the stories prior to blogging where are they? Don’t suppose many people are writing memoirs or keeping diaries in the digital age, or are they just taking other forms?
Anyway it got me thinking about the BBC, how it tells its own story and how others tell it. I worked there from 1993 to 2008 and witnessed and took part in a very exciting period of organisational transformation. I felt sure that a lot would have been kept visible via the website from 1997 , in the written archives , perhaps in the oral history archive, and importantly in staff memories and experiences published on their own blogs or on BBC blogs. I took my idea to Roly Keating, then Head of the BBC’s archive and Online Editor and now Director of the British Library and we talked it through.
Many moons later I have now started the project with the BBC History Unit and the BBC’s oral history archive and many of my assumptions have been squashed as I explain on the BBC’s About the BBC blog and develop further here. Before April comes around again there should be a web page up with some excerpts of the oral history interviews we have conducted so far. The first step to creating a time line that I had supposed would exist somewhere on paper!