Tag Archives: radio

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 The app, like a lot of others, is sadly a bit out of date and doesn’t support multitasking but you can ‘background’ by switching to Safari, which will do in the meantime (and is another reminder of how hopeless the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

WFMU

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.

The curatorial twitch

One of George Bowbrick's books - full of newspaper and magazine cuttings

My dad was book mad. He owned a couple of thousand books, mostly non-fiction. He was an old-school, working class, self-taught polymath, a bus conductor-know-all (I’ve written about his dictionaries before). And he had this habit. He would snip cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Almost daily he’d snip a story of some import and file it away inside one of his many books.

And there was method in this compulsive snipping and filing. The cutting always went inside a book of some relevance to the story – cuttings about Kennedy and Nixon inside an American history, cuttings about captured Nazis inside a book about the war. An Alan Coren column in a Thurber collection. Some books were bulging – mum and I used to laugh as we pulled a book down from a shelf and a confetti of cuttings fell out.

But this carefully-assembled distributed scrapbook was pointless – an essentially write-only collection that was destined never to to be seen (the fact that the whole lot was destroyed in a flood at Christmas is just a melancholy full stop to the story). No one was ever going to read or reflect on these cuttings. And there’s an exact parallel with my dad’s manic clipping and saving in the universal curatorial reflex of the social networks. The three-stage process: see something interesting, read it and then – click – it’s shared. It’s a kind of twitch, already so natural that we’ve forgotten how we got started and when.

Sharing is now so part of the process that it influences the kind of content we absorb. I’d love the paywalls to work but I suspect they’ll fail because they short-circuit this curatorial reflex. I cancelled my Times subscription when I realised that being unable to share the marvellous stuff in there – Aaronovitch, Moran, Finkelstein – made it less valuable. I enjoyed it less because I couldn’t share it with my friends. The big publishers can’t ignore the curatorial habit – they’ll have to adjust their offerings to accommodate the twitch.

I clip and save obsessively too (is it a heritable trait?). Since we closed Speechification.com I’ve been posting things at Audiolibre.net and at /Reading. Audiolibre’s a bit like Speechification but I’m sticking to sound recordings that are free to republish. Public domain, creative commons, out-of-copyright stuff that’s explicitly shared by its owners (like the RTE programme that’s at the top now). And there’s plenty of this stuff out there too but it’s a bit of an adventure and I’m looking for new sources (send me your favourites).

And /Reading is a straight copy of James Bridle’s Mattins. He’s been reading bits of books he loves into his phone for a while now (although he’s evidently on a break right now). This is a twist on the trusted guide thing. I trust James to switch me onto writing I wouldn’t have met otherwise and the excerpt he reads makes the whole thing more vivid – and I can listen on the way to work. He’s been reading mainly fiction and poetry but I’m focused (like my old man) on non-fiction – and I’m trying to dig up stuff you won’t find on the non-fiction table at Waterstones. Like this out-of-print anthology of writing about the industrial revolution collected by Mass Observation founder Humphrey Jennings.

/Reading is more of an experiment – should I publish my reading with no commentary or should I add a short review or some context? Will people find my selections useful or are they just bleeding chunks too short to inform a decision? Is this legitimate recommendation or self-indulgence? Will publishers be OK with these short readings? /Reading uses Audioboo because it’s just so accessible (and because it’s easy to lift and embed the audio). For Audiolibre I’ve used an HTML 5 player which means it’ll work on an iPhone or an iPad. Both are available as podcasts and that seems like the right way to package this stuff.

I’ll keep collecting and sharing (because I can’t help it) and I’ll see what happens – tell me what you think and suggest new audio sources and books too.

Amazing Radio actually amazing

You might want to know: I work at BBC Radio but these are the opinions of a civilian radio nut and not those of the BBC.

I’ve developed a bit of a radio crush on a new station called Amazing Radio. Amazing‘s a national digital station mounting a head-on challenge to the music radio status quo. Unless you’re a radiohead like me you’ve probably never heard of it, though. And it’s worth a listen because it’s very different. For a start, there are no stars, no record labels and no ads. The station plays only music by unsigned artists, uploaded by those artists to the amazingtunes web site where it’s sold for 79p per track. The station even carries an ‘ethical’ label, presumably because artists keep 70% of online sales.

