My life in the Bush of ghosts

Yesterday, thanks to the kindness of Wanda Petrusewicz in remembering me, I was able to look inside Bush House, straddling Aldwych and the Strand in London.

It was the home of the BBC World Service from 1941 until 2012, and I worked there from 1991 until 2010 – most of my BBC career. But Bush House was never owned by the BBC; it was built by an American Irving T Bush as a world trade centre in the 1920s. It was the most expensive office building of its day, and (I think) one of the first steel-framed buildings of this type in London. The building has now been redeveloped into offices, currently empty but it may be leased by King’s College across the road.

So, with so much of my working and personal life tied up in the concrete, marble and steel, what did I make of its renovation?

It makes an interesting comparison with the current debate about the future of Alexandra Palace: how much of the BBC’s changes to Ally Pally in the early days of TV should be retained? Well, in Bush House absolutely no trace of the BBC remains. The developers have successfully stripped the building back to its shell – no mean feat, as I know from cabling in risers and weird cubby holes in Bush just how much crap the BBC added to the building.

As you’d expect, the splendid marble staircases and strange old letterboxes on the landings are retained exactly as they were:

The eccentric, but beautiful, old Italian-made lifts have been replaced with modern ones, lacking that familiar World Service voice, though you may be pleased to learn that one tradition has been retained: we got, briefly, stuck in one.

The main Aldwych reception in Centre Block looks better than it ever did in my BBC career, having opened up the glass balconies above, although I am disappointed the (original?) dark wooden booths labelled ‘TELEPHONE’ and ‘PORTER’ by the revolving doors have vanished without trace:

Almost all internal walls have been removed, meaning that as soon as you step off a landing, it’s very hard to get your bearings. Entire studios – which once seemed so important and immovable – have been swept away, as if they never existed. Here’s the site of S46, home to countless World Briefing / Newsdesk / Radio Newsreel broadcasts:

And here I am pretending to sit at the mixing desk in S39, the studio I helped redesign and redevelop for BBC News:

Not so long ago, it looked like this:

Studios S36 and S38 (can you spot Kofi Annan?) broadcast most of the BBC World Service English language current affairs programmes for decades: Newshour, The World Today, Europe Today and more:

Today this is what remains:

So, if you’re sentimental about BBC radio’s history, the redevelopment may upset you. I thought I’d get emotional about it, but the renovation allows the beauty of the original architecture to shine through. Amazing details, like this window, which were hidden by studios, ducts and whatnot now sparkle:

I must have walked past this window a thousand times (it’s behind where C21 was, close to the really old Studio Manager common and quiet rooms on the 2nd floor Centre Block South) without ever knowing it was there.

Most areas have been opened up and look the same now, so it can be hard to know what floor you are on. The floors are shiny metal, ready to be carpeted, the heating ducts that ran round the windows have been stripped out giving more space and allowing you to get closer to the windows. Even on a cloudy day there was a great sense of light, helped no doubt by the total lack of furniture and people.

This is what the newsroom, once bustling 24 hours a day, looks like now:

Hardly recognisable from the late 90s:

Or even the 2000s:

I do wonder if whoever inhabits the new Bush House will pick up on any sense of the building’s history and past. The dramas, literal and metaphorical, that played out in the spaces workers will sit. The breaking news stories: the end of WW2, Cuban missile crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11; the days when millions of people in Eastern Europe tuned into the Polish/Czech/Hungarian ‘sausage’ programmes I and others made in a basement studio in the early hours of the morning; the laughter, anger, sheer panic of live radio, the tears and love affairs that filled the corridors and canteen. Does a building, the stone and steel, soak any of this up? The builders swear that the old library (‘News Inf’, short for News Information) is haunted. Perhaps the ghost of an old cutter & sticker (the people whose jobs were to cut out newspaper cuttings and file them accordingly) stalks the lower ground floor, across the landing from the BBC Club?

Ah, the Bush House Club. Famous for its fishtank, which legend has someone smashed one night (perhaps when themselves smashed), causing water and fish to spill out across the room, drinkers picking up fish and chucking them in pint pots and G&Ts to keep them alive. It’s just an empty space now, a buidling worker oddly watering the spot where the fishtank once stood, and where Neil Sleat introduced me to my wife.

