If you’re a commuter in London, you’ll have much literature thrust upon you as you trek into work. One of the publications you’ll know well then is London’s Evening Standard, which is evolving and broadening its reach into broadcasting. London Live will be The Big Smoke’s first 24-hour, seven days per week entertainment channel and it’s backed by Evgeny Lebedev who owns the Evening Standard, The Independent and its offshoot, i newspapers.
With a line-up to include local news, current affairs and entertainment, it’s not the only contender for fickle audiences. Or is it perhaps a more discerning audience, which is adept at channeling its viewing habits dexterously between mobile, TV, lap/desktops and tablets. London Live includes Raw, a programming strand which it hopes will encapsulate the improvising, spontaneous creativity of the capital. It’ll broadcast late evening to feature the burgeoning talent you see cropping up with regularity via the Internet. Raw has already scooped up some cream to include Nothing to Something, Spit TV and Brothers With No Game. Raw’s creator is Derren Lawford, a Commissioning Executive at London Live.
I asked how’s he feeling driving this new entity?
It’s not very often you get to be asked to be a commissioner on a brand new channel with a blank sheet of paper. It’s a privilege and a very exciting one. I helped launch BBC 1Xtra (Radio); I helped to develop a new strand of programming for BBC3 and I helped launch Global iPlayer for BBC Worldwide. With London Live it’s different because it’s a brand new business, it’s a brand new channel and it’s an opportunity to do something different. So the scale of the opportunity, I haven’t encountered.
Derren’s CV is dotted with a strong list of firsts, start-ups and launches. Is he specifically attracted to new things?
It’s partly me being interested in those things and those things being interested in me. With this one I was on the panel for the Broadcast Commissioning and Funding Forum last year about editorial innovation. I was at a company called Livity (youth engagement agency) at the time. Jane Mote, Launch (Programme) Director here (London Live) and Stefano Hatfield who’s the editorial director; they approached me. I thought well that sounds interesting, let’s have the conversation and now I’m here.
Derren always wanted to write and be a journalist from the age of 13 he says. He started his career as a news reporter at The Voice newspaper after a stint of work experience there. The Internet is so pervasive it’s difficult to imagine a time without the ubiquitous www. moniker in everyday language. What challenges and changes has Derren seen in the industry?
I think if you’re from a diverse background and you want to work in journalism or in newspapers then places like The Voice are always going to give you an opportunity. It’s not an opportunity that should be underestimated because they’re a national publisher. So that means where there are events of national importance that relate to a diverse community you get all the broadcasters getting in contact with you. I remember being on the news desk and having people from the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph calling me. You’re at the same press conferences as those people so it gives you great access.
The challenge now is that people are much more skilled at entry level. It doesn’t mean that they’re able to do the jobs any better than people before, but they have more skills. The bar is quite high now in terms of trying to get in. You have people who say “I can shoot, I can edit, I present in my spare time.” We have a young guy here called Jolade (Olusanya) our technical runner who can shoot, he can edit, he does spoken word he does a million and one different things and he’s not unusual, that’s just how he and his friends are. They consume media in lots of different ways and so naturally when they’re studying and learning skills they’re developing them all at the same time.”
Derren has been and is a beneficiary of mentoring and here he discusses its importance…
If you are looking for a mentor then you should be looking for a mentor not because you want them to help you get a job, you want them to help you realise how you can get yourself the best possible job – and there’s a difference. Only you are going to get yourself hired, but someone that’s got more experience can tell you the things you could do to develop yourself to make that a more likely outcome. Conversely mentoring people, especially people who are younger and on the surface more inexperienced than you in certain areas is rewarding because you – well for me personally, it’s nice to see people develop themselves. So you go on a journey with them. Also I just like people, so when I’m mentoring it’s a chance to have an interesting conversation. I learn quite as much from them as they do from me. It’s something I enjoy doing.
Speaking of mentoring a certain Jamal Edwards of SBTV crossed Derren’s path. What does he think of Jamal’s career trajectory?
