Radio 3’s Ian McMillan was on a special edition of the Radio Today podcast all about the station the other day. Turns out he’s a connoisseur of the podcast form. He gave Trevor Dann a list of his favourites:
You hope it’ll be seamlessly social: a nice, natural flow from online to on-air and back again, with social features that are as confidently crafted as the on-air stuff. Not endless shout-outs and retweets, no ‘in the next hour’ or ‘how was your weekend?’ updates. No blather, no cheesy vanity activity from presenters.
You probably want a visual element – something to watch on your phone that’s not a ‘studio cam’. Something that expands on the in-your-ears element without attempting to be TV.
You’ll want smart integration of on-demand, downloads, streaming music. Producer and presenter working to extend the life of the programme outside the slot, carrying it over onto other platforms and into other contexts, growing the show’s footprint.
But really, more than all that, you’ll want it to cut through – to feel current, confident, connected. All the tricky-to-define stuff, the real magic of a great music show that’s about authority, empathy, exactly the right blend of warmth and energy.
As ever, the laboratory for all this stuff is Radio 1, where the Saturday night schedule (which is a simulcast with 1Xtra) has just been refreshed. Younger voices, brought from other parts of the schedule, with all the stress and tension and the weight of expectations in their first night voices.
You could almost hear the senior management lurking in the studio, trying not to overstate the urgency of the update, being cool about it, reassuring everybody. But it’s a pretty big deal. Saturday night is where the competition is at its most intense, where innovation has to work hardest to sustain radio’s relevance. The stakes are high.
Music radio’s all tension and release. Building anticipation – highs and lows strung together to keep things moving and bring listeners along with you. Mary Anne Hobbs’ breakfast show on 6 Music this morning was built around a classic music radio high – the long-awaited record release.
My Bloody Valentine have a new record out (seasoned hacks are getting emotional) but things have changed. The band released their new record online, direct to fans, with no build-up and no radio station exclusives. So Hobbs, in the studio for the station’s first live programme since the release, had no advantage over listeners, no head start at all. But it’s OK. It turns out you can still do exciting radio around a new record, even without an exclusive.
@bowbrick we bought it this morning from the band’s website
Hobbs and her producer downloaded the track with the hordes of MBV nuts doing the same thing (enough to crash the MBV web site, natch) – and played it out with all the excitement of fans. The buzz came from the shared excitement of that moment. The reactions of fans who’d already heard the track became part of the build-up. It was a shared moment. A post-social radio moment. Lovely.
I love a bed. I should leave it to a radio production expert to explain what I mean by a bed, but since I don’t have one to hand, a ‘bed’ is the radio term for sound (usually music) played under the presenter’s voice during a link. In music radio it stops things going dead, keeps the pace up and provides a bridge between tracks. Sometimes it’s specially-recorded – and then it’s usually the kind of super-bland library music that’s designed to be unobtrusive, secondary to the presenter’s message.
But that’s old hat. Current practice (at least in pop radio) is to use a real track (an intro or outro) and to play it pretty loud. I think Zane Lowe‘s beds are the loudest in the business (go on, contradict me). He plays his bed so loud he has to shout to be heard over it. And that’s the point.
He sets up a competition with the music. It’s as if he’s challenging the music to a fight. It’s exciting. An adrenaline rush. Check your pulse after a really noisy Zane Lowe link – your heart will be racing.
You need to be confident to do this, though – a rookie DJ couldn’t set up that fight for fear they’d actually lose. So as Zane gains experience and stature I think his beds are actually getting louder. Pretty soon you won’t be able to hear him at all:
6 Music‘s new boy, Gilles Peterson, likes a fairly loud bed and in his new show I’m pretty sure they’re louder than they were when he was on Radio 1 (although I’ve only got one week’s output to go on, so don’t quote me). Is he trying to tell us something? Is he starting as he means to go on? Kicking things up a gear to make an impression in his new job?
I’m going to be listening. If his beds get quieter from now on it might be because he misjudged and overshot to begin with. If they get louder or stay the same it’ll be because the show is a hit and he can take more chances, push things a bit – especially in his more forgiving new home on the digital station:
This week’s best bed wasn’t really a bed at all. It was the lush and frankly rather disorienting background noise during John Humphrys’ links from Liberia on Wednesday’s Today Programme on Radio 4. It’s a marvellous idea: Humphrys is going to present the programme from Liberia several times over the next year.
The programme is exploring the idea that Africa is on the verge of a boom, that things are about to change for the better – and quickly. And they’ve chosen Liberia because, although the country’s struggling in all sorts of ways, it’s not a hot-spot. There’s no war, no famine. It’s ‘Middle Africa’.
So, unless someone in Liberia builds a sound-proofed studio soon, we’re going to get used to the lovely bed of crickets, birdsong and passing traffic that brightened Wednesday’s programme substantially.
And in radio terms, it’s a hard-working bed. It’s providing information about the context (“hey, we’re in Africa”) and a useful contrast with the programme’s acoustically-sterile home-base back in London. And it provides authenticity – the kind of auditory cues that prove the programme’s on location and make the output more vivid. I’m really looking forward to the evolution of Today’s Liberia bed. Will it be eliminated? Or will it evolve to represent the programme’s location in interesting ways? Will the sound vary? Will it remain the same across the whole year?
