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BBC World Service: South Asia Hub Review Meeting 11/05/07

Present:John A; Anjula S; Behrouz A; Shafi J; Pulak; Owen B; James L; Peter S; Alana P; Dan Cooke (BECTU Lay Official); Priyath L; Michael D; Wimalasena H; Nick S; John R; Stephen K; Akash S; Shivkant S; Meera K; Saqlain I; Thirumalai M; Rabindra M; Ivana S; Modupe G; Jon E; Owain R; Paul R; Fiona F; Lisa H; Ben H; Andy S; Bernard G 

Introduction by Ben H (BECTU):
The purpose of the meeting was to give everybody involved in the South Asia Hub an opportunity to air their views. Hopefully, the various teams would have a chance to listen to different perspectives and form an idea about the best way to move the project forward. 

Each of the groups represented at the meeting was then given the chance to talk about how they had found the project so far, and what they thought could be improved. Here is a summary of the main points raised: 

Urdu Service 

  • The  Hub looks wonderful and has the potential to be a great place to work
  • Actually working in the area, however, is full of pitfalls. The Urdu service moved over during the Easter weekend, which meant there wasn’t really enough back-up. This was not an ideal start.
  • The phones, the positioning of the clocks and the green lights were also big concerns.
  • Shafi wanted to move back into his usual studios after the first transmission, and one week later, the whole system crashed which resulted in the Urdu programme falling off air for several minutes, which was obviously very stressful for all involved. The Urdu and Hindi programmes were then moved out of the SAH.
  • The area feels crowded and there isn’t enough privacy: when there are four people in the studio, it’s very difficult to work.
  • The complexity of the phone systems means callers are hanging up because they are confused when they suddenly hear English output. The service wasn’t warned that this would be heard. Perhaps music could be heard instead? Or perhaps a recorded warning could be given.
  • The changeover between the Urdu and Hindi transmissions is very difficult. There is only a short time and the output ends up suffering as a result.
  • Shafi quite likes the headphones.  

Nepali Service 

  • The Nepali service are unique in that their usual output is all done in self-ops.
  • The main concern was with the microphones: no matter what the producer does, there is lots of popping. If this carries on, they won’t be able to broadcast from there.

Bengali Service 

  • They expected the Hub to be efficient and simple, but in fact it’s more complex that the current way of working.
  • It is very inconvenient that producers and SMs can’t see each other through the glass (too many reflections). There have been mistakes in interpreting hand signals.
  • Studios are too small – it’s not possible to have three people sitting together, even in the largest studios. This is especially annoying for the Bengali press review programme, when they need to have newspapers to hand in the studio.
  • The clocks, mics and lights are not suitably positioned.
  • Phonebox is too cumbersome: the service found that they weren’t even aware when it had crashed. They had a problem recently when they did not connect properly with a correspondent, and this was only realised after the transmission. Ideally, Phonebox should be simpler to use
  • Radioman seems to have problems functioning properly in the Hub. If it is left idle for more than a few moments, the system seems to slow down and take a long time to save or search for files. This means using last minute FTPs, and the like, is not possible a few minutes before the transmission because it takes too long to save/retrieve them.
  • There isn’t enough space in the Bengali office area for the whole team. Additionally, it was felt that the temperature was too low and the heating did not seem to function. Even the replacement heaters they were supplied with do not work.