It exactly what it’s about. It’s about helping people to be as good as they possibly can be – I can’t take any real credit for Jamal’s success. Our paths crossed at a fortuitous time for us both and that’s very often how those relationships happen. I was developing a multi-platform project for BBC3 and then a friend of mine who worked for the industry she was like, “There’s this guy Jamal he does SBTV, I think he’d really benefit from working with you”. So I met him and said I’d benefit from working with you because you’re a director, producer, editor, promoter, marketer, all in one person and you’ve created a community and a movement and a brand that is recognisable, by yourself.
I set him a task to do ten original music freestyles about prison. In my head they needed to be people that you could play on Radio 1 or 1Xtra. You would have that cross-fertilization between the audience but still feel credible to the audience that he (Jamal) had on his channel. He gave me his ten, I looked at my ten and there was a match of about seven. He was banging on at me about three people. He said, you need to watch out for Ed Sheeran, Wretch 32 and Maverick Sabre. I got Maverick Sabre to do something with me. Couldn’t get Ed ‘cos he was busy. I didn’t go for Wretch. In the end out of all of them that’s the one that I regret the most because I didn’t see what Jamal saw. Literally about a year and a half later Wretch has got number one, Ed’s got number one. I saw Ed performing at The Brits and then in the advert break the first advert that comes out of it is Maverick Sabre. That’s what I saw in him (Jamal) he definitely had an eye for talent and creating engaging content. It’s good to see someone thriving.
What does Derren think will make Raw unique?
Other broadcasters are dipping their toes in this space whereas I’ve just dived in. Another broadcaster might do something online, or they might do something on YouTube, or they might get a YouTube-er to do a thing once. I’ve gone to as many different people in the online space as possible and said let’s try and make TV together. That’s one distinctive feature different from other peoples’ output. The diverse range of faces behind and in front of the camera. Brothers With No Game an all black production company and pretty much all black cast. The T-Boy Show, the production company, all of the cast, most of the story is to do with the black diaspora. A lot of the stories in Nothing to Something are about successful black Londoners talking about how they made it. We’re working with Grime Daily as well.
The significant thing is most of the things I’ve commissioned don’t really have anything to do with race. Brothers With No Game, no man can say they’ve had a faultless experience with women, it’s a universal thing. If you take T-Boy, which is about a young British-Nigerian boy coming to London, we’ve all moved away from home, we’ve all had to live in a completely different circumstance. Most of us, in London anyway have had some sort of multicultural social group. So it doesn’t really matter where they’ve come from it’s the aspirational message. That’s the thing that is distinctive. We’ve been able to find great diverse talent irrespective of what it is that they’re making programming about.
So does he think that ‘traditional’ broadcasters see black people with ‘black’ stories only?
I don’t know. I think it’s always easier to relate to what you know. It’s easier for me to relate to all the people I mentioned because it’s the kind of content that I would consume so I don’t need to make a conceptual leap. Conversely, if you ask me to commission a 14th century period drama about the English aristocracy, I’d probably get that all wrong. In terms of managing your own career, I think it’s the extent to which you as a person are promoting the right things about yourself. I worked at Radio 1, then I worked at 1Xtra and then when I moved to TV, I had a choice. I could have worked on The Clothes Show, I could have worked on another niche series, or I could have worked on a documentary about divorced parents on BBC1. I picked the divorced parents on BBC1. Then I did Watchdog, after that the Royal Chelsea Flower Show. What does that say about me? I’m willing and able to do anything. So when people look at you they say you’re willing and able to do anything. I think people should ask themselves to what extent they’re prepared to do that.
“Don’t pull the ladder up behind you” is a quote bandied about your name. What do you think was meant by this and do you agree with the sentiments?
The full context of that was at Diversify (conference at BAFTA) and it was on the panel and I actually said that Michelle Matherson who worked across a range of things at the BBC but at that time worked in Talent Management, did more than that she looked out for people and tried to help them along their way and was an unofficial mentor. Michelle stopped me say halfway in my BBC career and said “You’re on my tracker.” She had an unofficial tracker of people she thought were interesting. Wherever possible she would suggest things for me to do, people for me to meet, people to meet me. It’s no small part due to her that certain certain doors were unlocked for.
