In hindsight, it looks like a master plan

In hindsight, it almost looks like it was a master plan: spend two to three years each at different international organizations, building up the skills, experience and network I would need to launch a (hopefully!) successful communications consultancy. In reality, it was more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where deliberate decisions at specific moments in time have brought me to this weekend and the launch of THAT COMMS GUY.

I surprised myself last May when an afternoon of introspection brought me to the conclusion that the time is right for me to have a go at establishing myself as an independent communications consultant. The plan came together quite quickly once I made the decision (naturally with the full support of Nadine). Thus, as of October, I will reduce my hours and responsibilities at the Ecolint Alumni Office, enabling me to start taking on clients while retaining some guaranteed regular income. (I’m grateful to my boss for facilitating this.)

macgyver

My high-level concept for this venture is to be the MacGyver of communications for non-profit organizations in the Geneva area. If you are unfamiliar with the aforementioned TV series, let me quote from the Wikipedia article (with some edits to adapt it to my situation):

“Resourceful and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences communications techniques, he solves complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects, along with his ever-present Swiss Army knife Irish good humour. He prefers non-violentnon-expensive resolutions and prefers not to handle a gun.”

In practice I’m proposing services in three broad areas: writing and editing copy, event management, and community engagement strategies. I’m focusing on the Geneva region and on non-profit associations, which is not, of course, to say that I would turn down clients that don’t meet one or other of those criteria. However Switzerland’s higher costs make it unlikely that I’ll be a viable option for organizations based elsewhere, and with the majority of my experience having been in the non-profit sector, that’s where I’m hoping to carve out my niche.

My new website will be an important marketing tool for the business. I’ve created six WordPress-based sites before, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a premium (i.e. paid-for) theme. During the development phase I received lots of valuable comments from various friends and relations, which has helped me to bring it to a point where I’m happy to launch it publicly. Further feedback will be most welcome of course!

facebook_banner_white

So, not a master plan, but definitely the result of a set of deliberate decisions, some professional, some personal. It was not pure chance that my switch from EAZA (in Amsterdam) back to the EBU (Geneva) in 2011 coincided with the birth of Robert, nor that I started my current job at Ecolint just as Declan was born in 2014. Robert starts school tomorrow, and it would be fair to say that this next significant milestone was not irrelevant in the decision to try to establish a more flexible professional arrangement.

It’s the end of the beginning for this new adventure. I’m looking forward to the challenge. And if you hear of an organization facing a communications-related challenge, don’t forget to recommend that comms guy, you know the one with that name you can never remember how to pronounce.

 

 

A new website for GLAS

For more than a decade now GLAS – the Geneva Literary Aid Society – has been bringing theatre, music, poetry and prose to Geneva. I was at the first event in January 2005, when David Norris, a well-known Irish politician and gay rights activist, came to perform his one-man tribute to James Joyce.

Over the years since, GLAS has hosted more than 35 shows in Geneva, raising in excess of 80,000 CHF for a number of charities. Among my favourites were concerts by John Spillane, Luka Bloom, Moya Brennan and Maria Doyle Kennedy, a talk by journalist Robert Fisk, Conor McPherson’s play The Good Thief, and Ardal O’Hanlon’s stand-up comedy. (Glas is the Gaelic word for green; the organization was founded by an Irishman and most of its visiting acts have some connection with Ireland.)

I noticed recently that the GLAS website, which had at one stage been quite active, had been stripped back to nothing more than a feed from the Facebook page. I thought this was a pity, as it had built up such an impressive track record and deserved a better shop window. I helped the founder of GLAS, Denis McClean, to set up his mailing list in the early days; now that the kids are beyond the evening-consuming, sleepless night-inducing stage, I have the time and energy to get involved again. And so, late last year, I offered to create a new site and keep it updated as new shows are announced.

A shop window

The idea was to create a site that would give first time visitors an immediate impression of how active GLAS has been in the past, both in terms of the events staged and the charities supported. This will help to promote future shows and also, hopefully, can support efforts to identify much-needed sponsors.

Using WordPress is a no-brainer for projects like this. I picked the free version of a theme called Carton, as I was looking for one that used the Masonry layout. This automatically arranges blog posts into an attractive wall depending on the screen space available, which works really well where there is a featured image attached to each post. For GLAS it means the visitor gets a rich overview of what the organization does, while prioritizing the most recent post, which is where upcoming shows will be featured. It’s also fully responsive, so works well on smaller screens.

glaswebsite


Screenshot of the new GLAS site, available at http://theglas.org.