Hindi Service 

  • Phonebox is also a big issue for the Hindi Service. It is a daily problem and this is clearly unacceptable.
  • There’s nowhere for producers or presenters to place their scripts – this is basic layout, yet has not been taken into account: the size and shape of the mic stands mean you can’t actually use the mic and see the script at the same time.
  • There’s no facility in the studios for playing out CDs. It’s always handy to have this facility available in case something last-minute happens… and very often things that should be reported on do happen at the last minute.
  • The problems the Hindi Service have experienced even resulted in the loss of a high-profile interview which would have been an exclusive: this obviously means the issues with the Hub are having a direct impact on the quality of transmissions. They have also missed opportunities to do on-the-fly interviews.
  • There is also a confidentiality issue. If the SM in the TSA (technical support area) is monitoring a section call, the whole office can hear it. Very often the caller will ask for confidentiality and this is clearly in breach of that.
  • Some members of the online team have complained about back problems because the desks are not individually height-adjustable, as was requested.
  • Packages are taking more than twice as long to mix. This is compounded by the fact that the fader law is not standard, so it becomes very fiddly. It seems like this is a software problem.
  • A cubicle studio should have edit facilities; which means it should have Quick Edit Pro – but some areas don’t have this. This means if an editor wants to shorten or stop something he is reliant on the SM. Because of this, it feels as though editors have lost control of the programme. Using laptops is an alternative but this is certainly not ideal, and then space once again becomes an issue.
  • The seating of the Hindi Service office space means they get a lot of traffic past their desks as people are going to the toilet. The noise level in such a small area is so high that some of the team find it difficult to concentrate.
  • Some producers felt much more tired than usual after working in the Hub.

South Asia Online 

  • It is worrying to keep coming to work to find something has gone wrong.
  • The team do not know who to address comments to because so many people seem to have so many disparate responsibilities.
  • Voicemail has been a problem – the Siemens voicemail system simply doesn’t seem to work.
  • Their office space is a concern – it is very cold where they are. They would also be quite happy to return to desktops – they don’t particularly like laptops: their only concern is that they have two screens for each work station.  

Sinhala Service 

  • The key transmissions appear to have been bunched together, so either the Sinhala or the Tamil service are forced to go from a self-op with an SM.
  • It feels as though their language is not a priority.
  • They felt that end users needed to be involved from the start. They are disappointed that it is only now, as things are going wrong, that a dialogue has been set up.
  • It was mentioned by JA that there were meetings set up, but some producers felt these were not adequate because they were told decisions had already been made. This became frustrating for the producers.
  • The service felt that the focus should be on programmes – this is why we are all here, and everything else exists to support the programmes.  

SM Team 

This is a summary of  various points raised by the 10 or so SMs who attended the meeting.  

  • Many SMs felt that it is really nice to be back with the sections, to be included and to be able to jump in when their help is needed.
  • Some SMs felt that the Hub as a whole is very un-ergonomic.
  • After a full shift, some SMs felt more tired than they would on a normal day, running from studio to studio.
  • All the SMs felt very strongly that all the problems with the area should be sorted out now before we move back in. Everything should be working perfectly. It would be very undesirable for the sections to go back into the Hub, and then have to come out for a second time.
  • Some SMs felt the way the area is laid out could, in the long run, result in physical problems. Many have experience headaches and watery eyes, because of the reflection problems, the sheer depth of the glass panels, and the lighting in the area. The fact that there is nowhere for SMs to rest their arms during transmissions means that they are experiencing back pains and are worried about RSI.
  • Many of the SMs had trouble communicating with their sections because of the glare coming off the glass partitions. This results in mistakes, and it’s difficult to see hand-signals.  The glass was considered to be a major issue.
  • Some SMs felt that technology should be here to help people and if it doesn’t work, it’s the technology that needs changing, not the attitudes of the people.
  • SMs could not understand why the glass, the positioning of the blocks and so on had not been thought of in the first place.
  • It was felt that the inability for SMs to rest their hands while at the desks could be a health and safety issue.
    Nick Sheridan said he planned to look into this. Dan highlighted that this was a matter of urgency, and should definitely be a priority.
  • SMs do not like the fact that they are effectively feel accountable for the failure of systems they have no choice but to use.
  • Many SMs felt that the sensitivity of the DHD desk faders was an extremely annoying problem. They find that they have to do lots of minute fiddling to adjust levels. It is tough on the hands, and means more mistakes are made.
  • Some SMs felt that the improvements being made by having SMs and producers side-by-side are being undermined by all the problems.
  • Space was also an issue for SMs, and some people felt that perhaps not all the sections in
    South Asia should be moved into the Hub. This would not be a failure.
  • Some SMs felt that the short changeover period between the Hindis and Urdus was very difficult to manage.
  • SMs, like producers, find Phonebox very frustrating.
  • Some SMs felt it was important to learn which things are problematic because they are new, and which are a problem because the actual equipment is inadequate.
  • Some SMs felt that having SM-assisted self-op transmissions was a step backwards. Yet this has become necessary, which can’t be good.
  • SMs said that new ideas are being tried out, but it is not clear who is correlating them, or who is keeping track of what is happening.
  • On the plus side, SMs had already seen evidence of SMs and producers sitting together to work on something, and of increased interactive activity. An example was given of an occasion when the Urdu, Hindi and Bengali service were all able to give a live interview with the former Bangladeshi Prime Minister – something SMs felt would not have happened had the sections not been in the Hub.
  • Dan felt that there had not been enough consultation with the end users – he could think of no other explanation from more obvious mistakes such as the placement of clocks. It was pointed out that direct answers were given on some things, but they weren’t actually acted on. CD players were originally requested by SMs. Certain conventions were in place for a reason.