The ‘Spirit of Schubert’ finished a week ago. It was Radio 3’s biggest ‘takeover’ yet – over 200 hours of output devoted exclusively to the work of Franz Schubert. Every one of his ‘performable works’ was played, many in brand new versions, some for the first time ever. It was a remarkable thing – and for a Radio 3 new boy, a very inspiring and energising lesson in Radio 3’s values.
And that brings me to the required disclaimer. I work at Radio 3. But planning for the Schubert began before I joined and my concern is principally with the interactive stuff, so I can’t claim any credit for the idea or for its on-air execution. So I’m not neutral but I think I’ve got enough distance from the thing to offer some observations. So, here are my six reasons why the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ was awesome radio:
It was a pure radio phenomenon. That’s worth remembering. A radio station did this. The radio industry seems to have more-or-less ignored it but it was a huge, joyful, all-consuming radio stunt. Not the first but quite possibly the biggest ever. And I’m pretty sure you couldn’t do this on TV – you’d have to steamroller too many appointments and it would be far too expensive. Radio rocks!
It was a public service wonder. The kind of resolutely public service activity, in fact, that justifies the UK’s hybrid radio ecology and should have made executives at Classic FM as happy as those at the BBC. It was immensely brave – testing the limits of both station and audience (over 1200 performances, nearly 700 of them songs!) but I firmly expect the net benefit to be positive, both for Radio 3 and for radio in general – it raises the profile of radio and reminds everyone that singular, courageous content can still come from the senior service. Incidentally, I think it’s instructive to compare ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ with Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame‘ – two editorially-ambitious classical music offerings that bridge online and on-air and, between them, neatly define the quite exhilarating range on offer from UK radio right now.
It was editorially sophisticated. It was excellent radio. BBC values were on display everywhere. The composer’s story was told in many different ways, using the tools of the scholar and curator, of the music broadcaster and of the radio storyteller. In content terms it was a triumph, presenting the life and work of an individual in ways that will, for some listeners – me, for instance – have been life-changing.
It was packed with innovation. The season saw a step change for Radio 3: in integration of social media, in multiplatform production, in new storytelling techniques and programme formats, in on-air promotion of online content, and in production areas like computerised playout and programme metadata. And that’s just the areas I know about. It was a hothouse for new stuff, much of which will stick.
It made exceptional use of the station’s assets. Dozens of hours of live performance, big OBs from unusual locations, deep music scholarship and a team (on both sides of the glass) comfortable with a big story.
It was real storytelling. An immensely satisfying, impossibly engaging story. Reading the overwhelmingly positive reactions online, many talk about ‘falling in love’ with Schubert and about the emotional difficulty of the final stages of his story and – especially – about missing him now that it’s over. It was the kind of bridge to a distant historic period that you can’t get from a one-hour doc or an evening of output. The word is overused in broadcasting but if ‘the Spirit of Schubert’ wasn’t a ‘journey’ then nothing is.
Highlights. There were many. I loved the nightly Play Schubert for Me – a presented show that blended listeners’ voices, records and live performance beautifully. Really sophisticated night-time radio. The In Tune Salon – a frankly unlikely mix of musicology, history and performance set to a drivetime rhythm that really worked and was only occasionally overburdened with music (there was a lot to get in!). The Schubert Lab – quite a feat: upbeat, fun, live radio packed with real musical scholarship – and packaged in shortform nuggets that will thrive in the long tail.
And, if you don’t mind me highlighting some content from my area: @FranzIsUnwell – the clever and moving use of Twitter to tell Schubert’s story (a Caper production for BBC Radio 3) and the highly-immersive library of ‘Schubert Lab’ videos, an entertaining learning tool that will continue to inspire indefinitely (and should be added to the music curriculum at schools everywhere!).
And the station was on fire throughout. There wasn’t a single slack or lazy minute in the 200 hours of output. Sitting in studio 80B‘s booth – as I was lucky enough to be able to do quite a lot during the eight-and-a-half days – what I saw was a radio station bursting with confidence and passion for its work. It was glorious.
There’s a handy round-up of all the online content from the ‘Spirit of Schubert’ on the Radio 3 blog. Richard Leeming, who produced the interactive element of the season for Radio 3, wrote an interesting account from behind the scenes.
A remarkable story about Victorian platform innovation
Radio is in flux. The first digital radio platform – DAB – is in danger of being eclipsed before most of us have even bought one. The second wave is evolving fast, but widespread Internet radio is years away so radio stations are investing in web sites and mobile apps. Meanwhile, audiences for radio everywhere are steady but looking fragile and everyone’s waiting for a persuasive package of content and convenience to justify the switch to digital. And billions of cheap-to-own FM radios constitute a huge impediment to switchover.
130 years ago, nearly thirty years before the first public radio broadcast, at an international electrical exhibition in Paris, entrepreneur Clément Ader prototyped a package of content delivered via a new platform, the telephone. He called the prototype a ‘telephonic opera’ service because opera performances were the primary content (just as they had been in Zurich in 1878, when a performance of Don Pasquale was relayed via telephone only months after its invention). The prototype became a commercial product later in the decade under the name Théâtrophone.