Populating the site with information about past events didn’t take too long, as I could pull text from Facebook posts, the mailing list archives and, particularly useful for the earliest shows, the Wayback Machine on archive.org, a super-useful tool that has snapshots of websites on random dates in the web’s history. (It’s very easy to disappear down a rabbit hole of looking up what favourite sites looked like in their early days.)

For the more recent shows there are photos and even reviews available, but unfortunately for some of the earliest events information is scarce. Hopefully in time we’ll dig up photos of some of the earliest events to add to the site.

I hope and expect that GLAS will be around for many years to come. For an Irishman in Switzerland it’s been a welcome cultural link with home, and one that I’m happy to support in any way that I can. The fact that it helps people in great need, most recently supporting the Edith Wilkins Foundation in their work with street children in India, is the icing on the cake.

If you’re in the Geneva area, I strongly recommend that you join the GLAS mailing list. You can, naturally, do so via the website: theglas.org/contact

 

Selling myself

I’m excited about a gig I have coming up on Friday this week, when I’ll play at Le Box, in Carouge. I’m one of two support acts, with a duo called Zepless at the head of the bill. It’s a dedicated music venue with a proper audio and lighting set-up, dedicated sound engineer and – hopefully – a nice warm atmosphere.

As most of the people who’ve seen me play regularly in Geneva know me primarily as a covers act, I put together the montage below to give an idea of what can be expected from a set of my own songs. It has served its purpose well I think as the Facebook upload has been (relatively speaking) widely shared. (Top tip: if you want a video to be popular on Facebook, upload it directly yourself rather than just sharing a YouTube link. Facebook will serve up videos on its platform to more people than those on other platforms, as it wants to keep people on its own site for as long as possible.)

In case you’re wondering, I used WeVideo.com, a really cool online video editor, to put this together. It’s free to use, but I paid USD $5 to remove the WeVideo watermark. Highly recommended.

Making this video made me realise how little decent quality live footage I have, but I guess the homemade feel gives a fairly accurate impression of the way I tend to approach my performances, so it’s quite honest.

Me and Christy Moore

Poking through a drawer at home recently I stumbled upon a minidisc containing a radio documentary that I produced in 1997 about the legendary Irish folk singer Christy Moore. The documentary – titled Welcome to the Cabaret – and a written report about it together formed the thesis that I had to submit for my BA in Communication Studies at Dublin City University.

(The player says the file is 1:14 long, but it’s actually just 45 minutes. You can, if you wish, download the programme from archive.org.)

Christy was – and still is – a musical hero of mine. A lot of the singing I do is inspired by him, regardless of whether the songs come from his repertoire or not. I remember putting considerable work into researching the documentary and crafting questions that I hoped would generate good answers, long before it was certain that I’d manage to secure an interview with the man himself.

I did eventually get to interview him. Generously, given that it was a student project and he was one of the biggest stars in the Irish music industry at the time, he spoke to me for around 90 minutes. The detailed research paid off with what I thought and still think was a pretty good interview. There were many points where he opened up and answered the questions very honestly. To pick just one example, at one point he says the following, addressing a question about the perception of him as a sometimes bad-tempered performer:

“Well I do recognise now that for a number of years in my life I was a very angry person, but I also recognise now that anger is not always a good thing. In fact very seldom is anger a good thing. And I kind of realise now that when people come along to listen to somebody singing they will be affected negatively by anger. If I go to hear somebody singing songs I’m not interested in hearing anger. I think there’s a different way of doing it now.”

If you’re at all interested in the man and his music you’ll probably enjoy the documentary. Being almost 20 years old now it’s somewhat dated of course. His career has taken a few twists and turns in the intervening years, but he continues to sing, record and tour when his health allows. Indeed I was lucky enough to see him playing in Dublin just last year.

My preference at the the time would have been to create a piece featuring only his voice and music. However, my thesis supervisor at the time insisted that it needed to include other voices to fulfil the requirements of a final year project. Listening to it again now I think the extra voices actually do help to round out the story a bit, even if it’s a bit strange to have them popping in unannounced. The approach I took in the documentary – with no narrator – didn’t allow me to actually say who the voices belonged to. I had an introduction and/or post-script where I credited them. But even as “anonymous” voices they lend some authoritative commentary.

The audio quality isn’t great. A lot of the music came from my cassette collection, which won’t have helped. With the benefit of experience now I think the whole thing could have done with being tightened up a bit, not least at the start where the montage of music is too long. But overall, almost 20 years later, I’m still proud of it. It certainly documents a very important Irish musician at a certain point in time.

