It's been an 'eventful' year....

Tuesday 20 December 2011, 10:09

Peter Salmon Peter Salmon Director, England

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Frankenstein's wedding. Image by Ralph Petts

Frankenstein's wedding. Image by Ralph Petts

Our new home here at MediaCityUK has gone from being a project to a creative and broadcast reality. We have moved almost two thousand people into our new buildings at the same time that many of them are building new lives for themselves in the region. And onsite people are making programmes for television and radio and content for online at the same time that we are broadcasting live from studios overlooking Salford Quays twenty-hours a day. Listen to Radio 5 Live, catch the Christmas Blue Peter or watch the CBeebies Pantomime if you want proof this festive season.

The evening I sang along to the MediaCityUK Community Carol concert here on the piazza last week, reminded me that a key reason for building a new creative hub here in the North of England was to get closer to our audience. This isn't only about spending the licence fee more fairly across the region, investing in programmes, training and employment, but about getting physically closer to licence payers as well.

And I believe that ultimately this isn't just for our audiences. For me, it is as important for our staff as well. Meeting the public, listening to what they have to say and simply just talking to them, can give a fresh perspective and help enrich the programmes we make and the services we offer. We all should get out more.

So this year we created a series of events both at MediaCityUK and across the region that have either brought the audience here to Salford Quays or taken us to where they live and work.

Since May, tens of thousands of people have come face to face with their favourite presenters and personalities, taken part in live broadcasts or heard free live concerts and even helped us raise money for charity. I don't imagine many had been face to face with the BBC before.

At the beginning of the year, together with a host of partners, we transformed Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds and invited the public to be guests at a Gothic-inspired wedding. Over 12,000 people braved a cold March evening to attend Frankenstein's Wedding... Live In Leeds. Nearly everyone dressed up for the occasion broadcast live on BBC Three and which has won a series of awards.

In June, the BBC Philharmonic marked their arrival onsite with a festival of free concerts in their new studio. BBC Philharmonic Presents welcomed over three thousand people to a two-week programme of free music that ranged from church and film music to the premiere of a dubstep symphony. As well as live studio audiences, over 10 million people tuned into the concerts across the BBC's radio networks or watched via red button - a testament to the originality of the idea and the imagination of our orchestra. Later in the same month, the BBC Philharmonic performed 'Music While You Work' in a factory in Salford. Originally started by the BBC in the 1940s to improve morale, the BBC Philharmonic has been associated with the initiative for decades and, I hope, made a normal work-a-day lunchtime more memorable, putting a spring in the step of the audience both in the factory and on Radio 3.

Over the summer we worked with the Manchester International Festival both here in Salford and in central Manchester, creating a series of unique events for young and old alike. Possibly the most unusual collaboration was Music Boxes. Seventy-eight shipping containers were transformed into series of music-inspired adventures for young children including CBeebies and Zingzillas, who created two very special sound worlds in their containers to engage and entertain their young visitors. Our own North-based Research & Development team combined forces with Manchester-based magneticNorth to create the Virtual Maestro. This clever piece of kit gave budding young maestros the opportunity to conduct the BBC Philharmonic. It wasn't as simple as it looked, as it seemed to baffle the most determined of parents - me included.

On the other side of the piazza, in collaboration with PunchDrunk Theatre, the BBC created an alien world as the setting for a special Doctor Who adventure - The Crash of the Elysium. Within moments of entering the exhibit, the children were thrust into a confrontation with one of the most dangerous of the Doctor's adversaries, the Weeping Angels. And for one group, the adventure was made even more memorable by the surprise appearance by Matt Smith himself. And in central Manchester, members of the BBC Philharmonic joined Damon Albarn for the world premiere of his opera, Dr Dee.

A wetter than normal Bank Holiday weekend in August couldn't deter thousands of children from coming to Salford Quays. Their objective was to meet one of their heroes, Justin Fletcher aka Mr Tumble, and they weren't disappointed. Despite the rainy weather, they watched as Justin performed a series of live shows on a specially built stage and in between Shaun The Sheep's "Championsheeps Live" game kept them entertained with a summer fair inspired assault course. That soggy concert also then inspired Justin and team to produce more than 20 new episodes of Justin's House in the studios here at MediaCityUK. The series was so successful that it went on to break all records for CBeebies.

And the following month, Alesha Dixon travelled to Salford. Stepping out from Strictly, she brought street dance to the Lowry and hosted a series of workshops as part of CBBC's new show, Alesha's Street Dance Star.

