Digital seer collects his OBE

Tony Ageh Tony Ageh was presented with his OBE at Buckingham Palace by Prince William

Tony Ageh's OBE flew so far under the radar that even he struggled to spot it.

The controller of archive development - and a main man in bringing us iPlayer - presumed he'd fallen victim to some sort of scam when the letter from the cabinet office arrived.

It addressed him by his full name - Anthony Olusola Ademola Ageh - a bit of a relic, which only appears on the passport he'd used just a few days before to fly back from Berlin.

'You're going to be suspicious,' he reasons. 'It can't possibly be good news, can it?'

He was none the wiser when his eyes settled on the letters OBE. 'I'm trying to work out what this acronym means in the context of whatever it is that I'm reading. Then I thought they wanted me to nominate someone for the honour.

'I nearly threw the letter away. It took ages for it to sink in.'

It's not that he's a stranger to recognition. A Bafta and RTS award for iPlayer, plus a smattering of newspaper prizes for the Guide - the trailblazing tv and radio listings magazine he conceived for the Guardian - already clutter his mantelpiece.

But he is self-effacing, his work driven by public spirit rather than any sort of ego quest.

Early adopter's friend

The OBE - courtesy of the Queen's New Year Honours list - was a reward for his services to digital media, a realm he's roamed since 1994.

So has he always been cutting edge?

'No, I would describe myself as arriving at the last possible minute to be in the first wave,' he counters. 'I've been lucky enough to meet great people all the way through my life.

'It's not that I'm an early adopter; I'm the early adopter's friend. Right place at the right time.'

Really? Every time?

Start Quote

I would describe myself as arriving at the last possible minute to be in the first wave”

End Quote Tony Ageh

A junior publishing job with the now press magnate Richard Desmond set the young Ageh, fresh out of an East London sink school with two O'levels, on his way.

In the mid-90s, he developed the Guide at the Guardian - adding value to a title under threat from a newspaper price war.

He masterminded the first editions of Wired UK, but endured a difficult transatlantic relationship with the emerging technology magazine's US parent.

'We did not understand each other, even though our ethics, morals, values and ambitions were in line,' he laments.

But if that relationship was shortlived, a more enduring one with the internet was beginning to bud.

'We were always looking for something that nobody else could do, a problem that nobody else could solve,' says Ageh, who became part of the Guardian's band of new media revolutionaries pushing for its place on the internet frontier.

That Gandhi thing

He recalls the 'Damascene sensation' when he saw the next day's Guardian displayed on a computer screen for the first time.

'The reason I can't see a paper until seven o'clock in the morning has nothing to do with the news or the agenda. It's to do with the production processes,' he figured. 'That was the first time I realised you could deliver news on demand.'

He arrived at the BBC in 2002 as head of search and listings via spells at Virgin.net and upmystreet ('the precursor of location-based services before people knew what they were'), heralded as something of a technical whizz.

Hardly, he sniffs, but he is a digital seer - and has the knocks to prove it.

'You're always fighting against everybody all the time. It's that Gandhi thing - first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win,' he laughs.

'It was like that with iPlayer. When I turned up with it no one thought it was brilliant; they all thought it was ridiculous.'

Start Quote

When I turned up with [iPlayer] no one thought it was brilliant; they all thought it was ridiculous”

End Quote Tony Ageh

The internet catch-up service - the crowning glory of the BBC's digital years - had a double-pronged genesis.

There was BBC engineer Ben Lavender sitting at home at Christmas, illegally downloading television shows and wondering if he might be able to go legit.

He knocked up a presentation showcasing his internet PVR to his bosses, but was told it would never happen.

Soft porn complaint

Meanwhile, Ageh, now controller of internet, was summoned from on high to fix a taste and decency breach at the fledgling BBC Three website.

There had been complaints that the site was straying into soft porn after it published a series of risqué pictures of Jordan to promote a programme about the glamour model.

Ageh took the perpetrator for a drink at the Bush House bar.

