Friday, July 11, 2014

So I have an Idea....

The Big Idea – Shouting Louder

Nearly everything I have done in public over the past 5 years or so has had one conscious aim – to stimulate debate around criminal justice issues.

The blog sprang from that kernel; although to this day myself and The Editor cannot recall which of us suggested it. It seems to have worked, don’t you think? Granted, I have been neglecting you of late but the practicalities of adjusting to my new existence, earning a living, and encompassing all my other activities means that daily blogging just isn’t practical at present. Even so, for a small personal blog to attract up to 35,000 readers a month (our peak) is astonishing. Prison interests people, for many different reasons.

But the blog led to media interest. Profiles popped up in the Guardian and – improbably – The Times. A raised profile then followed me out of the gates and now I go through phases of “media tarting”, appearing everywhere from ITV Daybreak through to Newsnight. I’m still recovering from a day of 16 interviews, same blasted topic, same questions….by lunchtime I actually eyed a quiet alley in Westminster and wondered if I could grab a quick kip.

Behind the scenes, I appear to be the darling of some student documentary makers and film-makers. If one camera crew isn’t arriving, one may well be leaving. I’ve been filmed choked with tears, and looking moodily out of my lounge window, fag in hand. And drinking lots of coffee. I mean, lots.

There are far more talks in smaller enclaves. Law schools, universities, private groups, conferences, month after month I schlep around the nation banging the drum and engaging with people who have an interest in justice. These include generalists, such as the Skeptics in the Pub, to specialists such as junior barristers and forensic psychology undergraduates. Later this year I’ll be a keynote speaker at a criminology conference and addressing the AGM of the Independent Monitoring Boards.

Couple this peripatetic verbosity with three Twitter accounts, a website, this blog, a YouTube channel and two Facebook accounts, many would say I already have more than enough avenues of discussion – or dissent! – to keep anyone happy. Probation say I’m their “first multimedia Lifer”, which I suppose is true, even though embracing the new media hardly struck me as being a coherent plan at the time.

And yet… All this activity lacks something, a central core, a nexus. I could and should tie all of the new media stuff together, for example; but that would be mere technical trickery. Something more, something ephemeral, has been eluding me. Until I spoke to a friend of The Editors here in Frome, who happened to be involved with the local community radio station. As she spoke, my brain was racing away constructing complex spidergrams of all the potential in broadcasting.

I mulled. I mused. I ummed, I’ve aaaahd. I have spoken to many people. And I was undecided, but interested. Eventually I junked my pitch to the local radio station; with a local population of 18,000 all in and the technical capability to stream to a mere 150 people online simultaneously, the potential inherent in finding a berth with someone elses enterprise seems massively limited. After all, I’m a new media type of guy – global, not local.

This conceptual meandering led me and The Editor meeting a fascinating man this morning. A friend of Rubin Hurricane Carter in the day; a man who’d marched in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement and been beaten and bitten for his trouble; and more pertinently, a guy who had been in radio for decades and runs a station in the Caribbean.

His advice? Do it myself. His arguments were compelling, not least because I have advantages few such start-ups have the benefit of – expertise, and an already existing audience. Add in all my social media and blog followers and that is a minimum of 15,000 people who already “tune in” to me, so to speak. And whilst the core are in the UK and North America, my readers are global. I have a ready made audience on which to build a radio community.

My first hand knowledge of prison, coupled with my analytical bent, makes me nearly unique. Not that other Lifers in the community don’t have far greater academic depth, they do; but I seem to be the only one daft enough to be comfortable with being in the public eye. And as that gaze can often be malevolent, I don’t blame them one bit for ploughing their own, equally significant furrows. The result, though, is that out of those with the lengthy prison experience and a modicum of wits, I’m the loudest one. And when it comes to broadcasting, loud and persistent seems to be a bit useful.

And in this media driven age, where soundbites rule and controversy gets traction, is there another radio show on the planet focusing on criminal justice issues fronted by a convicted murderer? Profoundly cynical, I know.

We talked strategy, marketing, technicalities. It’s so easy to broadcast over the Net, and very reasonably priced. Initial startup may be under £1,000, and monthly running costs well under £100. Who knew…?!

And so I have an idea. An internet radio station focusing on criminal justice issues and thereabouts. As anyone who has read the blog or my tweets appreciates, this is an extremely broad field. And it can be approached in many different ways – if there’s one button that can be pushed to start a good row, its called “prison”, and we all seem to have a view. Equally, there is a more measured approach. My tweets can be sparky – 140 characters! – but I hope that, overall, my blogposts have been more thoughtful. If sharp, on occasion.

Imagine the scope. From restorative justice to victims issues, from prison privileges to probation, crime and punishment encompasses everything. Politics, law, media, prison….and most of all, it all centres on the very worst of what lies in the human psyche. It has something for everyone.

And I would make that integral to my approach. I have as little inclination as the rest of you to listen to my own voice endlessly waffling on, and that is to be avoided. Rather, each show would be topic-led and guest focused. Interviewing, news roundups, debates, emailed Q and A’s….filling an hour would actually be frighteningly simple. And the listeners would, I sincerely hope, leave each hour feeling better informed and maybe even a little more interested in how we as a society respond to those who transgress.