Listening is a fascinating, slightly disorienting experience. What you hear sounds like a conventional music station – music grouped into recognisable genres and linked in the usual, slick way by DJs (apart from the off-peak hours when the robots are in charge). The music goes out in familiar slots – there’s a breakfast show, a rock show and a chart show… But listen for twenty minutes and it’ll dawn on you that there’s something odd here: you haven’t heard any of this stuff before. It’s all new.

And listening to a radio station without the elemental familiarity of even the most ‘challenging’ conventional stations is a bracing experience. Tracks flow by without the contextual cues you’re used to: no history, no celebrity, no personal memories. And none of the credibility that comes with a play from a name DJ. Amazing DJs sometimes help by defining a track in terms of an established artist: “here’s a Crystal Castles-style track from…” or “if you like Florence…”

I’m a convert. I like the DJs and I enjoy the unanchored listening experience. There’s something compulsive about this stream of new stuff and you get a sense of the ocean of talent that’s out there waiting to be discovered – but I can’t listen for too long. It turns out that providing your own context is quite hard work.

And the experience highlights just how dependent we are on DJs and stations for their judgements and their stories and their categories. In fact, listening to Amazing helps to explain the function of mainstream radio’s unfashionable props – the cosy playlists and charts and the guiding hand of the DJ.

Amazing must be doing something right. The station has just tempted Trevor Dann, grizzled radio veteran and outgoing Director of The Radio Academy, to join as Director of Programmes (he’s been presenting a show for a while now). So I asked Trevor if he’d answer a few questions about Amazing:

Does Amazing represent an alternative to the mainstream, label-based music biz? A kind of parallel music economy?

Yes. We think of it as a music-based social network which takes the power out of the hands of the playlist committee and the A&R men and gives it back to the artists and their fans. In the digital world we need tastemakers and trusted guides but we don’t need gatekeepers.

Do you aim to break artists?

Yes.

If an Amazing artist crosses over and becomes a big star will you participate in their ongoing income – will you become a kind of label?

In tune with our ethical stance, we don’t seek to control or exploit anyone but we are here to help artists on their musical journey. First, they upload their material to amazingtunes.com. Then, if it’s popular on the website, it’ll be featured on Amazing Radio. If they get in the Amazing Chart and there’s a real buzz about them, Amazing Music may offer to help with everything from management and gig promotion to publishing and even record manufacture and distribution. But none of these services are compulsory.

If Amazing’s a hit, do you expect record labels to join in and upload tracks to amazingtunes? the way they came to trust iTunes and later Spotify? Will you encourage them to do so? Will you support a more conventional royalty scheme, for instance?

We don’t have any plans to broadcast music by artists signed major record labels. That model is in decline. Ours is the future.

It’s fascinating to hear a playlist assembled entirely from unplayed music with not a label in sight. How does the process differ from playlisting at a conventional station?

The playlist is chosen by the consumers of amazingtunes.com. There is some human intervention to prevent too much of one genre dominating the sound of the station and to take account of the time of day. But broadly speaking the playlist is ‘crowd-sourced’.

Will you build domain expertise? Hire DJs who have deep regional or genre knowledge? Will you give them freeplays? Will they become curators?

The ‘specialist’ presenters – Jim Gellatly (winner of the Radio Academy John Peel Award in 2008), Mark Ryan etc. pick their own music from the wealth of material on amazingtunes. I wouldn’t want to put words in his mouth but I think Jim in particular would be happy with the word ‘curator’. Part of his mission (and everyone’s at Amazing) is to encourage more bands to upload music so they can get airtime.

What does your research tell you about listeners? Who are they?

We are not part of RAJAR and we don’t publish any audience data.

What’s the natural audience for unsigned artists? Do you think that younger listeners are more open to unfamiliar sounds?

Feedback shows that our audience is very varied. It’s certainly not exclusively young or old, male or female. Rather like 6Music I think we have a very varied audience which encompasses old fogeys like me (and dare I say you Steve!), teenagers with an appetite for emerging music and everyone in between. I think the traditional radio obsession with demographics is rendered obsolete by a service like ours.