I leave you with my favourite tribute to Bush House. Thomas Hannen and Owain Rich’s beautiful film incorporating clips from this programme. Four and a half minutes that perfectly sum up 80 years of extraordinary multi-lingual broadcasting, in a special place; part United Nations, part university, always – until the end – apart from the rest of the BBC.

You can see more of my photos of Bush House today here and a massive set of photos old and new here.

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CoolPlay for MacOS X

What is CoolPlay? A Coldplay tribute band? Well, yes it is – but it’s also a piece of Windows audio play out software written for BBC News between 2000 and 2010.

At its simplest, it allows you to load audio (in MP3, MP2 or WAV format) into a playlist and play it out at the press of a button. “So what?” you may cry, “loads of programs do that.” Well, yes there are loads of audio players for all kinds of platforms, but almost all of them have a problem when it comes to playing audio out on the radio or in the theatre: when they get to the end of a track, they almost always play the next track immediately afterwards. This is not something you normally want on the wireless – you want to be able to talk in between the pre-recorded items or music.

I’ve long mused that it would be cool if there were a Mac (or Linux – but that’s another story) version of CoolPlay, and for some reason it took until today for me to try running CoolPlay in WINE on an Mac. Actually, I may have tried it before and it didn’t work – but today it did.

I installed the WINE / WINE Bottler combo on my hackintosh netbook running OS X 10.6.8. WINE is a way of running Windows applications in other operating systems, and it requires an X86 processor to run, so I won’t be running CoolPlay on a RaspberryPi any time soon (though I’d love to have a go at writing my own simple version of it).

Anyway, by Jove it seems to work. I then packaged it up as a standalone OS X app and tested it on an iMac running 10.6.8 and a MacBook Air running 10.9.5. This also seems to work with a few wrinkles, outlined below. It also makes the file HUGE – it’s about 570MB as opposed to 1.7MB for the original WindowsXP EXE file. But it means you can run it without installing WINE first, which you may not want to, or be able to do.

I even got the ‘quick record’ function to work using Soundflower to route the iMac’s audio output to the input:

Bit of history: CoolPlay was written by Matt Hardiman, and you can still download the Windows version here. It was used widely in BBC network and World Service radio and beyond. I designed the splash screen for it, and I think I did some work on the .CHM help files, but it was a long time ago and I may be misremembering that. It has some features that may seem arcane now, as it grew to suit both Radio 4 and Five Live broadcast areas in TV Centre where D-CART was used for audio play out, and Bush House where World Service News used DAVE2000 and the rest of World Service used Radioman. It’s only when you start thinking about how you’d emulate its functionality, that you realise how incredibly sophisticated it is – easy to use but damned clever. And it has plenty of features that are still immensely useful today:

  • You can re-order a playlist while an item is playing.
  • It tells you at what clock time an item will finish playing.
  • You can preview the end of a track.
  • It deliberately makes it hard to stop playing your audio – the spacebar is play, but to stop a track you have to use the numeric keypad or press S. Trust me, this is a good idea. Especially if you’ve ever played out a half hour feature and pressed STOP by accident.
  • You can segue individual tracks together if you need to.
  • It puts audio in a local cache, so if you loaded audio off a server and lose your network connection, you can still keep on air.
  • It saves playlists in the common M3U format, readable by other software.
  • It even enables playlists to be edited remotely, say in a production area, and it will update the playlist in the studio automatically.

So what are the wrinkles?

Generally it seems to work pretty well, but I’d need to ‘soak test’ it a bit more before recommending using it in anger on anything broadcast-critical. One big problem is that re-ordering tracks by dragging and dropping items in a playlist is very hard, as the cursor and highlight vanishes. You can get round this, however, by using CTRL and the up and down arrows (though in OS X Mavericks I had to turn off some Mission Control keyboard shortcuts that clash in System Preferences).

It takes quite a long time to open on first run, you get an error message about serial remotes and it may be hidden behind other apps, but it opens swiftly on subsequent runs. The file system in WINE is a bit bonkers, but you can set the application preferences in CoolPlay so it will by default look somewhere sensible for new audio and playlists.

There’s no INSert key on a Mac, which is awkward as that’s the keyboard shortcut for inserting new audio or playlists. SonB discovered, though, that F3 (or Fn+F3) does the same thing – how or why I have no idea this works, and it may be the cause of some randomly weird flickering menu behaviour I’ve seen a few times, so there may be a better solution involving using some OS X key-mapping shenanigans.

