A Response To…. Radio’s Unsung Heroes

IMG_0577 © by gwyrah

So, a little while ago – the excellent David Lloyd who hosts the Radio Academy’s TechCon, blogged about radio technology people (of which I am one) – David said some very nice things, of which I almost entirely agree with (apart from possibly the comments about our fashion choices…). In his article David makes the point that in radio technology there are all kinds of creative people with a technical brain on their shoulders who in the most part are keen to help solve problems, make ideas come to life, and do everything possible to make life easier for everyone else involved in making the whole radio thing work, not to mention doing their bit to make the radio station sound great along the way. I found it really interesting reading an article from a programmer who clearly gets the relationship with technology in a radio station (which lets be honest will always be a business which can’t function and certainly can’t develop without it), because for everyone I’ve worked with who does, I’ve certainly worked with people on all sides of the radio world who don’t; be they sales people, presenters, programme controllers or if I’m honest some other technology types. So, this is how I see it….

(c) Mark Farrington

Pretty much everyone who got into the radio industry did it because it was fun (I certainly did), most of us could probably be earning more money doing something else somewhere else and if we were (as much as we moan now) we’d probably be less happy for it. This applies as much to techys as anyone else – certainly none of us thought ‘what I really like doing is filling out reports of silences on air, getting the air-con serviced by an incompetent contractor and turning the photocopiers off and on again’ – all of that stuff is what we do because we have to. The part we’ve always enjoyed is filling the problem solving role in the creative process. If you (whatever part of the company you work in) come to your engineer with some mad cap idea you want to make happen which will sound great on air, improve the studio environment, be brilliant marketing or boost revenue and they don’t jump at the chance of helping you to make it work in a way which you’ve never done before, which works brilliantly, and which leaves you free to make it as creative/interesting/profitable as possible – something’s gone wrong somewhere. I was called a genius last week when I demonstrated a system I created which should improve information flow in our studios, and make them a bit more paperless for our team up in Birmingham who are going to be using it in their new studios. I don’t think there’s anything particularly genius about it, I’m just doing my job (if I’m honest I find the fact you can come up with new ideas every day to make a radio show thousands of people want to listen to genius – I’m just using the skills I have to hopefully make it easier for you to do that).

There is a certain stereotype of the engineer (which David refers to as the ‘Program Prevention Department’) of us being grumpy people who sit in the corner who never want to help out and to whom everything is an inconvenience. To my mind this comes from two things; one is not involving us in the planning stages early enough – I’d love to be asked along to SPI meetings, or programming planning sessions – maybe I can suggest a new bit of technology we can get our hands on which might make whatever is being discussed work better or possibly even (shock horror, aren’t you just the IT guy?!?) have an idea of my own which might just work. On the other hand,  if you dump a demand for a PA kit at the weekend on me thursday afternoon without really knowing what you’re asking for, without realising that it’s possible I can’t just drop everything to sort this out for you, I may be a little ratty. The other is the view (prevalent amongst some ‘old-school’ managing directors) that technology is somewhere between a drain on their profits and a necessary evil – this is not true at all, think of us as a resource which can be tapped into by your entire team to make the creative process run smoother, contribute ideas, suggestions and solutions and quite possibly actually save time and money overall, increasing those profits (or for our friends at the BBC, delivering quality first).

I find in my daily life as an engineer I quite often have to push ideas forward for improved workflows, better ways of using technology, or improvements to the radio station; I have no problem doing this (to be honest you’re never going to stop me anyway) but it would be brilliant to know you were on the same page as me and weren’t scared to drop past my desk when you were looking for new ways to spend your clients money, had this thing you’d always wanted to do on air but didn’t think was possible, or think there must be a way to make this, that or the other task easier but just can’t get your head around it. That’s the kind of stuff I and most of my colleagues enjoy, and a little more of that would make us that bit less grumpy when you’ve spilt tea in a mixer, or can’t work out why your laptop doesn’t work when the battery’s flat. I’ve been lucky through my career to work with a few great programmers, presenters, commercial schedulers, sales people & MDs who do ‘get it’, and hopefully I’ve been able to help them achieve the best from the studios they work in and the technology they use on a daily basis (I know one presenter who thought we managed to make the crappy studio they had to work with one of the best sounding in the group, either they were incredibly flattering – or we got it right…!) – the more chances I have to be useful and do new stuff that makes great radio, the less grumpy I’ll be!