It was at the point I got into a semi-senior position she said “Derren don’t forget that you’re doing well but don’t pull the ladder up from behind you, make sure that the opportunities that you’ve been given that you can try and give other people those opportunities too”, and I do try to. It’s always good to remember that. This industry is small and you really never know where you’re going to bump into people again. Conduct yourself in an appropriate manner, treat everyone as you would like to be treated, and if one day that person who was the runner ends up being your boss then they’ll probably treat you in the right way.
What are ‘traditional’ big-boy broadcasters doing wrong ?
There isn’t that much stuff on TV, so when things are on TV they get a disproportionate lens on them. I see it from all sides; I see it as someone who has developed stuff, is commissioning stuff, who’s produced stuff… I also see it as someone who’s advised people to get stuff on television. The challenge is that these are national broadcasters so they have to reach a national audience. It’s not always easy to know what has specific cultural appeal yet could still reach a wider audience. The BBC tried a few years ago, with The Crouches [BBC1 2003, created by Ian Pattison; cancelled after 2 series]. You may not like how they tried, but they tried. You can’t say that the BBC putting on a sitcom in a prime-time slot is not an attempt. But the backlash is such that it might make them cautious. You (also) have something like Shoot the Messenger [written by Sharon Foster, BBC Films, 2006] which was written by a black writer but still caused a stink.
The challenge is how do they know to do which is right? One of the ways is having more diverse people through the work force. It’s not about getting the right kind of people in and through the entire system. That recognition is there because otherwise you wouldn’t have the senior mentoring scheme from the CDN [BBC Academy/Cultural Diversity Network launched 2011]. I directly benefitted from that. I was a Multiplatform Executive at BBC3 looking to progress my career. They gave me Sky’s Sophie Turner-Laing as my mentor. But I was very specific, I said I want guidance from someone that can help me build my network of contacts across the entire industry and had a ridiculously proven track record of success to give me the best possible chance of emulating that. Also I had great mentors within the BBC. That’s why it’s always quite difficult for me to answer that question. If you say to me what has the BBC done wrong in diversity, I say, they got some things wrong but they got some things right. There are lots of people who are not from a diverse background that play an absolutely instrumental part at key stages over my career over the 12 years I was at the BBC. They don’t get on panels and shout about it; they’re not looking for medals, it’s just what they do.
Who’s helping with the scouting for talent for Raw?
It’s people making that kind of content contacting me. The young guy I was telling you about Jolade, before he was a staff member here he was doing work experience and in my first week I was starting to meet people. He’d come up to me and say “Is that so and so… was that so and so?” I was like, “…so you into all that stuff? Okay why don’t you send me some links with some stuff you’re into”. He sent me Brothers With No Game. I watched the episode immediately, I asked Jolade to get me their details. I emailed them within two to three days. Had them in the office about a week later. We probably struck the deal from point of Jolade sending me that link (in) weeks. You know, I was probably late to them, a lot of people knew about Brothers With No Game before I did. I don’t profess to have all the answers; I just hope to have conversations with anyone that thinks there’s great talent out there.
What would Derren say to any new talent looking for an all-important break?
You can email ideas into London Live (email@example.com) or email me direct I make myself readily available If you look on my LinkedIn the first thing you see on my summary is my email address. Come straight to me and I will respond. I’ve had people somehow get my mobile number and cold-call and pitch me on the phone and I’ve taken those calls. What I would say is that if there are filmmakers, if there are documentary makers out there that want a chance to show what they can do, I’d love to hear from them.
What kind of legacy would he like to leave for London Live and in his own career?
Well, I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon! If I’ve helped London Live become Londoners’ favourite channel in any way shape or form then I will have done a good job and if that means all types of Londoners from any background feels that the channel represents them in some way and if I‘ve played some part in that, then I’ve done my job.
London Live launches today, find out more via their website