Stephen K– BSS, Local support 

  • Stephen is currently working with various colleagues to evolve a support system that suits everyone.
  • He’s been trying to focus on Hub problems over the last few weeks, and he can understand the frustration many teams seem to be feeling.
  • He is interested to know how people in the area find their day-to-day support.
  • He says that he has not been involved in the ergonomics of the area.
  • He is confident that he has the technology focused in the right direction.
  • How have IT / Engineering found working in the Hub? Stephen said Broadcast Technology soon realised that they needed more training about the Hub – and that is currently being done.
  • Local Support currently have at least one person up there all day.
  • It was put to Stephen that support has been fantastic – but things sag somewhat in the evenings and weekends, and then problems tend to snowball because they aren’t fully fixed.
  • Stephen said they do have a volunteer on-call service, but it is not possible to have someone up there 24-7.

John R – Head of West One Project (also on the board for Production House of The Future aka SAH) 

  • John said that Production House had been part of World Service’s plans for a long time. It was seen as the next step (after Radioman) in the digital journey.
  • The idea was to enable us to be more flexible, able to adapt to multi-media content and to involve SMs in the production process at an earlier stage.
  • It was always supposed to be a fairly experimental project.
  • He understands that there have been some very serious issues, but he assures us that people are working very hard to put these issues right. Some issues are simple, but others are to do with insufficient training, or technology not working as it should. The telephony system is potentially the most serious, but there is a strong will to make this all work.
  • He is focused on getting things working. He appreciates the fact that everyone has been working very hard, and has been very patient. Once things are working, he things the Hub should be a very flexible area to work in.
  • Some people said that the area is too crowded – how can this be fixed? John replied that this is currently being looked at.
  • John was asked whether there is money for a second phase of the project, and whether there is money to put another studio in the area. John replied that he can’t comment on what money is available, but assured us that if changes are necessary, they will be made. Nick Sheridan added that the project won’t end – it’s ongoing. There is provision for a continual annual budget, but it will still need approval. Bids would have to be put in in the usual way.
  • Ben asked who would decide that the area is working well enough for sections to return to it? Nick replied that Behrouz would make that decision.
  • Some people said they felt that we had taken a step backwards – there is much better and more efficient technology out there, and has been for years.