And incidentally if you’re looking for a proactive and interested engineer (who’s even honest enough to admit he’s a frustrated programmer at heart), I’m very affordable…. (jokes!)

On the Olympics

Me at the olympic park

So, on Monday I went to the Olympics. Quite a long time ago I spent £60 on 3 tickets to the Women’s Waterpolo for the simple reason they were quite cheap, it was a sport I more or less understood (I actually played it once) and I figured going to the Olympic Park and being part of London 2012 was a once in a lifetime experience.
I was right!
I (fairly famously) don’t get sport – I’ve never successfully sat through any Olympic Coverage, Wimbledon etc. and left to my own devices I wouldn’t watch international football (although I do enjoy watching it with others), I don’t mind playing sport although I am universally bad at it – but I’m even less of a spectator, so it seems slightly illogical that I enjoyed my day out at the olympics so much – but here’s why.
The atmosphere was incredible, everyone there was really happy to be there – from the spectators who were really enjoying the experience, to the army working the security who were laid back, polite and funny, to the ‘gamesmakers’ who genuinely went out of their way to help everyone and nothing was too much trouble. The whole place was treated with a massive amount of respect by everyone as well: there wasn’t any litter anywhere (and not because there was a small army of people picking it up: litter pickers were wandering around with half empty bags) – because everyone there treated the place like people who are proud of their country and what it’s achieved should.
No-one queue jumped, no one was rude to people who were rummaging in their bags trying to find tickets, no one got annoyed when muppets with cameras stopped randomly to take photos in the middle of the crowd (that would be me then…)
The sport itself was fine too, I mean I didn’t really understand it, and team GB lost – but I’m not sure it was one of our medal hopes anyway – and the crowd were really behind the team and genuinely excited about the activity in the venue. The phrase ‘carnival atmosphere’ is horribly overused but the whole place had it – and it really felt like a rare celebration of the UK actually making something good happen when it tries.
London in general was working at it’s best as well, the transport infrastructure wasn’t falling apart. The trains were busy but not overcrowded, platform staff were polite (borderline mad in some cases, such as the singing bloke on the tube platform at Stratford) and friendly – and everything just worked. The whole tube (even stations well away from the olympic hubbub) were cleaner than I’ve ever seen them and London’s streets generally seemed to have had someone go over them with a feather duster. Everything felt good about being in London yesterday.
This is now the 4th time, something I’ve expected to be horribly cynical about has swept me up and got me excited this year: I was caught up in the magic of the little ships on the Thames for the Jubilee, I fell in Love a bit covering the Olympic Torch relay and I got somehow filled with a believe that I really live in a country that’s pretty bloody great really during the Olympic opening ceremony – I said on twitter after watching that particular masterpiece I will give up cynicism for good – I am seriously contemplating genuinely trying.
Wish me luck,
Strangely optimistic Mark.

Trying something new…

To-do list book. © by koalazymonkey

So, I’ve been thinking a bit recently and have come to the conclusion I’ve become a little bit stuck in a rut. I’ve got quite a lot of time on my hands and am struggling to come up with stuff to do with it, not to mention finding myself doing basically the same thing every weekend. Due to my relatively low boredom threshold I’m not very good at just sitting watching TV/reading a book so I need to find something better to amuse myself with.

I figured the most sensible thing to do is to set myself a challenge to do at least one thing a month which I’ve never done before – and assuming I don’t do what I normally do when I get an idea into my head and forget about it/get bored of it/suddenly run out of all available time I’ll try and record my sucesses/failures here. I plan to pretty much do one of these a month for the 26th year of my life (which conveniently starts next friday).

