Five radio station iPhone apps

Dandelion Radio

Dandelion Radio

Update, 30 June. Paul Webster, on Twitter, prompted me to stick a sixth radio iPhone app in here at the top of the post: a lovely app from Dandelion Radio, the online-only indie music streaming service ‘inspired by John Peel’. He’s right, the app is lovely and although Dandelion’s licence only permits live streaming (no on-demand audio), the app has some lovely geeky extras, like real-time track info and data pulled in from MusicBrainz and other sources while you listen. Highly recommended.

Most radio station apps are hugely boring – just a marketing must-have or another tickbox on the platform strategy. And besides, the whole idea is evil – radio should be out on the open web, not in miserable single-platform ghettos. And there’s no reason why it should be, of course. Visit the BBC Radio 1 web site on your iPhone or Android device and you’ll experience something with the integrity of an app but with no download. It’s just a beautifully-crafted mobile web site.

But, in the meantime, let’s not be dogmatic. Let’s accept that radio stations have good reasons to build their own apps and that some of them are all right – even lovely. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of simple radio listening apps, for every genre, language and country – from Cuba to South Korea – but I’m not interested in those. Here are the five radio station apps* I like best:

RTE Doc on One

The RTE Doc on One strand is one of the jewels of world radio. Multiple award-winning home to gorgeous, humane, intelligent documentary radio.

The app does one thing really well – you can listen to hundreds of full-length programmes from the archive (including programmes from Ronan Kelly’s equally important Curious Ear strand which is home to the less predictable, sonically interesting stuff). I spend a lot of time in the Doc on One app and I’ve still only listened to a fraction of the programmes on offer. The app, like a lot of others, is sadly a bit out of date and doesn’t support multitasking but you can ‘background’ by switching to Safari, which will do in the meantime (and is another reminder of how hopeless the whole closed app store model is).

This American Life

If you’re a card-carrying member of the Cult of Ira you’ll definitely need this one. It’s the whole enchilada, all in one place, and it costs a couple of quid, which supports the programme, so you’ll get a warm feeling. Every radio show (TV shows too, if you like that sort of thing) plus blog posts and some odds and ends of audio from the old days – including the early NPR appearances of David Sedaris who got his break here, courtesy of Ira Glass. This American Life is hugely influential everywhere in speech radio and you’ll often hear voices from Radio 4, RTE 1, CBC Canada etc. in the shows.


I fired up the WFMU app while cleaning my teeth this morning and (I kid you not) it dropped me in the middle of this twenty-five minute recording of a lecture by semiologist of pop culture Roland Barthes (in French) from 1978. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the WFMU app. You get access to live and on-demand content from the the best freeform radio station in the world. Mostly music, on a chaotic, essentially incomprehensible schedule (even the station’s web site calls WFMU ‘dysfuntional’), from every conceivable genre, but always with an experimental/weird vibe. My favourites are Benjamen Walker’s brilliant Too Much Information, MAC’s amazing Antique Phonograph Music Program (definitely the only place you’ll hear wax cylinder recordings every week) and the occasional eructations of Ken Goldsmith’s Ubuweb (from whence came the Barthes).

CBC Radio Canada

This is pretty much your bog standard radio station app – access to live streams from the CBC stations plus audio from CBC TV (which is weirdly OK). But this one’s got CBC Radio 3 in it, which makes it inherently interesting because Radio 3 is a fascinating attempt at a redefinition of a national public service radio station. Radio 3 plays only music by new Canadian artists so it’s a kind of explicit reinvestment of public money in national talent, a ‘Buy Canadian’ drive on a massive, 24/7 scale. Fascinating and slightly disorienting. There’s something faintly anthropological about looking in on a nation’s musical culture in this hermetic form. I’m not sure if it really works. Could it work in the UK, for instance? A kind of round-the-clock BBC Introducing? I don’t think so.

Radio France

The Radio France app is beautifully put together with live listening for all the Radio France networks including France Bleu (the local radio network) and lots of extras, including news bulletins pushed to your phone (which are in French, obviously) and access to videos and podcasts for each network. FIP is my favourite station: a kind of chic 6 Music, with an impossibly eclectic mix of music delivered in cleverly-themed chunks – and not a crusty former rockstar-cum-DJ in sight. The perfect soundtrack for your next salon or hipster soirée kind of thing.

This list necessarily excludes a whole generation of radio station-substitutes – Mixcloud, Last.FM and Audioboo to name but three. Apps that offer a mobile audio experience in many ways richer and more provocative than even the most freeform schedule-bound radio station could. Another blog post, I think…

*And yes, I know that not all of these apps are strictly station apps (one of them doesn’t even belong to a radio station) but they’re closely associated with stations and represent old-school radio brands in app-land so that’s good enough for me.

From the NASA archive

Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are pictured during water egress training in a large indoor pool at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas, in this image from 1965

I love this 1965 image from NASA’s archive. The caption reads:

Gemini Water Egress Training. Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are pictured during water egress training in a large indoor pool at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas. Young is seated on top of the Gemini capsule while Grissom is in the water with a life raft. Waiting in the rear, Frankie “bow-tie” Kornacki, Grissom’s bookmaker, patiently awaits payment for a string of bad college football bets. Grissom prolongs training, suggesting “another go-round”, hoping to avoid the expected unpleasantness

Click the image for a bigger version.

Is that it for the PC?

A vintage IBM PC

The latest Mac OS is the first that can only be bought from an app store, from a tightly-integrated, locked-down, official source. I reckon that’s pretty much it for the free-range, open platform we call the PC.