Nick S – Head of Broadcast Technology 

  • Nick began by saying that he thought meetings such as these were incredibly useful, and he hopes we can continue to have such dialogue in the future.
  • The project is extremely useful for informing decisions made for West One. There is lots of time to take what has been learned from Production House into the W1 project.
  • It was never assumed that things would be one hundred percent perfect at the start, but the project is committed to getting things right.
  • It was stated by some people that the problems with the desks weren’t because of the desks themselves – which are used successfully elsewhere – but with the software.
  • Nick acknowledged that the glare from the studio glass is a problem, and accepted responsibility for the decision to use such glass. The background to this is that the company that makes anti-reflective glass did not have a big enough machine for our needs, so there was a huge cost issue. They are currently looking at either replacing the glass – a big enough machine is now in existence – or putting on some kind of anti-reflective film.
  • In West One, they’ll ensure all glass is anti-reflective.
  • Nick says that although Phonebox gets the blame for a lot, it’s actually part of a system and the telephony system as a whole is a concern. Siemens are working hard on patches, he assured us, to resolve all this. Nick said that the project took a choice to try and integrate the Siemens technology early because it would have been implemented anyway at some point. Stephen Keefe added that it’s easy to see mistakes with hindsight, and they had to gamble on some things because it’s all new.
  • Nick said there is nothing saying all the
    South Asia sections have to be in there.
  • He assured us that things would be very different in West One – there is more space, and now that he has the experience of Production House, he can argue our case, and back it up with actual evidence.
  • Nick says CD players can be organised for the studios.
  • Nick would like these meetings to be an ongoing process.

John A – Project Manager 

  • John felt that some of the changes were simply change for changes sake. The idea was to build an area to look at new ways of working.
  • He says that we’re in the most difficult period currently: most lessons will be learned in the next six months.
  • John felt that if the technology wasn’t letting us down, things would have run smoothly.
  • It was suggested that there should have been a dry run, to which John responded that dry runs use up a great many resources. It would have put a huge strain on SM and production teams.
  • Just having Phonebox working would have made a huge difference. Dan commented that he has seen Phonebox integrated successfully elsewhere, and it seems that our unique problem is because we are trying to integrate it with a new Siemens system. In his experience, however much is prepared before going live, some things just can’t be simulated. Dan added that he felt the pods, which aren’t used much, are a bad idea.

Behrouz A – Head of Asia & the Pacific 

  • Behrouz wanted us to know that he is glad everyone is trying to make things work, and he knows the area has to work for the sections and SMs.
  • He says that he believes Anjula and her team can make the decision about when it is safe to move back in.
  • He believes that at the moment we need to get the area performing to the standard we already require. Then we can begin looking at new ideas and new ways of working. He believes we must give the Hub time.
  • Behrouz is glad that we have tried this, and says that he believes it is better to try and fail than not to try at all.
  • Anjula added that we should never become disengaged from editorial requirements. She explained that part of the problem with this project was the length of time involved. Many people who made suggestions had moved on to new jobs.
  • Ben said he felt that all the SAH users are willing to be adaptable and flexible, as long as they are listened to when they say that something is a problem, and feel there is a will from senior management to provide the resources to make changes when things clearly aren’t working.


Posted by Dan Cooke

Filed under: BBC Global News

English Regions Local Liaison Meeting: Plymouth, 09/05/07

BBC South West is being upgraded to Video Server working.

Currently staff are being trained. This is putting a train on the staff and resources, since staffing levels are paired to the bone following the Value for Money cut backs.

Members had complained that meal breaks were being shortened to as little as 15mins in some cases in order to allow the carrying out of normal duties as well as training. Management undertook to look into the issue and try and tweak shift times etc to avoid this problem continuing.

The Unions noted that it will be necessary to monitor and review the finish times of members working the late shift. In other regions, when the server has been introduced, some members have finished their shifts very late (after midnight). In some cases this was due to excessive workload re-cutting pictures for the Breakfast opt, in others a skills issue was to blame, and in other cases, excessive “polishing” of the edit led to long hours. It was agreed that the “Training Mentors” would keep an eye out for this issue during the early days after “Go-Live”. All being well “Go-Live” is July 23rd.

There was a small contingency fund to provide extra training courses outside the normal BBC provided ones. This has been used for example to provide 1st Aid training locally rather than send staff to London, which by the time travel and accommodation are paid, costs more!