Those other voices were:

  • Tony Clayton-Lea, music critic with the Irish Times
  • Paul Ward, the university chaplain at DCU who had, as a younger man, been deeply involved in the Dublin folk scene, including running a folk club at which Christy Moore played from time to time
  • Jimmy McCarthy, one of Ireland’s best contemporary songwriters, many of whose songs Christy sang, most notably “Ride On”

90 reasons why I’ve enjoyed my first year at Ecolint

It’s just about a year since I took up the post of Alumni Officer at the International School of Geneva (or Ecolint, as it’s commonly known). In those twelve months I’ve met hundreds of our alumni in person and interacted with many hundreds more electronically. Looking back, I think the part I’ve enjoyed the most so far has been my role as a story-gatherer. Certainly the familiar territory of tidying up the website and the planning and delivery of events has been as satisfying as ever, but it’s the people and the paths they’ve taken that has really made the difference for me.

Among the various projects and initiatives with which I’ve been involved, the one that best exposes this treasure trove of stories is the 90-9-90 Project. Having spent the quiet summer months getting to know the alumni as data (and creating our first “Alumnographic”, which I’ve written about before), I faced into the new school year knowing that the 90th anniversary year offered a great opportunity to reach out to the people behind the data.

The idea was a simple one: get 90 alumni to answer a 9-question survey to mark the 90th anniversary of the school. I put a lot of thought into the questions. They needed to be relevant for alumni of just about any age; to be phrased in a way that allowed both shorter or longer responses, depending on the comfort zone of the responder; and to generate enough variety so that the project would remain fresh right through to the end.

90990_FINAL

We reached our target of 90 just before the Christmas break, with probably about half of them having been directly invited to respond and the rest being submitted spontaneously. If the website stats are anything to go by, it was a huge success. The project, presented in a blog format, was far and way the most visited section of the website throughout the three months it was running, and it remains very popular with site visitors even now.

The questions took alumni from when and how they arrived at the school, to the teachers and places that meant most to them, and on to their lives today and their thoughts on the school and students today. Of course some put more thought than others into their responses, but the quality was generally very high. Those who responded (perhaps obviously, given the nature of the project) demonstrated a real pride in the school, often balanced with constructive criticism, with intelligence, wit and wisdom shining through regularly. The diversity of the career and life paths “the 90” have followed gives you a sense of the truly unique nature of Ecolint as a school.

From my point of view, it couldn’t have turned out any better. This simple idea generated three months of content that attracted people to the website. Posting updates via our social channels was very effective, as alumni were naturally interested to see whether anyone they knew had responded. It also served to kick off many interesting conversations that are already leading to other projects to help involve alumni more in the life of the school. (Exhibits A and B.)

In an effort get maximum value out of the content and to increase the awareness among current staff and students of the rich resource that our alumni community represents, with help from our in-house graphic designer I created a poster (below) that now hangs in strategic locations around our three campuses. The hope is that anyone lingering in the relevant spaces will take the time to dip into a selection of the responses and perhaps think more about how they themselves could engage with our alumni.

I’ve kicked off a couple of similar initiatives in the meantime, one focusing on entrepreneurs and another dedicated to former staff. They’ll both take a little longer to find their feet for various reasons, but it’s a format that works really well for mining the rich seam of stories to be found in the Ecolint alumni community.

90990_WallChart_FINAL

Andrew Bird, Guy Garvey, and the thrill of hearing your name on the radio

When I was in my teens I listened to a lot of radio. I was forever entering competitions, responding to questions and generally doing anything I could to be “on” the radio. I loved hearing my name called out for whatever reason, and did end up speaking – or even singing – on air now and then. You’d think 25 years later, and having worked in radio professionally for a few years, the novelty would be gone. It seems not.

Guy Garvey, who is the lead singer of Elbow, comes across on the radio as a very lovely man. He presents a two-hour show every Sunday on the excellent BBC 6 Music. Titled Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, it’s right up my musical alley, with a typical show taking in familiar (to me) music from the likes of Tom Waits, Neil Finn, Rufus Wainwright and Laura Veirs, and introducing me to an eclectic list of others that often end up becoming favourites. I try to listen to the show every week, which is possible thanks to BBC’s excellent iPlayer.

A few weeks back he said he was planning an episode that would focus on the use of loops in music and asking his listeners to suggest tracks he should include. (He doesn’t do requests – rather he calls the recommendations he solicits “songs for Guy”. See what he did there?) I happened to be at a computer at the time and quickly rattled off an email about…well, why not listen for yourself

I can tell you, I was as thrilled as the 13 year old me would have been to hear him read my submission out on the air. And it’s nice when someone you respect seems to respect and agree with your opinion.

