Monday, September 12, 2011

INTERVIEW: Cornucopia Radio founder, Peter Beeston

One of the simple pleasures of modern life is embarking on a long car trip, turning on the radio to find a meaty engrossing radio show. With all the variety out there, most radio is geared towards what I might describe as snacking: short song sets broken up by news breaks; DJ chatter; and annoying commercials. There are talk radio stations which occasionally can be entertaining, and while a step up from the nachos and cheese of music stations, they're more like burgers and fries: one-dimensional pundits preaching to the choir.

The only exceptions I've been able to find are the liberally sponsored government backed stations. Stations like the BBC, NPR, or CBC. Ironically, in spite of their "socialist" government backing, they succeed quite impressively within our free markets. In fact, here in Canada, the CBC has the third highest overall listenership of any station, and leads in high value demographic groups like seniors, university graduates, Canadians in professional occupations, and skilled sales people. I often wonder why there aren't more stations that attempt to embrace radio dramas, poetry, lectures, spoken word, and sketch comedy.

Well thank goodness for Internet radio, and stations like the Cornucopia Radio Show. CR, based out of Sheffield UK, plays the sort of material I've only hitherto heard on public radio stations like the CBC or BBC. I only learned of it two weeks ago. Since then, I've been periodically tuning into this unique and fascinating station, often lingering for an hour or more. As a sample of what I've heard, I listened to 'Bluff Cove Disaster' a radio play about the Falkland Islands War, a lecture on the philosophy of art "The Creative Act" by Marcel Duchamp, some spoken poetry, spoken word, various sketch comedy, a ghost story radio play called "Ghost of a Chance", and on the music front a syndicated version of Hype Machine Radio, featuring the latest tracks from the very best music blogs around the world. Let me be clear, this is no amateur college/university station. The quality is very much what you would find on a BBC station.

This brings me to the subject of this blog posting. Peter Beeston, one of the key pillars of Cornucopia has graciously agreed to this TUN3R interview.

Q1 Neil: Thanks Peter for taking out some time to respond to these questions. I've poked around the CR web site and can see that you're both involved in running CR as well as contributing to it. Did you also found the station? How did CR get its start?

A1 Peter: Yes, I’ve been involved since the beginning. We started just over 4 years ago, broadcasting for one hour a month on our local community radio station. At that point it was just myself and a few friends creating stupid comedy sketches, but pretty soon we were creating much longer radio-plays and utilising lots of local performers & writers. A few years later and we found ourselves producing several different shows a week; in the process working with various creative groups around the world.

Sadly however, the economic crisis began to affect the community station and the type of output it could support. So instead of giving up we decided to utilise all the material we were currently producing and offer our programs up as syndicated shows and more importantly, use all of our material to create an online radio station, one which was representative of the things we believed in.

Q2 Neil: There's so much variety on Cornucopia. What segments resonate most with your listeners? What's your most popular show?

A2 Peter: The radio drama plays we produce are very popular (both on the station and as podcasts), as this is a genre which has been ignored by most stations over the last 50 years. However I think the term ‘Variety’ is key to everything we do. We’re living in an increasingly commercialised world; one in which broadcasters like to believe that people can easily be pigeon-holed or catalogued; that just because somebody likes ‘X’ they’ll never like ‘Y’. They’re petrified of taking people out of their comfort zone.

I think that’s rubbish. People love to explore and discover new media; finding material they don’t yet know they’ll love. So I hope what people like the most about ‘Cornucopia’ is not any one show, but more the philosophy behind it. The idea being, that we’re going to broadcast a whole load of creative stuff, produced by talented but under represented people from across the world and If you don’t like one show, hold on; the next thing that comes along might be totally different.

Q3 Neil: I really enjoy The Hype Machine - I've actually found some real gems, like some of the remixes of Lisztomania. How did the relationship with Hype begin? What other musical programming do you have?

A3 Peter: As we’re mainly ‘spoken word’ producers, we have to use syndicated music shows to fill that quota on our station. However I’m also very keen on promoting ‘Creative Commons’ work (all our work is released under the same license), so broadcasting the Hype-Machine is a very natural fit (like yourself, I think it’s great way to discover new music). Getting them on board was just a matter of a simple polite email. We’re all in the same boat, and by broadcasting their show we’re helping them get their own message out to the masses.

Q4 Neil: All the material on CR is IMO of a quality on par with the BBC. How many contributors do you have? Where do most of the contributors come from?

A4 Peter: We’re very lucky to be based in Sheffield, which has one of the highest concentrations of people working in the creative industries of anywhere in the UK. So we’re never short of people who want to get involved in what we do. Across the city we have a core team of around 10 local writers and performers who are involved in making a lot of our content (documentaries, drama, comedy ect) plus we have an even bigger pool of actors and actresses who we can call at any given time.