'He said, 'You're going to sack me, aren't you?' I said, 'No, we're going to come up with the world's best idea.'

That was Threevo (as distinct from Tivo) which would allow the recording of BBC Three shows on the internet.

'I remember being very drunk, but not so drunk that I didn't think that it was actually a good idea,' recalls Ageh.

And it dovetailed rather neatly with Ben Lavender's internet PVR.

'Ben did all the work and I did all the talking,' says Ageh of the 18 month battle to convince others that the iMP (Integrated Media Player) was a winner.

At the time, he explains, the internet was not a majority pursuit, most people had dial-up connections and few envisaged a time of widespread broadband.

early iPlayer screen After Ageh battles to win hearts and minds, iPlayer finally nears its 2008 launch date

Besides, who wanted to watch the telly on a computer?

By the time a protracted public value test had been completed, the iPlayer (as it became) had a new champion in director of future media Eric Huggers.

'Most interesting job'

Ageh remains proud of his contribution, but has one regret. 'Ben and I wanted to create a common infrastructure to benefit all the broadcasters and the consumers,' he says, 'not simply to give the BBC an advantage.

'Imagine if you had a different television or radio to listen to different channels? So why a different app to use on demand? We've made it way too confusing.'

For someone who camps out on the cusp of innovation, his current job in archive development sounds a little, well, dusty and dowdy.

Ageh is near evangelical in his response.

'I promise you, it's the most interesting job in the BBC - and I'm not sharing it with anybody,' he confides.

'Think about it, I've got access to everything the BBC's ever done.'

Start Quote

I promise you, it's the most interesting job in the BBC - and I'm not sharing it with anybody”

End Quote Tony Ageh

He was given a nudge towards it in 2008 by former DG Mark Thompson, who sensed the iPlayer's potential as a library of old shows.

'But there was a major flaw,' says Ageh. 'A library is a collection of completed works and we didn't have all the programmes.'

Instead, he imagined the BBC archive - every document, photograph, piece of video and audio - as a kind of national flick book.

'Flick through and what you'd see would be a history of Britain: war and peace, fashion and dance, the role of women, the first black faces...'

George Orwell appraisal

He shows Ariel archive treasures such as George Orwell's appraisal, a letter from Brian Jones seeking a break for his band, a memo about promising 12-year old singer Julia Andrews, arguing that it's this kind of context around the programmes that helps tell the story of a nation.

But unlocking the flick book gives him the grief. 'It's locked because it's not digital, and we don't have the money to digitise it. And it's locked because of restriction by law, protocol or perspective.'

There have been victories - a million BBC telegrams unlocked, thousands of BBC programmes given to schools and material relating to the holocaust digitised thanks to a partnership with the Holocaust Museum.

Ageh's mind has also been wandering around the digital public space - his far-reaching proposition for a new public service online domain, walled off from commercial, political or miscreant contamination.

'Take the archive,' explains the father of four with concerns about the internet's sharp points. 'You have all this material which you want everyone to have, but you also have to safeguard it so that people can't destroy or misuse it. How can you make both of those things true at the same time?

Poster boy potential

'My conclusion is that you need to create a separate environment for that to be true.

Start Quote

If you succeed and don't pull the ladder up behind you, it really does radiate some waves”

End Quote Tony Ageh

'That's what broadcasting did,' he continues. 'You just didn't realise it. You were able to enjoy the Proms privately and quietly and on your own terms without someone tapping you on the shoulder to say, ah, I see you're interested in Mozart.'

Ageh's going at this one with iPlayer-like zeal, so expect revolution. That's if he sticks where he is.

He's a high achiever, but his rise up the BBC ranks has stalled - not without a degree of design.

'Once you go higher than this you can't do anything,' complains the exec with poster boy potential for black AND working class media success.

'But if you succeed and don't pull the ladder up behind you, it really does radiate some waves,' he admits.

'And I wouldn't mind advancing further at the BBC, even if it's only for others.'

Features

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.