Subscribers to the service, including, I kid you not, Marcel Proust (in his cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Hausmann), dialled in from their home telephones (a technology that was only a decade old itself) and asked to be put through to one of the participating theatres. They then listened to the evening’s performance live. In stereo. At the time of the original demonstration, Scientific American said:
The singers placed themselves in the mind of the listener, some to the right and others to the left. It’s easy to follow their movements and to indicate exactly, each time that they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be.
Two separate telephone lines delivered signals from two stage microphones: one right, one left (this Wikipedia entry suggests eighty microphones and, since they weren’t really microphones, just crude acoustic receivers, that doesn’t sound unreasonable).
A subscriber to an equivalent service in London, Electrophone, described the process:
You lifted your ordinary telephone receiver and said ‘Electrophone please’ and in a moment you were asked which theatre you wanted and in another moment you were in your armchairs around the table listening to musical comedy at the Adelphi…
Theatres, music halls – and, later, places of worship, all over London were wired up to the Electrophone exchange at 34 – 35 Gerard Street in Soho and Electrophone attendants (we’d call them Studio Managers or OB engineers) were stationed in each to position mics and connect subscribers.
If you’d lived in Budapest in the 1890s (and been a wealthy gadget freak) you’d have subscribed to a service called Telefon Hírmondó which, you’ve got to admit, was startlingly like a modern radio network, with content organised into ‘channels’, a daily schedule (including stock quotes, local press, finance, theatrical and sporting news) in addition to the usual operatic performances (what is it with the opera?). There were children’s concerts, acts of worship, folk music, recitals. Advertisements, inevitably, were inserted between juicy news items. The company employed 100 people, with job titles like ‘editor’ and ‘programme controller’ and, at its peak had 6,000 subscribers.
But what’s remarkable for me about these services (there were dozens worldwide) is how closely they resemble the ones we’re building now on The Internet. Clicking ‘play live’ for Radio 3’s nightly live concert is essentially the same as asking the Electrophone ‘attendant in charge’ to put you through to the Wigmore Hall – a personal, two-way circuit connecting you to a live event a long way from home. Nineteenth Century opera nuts were using two-way telepresence to enjoy remote performances that were significantly more immersive than what was to come from terrestrial radio decades later. The spatial separation and specially-designed in-home kit (the ‘Electrophone table’ and Théâtrophone’s special receiver) that came with these services must have made these experiences extraordinarily vivid. Vivid enough for Proust to listen to a performance of Pelléas and Mélisande all the way through in 1911.
They even had pretty sophisticated tiered business models – an extra £5 per season for Covent Garden, for instance (no freemium as far as I can tell, though). These pioneers built a highly immersive Victorian cyberspace on the first of the really big wired networks – and, let’s face it, mostly because they misunderstood what people would actually wind up using their telephones for. The implications for the services we’re designing and promoting now set the mind reeling.
A week ago I speculated here about what listeners might do with BBC radio content if allowed to play with it. I came up with something quite linear – a kind of listener-curated Pick of the Week. Here’s something a bit more playful (or dumb, depending). It’s the fifteen clips from Sunday’s Pick of the Week, selected by Graham Seed, all at once.
Click play to hear the cacophony. I think it adds up to quite a pleasing, BBC radio-shaped lump of sound – and another way of expressing the variety and unpredictability that is BBC radio. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could provide tools for listeners to play in this way? Respectful apologies to all the programme-makers involved (and to Graham Seed too, of course).
It’s not entirely unproduced – I stacked the fifteen clips as tracks in Garageband, trimmed them all to 30 seconds each and then staggered them to come in at four-second intervals. This means that the maximum you’ll hear at once is eight. There are no fades, apart from the final clip, which seemed to need one.
It was a quite brilliant weekend for BBC radio – so much good stuff that really stood out. Loads of radio that wasn’t just gripping, interesting, entertaining but was also sonically fascinating – a uniquely radio experience. Sounds that I really wanted to share. Another testament to what’s unique and different about radio (and BBC radio in particular, obviously).
And it got me thinking about how you get people to share great radio, to tell their friends about it, to spread the loveliness. At the BBC, we’ve got ‘sharetools’ (the palette of social network links you’ll find on most BBC content pages these days) and embed buttons and these days there’s quite a lot of content that you can download and keep forever but rights and agreements and regulation make it difficult for us to allow listeners to share the actual sounds. But could we allow listeners to go beyond ‘liking’ our stuff and encourage them to lift clips, assemble montages of good stuff and share them with friends? I mocked up a sort of sample montage from the amazing output I heard at the weekend – no clip is longer than about twenty seconds and the whole thing is less than four minutes. I’ve added in a little linking element between clips – the kind of transition you might offer listeners to pick from a menu if you built a tool to do this.
Would you share BBC audio in this way? Would you go to the trouble of curating a montage like this if BBC radio provided a tool to do it? And what form would a tool take? A button on programme pages? An addition to the transport controls in Radioplayer? A mobile app?
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:
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).
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).
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.