Also we work with a number of audio drama groups from across the world. Helping to broadcast their own work on our station (as well as on our FM radio shows). A lot of these internet relationships have been fostered on and which are excellent resources for people wanting to produce spoken word radio shows; some of the work produced is mind blowing!

Q5 Neil: How is the station managed? How do you decide what material gets accepted and what is rejected, and when it gets aired?

A5 Peter: We have an open door policy for anyone that wants to produce a radio show. Whether that’s somebody who wants to work face-to-face with us in Sheffield, or an individual who wants to create work on the other side of the world. All we ask is that the show is creative and different. That it’s something you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

In terms of scheduling, I like to embrace a quirky randomness to our schedule (as fitting our ‘Cornucopia’ name) A weekly schedule consists of a randomly repeating 8-12 hour running order which gets completely overhauled and updated every weekend with new shows.

Now I appreciate this is a slightly different way to program a radio station. Some people prefer to know that a program is on at the same time each and every week; but that isn’t the type of station I want to create. I want to create a station in which you never know what you’re going to hear next, a station where you’re confident enough in our ability to feel that we’re never going to let you down.

Q6 Neil: Although I didn't hear any, do you have any talk shows (e.g. interviews, discussion forums)?

A6 Peter: Yes, this is often covered by our Mind Labs strand, which is our primary home for shows which focus on ideas, topics and discussions. We also syndicate great talk shows such as Frequencycast which is an amazing technology & gadget discussion program.

One thing which we should try and do in the future (which we’re not doing at the moment) is to have more round table discussions with our writers and performers about the work they create and produce. We should try and illuminate the process of making a radio drama (which I think people at home would find really interesting). So keep an ear open for that!

Q7 Neil: I don't hear any commercials on CR (which I like). Does CR make money? Is there a business model, or is it a labour of love?

A7 Peter: Well, this is a problem for all radio stations, especially in the current climate. Some of the FM stations I’ve worked with are constantly in debt and always on the verge of closing down (the slump in the advertising market has been going on for years). So instead, you have to look at different ways to operate. One of the most important things is to try and keep costs down, but making sure this is done in a way which doesn’t affect quality. You have to think, if you’re spending money on something which isn’t going to help your broadcast, is it really worth it?

I’m also currently up to my neck in writing funding applications to arts organisations, trying to get support for helping local writers and performers. There aren't that many ways for creative people to break into writing for radio in the UK (outside of the BBC), so hopefully somebody will appreciate what we’re trying to do and give us more money to do it better in the future.

Q8 Neil: I'm sure you've crossed paths with many people from many different backgrounds. Is there an interesting story you can tell about running Cornucopia?

A8 Peter: Well, sometimes I have these big crazy ideas which seem fine when talking with friends at a bar, but then turn into these mammoth projects which I have to manage as best I can. The one that stands out is when ‘Cornucopia Radio’ decided to organise a day long live broadcast in a major public space in Sheffield. It featured live bands, sketch comedy and poetry. It lasted seven hours and was running uncontrollably over-schedule. At the height of this madness, I was suddenly interrupted by ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’, who were in the area to promote a live stage show. They heard we were doing a live radio show and wanted to take to the stage and help us out. So in my frazzled state, I bizarrely found myself trying to conduct an unplanned live interview with a Dalek and wondering where best to stick the microphone.

Yep, radio can be a little weird sometimes...

[Neil: See photo at top]

Q9 Neil: Silly question, but I always ask it. If there was one song that epitomized Cornucopia what would it be?

A9 Peter: Well, it’s a silly answer in return; but we’ve often used “There is Hope” by Misty’s Big Adventure as our theme tune. It’s stupid, random and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it has an energy and enthusiasm that can win over even the toughest of souls.

I’m using the song as metaphor for what we’re doing at ‘Cornucopia Radio’; just in case you haven’t made the link ;-)

Q10 Neil: Where do you see Cornucopia headed for the future? And in more general terms do you believe that there could be a profitable business model for a higher minded radio station like Cornucopia, outside of the government sponsored model?

A10 Peter: I think there is going to be a massive change in the position of media production and broadcasting over the next few decades. Television, film, publishing and radio have been controlled by large organisations for at least a hundred years; not because they were necessarily the best, but because only they had the money, equipment and broadcasting channels that were needed. But this is all changing before our eyes. A simple iPhone in your pocket already has enough software to broadcast directly to millions of people across the world; all you need is the passion and the creativity!

You can see it all around you right now. Massively successful YouTube videos have audiences that any TV channel would kill for, popular blogs have more readers than Dan Brown could ever (poorly) imagine, and today’s interesting and unique radio stations will be tomorrows market leaders. Granted I think it’ll be less profitable for most people and run more like a successful hobby with a small income (I’m talking about the ‘long-tale business model’ here) but hopefully ‘Cornucopia Radio’ will be part of the revolution. Or maybe I’ll just get tired of the whole thing and give it up.

Either way, I’ll always be able to tell people that I once interviewed a Dalek...