Feb 11

The Long Tail

I talked with the owner of my favourite pub in Cambridge last night. The pub shall remain nameless for reasons that will become apparent.

He refuses to sell Carling, Stella, Bulmers, etc. on tap. Instead he sells fine whiskeys and rums, real ale (offering 2 guest ales which change regularly), and decent ciders. His landlord and financial backing (brewery) insisted he sold the big brands, in order to have the pumps installed in his pub when they started. He agreed to the deal as he couldn’t afford to buy pumps himself, ordered a single barrel of Carling, didn’t connect it up to the pump, left it for a few months until the beer was out of date, and sent it back saying there was no market for it in his pub.

To this day he only sells decent, CAMRA-happy real ales.

In one sense, he was shooting himself in the foot. There is always a market for the lowest common denominator. To prove this, he sold Carling for one night for a trial, and apparently it sold far better than the other drinks put together.

But he then went on to say that he didn’t want that kind of person in his pub. Whilst you might think that’s a bit “Basil Fawlty”, it is now three years later and his pub is extremely popular. Instead of a television, they have live folk music and jazz nights, they sell the work of local painters and graphic artists, and the pub is very well-loved by locals. The locals in this neighbourhood are quite unique in that they consist of people like bow-makers, musicians, artists, and academics.

Although he still doesn’t make as much money as he would if he sold the popular brands, he also doesn’t have to deal with rude, drunken males (Stella), packs of abrasive middle-aged women (Barcadi), and the like. Instead, most of the people who turn up at 6pm are distinguished men and women who come with newspaper and conversation. Whatsmore they campaign on his behalf.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with selling certain types of product to certain types of people. This pub is not at the very highest-end of the market in wine, for example. Nor does it shun the popular brands of bar snacks, as another example. It’s just that I was impressed by this pub owner’s vision. The fact that he saw this vision through means the local neighbourhood really benefits; localism has increased, people talk to each other more – which even has knock-on effects to crime prevention, and it makes accessible a sense of community that otherwise may not have been apparent. And community amongst the British middle classes – particularly in city life, is something that is so rare.

Of course it’s a well-known phenomenon that great businesses, however big or small, create their own market. However what impresses me is that in order to find your own market, part of this process is denying the existence of the market you don’t wish to serve. In a world that, given the chance, would rather drink Stella Artois, it takes a certain vision to carry-on with what you want instead of going with the economic flow.

It’s like the Radio 4 effect vs. the Radio 1 effect. Radio 4 caters for 5% of the radio-listening population (I made that figure up). But of those people, 100% would complain if the channel went off-air for a few minutes. Conversely, Radio 1 caters for 80% of the radio-listening population, but a far smaller proportion (2%?) would notice let alone complain if it were to go off-air.

I suppose in marketing terms, this effect is called the short tail vs. the long tail. I know where I’d rather be, in my life and in my work.

Mar 10

People who look at car crashes

Why does a celeb, posthumously, become a superhero?

I could name a few – who had varying degrees of talent (from ‘zero’ to ‘some’) – who have been raised to this state.

This is not really related to the Radio 4 Feedback programme itself, more to a programme that was played out this week featuring Jeff Buckley singing Dido’s Lament.

I’ve never seen a car crash in realtime, in fact I have never so much as seen a person get killed or even die.

Nor am I one of those people who slows down to look at the crash on the motorway. I believe it’s more dangerous to do so, besides, slowing down can have a knock-on effect on hundreds of people’s lives by causing huge tailbacks; those in cars behind you may be missing their plane, missing a crucial interview for a job, trying to get to the other side of the country to see their dying grandmother. A police cleanup operation is made ten times more difficult by the behaviour of the public.

If you slow down to look, you are contributing to the chaos for one reason only: to satisfy your sick curiosity. I abhor everyone who looks at a car crash.

The only way to help is to look straight ahead and ignore it. Tell yourself people die every day from their own – or others’ – stupidity and thoughtlessness, or by mere chance.

Technically, I should feel similarly about how we humans are morbidly interested in the dead.

I understand our human obsession with venerating people to cultural superhero status just because they died in unfortunate circumstances; there is a correlation between the depth of tragedy and the amount that we consider them a genius. I understand our obsession with venerating stars to cultural superhero status because they committed suicide; they were oh so fragile, society didn’t listen to them, they were victims of the modern world.

But celebrities? People in the pop industry? People who appeared on Big Brother?