A world away from dance was BarCamp in September. Hosted by the R&D team this was the very first time the BBC had opened its door to this global free-form event. Over a single weekend over 150 people came together in one of our buildings to discuss the latest developments in technology - everything from gaming to social networking - and to share their ideas.

On a smaller scale but just as important, Mr Bloom, another new CBeebies personality, visited my hometown of Burnley. Over a single weekend, a patch of land was transformed into a community allotment that formed a special episode and was then handed over to a local Pennine charity. A moving event for all of us who attended.

Back at base we hosted out first local residents' Open Day. Our Outreach team have been out in the community since before we arrived at MediaCityUK, but it wasn't until November - once we had enough people in the buildings and were broadcasting live from the site - that we felt we would really welcome our neighbours round for a tour. Seven hundred people from the local community visited us over the weekend. It was interesting that - in spite of what some of them had read in the papers - their feedback on our new home and programme plans were broadly positive.

A few weeks later we hosted a day of events to celebrate Children In Need and to raise money. As well as a flashmob dance to Singing In The Rain - and typically the rain failed to fall at the appointed time - a cohort of me and my colleagues grew beards that were then ceremoniously shaved off and there were a series of other events that encouraged people to visit the site. In total the public raised over £26 million and I am incredibly proud that approximately six million pounds alone was raised across the North of England for this incredible cause - not to mention the massive Children In Need Rocks Manchester Concert.

And I could keep you here all day if I went into detail about Lady Gaga in Carlisle for The Radio One Big Weekend; Strictly Come Dancing and the big finale in Blackpool; never mind Jesting About, our entertainment search in Tyneside; or even the first ever Salford Sitcom Showcase.

And that brings me finally to the last two weeks here at MediaCityUK. In the run up to Sports Personality Of The Year this week, BBC departments across the site have come together and created Celebrate Sport.

Celebrate Sport was a fortnight of sport-related events. Two particular highlights for me involved Manchester's two greatest clubs. The very successful BBC One series Bang Goes The Theory collaborated with the reserve team of Manchester City. Working with children from two local schools they tackled the science behind the "beautiful game", looking at the things that are critical for any major player including fitness and nutrition. And at the end of last week, the BBC Philharmonic joined forces with the Manchester United Foundation Choir and the BBC North staff choir. Attended by Sir Bobby Charlton, it was an amazing concert and I don't think that there was a dry eye in the house by the end of it.

And all week the National Football Museum have taken up residence in The Studio block and run a series of events throughout the day. These have ranged from kit design, sports-themed reading sessions for young children to an exhibition of football artefacts and memorabilia that not only included the football from the 1966 World Cup Final but also George Best's Manchester United shirt and John Motson's famous sheepskin coat.

Of course, events are complicated and sometimes things don't go according to plan. Only this weekend some people were disappointed at not getting into a recording of Football Focus at Salford Lads Club. It's normal practice to issue more tickets than the capacity of a venue because it's usual that some people won't turn up. Unfortunately at the weekend - either because it was Football Focus or because we were recording at the Club - everyone with a ticket turned up and sadly some people couldn't get in. I know that this was a massive disappointment for all of them, some of who had travelled a long way. However, I am pleased to say all those who were weren't able to get into Football Focus are being offered tickets to watch a recording of Question of Sport in the New Year.

Best laid plans! But neither we, nor our new neighbours I hope, will be deterred. This year has been a promising start and we will build on what we have done and what we have learned.

We are now finalizing our plans for 2012 and naturally the Olympics - and in fact a massive year of sport in all - will play a major role in how we get even closer to the public.

We will continue to invest in programmes made across the region and as well as events here in Salford Quays that create a real sense of public space in front of our buildings, I am determined that we move beyond Greater Manchester and travel across the North.

We have already announced that the BBC will be in Preston next Easter and are putting the finishing touches to events that will take us out and about across the North.

And we will continue to organize events with universities and colleges across the region. Starting with Preston College in January, when I will attend the opening of the college's new visual and performing arts building and we have plans for events at Sheffield Hallam University and Leeds Trinity Centre for Journalism in the first months of 2012.

However, getting out and actively engaging with our audiences will be a challenge at a time when we are reducing budgets across the BBC. But this isn't the time to retreat behind the walls of our buildings. We need to both welcome the public into our spaces and go out to them. Just as the audience value and enjoy the programmes that we make, equally they take great enjoyment when they experience the BBC for real, meeting us, talking to us and asking us their own questions.

We should never underestimate the importance of the audience. Engaging with them directly - here in Salford, across the North or, in fact, anywhere in the UK - makes for a better, stronger and more supported BBC.

Peter Salmon is Director of BBC North

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