In the email I actually recommended that, although Why? was an amazing song to see performed live, for the radio show it might be better to play one of Andrew Bird’s other songs. But he went with a couple of minutes of a live version of Why? anyway, not dissimilar to this version. Watch it for a little while and be amazed at how he builds it up and holds it all together:

If you find that a bit intense or just not quite catchy enough, try something else…like this:

If you’d like to hear more I suggest you start with his album The Mysterious Production of Eggs; and even if you don’t I strongly recommend that you make time to listen to Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour.

Reading more, paying less

My reading habits have been changing and it’s worrying me. Don’t worry, I haven’t started reading the Daily Mail or anything. On the contrary, I’ve been reading loads of great journalism recently (The Vitamin Myth: why we think we need supplements and The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food, to mention but two articles). The thing is, I haven’t paid for any of it and that makes me wonder how such journalism can continue to exist in future.

Storability, Readability

Readability is a cross-platform app that does two things really well: it reformats articles on websites to make them easier to read on whatever screen you’re using and it stores articles in your own personal reading list for you to read later, even when you’re offline. If I spot something I want to read later I just click a little button on my browser (or share it to Readability on the smartphone). It adds it to my reading list, strips out most or all of the images and serves up the text in an easily readable layout.

Before having this app, if I came across an interesting looking article but didn’t have time to read it right away it was a case of bookmarking it (using the excellent Xmarks) and going back to it later. Readability has made it much easier which also means that I’ve started seeking out good sources of new articles.

Finding the good stuff

I’m referring here primarily to longer pieces that take 15 to 30 minutes to read, or maybe even a little longer. Sources would include, for example, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, feature articles in quality Sunday newspapers, etc., or even Readability’s own website. The subject matter could be politics, science, the arts, history – just about anything.

Sometimes I’ll visit a few of the sites mentioned above and bookmark some recent articles. I’ll also come across things via reddit or kottke.org. But the most useful source is a site called Longreads that aggregates together the best new articles over 1,500 words each week. Their weekly mailout usually throws up a handful of articles that end up on my reading list.

Who pays?

We once had a subscription to The New Yorker (and would have renewed after the gift expired if it hadn’t been for the fact that we struggled to find time to keep up with the weekly issues) and used to buy a lot of newspapers, particularly at the weekend. Now I’m using a free app that strips out the advertising to read the same quality journalism for free. It’s not sustainable.

I’ve just learned that I can become a member of Longreads, to contribute towards the upkeep and development of the service (and intend to do that), but it’s not clear whether any of that money supports the journalists and publications. I’ve seen that some publishers use Longreads to promote books by allowing them to publish an extract, but that doesn’t address the fundamental problem.

We stopped buying CDs more than five years ago, instead downloading our music. But we still pay for it all, so the artists are still getting some remuneration (at least from those of us that do still pay for music). With newspaper and magazine sales on a downward slide and the failure so far of paywalls as a viable model, what will enable quality journalism to continue to exist?

Gateway drug

One little personal postscript to all of the above is that I find I’m reading more and more on my smartphone, which naturally eats into the time I spend with an old-fashioned book in my hands. I’ve resisted the jump to an e-reader until now, claiming that I like the feel of a book in my hands, don’t want to read from a screen, want to be able to pass books on to others, etc. But I can see that I’m not that far from making the leap and joining many, many book-loving friends that now swear by their Kindle.

So it seems the combo of Readability and Longreads is pulling me inexorably to the world of the e-reader, which means our bookshelves might go the way of our CD racks before them. It makes me a little bit sad, but I guess it’s not worth getting too worried about. On the other hand, I’ll be interested to see what business models rise from the rubble when the publishing industry follows in the footsteps of the record industry. It’s all in flux for now.

A service that money can’t buy

Damn you Google and your excellent free products! I really, really wanted to pay somebody to store a back-up of our music collection online and make it available on a web-based player. The convenience and reassurance offered by such a service was/is something worth paying for. But in the end it’s Google Music that has solved the problem for us – and they’re not asking for any cash.

It was perhaps five or six years ago, soon after we gave up on buying CDs altogether, that we first started using MP3tunes.com, paying around $50 a year for a “locker” big enough to take our collection. The platform allowed you to upload your entire collection to the cloud and then access it from any browser. Their original idea had been to save you the hassle of actually uploading the music by just scanning your library and matching it against tracks they already had on the servers. But the record companies didn’t like this concept and forced them into keeping seperate copies of each track. (It took the best part of a week for our whole collection to synch up to their servers.) It was still a good service though, and it allowed Nadine and I to each listen to music at our respective workplaces as well as when away on holiday, at a party, etc.

mp3tunes

The now defunct MP3tunes.com player.