Anyway, this is where you come in – as I need inspiration for things to do to complete my task.  I’ve losely defined ‘never done before’ as “not done in the last 10 years” which takes me back to 16 and finishing my GCSEs, and my only real restrictions on the task is I’m not doing anything which I have a preexisting fear of (skydiving, bungee jumping, you get the idea….). I can’t promise doing everything that’s suggested (especially as I predict at least one suggestion designed to humliate/embarass me) but I’ll give a few of the better ones a go. I’d also love a guide/company on any of the suggested activities if you’d be up for it…

The Reluctant Mac User #2: First Impressions

So, I’ve been given a company Macbook Pro as my new office computer – as a longtime user of anything but a Mac, there’s a slow process of getting used to it – which I’m documenting here. I’m trying to stick to using the mac in general rather than specific implementations of applications by work, or the associated policies and procedures. I’ve been using this Mac for about 2 weeks now – and thought it was about time for another update on what I love, hate, tolerate, etc. so far.

So, in no particular order…

The Screen

Is fantastically sharp: it’s really nice for looking at photos, and documents, websites etc, all appear that bit crisper than they seem to on a PC. One slight drawback to this is the shinyness, it does ‘glare’ a lot from windows and flourescent lights which can cause issues with viewing the screen (and getting the brightness right so you can read it over the glare, but it isn’t so bright it hurts your eyes is difficult).

It’s also too small – but that’s probably because it’s the 13″ version.

Applications

iWork

This seems basically quite good, it’s intuitive and uncluttered – but basically powerful. Keynote and Numbers particularly seem clever (on a part with office 2007 – which is the last MS Office version I’ve used in anger), Numbers has some particularly nifty features which make organising data a lot neater than Excel – although quite a lot of formulae don’t seem to work quite the same in Numbers – which I guess would be one to watch for acountanty types etc.)

Mail

This is pretty rubbish – going from Outlook to Mail on Mac is a bit like going back to outlook express. It has threaded email which is quite nice (although I believe this is an option in Outlook 2010) – but it’s exchange integration isn’t all that, and it does seem to not be very standards compliant, meaning emails from it can be a touch mangled on other clients (gmail/outlook for example)

VMWare Fusion

This is a pretty smart little app – and means I can still make use of the long list of stuff I use that just doesn’t work natively on Mac, Unity is a nice mode (although seems to batter processing/RAM) which allows use of windows applications from the VM to appear alongside mac applications – making it at least appear as if the windows apps are running on the Mac

Keyboard

Major major bugbear of mine is the non British Standard keyboard – I am a halfarsed touch typist, and once used to a keyboard can make a reasonable stab at typing without looking down all the time, out of the box the mac ruins this by putting a whole bunch of keys in the wrong place. For example ” is over with ‘, not on the 2 as it has been for the entire of my keyboard using life (which goes back to a typewriter), this is really annoying as you start to write emails to people with email addresses like annoyedwith”mac.com – and then swearing at the mac a lot when it doesn’t send.

Hardcore Mac converts like to go ” makes more sense with ‘ – which maybe it does, but unfortunately the BS 101 key keyboard has been around for a very long time and like riding a bike once you can use it properly adapting to a different layout is a steep uphill curve. Offering a British Standard keyboard as an option rather than just turning around and saying ‘get used to it’ would have been a far better attitude from Apple IMO.

It should be said that it is possible to download keymaps (as I have) to put everything back as it should be – and also making my computer very confusing for an uninitiated user as a whole load of keys don’t do what they say on them – it’s just a shame it’s not like this from the off.

The Operating System

Is fine – I find the menu bar which floats outside the app a bit confusing, but that’s just the conversion from Windows/KDE to a different layout and I’m sure it will become native in time. It’s basically a unixy interface, and it more or less intuitive.

Multiple desktops are a definite highlight and I like the way it handles fullscreen apps (effectively allowing you to have multiple and being able to flick between them like with the desktops).

Restoring Windows States

This is extremely irritating, natively the previous window used in an app is reloaded when you restart the app – this seems to me very wasteful as the computer is chugging away loading a document I’m about to close anyway as I didn’t want to read that one. Also the mac prompts me everytime I log out if I want to restore ALL my windows when I log back in. Of course I don’t – anything I want next time I’m more than capable of opening on my own without the computer loading all kinds of other stuff for me. It seems it’s not possible to have this off by default (grrr….!)

