“The Hidden City”: innovative media, innovative approaches to heritage.

The team at BCU have been asking their contacts across education, music industries and related businesses to write-up short blogs about issues and activities that will be of interest to the various partners on the Leonardo project as well as other interested readers.

One such organisation is 470 Media which is run by two graduates of the Birmingham School of Media Chris Williams and Steve Thornton. With experience of radio and music businesses, they work in a variety of fields that innovate around sound production and online presentation. Their work offers innovative ways of presenting information, often dealing with the kinds of heritage and educational strategies of importance to IMMHIVE.


They describe their company as one which produces:

intimate online content, promoted using powerful social media techniques, made successful through the greatest attention to detail.

Nominated for a Sony Radio Award in 2011 and shortlisted for Best Emerging Brand in 2012 […] Fourseventy Media believe that by providing creative marketing and media support for large organisation, as well as charities, is an important part of what defines us as a professional, community orientated, friendly company.


This is Steve’s account of a current project.


The Hidden City: Telling stories in a different way.

I’ve been asked to discuss a current, local project that began last year following a failure. This can be considered as fate, an act of a higher force or just luck.


The project in question is The Hidden City.


The Hidden City came about after 470 Media co-founders, (myself) Steve Thornton and business partner Chris Williams had been beaten to the punch in attempting to create a radio documentary on Birmingham super group ELO.


As radio specialists, we were trying to follow up a previous Sony Radio nomination for our work on UB40’s 30th anniversary of ‘Signing Off’, but realised access to the people that would make the documentary that we desired, was out of reach and had already been completed.


Why we wanted to create another documentary is down to our passion for radio.


Our background is audio and particularly stories, telling them, discovering them and finding out what makes people and communities the way they are.


Getting inside a person’s life has a certain voyeurism about it and something, which we find fascinating: the human-interest stories that are told on a daily basis and shared through the varying media platforms.

This coincidence of how things unfolded that began with failure, or however you wish to see it is where The Hidden City came about.


What is The Hidden City?

The Hidden City reveals the Midland’s lost, forgotten or untold stories. It is a locally based project that looks at communities, individuals, history and heritage of varying subject matter. This is what is important to us and why we wanted to document stories about our city.


We wanted to find out- why is the city the way it is? Who are the people that influence our city: past, present or future?  How do these affect the city’s cultures?  These are the questions we ask when doing the project and collating stories to share with the wider community.


As well as going out into the public and creating content, The Hidden City also gives the local community a voice, encouraging them to tell their stories and submit them as ideas for potential future projects. The project is therefore the city’s as much as it is ours. We want to be seen as providing a platform to use when uncovering different stories, no matter how old they may be.


Therefore, crowdsourcing stories opens avenues of research into our local history and heritage, but particularly from the project’s perspective, focuses on stories that others don’t tell. This, untold nature of the stories we collect, may be seen as a disadvantage or question why these stories?


Why do you want to uncover stories that aren’t deemed as newsworthy? Telling what others may not wish to know?


Media institutions tend to feed us what they think is relevant; the producers are in charge of the topic’s content and style that shape our viewing in what we see, hear and read.


Now we are not suggesting that we are all sheep!  We are fully aware that individuals have the intelligence to seek what he or she feels is representative of their personal interests, their tastes, in what type of media we consume.


Recent cuts in the media and seemingly similar stories covered in our local news, really brought the value of the project home for us and underlined why it should be created and why it is a necessity.


With more and more media agencies unable to report on true local stories hyperlocal bloggers have begun to fill the void. By their very nature, their audiences can be very small, but the stories they uncover can be equally, if not as important, as national headlines. Local media and consumption/creating media has dramatically changed over recent years and the growth of  ‘hyperlocal’ blogs suggest how communities reach out to one another, popping up all over the city (and in online spaces), reflecting their locations in dealing with local issues that matter to them. In theory this provide a communities very own news outlet that’s focused and relevant to its members.  A lot of this information is however written and used as blog entries, something we realise was hugely important, but at the same time, we wanted to offer something different in how we would document stories.


We just wanted to tell stories that we thought Birmingham deserved to know about, the real stories of human interest, character and discovery and from the real people of the city.


We believe it is important to bring to light the people who have, or continue to make a difference in our city. The events that have changed the way we look at our community. The stories that we believe should not be lost to time. No matter how difficult, or challenging those stories might be to tell.


How we do this is through the ‘photofilm’.


What is the photofilm? In its simplest term, a photofilm is an audio documentary with pictures. Other media institutions (BBC, Guardian, FT), use these, to engage with their audience and for us it seemed the best way to tell a story and also to gain the attention of our potential public – as contributors and consumers.


Using the photofilm also separates the project’s media form from what we consider regular news/story telling that we tend to digest in the form of a newspaper, recorded footage, and audio only.  The photofilm requires a different level of engagement through its make up of still imagery and listening to the narration/commentary (audio) as the imagery unfolds. This medium is known, as a hybrid of traditional ‘sit forward’ media (e.g. watching TV) and ‘sit back’ media (reading a paper). The photofilm’s middle ground requires attention from the eye and the ear and opens up and asks questions of the viewer.


Our intention when creating this type of media is to ensure that the viewer always goes away with questions or memoires of a shot, a particular comment or both from a photofilm on a subject or person.

(Here’s the UB40 slideshow we did on The Hidden City site)

Where are these stories?

Each story is pinpointed to a location on an online map that highlights a database of stories, past or present, that are hidden away within our community – these can be related to Music, Arts, Culture, Science… anything.


Using an online map to locate each story, The Hidden City hopes to become a populated media project that works on two levels- our production level and personal contributions, but as a portal of community and freelance ownership through submissions.


The more stories we can locate and pin onto the map, the more areas we can populate, the more we get to know about our city and its make up of different communities.


Our project is growing and our intentions are changing from our original vision.


Our next aim is to develop the key relations between existing hyper-local bloggers in how we document stories, using these skilled and knowledgeable individuals/groups and taking their expertise in order to grow the project into their existing channels of communication. We would also like to teach these people and the wider community how to make photofilms so we can then use these stories for archiving and showing Birmingham in a different light for future reference.


We also hope to use mobile technology to geo-locate areas of Birmingham that then opens up the project to the public to view stories anywhere they are, not reliant on being in front of a computer screen. We want people to be able to stand at a place, enter their location and watch stories around them when they want, teaching them about the city, its areas and uncovering the heritage and history that may have been forgotten.


A typical Hidden City story is Tiny Dancers based on an OAP Irish line Dancing group with audio production by Aaron Howes and photography by Chris Jones and Dan Johnson.

Birmingham has a strong Irish community which forms the heart of its Irish Quarter. Join us at the ‘Irish In Birmingham Activity Centre’ as we grab an insight into how one group of the Birmingham-based Irish community have been working hard towards the upcoming St Patrick’s parade. Following after New York and Dublin, Birmingham’s St Patrick’s Parade is widely accepted as one of the world’s largest, with over eighty-thousand visitors each March. So let’s see how one group of ‘Yeehaa Grandmas’ plan to cause a stir and celebrate with a show like no other.

 From a project that started from failure, to a project that hopes to offer Birmingham and the West Midlands a new way of viewing and mapping their city through the eyes of the people that make it, what it is.  This is The Hidden City.