BBC North at Media City UK
Pity the downtrodden blog editor who spends his time persuading people on his editorial patch to write posts about the BBC. There's a lot of talking, a lot of gesticulating and precious few opportunities to stop for breath. Time is a precious commodity. Expectations have to be kept manageably low.
I've been in Salford this week, doing just that. Looking for stories which show how the BBC works and also looking for people willing to write them. It's a tough sell. Not everybody's a born writer. Quite a few people look on the process with a certain amount of trepidation. No matter how impassioned your pitch, you're not necessarily going to get a string of commitments from people. Rather, just vague nods of approval and some notes scribbled down in a notebook.
I love the work, however. Getting people to tell stories demands experiencing those stories yourself. I can think of no other organisation where I would be striving with as much energy to find the answer to the seemingly unsolvable question: how do we articulate what it's like to work at the BBC? How best do we communicate that to the audience or licence fee payer? How do we illustrate what it is that fires us up every morning (I can think of no morning in the past seven years at the Beeb when I haven't wanted to go to work)? And is it a common experience for all?
Some of the answers to those questions are to be found buried in my experience at BBC North in Media City UK this week. What follows isn't an extensive list. Instead, a selection of ten personal observations ...
1. The lifts in all three of the BBC buildings at Media City UK are baffling and humiliating in equal measure. Designed to provide the most efficient service to staff and visitors as well as striving to be at least kinder on the environment, the keypad for signalling which floor you want to go to is outside the lift doors. The digital display indicates which of the four lifts you'll be getting into when it arrives. Straightforward on paper, but a nightmare for those of us for whom the blame for our short attention spans can be laid squarely on our iPhones.
In three days I've stepped into countless lifts taking me to the wrong floor, and when the doors have closed I've passed the same 'witty' remark- "I'm from London" - to those inside. It was funny the first time, it's just boring now. I've no idea how I'll cope with the slightly more standard approach adopted by those in London. I'll probably take the stairs from now on.
2. There are meeting areas everywhere, nominally marked out by partial dividers, large seats with acoustically enhanced backs or comfy looking sofas. Glance across the building towards the windows on the other side and the distinctive round seating pods might appear as unnecessarily over-designed.
The effect of sitting in them however is quite different. Although being open to the world around you, there's still a feeling of seclusion. And if you need to write, think or power through some emails, it is the simultaneous seclusion and connection with colleagues around you which really focuses the mind.
Comfy, secluded but still connected meeting areas abound in BBC HQ in Salford.
3. Hardly anybody talks loudly. With no partition wall in sight, you'd think the noise would carry. That everybody would interrupt one another. That nothing would get done. There is - to the relative outsider - an air of the university library about the place. Homepage editors brush with TV production team, back-office with publicity. Jobs get done. People go home. In BBC terms such juxtaposition of disciplines can appear like a revelation when segregation had formerly been the norm.
4. The nature of communication and interaction changes when you're in such an environment. You might have a brief meeting with someone away from their desk. Or you might call someone off site. Or you might email. These may not at first appear like ground-breaking discoveries, but if you're used to working in a particular desk-bound/email only way, such new ways of working can take a bit of getting used to. The result - once you've lost your very British sense of self-consciousness - is unexpectedly quite liberating.
5. To someone whose formative BBC experience was in London W12, having relatively unincumbererd access to all parts of 'the business' too is initially disconcerting. Should I be able rub shoulders with the teams in Five Live or 'just drop in' on Breakfast like this?
Inevitably, there's a mild-thrill at having such access, but when that has worn off, something more nurturing is left in its place. In my head I can go anywhere and talk to anyone I choose or need to, assuming I can find out where they are. BBC Radio Five Live or Breakfast is as easy to gain access to as Religion and Ethics or Entertainment Production. No one medium is perceived to be greater than the other. Radio, TV, Online and everyone else are all on the same level. No one is locked away. Knowing that freedom is available is good for the soul.
(Of course, there are drawbacks to unencumbererd access. I did momentarily drift into the BBC Sports Centre studio and in front of an autocue. Don't worry, nobody was on-air at the time. )
Quay House, BBC North
6. A big banner hangs low in the atrium in Quay House: 'Drama Made in The North'. I recognise most of the actors, and three of the five productions, one of which is a personal favourite. I had forgotten these 'network' programmes were all made in the north of England. I'm pleased to be reminded of the fact.
7. Members of the public visit MediaCity. On the one hand I'm surprised by that. Bar the signage, the MediaCity complex appears on the outside as nothing more than a collection of office buildings in an area undergoing rapid development. Some people walk through the development, others stop by. Historically, the public hasn't been able to come up that close to BBC buildings before. They can in Salford and they do.
During my time there I clocked two separate groups of obviously excited visitors taken on a tour around the BBC and Studio Block. Hitherto I'd only seen the BBC's Shows and Tours operation taking visitors around BBC Television Centre. So to witness similarly excited visitors at BBC North was initially disconcerting. Was it the building that prompted them to sign up for a tour? When I saw teenagers rushing up to the windows of the BBC Sport studio and getting their pictures taken outside, the reason became obvious: a large amount of wonder about the BBC appeal is the excitement surrounding broadcasting, as true today as it was fifty years ago.
Members of the BBC Philharmonic rehearsing in MediaCityUK.
8. Where else in the BBC's footprint am I able to walk briskly from a meeting about what Children's TV controllers Cheryl Taylor and Kay Benbow are looking for from independent producers next year, to sitting in on a BBC Philharmonic rehearsal of a newly composed work for guitarist Craig Ogden in the band's dedicated studio? Normally I have to travel across London to attend a concert or persuade the management that 'It really will be absolutely fine if I sit in on your rehearsal.' At BBC North it's not only all on my doorstep, it's also reasonably straightforward to get the access.
9. The remainder of my last day is devoted to talking over some potential future blog posts with a colleague who until recently had been based in London, W12. I acknowledge her change of hair colour before both of us discuss the observations I've stumbled on spending time in Glasgow Pacific Quay and now Salford. "I assumed that because we're all working for the same organisation that everything would feel the same whereever I went in the country. 'Surely the BBC is the same wherever it is in the country' is what I used to think. But it's not, is it?" She shakes her head.
The BBC appears to 'feel' different in different places across the country. The same logo adorns each building providing the link between them, but inside there are subtle differences reflecting the area the buildings are located in and the audience they serve. The motivations and sensitivities which drive staff in one area of the country differ subtly across the UK. That's exciting to be a part of. It's also incredible to see how multiple parts of the organisation come together.
10. And what is it that unites these distinct parts? It can't be superficial things like buildings, flexible ways of working or a logo. It has to be down to the values, values which become more obvious when something new and distinct like the BBC in Salford establishes itself as a base for the north of the country. Going from one BBC base to another, observing the similarities and the differences between them time and again brings me back to the things which unite us.
Jon Jacob is Editor, About the BBC Blog
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