The playlist also gets a bit messy around the ‘NEXT’ labels which show the next track to be played – they don’t get cleared when you cursor up and down the playlist. This can be tidied up by pressing F5 (or Fn+F5) which redraws the playlist.

If you wanted to use this in a more formal broadcast environment, you could use a MakeyMakey to wire up fader starts and real chunky push buttons to CoolPlay to allow you to play, stop and navigate a playlist.

As I hinted at before, I’d love to write something like CoolPlay for a RaspberryPi. Imagine a really good radio play out system costing less than £50? That’d be great for school, student and community radio stations. No idea where to begin though… something web-based? Python code with a GUI wrapper controlling MPC? Ideas… ideas…

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Updated list of BBC network radio URLs

The BBC has changed the way it streams a lot of its radio stations on the internet. You can read more about the changes on the BBC Blog.

One upshot of this was that none of my many RaspberryPi internet radios would pick up BBC stations any more. Yes, I know I can listen to most of them on DAB, but I like to be able to listen to everything in one place.

So here’s an updated list of URLs – these work with the Pimoroni Displayotron3000 Raspberry Pi radio which uses VLC as its player. I’ve not tried them with any of my MPC/MPD-based radios yet.

The nice thing about this list is it includes separate streams for Radio 4 FM and LW, useful if you want to listen to the full-length Yesterday in Parliament, for example. World Service isn’t on this list because I think the old URLs I was using are still working.

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I’m a personality prototype – you can probably tell

I’m increasingly distrustful of personality profiling. I’m also suspicious of the ‘fixed versus growth mindset’ ideas, but the more I think about pigeonholing people into personality types, the more I think the growth mindset people like Matthew Syed are on to something.

I used to work as a studio manager in BBC radio, a kind of mixture between a sound engineer, psychotherapist and cat-herder. Despite being told almost on my first day at studio manager school that “the job is 5% technical, 95% getting on with people”, I ended up working in a department that was governed by the assessment of people against Myers-Briggs psychometric personality tests.

If you’re not familiar with Myers-Briggs, you get asked a load of questions and then are assigned a 4 letter code that apparently describes your personality against four different dichotomies: extraversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling and judging/perception. It’s slightly more subtle than the way people are divided in the Divergent YA novels and films, so beautifully mocked by Mark Kermode on Wittertainment. In that world you can only be one thing: selfless (abnegation), brave (dauntless, i.e. fresh out of drama school), clever (erudite, passed the 11 Plus / Oxbridge entrance exams) and so on. So let’s be kind, and say that Myers-Briggs is FOUR times more subtle than Veronica Roth’s novels.

In my old job, the prevailing management view was that to be a good studio manager you had to be a Myers-Briggs INTP. Anyone who diverged (see what I did there?) from this norm was regarded with suspicion. I was only mildly divergent myself, the T in INTP being my problem. Was I thinking or feeling. Every time I took the test I got a different answer: I thought I was thinking, but I felt I was feeling. I decided Myers-Briggs was hogwash, but kept quiet.

Such profiling was in the news again lately with some survey about finding the best place to live according to your personality type. I haven’t done the test, but it got me thinking about Myers-Briggs and what I was like 10 years ago and what I’m like now. I always used to think people generally stay the same, but since I left the BBC and retrained as a teacher, I think more than ever that people can change, and personality profiling is dangerous because it limits your options.

To teach is to perform. I never would have been able, for example, to address several hundred people in a packed funeral before training to be a teacher. I was, I believed, firmly introverted, from early childhood. As a boy, I wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to the proverbial goose – geese almost certainly being mates with swans, and anyone knows swans will have your arm off as soon as look at you. Extreme caution has brought me to my late 40s without ever breaking a bone. (I did badly sprain my ankle falling downstairs, quite an achievement in a single-story school, but that’s another story).

I also firmly used to believe that I liked and needed stability in my working environment. This limited my work options as I shied away from doing general supply teaching, as I genuinely thought I was the wrong personality type. A friend who does disaster relief work loves it, but I thought going into a different school every day, meeting new staff and children, never being sure of the routines or where the staff toilet was would be my worst nightmare. But it’s not. I love it. I wish I’d done it sooner, and the only reason I was held back was the four little INTP letters burnt into the back of my brain.