Jeff Buckley appears to have been a reasonably talented person, however he does not deserve the veneration to cult superhero status that he has received. Apart from anything, he butchered Dido’s Lament. Here is a beautiful piece of music written in the context of a work of opera, which has been singled-out by a man who appears to be nothing more than slightly interested in gothic things, with no more than a modicum of talent.

From my above views on people who slow down for car crashes, you might assume that I would curse loudly, switch off the radio, move on.

Except I had to listen. The more I listened, the more enraged I became. The more confused I became about why such terrible singing could be seen as so brilliant by so many people.

The positive comments that flowed in to R4’s Feedback confirm this.

Regardless of whether you consider this person to have been a musical talent or not, I believe that either way this kind of veneration is like slowing down to watch a car crash.

There are hundreds of other cars on the roads, millions of other personal stories, thousands of other performances of Purcell that will make you cry.

Is Buckley’s rendition of Dido’s Lament considered to have the depth of emotion that it does, because we only hear it with the knowledge of how he died?

Jul 09

Avoiding The Archers

I cannot begin to tell you how much I value listening to Radio 4.

I know that everyone likes to think their preferred news source is devoid of any bias, political or other, and those with ‘higher class’ sources of news usually criticise the shortsightedness of such a view:

Star reader: “Can you flippin’ believe what Jade said on Big Bruvva”…
Daily Mail reader: “How common – read some proper news.” [grumble grumble] “political correctness gone MAD” [blah blah] “I call a spade a spade” etc.
Times reader
: “Oh, please, you can’t believe a single thing that rag says”
Guardian reader: “Broadsheets just have a more intelligent way of manipulating their readers…”
FT reader: [displays air of disinterested superiority]

Anyway, Radio 4. Gladly it’s not a newspaper, and doesn’t have adverts. That already puts it in the league of “news sources I can tolerate”, but it’s so much more than this.

Like all sources of news, I suppose there is a bias, but I honestly don’t know what it is. And if there’s ever a bias, it’s never consistent across programmes.

I’m intimately aware of the interview styles of all of the station’s main presenters – Eddie Mair, John Humphreys, Caroline Quinn, Sarah Montague, Jenni Murray, Jim Naughtie, Steady Eddie Stourton, Lustig, Kearney, Buerk – and I’m aware of their general leanings, how they may over-question certain viewpoints and give other viewpoints too much slack. But they seem to do so because of their distinct personalities, not their politics. In fact I couldn’t tell you what the political leanings of any of the above really are. I have my inklings, but they are never confirmed.

For the American readers, think of Radio 4 as the British version of NPR, without the annoying ‘funding’ advertisements and without the incessant need to link pieces with elevator music.

Radio 4, how did I ever manage without you? Every single programme leaves me more educated or enlightened.

Every programme, except one. The Archers.

Is there a SINGLE person who likes The Archers? Do I have anything in common with them? I thought I knew the Radio 4 audience. Those who love that heady mixture of intelligent arts review and pithy news, the comedy, the drama, the geek programmes, the literary reviews…


When that music comes on, the world turns to slow motion, I reach my hand towards the nearest radio or software player, coffee flying everywhere, but it’s too late. The hideous ‘tune’ is with me for the rest of the day. I just need the first two notes, and I’m infected.

Every day you are tempted with the delights of Front Row with Mark Lawson in that pre-Archers teaser. Oh, how lovely – a special piece on Gormley’s new public exhibit in Trafalgar Square, a super piece about the art of manuscript editing, a discussion between leading actors on the meaning of a playwrite’s latest work. How exciting! But no, we are going to subject you to 15 minutes of westcountry accents spouting banal rubbish about the state of farming in the UK! And we’ll infect you with that terrible music!

For about 13 years now, I’ve never known the official times and lengths of episodes of The Archers.

Why? Because I am too scared to switch back to Radio 4 for fear of hearing just half a second of weirdy Archer World. Not that I don’t love catching the end of an aria on Radio 3 in the meantime, but I thought to myself, “perhaps I should look further into this”.

So for anyone in the same position as me, who never really knew when The Archers started or finished, here is the weekly schedule.

You won’t find weekly Archer avoidance times on The Archers official website, so I present them for you here, collated from the Radio 4 weekly schedule. I doubt it will ever change, unless the sky fell in.

Monday to Friday: it’s not safe to turn the radio on any time between 2.02pm and 2.15pm, and 7.02pm and 7.15pm.

Sunday: (this has caught me out so many times) leave it off between 10am and 11.15am (SO unfair) and then 7.02pm until 7.15pm.

Saturday, the coast is clear all day.