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 The app, like a lot of others, is sadly a bit out of date and doesn’t support multitasking but you can ‘background’ by switching to Safari, which will do in the meantime (and is another reminder of how hopeless the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.
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.