If you think you’re not going to like or succeed at something because of your personality – think (or feel, we’re all different at different times) again. Take the leap. You may love it. You may be good at it.

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Supply & demand: the school staffing crisis

There is, I believe, a looming crisis in school staffing. In fact, I think it’s already here.

We already know that the number of new teachers being trained is falling, and that schools struggle to retain staff after a few years. I think schools have coasted by until now knowing that there will be a new crop of Newly-Qualified Teachers (NQTs) each September, fresh cannon fodder if you’re of a cynical persuasion, ready to go over the top and take what’s coming for the greater good.

Except I think we have already run out of teachers, at least in primary schools.

A quick word about me: I am a late career-changer, training on the salaried School Direct scheme last year. I got offered a job in a different school after my first interview, survived Ofsted in my first half term, but didn’t survive until Christmas. The workload and stress was too much and incompatible with any kind of family life: I have three school-age children whom I never saw, and when I did I was unbearably stressed, shattered and grumpy. I was given a choice: your teaching career or your family. I chose my family.

Since then I’ve been working as a general supply teacher. It’s been absolutely fascinating, and has led me to my conclusion that already there aren’t enough teachers to go round, and things are getting worse.

A few caveats: I only work in London and the home counties, the situation may be different elsewhere. And you may argue that, as a supply teacher, I am by definition only seeing schools with staffing problems. I’d counter the latter by saying that I know of outstanding schools which never use supply teachers who currently have several unfilled roles.

The vast majority of schools I’ve been in have unfilled teaching roles, not for next September, but right now, or for after Easter, just three weeks away. Most schools I’ve been in have offered me contracts or jobs almost before I’ve taken my coat off. One deputy head was practically begging me to take a job, knowing she currently has unfilled roles filled with supply teachers on contracts and more staff about to leave. I’ve turned them all down.

Speaking to fellow teachers in staff rooms all over London, a common picture is emerging. Teachers are leaving the profession, or want to leave. Some are going part-time, if they can’t do that they are becoming Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs) in order to regain a work-life balance. Several have approached me to find out about how to become a supply teacher.

Pressures from management to assess pupil’s performance to three decimal places (or shades of orange, depending on which level-replacing assessment scheme they’ve bought into), demonstrate progress and change classroom displays weekly are driving both NQTs and more experienced staff out of schools.

It’s not just jobbing class teachers either. The recent Radio 4 File on 4 programme painted a shocking picture of the pressure already facing head teachers, even before election rhetoric about sacking heads whose children don’t know their 12 times tables. Heads of ‘failing’ schools are being ‘disappeared’ in some areas, with gagging clauses that prevent the true state of affairs from being talked about. If we keep sacking head teachers like football managers, where are their replacements going to come from? Who in their right mind would want the job?

It may be that I’m just not cut out for primary teaching, but I am shocked at the almost universal low morale of teaching staff in the South East of England. Doing supply isn’t financially sustainable for me in the long run, but I love it – and there’s no shortage of work. Since I put my CV on the Guardian web site, I’ve been fending off agencies offering guaranteed 5 days a week supply work.

Working off other people’s plans is tough, but I’m getting better at it, and more confident. It reminds me that I do love teaching, being in the classroom, working with the children. They seem to like me, too, and it’s lovely to get asked back and be remembered by children I taught for one day several weeks before. After marking and tidying, I can go home and cook dinner, talk to my children without biting their heads off, and even read with them. In the evening I might watch TV. TV! And I have my weekends back.

Working in so many different settings is so interesting, I’d even say all teachers should do general supply for a month or so. Odd to think in a few weeks I’ve worked in more schools than some head teachers have in their entire careers.

Why have so many schools offered me jobs? It’s not that I’m a particularly outstanding teacher. It’s because they are desperate for qualified teachers who will stick around longer than, ooh, 24 hours. So many classes have had several different teachers in a year. One class I was in had had a different supply teacher every day for a week. It’s not because we’re afraid of hard work. It’s not because we’re fickle. It’s because finally teachers are saying ‘enough is enough’ as their minds and bodies conk out, and they are walking. And I don’t think any political party realises or cares about the impact that this is having on our children.

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