Staffing levels at Radio Devon were raised by the NUJ. It would seem that there are two staff on sick leave, leaving a shortage of News staff to fill the Rota of 14. Management advised that one post has been advertised for filling on a contract basis, the other on a freelance basis. This was something that they would continue to monitor. The Editor thanked his staff for managing during a difficult time, but reminded the Unions that his station had had to save 10% of his budget under VfM cuts. He has already cut back on weekday late news bulletins, and some weekend ones. Late shifts now finish at 20:00 hrs

If any further cuts in budgets were handed down as a result of the post licence fee review, he could see that his only option would be to reduce some of the things that Radio Devon currently does, eg. reduce the number of hours of output.

Diversity: The region still falls short of it’s target, despite initiatives to try and improve the figure. The target does not seem to bear any relation to the actual makeup of the local populace, where there are is considerably lower ethnicity than the target. This is especially true on the Channel Islands.

Next meeting: August 8th 2007

Posted by Dan Cooke

Filed under: BBC English Regions

English Regions Local Liaison Meeting: Tunbridge Wells, 02/05/07

I attended this meeting on May 2nd.

Minutes of the previous meeting did not seem to have been received, despite claims that they had been circulated. 

Management again reminded the Unions that staffing and budgets at TW are the lowest in Eng Regions.
However, the region had continued to gain recognition for excellent programming both by doing well at winning awards and raising already respectable viewing/ listening figures to new heights.

The HRLP congratulated all staff involved in the Folkestone earthquake coverage. Dedication and professionalism by all led to superbly co-ordinated programming on Radio, TV and On-Line

It was reported that one of the radio stations in the cluster is experiencing an above average level of staff taking maternity leave. This has stretched the budgets even tighter

The Video Server at TW has been highly unreliable in recent weeks. A rebuild of the machine had just been carried out in the hope that reliability would improve. ER Management have accepted that there is an urgent need to replace this system with a new (Quantel?) one. The earliest this could be on-line would be quarter 2, 2008 however.

The future of reception and the Shop is still under discussion. The BBC Trust is involved in the process.

BECTU raised the issue of what constitutes a “standby” shift. It was clear from Agreed Statements that to hold someone on standby, thereby expecting them to be available for duty at short notice, was considered as “working time” and thus would attract payment. Management agreed to look into specific cases outside the meeting.

BECTU noted that there was an expectation at weekends that the Broadcast Operators could all do VJ type work, but using professional crew cameras etc. Only a few staff were suitably trained, so the Union wanted it clarified to Producers and schedulers. Some members had been pressurised to do work that they felt they were not trained for. This should now stop.

Car Parking in the side alley: issues remain. Management undertook to remind offenders of the rules.

Review of Engineering: This was a BBC wide review, and so far no details have been provided to local management. Clarity is being sought by the BECTU at English Regions level.

The Union side raised the issue of pressure being brought on members to cut short or even skip their lunch breaks. Management said that this was not acceptable, and agreed to discuss individual cases outside of the meeting.

Next Meeting scheduled for July 16th 2007.

Posted by Dan Cooke

Filed under: BBC English Regions

English Regions Local Liaison Meeting: Bristol 02/05/07

I was  unable to attend this since I was at Tunbridge Wells for a similar meeting.

However David Perry, Bristol Rep, attended. The most notable issue was about the introduction of server technology, and a corresponding change in the ways of working. Amongst these the proposed reduction in a sound shifts at weekends raised issues with BECTU members. We voiced their concerns about reduction in quality of the sound during live bulletins. This has indeed been experienced at other regional sites where no sound operator is present for morning and evening opt-outs.

Management undertook to review their suggestion. We advised them if they do go ahead with reduction in Sound operator shifts that they will have to convince members that quality can be maintained.

Posted by Dan Cooke

Filed under: BBC English Regions

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