Googling myself the other day, I found this article from The Guardian nine years ago.

It’s about the unexpected persistence of the Personal Computer. My point was that the general purpose lump on your desk was already then a dinosaur, overdue for replacement by:

a swarm of gadgets variously attached to your person, colonising your home (at about ankle height), discreetly re-stocking your fridge or representing your interests on the net while you sleep.

The anti-PC forces were then strong, or at least numerous. You had thin-client efforts from Oracle, Sun and various startups, a bunch of clunky ‘Internet-on-your-TV’ products (got some of those in my loft), WAP stuff and the first generation of web apps that offloaded your PC’s functions to the net. So, even then, things didn’t look great for the PC.

But, I proposed, the PC persisted because it offered us a kind of autonomy and control that was profoundly liberating. The PC (in its various flavours) had, after all, entirely changed the world for a lot of us about twenty years previously, precisely because it was a blank slate, an autonomous zone. Do you remember the rather daunting feeling of powering up a new computer in those days? The “What do I do now?” feeling that forced you to a) learn a programming language, b) publish a fanzine or c) write a screenplay – because there simply wasn’t anything else to do. I said, back then:

…for the young, the PC is a liberated zone, a place of permission, autonomy, creativity and of almost unlimited possibilities. Very few man-made things can ever have carried so much meaning, condensed so much value and potential for action.

But now, nearly a decade after that article and thirty years after the revolution began, it looks like the PC may finally have reached its sell-by date. The whole complicated, liberating architecture is collapsing. Steve Jobs used the phrase “the post-PC era” in his keynote on Monday. A BBC manager told me the other day: “we’ve done some research, the PC’s finished as a platform”.

And its replacement doesn’t look anything like as liberating. That ‘swarm’ of devices has arrived but without the messy, unfinished, frankly out-of-control software/hardware ecosystem that produced the generations of iconoclastic hackers and creators busy remaking the world for us in business, politics and culture in 2011.

It drove us all crazy while we fought with it to install printers and format newsletters and debug compilers but we’ll remember the stack of hardware and software that makes up the PC as a place of enormous freedom – to tinker, to modify, to fix, to build and invent.

And will the new, closed platforms evolve into sophisticated tools for creation and invention? Probably. But will they also limit our access to the hardware, close off the OS and force us to add new functionality and content via monopoly commercial gateways? Yes they will.

And what kind of creative culture will emerge from the next thirty years of gorgeous, integrated, properly-finished but utterly closed platforms? Will these post-PC platforms diminish the impatient, inventive hacker mindset that the old platforms produced? Or will the geeks just invent a new one and move on?

David Hepworth – a Q&A about curating music

It has been my privilege, over the last few years, to write a few pieces for Britain’s best music (and arts and movies and stuff) magazine The Word – including, a couple of issues back, an article about the curation boom (my articles went the way of all flesh, of course, when David and Mark closed The Word, but here’s one about my early Internet life that I scanned).

The magazine’s publisher is David Hepworth (its editor – and the man to whom I tremblingly submit my copy – is David’s long-time publishing partner Mark Ellen). David oversees the selection of tracks for Now Hear This, The Word’s covermount CD: a monthly curatorial gem that regularly stays in our car CD player for the whole month (until the next one comes out).

I asked David a few questions about this rather successful example of 21st Century music curation (and also about his Saturday morning vinyl curation habit #platterday).

SB: tell me about the Word covermount. How does it come together each month?

DH: It’s put together by Andrew Harrison and Alex Gold with ideas thrown in by everybody else.

Are you extensively schmoozed by label PRs? Do bands send you stuff?

The record business is on the bones of its arse but you wouldn’t know that from all the stuff we get sent. Yes. PRs are instructed to try and get certain acts on the CD. it’s one of the few places where they can place unheard music and assure it gets heard.

Are there punch-ups in Word Towers about who’s on it or do you keep it all to yourself until its done?

No punch ups. You chase thirty tracks and you can’t get all of them. You might get twenty possibles which you edit down to fifteen. You need a mix.

What are the economics of the covermount? A few years ago everyone seemed to have one – and the newspapers went mad for them. How do they work?

Newspapers etc. have them for totally different reasons. They pay big money for music in order to outsell their competitors. Eventually they realised that the likes of Prince were taking them for a ride. They cost a lot of money because you have to pay mechanical royalties with them.

What’s the fate of the covermount? Will you replace it with a memory stick or a Spotify playlist?

No. It works because it’s a physical object.

Supplementary question: tell me about #platterday. Is it a model for publishing in the social media era or just what you do with a bacon sandwich on Saturday mornings?

I just got out my old deck and loved restoring the ceremony of playing black vinyl records on Saturday morning. Twitter just seemed an obvious way to share that experience. I posted a picture of a shelf full of my records and people started saying “oh play that one” which is clearly insane.

What is curation in this new sense? Is it different from being an editor?

I dunno. What I’m always trying to do is say something that doesn’t sound like the usual over-heated recommendations. It’s very hard. I find 99% of recommendations don’t actually convey anything about the nature of the thing recommended at all. They’re just endless variations on the expression “it’s brilliant!” Saying something meaningful about music is very hard, that’s why most people don’t bother.

Is there a business in it?

Shouldn’t think so.

David keeps a rather good blog of his own and curates a storytelling night called True Stories Told Live.

UPDATE: I asked David why he no longer picks the tracks himself. He says:

I did it for three years and was only too delighted to pass the job on. If you choose the tracks you have the unenviable job of writing the accompanying blurbs, which is like pulling teeth.