MP3tunes was good while it lasted, but in the end continued legal challenges from the record companies pushed them out of business in 2012. This brought us back to square one: a 50GB library of music looking for a home in the cloud. As we moved into 2013 I did quite a bit of research on the various options and saw that Google had launched what looked like a promising service, although only in the US initially. But I thought Google already had a big enough slice of my online life, so I kept looking.

Enter AudioBox

About six months ago I came upon AudioBox from a company called iCoreTech. It looked promising: “Synchronize, stream, manage and enjoy your content, on every supported device, anytime and anywhere.” For $5 per month we could have a 50GB drive to which we could upload our collection, accessing it via a web-based player. The player itself looked quite good, although I subsequently found it a bit lacking in features – not much flexibility on how you navigate through your collection and choose music (with similar problems on their Android app). But it wasn’t Google and it was worth a try.

Unfortunately AudioBox couldn’t deliver on its promise. We paid the montly subscription for six months but never actually managed to get our library uploaded. It couldn’t get beyond about 1,000 of our 13,000 or so tracks and, although they did try to get to the root of the problem, the tech support guys couldn’t find a solution. In frustration one evening in January I looked again to see what alternatives were out there, saw Google Music popping up again, signed in with my existing Google account and, hey presto, problem solved. By the next morning our entire library was available online, with a swish-looking interface and lots of different ways of choosing what to listen to (plus a superb Android app to match).

PlayMusicApp

Google’s lovely music app for Android.

Inevitably Google

It seems Google were able to get permission to do what MP3tunes could not: to scan and match your collection. This meant we only had to actually upload a small handful of tracks that they didn’t already have on their servers. The service will allow us to download the entire collection any time we need to, so it serves as a good back-up. And as long as we’re uploading only MP3s without digital rights management (such as those we buy from 7digital.com), it remains entirely our music with no restrictions from Google on what we can do with it.

One small drawback is that you can only actually play music off one device at a time. This means that Nadine and I can’t listen simultaneously at work. This should be a reasonable use, as we legally own the music together as part of the same household. Their T&Cs don’t allow for this, but hopefully in time sense will prevail on that front.

I feel a bit sorry for the likes of AudioBox. They can’t really compete with the Google juggernaut. But it’s hard to argue when it just works, without any hassle. Where will it all end?

(There’s another discusssion to be had about whether it makes sense to have one’s own music collection at all any more, in the days of unlimited streaming from vast libraries like Spotify and Google Music’s (paid-for) All Access option… but that’s for another day.)

A perfect video for A Perfect Christmas

The video for our Christmas single is finally ready.

With HUGE thanks to Stephen, John and friends at Lovely Toons, who have put in countless long hours over the last month or so, mostly out of the goodness of their hearts, we now have a really nice animation to go with the song. This will make it much easier for us to push the song out to the world, and the promo effort will start in earnest now.

 

Amusing ourselves to death

Studying communications at DCU in Dublin, as you’d expect, we had to do a lot of reading. (With something like 12 hours of lectures per week, I guess we had to do something with all that spare time!) I know now that the things I read there, from the age of 17 to 20, influenced the way I thought and still think about the world today.

One book that definitely had an impact was Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. It cropped up again for me recently when I came across the comic below – on reddit I think – and it brought back to me how much I really believed that Postman was right in his central thesis. It’s Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World we should fear more than Orwell’s vision of 1984. We risk failing to “take into account man’s infinite appetite for distractions”. Even in these hyper-connected days when many of us are glued to our smartphones and tablets in every spare moment (guilty!), television viewing is actually on the increase. Indeed it’s mobile and social media that are serving to drive viewing figures for many TV shows.

All of this reminds me that there was a programme on the BBC called Why Don’t You? on Saturday mornings when I was a young whippersnapper growing up in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. It’s theme tune included the words:

Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go out and do something less boring instead?

For many years now I haven’t really watched TV, aside from a rugby match here and there, and an episode of a comedy or drama series on DVD a couple of times a week. I don’t know if it was the influence of that Neil Postman book – or maybe even Why Don’t You?!! – but somewhere along the line I made a deliberate decision that there are more useful, valuable ways to spend my time. I’m in the minority on that front. The average European spends almost four hours per day – PER DAY! – watching television.

Anyway, here’s the cartoon version of Amusing Ourselves To Death. It’s worth a read if this kind of thing interests you; even though it was written in 1987, I suspect it’s even more relevant now.

 

Amusing Ourselves To Death - comic by Stuart McMillen, based on Neil Postman's book