Month: January 2014

Sounding off about podcasting – it’s radio-to-go

phone-micThe tools of this trade are changing – alarmingly fast for some, not soon enough for many.

When some of us think of DIY media, the first call is video – smartphones, compact cameras, or if you’re lucky and have the money, a DSLR. And that’s good, because pictures tell great stories.

But so do sounds.

The ground-breaking US news website, ProPublica, published a podcast this week which stopped me in my tracks – and not just because of what we regard as the liberties which the US legal system allows journalists to take on air and in print when someone has been arrested and a trial is pending.

When I began listening, I knew nothing about the case of the 1979 disappearance in New York City of 6-year old Etan Patz, still less about the (ProPublica’s reporter argues) “questionable” confession by a man with learning difficulties who has been charged with Etan’s abduction and murder.

But within moments of clicking to start the podcast, I was gripped.

This was the heart-rending story of a child abduction and now, a potential miscarriage of justice (according to campaigners), told in a simple, compelling way. No bells and whistles, just what people used to call “great radio”.

Now, there was a time when being a radio reporter required bags of (usually really expensive) kit. Getting on the air from outside a studio required heavy boxes of ISDN gear and (not “lite” at all!) satellite equipment, before you even got started on the laptops, the mics and what felt like miles of cables you had to lug around with you.

I’ve been there and done it: from the Lockerbie Trial at Camp Zeist, via Westminster and Holyrood, to election campaign roadshows and car crashes.

Been there, done it – and loved it.

But now, a smartphone, a good microphone, set of cheapo headphones and a home-soldered cable made from £5-worth of bits from Maplins or wherever (numerous other fine electronics retailers are available) seems to do the job just about as well.

If it’s bells and whistles you’re after, there are some pricey apps you can spend your money on, but there are lots of free ones that do the job, too.

During the second half of 2013, I was using this kind of kit in a really brilliant training project with secondary school students in Highland region. Now, in 2014, I’m hoping to be taking those lessons and that experience out on the road with the Digital Commonwealth project, to help set up 4 community media hubs around Scotland.

I’ve also been talking to a number of volunteer groups about how they could use minimal equipment and free software to make the kind of enhanced podcasts I was doing in my old job, which include still images, some text and active weblinks in amongst the audio reporting.

It’s proper, full-spectrum multi-media stuff. And it has the capacity to change the way you think about sound – as well as how you think about dodgy confessions made to the NYPD.


Commonwealth Games – here’s the news from Dalmarnock

Financial pressures forcing the closure of traditional local newspapers, including free ones, make it all the more urgent to find a new, financially viable form of community journalism

Financial pressures forcing the closure of traditional local newspapers, including free ones, make it all the more urgent to find a new, financially viable form of community journalism

“They’ll love us – we’ll get more hits than Justin Bieber!”

The excitement was infectious among the group of elderly community activists from Bridgeton and Dalmarnock – living in the shadow of the freshly manicured car parks and imposing Commonwealth Games sports venues which dominate the new skyline of the east end of Glasgow.

The chance to report for themselves – by video, blogging or podcating – on how residents’ lives have been changed by the coming of the 2014 Games is exhilarating for people who say they’ve either been stonewalled or fobbed off by most of the local authority and Commonwealth officials they’ve encountered in recent years.

“If they don’t like what we’re telling them, we just don’t get invited back to meetings,” said one activist.

Residents have seen Dalmarnock by turn neglected, deprived, ignored and (most recently) turned into something resembling a war zone by years of demolition and land clearances to make space for the 2014 Games venues.

A high-profile campaign in 2011 to save the Accord care centre was just one example of how a section of the community felt bulldozed out of the way by city council plans to build a bus park for the Games venues.

The community believes there has been a noticeable absence of reporting of their experience of the run-up to 2014. That is a sentiment shared by many others who have lived through such mega events elsewhere, of course, but one question raised among the community activists in Dalmarnock was whether the dearth of local newspaper reporting (currently just one newspaper, the Re-Gen, pictured above, attempts to cover the whole of the north and east of the largest city in Scotland) has allowed politicians and those in power to ignore the communities which will have the Games juggernaut visited upon them in July and August.

Now, everyone involved in trying to rebuild local journalism quite rightly puts their faith online as both the source of information and news and the distribution infrastructure, via websites and social media.

But here, there is a big problem.

Sandwiched between the city centre shops/business district of the Merchant City and the highly-connected Commonwealth Games venues themselves, areas like Dalmarnock are among the most internet-deprived parts of the UK.

The two areas in dark blue highlight where between 18% and 28% of adults have never used the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The two areas in dark blue highlight where between 18% and 28% of adults have never used the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics)

Last year’s Communications Market Report by the industry regulator, Ofcom found Glasgow had – by some distance – the lowest uptake of fixed broadband services of any city in the UK, at just 52% of households. That figure’s remained static since 2011, according to the watchdog.

Ofcom also found that only 57% had some means of access to the internet, whether by computer, tablet, or phone – meaning nearly half the population in a city of almost 600,000 people cannot get online.

Recent research suggests that the reasons for such a high level of digital exclusion – and the digital illiteracy which goes with it – are many and complicated, but they are also closely linked to wider issues of social deprivation.

An investigation by the Carnegie UK Trust noted that: “Cost is a major issue that cannot be ignored.

“The monthly budget for communications technologies amongst the demographic groups least likely to be online in Glasgow is around £30, compared to a UK average of nearly £100.”

An interim report released last month by the Royal Society of Edinburgh says: “We must stimulate digital participation at a community level… Over a million adults in Scotland lack basic digital skills.”

Using video, audio and blogging within communities will certainly help encourage people who are either “scared of the internet”, who say “it has nothing for them” or who cannot afford to go online, to improve their digital literacy by using tools which don’t mean they also have to do battle with bureaucracy.

The web is not just a portal to paying the rent, looking for a job or healthcare.

But people who are “put off” by the internet have good reasons to fear it could just be a door which opens their homes to the unwanted attention of payday loan sharks, council officials or people trying to sell them stuff.

A Scottish government project worth more than £240m is designed to help improve Scotland’s digital infrastructure must also make it a priority to address the needs of the country’s hundreds of thousands of unheard voices who cannot afford internet access. The threat to public internet facilities in libraries is a particular choke-point, together with related issues as basic as people using library computers not being able to save their work, or being timed-out of their sessions.

Part of the solution also lies in education. So I’m hugely excited by the prospect that I will be helping to train these Dalmarnock community activitsts during the next few months in how to produce films and blogs about “their” Commonwealth Games.

But I am also conscious that the other half of news production is always the audience, which means getting that online news to those people who cannot get online is going to be a big part of the whole project.

If we can get around that, though – that’s when this stuff will go viral.