Features

My media habits: Charlie Blower, Blak Labs co-founder

Charlie Blower, co-founder and managing partner of the independent creative shop Blak Labs, waxes lyrical on his likes and dislikes across all media channels

Blower is a man of many tastes

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“I love reading the news in print. While the local newspaper here in Singapore suffers from a time delay, the morning paper gives me the chance to see what’s happening in the market – everything from property launches to banking to cars etc.

“Digitally, the BBC app is my go-to news source. While it may be United Kingdom-centric, I feel it does its best to give a global overview.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely?

Actually, I prefer to hear the news on the radio, on the weekends, on the BBC. Usually when I’m driving somewhere. It’s the only time I can actually claim to multi-task effectively.”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“Short. Because it’s relatively easier to filter.”

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great?

“Not a journalist proper, but a columnist I enjoy reading is Mark Ritson [the marketing professor from Australia]. He provides clarity and a strong point of view in an industry that is all too prone to suffering from a case of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view?

The Sarawak Report that broke the 1MBD corruption story in Malaysia proves that there’s no substitute for dogged investigative journalism. More recently, anything to do with Facebook and ‘fake news’.

“Although long ago, one used to read publications like The Onion and Private Eye for a giggle now everything comes at you in a vicious shouty clickbaity newsy style content cycle that gets in the way. All thanks to social networks.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to?

“The Straits Times and the Times of London digital edition. I used to get Private Eye too, about a month late. But the post from the UK killed that.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix?

“It’s not one over the other but a combination. Netflix and Starhub/HBO for Game of Thrones. Supplemented by tablets and mobile because now with streaming and apps, you can take these entertainment channels with you almost anywhere you go.  

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity in terms of discovering fresh content not aligned with your previous preferences?

“Recommendation engines/algorithms are quite good for some things, but I actually prefer serendipity when it comes to new stories. Sometimes through word of mouth, other times by stumbling around the web/emails or flipping through magazines.”

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you?

Bohemian Rhapsody. The Live Aid part. It shows what a great performer Freddie Mercury was and how special Queen were. Plus it reminded me of how much we overlooked them in favour of other more contemporary ‘cooler’ bands at the time.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing?

“Before Netflix was available in Singapore, House of Cards and Game of Thrones on cable. Now with Netflix, I’m already halfway through Narcos: Mexico.

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television?

“I have a laptop, an iPhone and iPad. But I use a Kindle reader on my iPad and iPhone. I watch Netflix on a smart TV, on iPad and occasionally on the phone. I listen to Spotify on iPhone in the car, on Sonos at home and laptop at work.

“We all want our content with us at all times – on every device. A bit like an entertainment security blanket. Otherwise how else will we satisfy our entertainment needs? Oh, I remember – by looking up and out of the window, across the street, people watching, ignoring the screen.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?

Creative Mischief by Dave Trott is always refreshing. Bob Hoffman is entertaining too. And I’m a big fan of Jack Reacher. In print.”

So Kindle or hard copy?

“Both.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music?

“Spotify, to find long-lost songs from my past. Or I listen in to my kids’ playlists – to see what’s new.

“Though I still have vinyls and CDs, despite my better half’s desire to keep our home clutter-free.”

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

“The wonderful thing about Spotify is that it creates weekly playlists for you. That takes care of the decision-making – you choose a mood and go with it. But it doesn’t always get it right. And that’s where you step in and fast forward.”

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space?

“Extremely. But nowadays everyone seems to stick content, music, films etc. up on the web so that everyone has access. That doesn’t mean you should be nicking stuff.”

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?

“We now have the ubiquity of content thanks to Facebook, YouTube, etc. And all we need to do is to give our time and consent to be data-mined — not a good thing.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation?

“Much as they say they’re not, they are media channels that just happen to use you and your friends as bait.”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

“The algorithms help create the echo chamber. And of course, humans make it so. But humans can occasionally do it better. Thing is there is just so much crap to wade through nowadays – just look at The Daily Mail and the National Enquirer, for example.

“However, our brains are becoming super-screeners at detecting the bullshit and zipping on to the next thing. Which is why I’m more likely to watch or read something recommended by a friend.

“But I must admit, I clicked on sponsored trailers for First Man and Bohemian Rhapsody because they were in my feed.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“Blimey, that’s asking for a big finish. I watched the AI news anchor the other day. And while it is an amazing innovation that will undoubtedly improve it is also unpolished, devoid of emotion and never takes a breath.

“It gives new meaning to the 24-hour news cycle. Imagine that reading headline after headline without pause. Makes me shudder.

“That said I have an inherent distrust of most of what’s being recommended – in restaurants, supermarkets and stores. The same applies to my news and entertainment, especially when it comes from a machine.”

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