Gestures

Initially baffling I’m warming to the ‘trackpad works a bit like a touchscreen’ thing – I found myself using a windows laptop and trying to scroll with 2 fingers on the pad the other day for example. – I don’t use the trackpad a huge amount on laptops normally as I find an external mouse does the job so much better – but for use on trains etc (only time I really use trackpads anyway) – it should make the job easier.

In general I’m still climbing a hill with the mac – there’s a load of stuff to get used to, but I’ve managed to bend the machine to my will a bit, and I’ve also managed to get used to a fair few of it’s foibles – the pros roughly balance the cons – making it exactly on a par with windows in my book. I think the key thing is it is just a laptop: it does the stuff a laptop does, some well – some badly, I’ve not joined the cult, I have no intention of entering a mac store, and I still think Steve Jobs is a bad man……

 

will that change, will I end up loving or hating this piece of Aluminium – find out in the next thrilling installment.

The Reluctant Mac User #1: Preconceptions

 

Apple

 

So, I am entering a brave new world – my company in its infinite wisdom has decided that it’s time to wave goodbye to good old dependable Dell & Windows and say hello to racier shinier Apple. As a technical type person within the company I’ve found myself being part of the pilot phase (Alpha testing, call it what you will….) – on the way back to sunny Hampshire having received my Macbook it occurred to me that it might be a useful activity (for me as much as you, although good to have you along…!) to record my thoughts/feelings/opinions/experiences. I intend to be entirely honest, as such if use a piece of software or whatever and think that’s great, I shall record it here. If I find myself thinking “I could do this better with Windows/Ubuntu”, then I’ll be jotting that down too.

Firstly (for anyone who’s stumbled across this blog by accident and doesn’t actually know me – a little bit of a background on me):

  • I have quite literally been brought up with PCs – and in some ways, was an early adopter – when Windows was at the cutting edge. I had windows 2.0 the first PC I had to myself (an old IBM AT) – and I moved through 3.1, 3.11 before being early to take the big leap to the strange new world of windows 95 with its fantastic new interface.
  • I’ve not only used windows, I’m above average on command line Linux, and have tinkered about with Ubuntu’s GUIs (KDE and Gnome flavours, and the new unity) – I’ve used Unix occasionally on Sun and Silicon graphics machines (going back a few years) and my fist computing experiences were in the murky world of acorn and BBC, so I’ve not always done things Bill Gates’ way by any means
  • My home desktop PC has ALWAYS been Windows
  • I have always used Windows in the workplace (unless you count the odd Redhat Web/File Server and some ubuntu boxes for playing with)
  • I am a “power user” – I have in the past looked after active directory infrastructure, software distribution etc. I’m the one that tells you to turn it off and on again, not the one who’s calling up support.
  • I’m a fiddler – I’ll mess about with a computer until it does what I want it to, and can take several weeks to give up and ask someone else’s advice (although I will google things)
  • I have an iPad (also works) – so am not totally unfamiliar with Apple kit.
  • I have certain preconceptions about Mac Hardware/Software and most importantly the sort of people who’d use these devices – which will be the subject of this blog.

So, here we go with my preconceptions (I’m not saying there’s any factual basis in the following – but it’s always been the impressions I’ve had) before I enter the brave new mac world.

Macs are for arty types

You know what I mean; graphic designers, music producers, web designers. They’re machines for the people who make arty stuff, and as such the applications they have for doing this (photoshop, protools etc.) are great on a mac and do the job they do really well. Macs don’t really sit with an accountant or an office it guy – these people belong in the corner typing into MS word on a dull grey box, it’s just the natural order of things.

Macs are style over substance

Even I with my general stubbornness, and complete lack of anything that could be called ‘style’ can’t pretend for a second that the MacBook isn’t pretty. It’s a really nice piece of hardware, which just feels well-built and solid – but that’s next to useless if the software inside the box isn’t up to much, at the end of the day an office PC needs to be functional not pretty – and I’m assessing the usefulness of the Mac in replacing my HP in the office, not the PC at home I use for listening to music/watching videos.