There are, obviously, the accompanying paraphernalia of a website, social media feeds, and the like. Because the actual radio element may be a handful of hours a week, also repeated and podcast, it will be equally important to use social media to continue or highlight the discussions and provide a platform for community building. And I now realise I’m relapsing to the language I used when I was an E-commerce strategist….

Guests I would love to have…. A head of a prison reform group; a local copper; a victims group; local politicos; the occasional prisoner via phone, ex prison staff, lawyers, psychologists, community groups, campaigners, journalists… it really can be an endless list. Having already quietly floated this idea past a handful of putative guests, I was warmed by their interest.

Assuming I can put in place the right model from the beginning, as the station settled then I would hope to forge links across the criminal justice landscape. The website, in particular, could become a portal through to the expertise and insights of others in the field

It’s early days yet, lots of pondering and planning to do, but I can see this has a lot of potential.

Thoughts, please, folks. On any aspect of this idea. Either here, Twitter @prisonerben, or for the shy via

Oh, and brace yourselves :)




  1. You are overestimating the power of radio in general. It’s quite a trudge to seek out a new station I would imagine. And unless it’s sensationalist lowest common denominator stuff in the style of one of those American talk-radio shows, then very few would take the trouble. Most folks’ interest in the world of criminal justice is satisfied very accessibly almost everywhere else (and not in a pleasant way ....but it's what they want). There is no great appetite for the alternative view. Don’t know till try, of course …but what happens when you can’t be bothered …radio silence.

    1. "…but what happens when you can’t be bothered …radio silence." Very true, but I don't know what Ben is talking about, I lead such a low-tech existence. I wish him luck with it. Although true democracy gives everybody a voice, it can not guarantee that anyone will listen or, indeed, that they will even hear you amidst the noise. And you know what happens when you shout louder! I can hardly believe that ordinary people have time for all the blogging tweeting and following that they appear to achieve. Is it real, does anything happen?

  2. Sounds like a good idea - but will you be able to sustain it? We who have followed you on this blog for years have been more than somewhat neglected!

    Anonymous above is right - what power is there in radio in today's climate?

    I am sure many of your followers are interested more in how you are coping with life after prison, are you happy, satisfied, looking forward, employed etc etc.

  3. Any means of getting the word out is worth a good look. Whilst the appetite for radio is possibly on the wane-as the former commenters have said-you could maybe double up the benefits. If you were to record and/or film the interviews (e.g. via Skype, using a call recorder) you could broadcast these on the radio channel, but also make them available as short pieces on the mainstream social media - much as you do now. A link to an interview on YouTube is easy to do, as you know, so you could get additional value from stuff you do for the radio. So if the radio doesn't work out, the material is still gaining traction via other means. Just a thought...

  4. Nothing ventured nothing gained as they say; I think the key to presenting a radio show is to have a big personality and a very strong (almost vain even) belief in yourself. good luck.

  5. I think you're very much on the right track, except for the charmingly quaint conceit of calling it a radio show.

    Podcasts, interviews, or even occasional video missives are a good idea, because your voice and appearance humanise you and connect you to your audience better, which can be important given your subject.

    Your first mention of connecting the various elements of your media presence into a polished, central hub is dismissive ('technical trickery') but you seem to come around to the idea by the end of your post, and I think that's the way to go. Anchored by the regular podcast and writings, it raises the volume. If you branch out and accept content from other campaigners (and yes, even link to some of those kids who love to film you chewing soulfully and monochromatically on a Gauloise...) the site could, in time, become to criminal justice ethics what is to film criticism, to paranormal skepticism, etc: a big, multi-format intellectual forum held together by a personality.

  6. Hi Ben,

    I think a podcast (which is really what you are describing) is a great idea. And I've long thought you should be moving all your content to a better centralised platform than Blogger. £1,000 start up costs? £100 a month running costs? I guess if you can afford it that's cool. But I'm pretty sure you could get going an keep things running for much less. Heck, a properly themed and set up and Soundcloud account would do a perfectly professional job for you. Let them take the bandwidth strain if the show grows a large audience, and look after the site security at the same time for you.

  7. Ben, could you spare a moment to take a look at the case of another Ben? Ben Geen. I added a comment to your 2012 posting "conviction by statistics" with some more info. I'm a statistician by the way!

  8. You seem to be taking a vey high-level approach to what amounts to a new website with links to some audio files and occasional live streaming. Your host service provider (like the bank) might cause you problems, you might wish to host the website yourself on your own server and accept limitations of processing speed. It might be necessary to use a professional website designer and to learn how to maintain the website yourself. If you are going to do interviews etc you might want a modest sound studio. So you have time and money for it and you have an interest in the technical side, but how does it add a dimension to Ben's work? Is it to be a hobby, a way of maintaining better control over your work, a source of income?

  9. Yes, set up a podcast and link it to here, twitter, youtube and other sites you use.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.