I see having a mic/iPhone/iTouch as being a brand statement, something the cool kids do – and I’ve never been one of the cool kids – and I’ve never been an uber geek. I view having a mac like having to have the right brand of car/trousers/jeans etc… and that’s not just me. I dress comfortably and drive what I’m given – ultimately I’ve never been one to fall into line with any stereotypes, and I don’t intend to now, but I guess we’ll see…

Macs are overpriced

Not really my problem in this case, as the machine is provided by my employer, but given this machine retail price would cost in the region of twice an equivalent spec Dell – I’d really hope it could perform in a way which would justify this (both the hardware & software)

Mac users are a cult

I have no allegiance to Microsoft or Linux in any way, both have pros and cons – and I often flip between the two depending on which is best placed for the task I’m doing. I generally code in Ubuntu – I use windows for media consumption as I’m totally happy with the software environment I use for this. Now I have a mac at my disposal I totally expect it will usurp on of the other platforms for some tasks as I naturally expect it to outperform the other platforms for some applications (see previous point). However mac users aren’t like you and me (unless you are one) – they’re Obsessed, their mac can do no wrong in their eyes – and can perform every application under the sun better than any other computer ever formed, and as soon as a new one comes out you bet they’ll be opening their wallets up and letting Mr Jobs in, “What Mr Farrington – your home PC is 7 years old – ha ha, how can you live with such a dinosaur” – they’ll ask, surely you wanted to buy a new and slightly shinier one a year later because someone told you to. Well actually no, it still does everything I need it to without causing me any frustrations – why would I replace it. I regularly voice my irritation with (particularly) Windows, but also Linux when I can’t do exactly what I want to out of the box, you’ll never hear this from a mac user – if it doesn’t do what they want it to, it must be them that’s in the wrong.

I’ve regularly got into arguments with a couple of quite vocal mac users keen to defend their shiny pieces of metal when I’ve said “but does it do this, can it do this” and start going on about me “being a PC” (I’m not I’m a person) etc…. and being some kind of dinosaur for daring to suggest that the millions of PC users probably aren’t wrong.

Apple are an evil corporation

Microsoft get a lot of stick, and a lot of it is justified for being an evil corporation – but more or less from day 1 Mr Gates and co haven’t prescribed what hardware is required to run their software, nor have they attempted to control what software can be run on their platform in any way, and yes I understand that this leads to some of Windows’ traditional instabilities and leaves it open in some respects to viruses and the like – however it also means that there’s an open market in both hardware and software (yes folks, that’s why PCs are cheaper, as there’s real competition between vendors) the attitude of Apple has always struck me as the opposite of this – I’m always amused when Mac types start going on about “evil microsoft” – as at the end of the day Apple isn’t run by Ben & Jerry’s hippies meditating on bean bags, it’s run by people every bit as ruthless as those on the other side of the silicon fence. If you want socks and sandals – run Linux!

As I’ve said these are just my preconceptions if you’d asked me in 2008 what I thought of macs I’d say all of the above. When I first suggested writing this all up as a blog on the twitter one very vocal mac type I’ve many times baited argued with on the subject, suggested I’d be writing a blog entirely eating my own words. Well above are my own words, and in many way I hope to be eating them over the coming months. I don’t believe I’ll be completely renouncing the PC, and saving up to replace my old dependable Win 7 machine with a shiny box any time soon, the future is multiplatform and I’ll be running windows, linux and the company mac for a good while to come – but who knows, anything can happen!

I plan to do this more or less weekly updating you (and as such me) with the little niggles, and any big issues I come across – who knows you might even be able to give me some tips to help me get along with the new challenge.

I’m set in my ways, and out of my comfort zone – but I managed to write all of this on the Mac without combusting so who knows – I may be just fine.

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Mark Farrington

Mark Farrington
Broadcast Engineer working in UK Commercial Radio, former Student Radio person (and Honorary Lifetime Member of the Student Radio Association) - I also play with bits and pieces of web stuff, cycle, take photos, cook food and enjoy a good pint of real ale.