How about live shows? Will you add a few hours of live output so that DJs can interact with listeners?

We launch our first live daily show in January. Details shortly.

Is there enough good stuff out there to fill a radio station? Are you surfacing artists overlooked by the labels? Is an Amazing artist different from one with a record deal?

I’m constantly amazed by the quality of music uploaded. The radio station could fill its playlist many times over with really brilliant stuff from all over the world. The weekly review show I present has music from 7 different countries this week.

What do the labels and the collection societies think about the Amazing model?

We don’t know about the majors and don’t really care. We are licenced by PRS who have been very encouraging of our effort to give exposure to more talent.

Thank you Trevor!

  • Listen to Amazing on DAB (“just to the left of the BBC”, as they say on the station) and online.

The XX on working together

6 Music ran a lovely series of programmes about this year’s Mercury nominees. They did a simple thing and recorded the artists introducing the tracks, describing the inspiration and the creative process for each song. It’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary switched on. Superb night-time radio (and unimpeachable public service output – could a commercial network play out a whole album in this way?).

If you can lay your hands on a copy (it’s gone from the 6 Music site) listen to the episode featuring the XX. And not just because you’ll hear the quiet and entirely unjaded voices of THE FUTURE but also because you’ll learn something about the creative process that you’d have missed if you’d listened to the unglossed album a dozen times.

Many completely disarming glimpses of the teenage creative process – a keyboard bought for £3 on eBay, at least one song composed when Romy and Oliver were sixteen, the kind of completely obsessive attention to detail that must have had their parents typing ‘OCD’ into Google. And something about the epic luck of finding someone you can work with when young, and just clicking. They’re a quietly inspiring pair: I hear the kind of generosity and trust that makes a collaboration bulletproof.

And there’s also something here about A&R and a supportive, courageous creative context. I don’t know much about Young Turk/XL but to have given these rather unprepossessing kids the keys to the studio while barely out of school was a fantastically smart and open-minded thing to do. There’s the value of the whole, creaking, benighted music business in a nutshell, if you ask me.

Now watch them split up just after I click ‘publish.’

Picture by jamieleto. Used under licence.

Really suffering for your art

Everyone says music is getting more physical again. We continue to get our daily sounds from ever more insubstantial sources, floating above us like those glittering landscapes in Neuromancer, but we’re going to more concerts and festivals than ever and buying more stuff while we’re at it (merch. fancy limited editions. Even musical instruments are booming).

Turns out we love schlepping around for some actual, physical experience of music in an actual physical place as much as we love the disembodied bits. But there’s twenty-first Century physical and there’s eighteenth Century physical.

I’m reading a terrific book called 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (who died last year). And it’s essentially a catalogue of grim physical trials – of epic journeys (in horse-drawn carriages quite often bought specially for the trip), of intolerable living conditions and diabolical food provided by hateful grandees who never paid their bills, of mysterious debilitating illnesses and (of course) of lives cut short by service to art (and to miserable patrons). The book’s full of enervating phrases like the one at the top (which is from an account of a dinner performance by Mozart) and:

The mail-coach with four horses left Vienna at eight o’clock in the morning and took three days, with twenty-one post stations, to arrive at Prague in the morning

(a trip to Prague to perform at a coronation). And here’s a job ad from Vienna in the period:

A musician is wanted, who plays the piano well and can sing too, and is able to give lessons in both. The musician must also perform the duties of a valet-de-chambre…

(My italics). And then, of course, there was the final, ghastly physicality of his early death:

Suddenly he began to vomit – it spat out of him in an arch – it was brown, and he was dead.

(and that’s from a book based on his wife’s recollections, quoted by Landon).

What I’m left with is an image of the musician as grafter, as under-appreciated, barely-recognised labourer in the fields of art. Sacrifice, privation, hunger, physical collapse – evidently the necessary preconditions for creation in that golden age.

Taking a tin opener to a BBC meeting

There’s a big quarterly departmental meeting at BBC Audio & Music Interactive (which is where I work). We call it the ‘departmental’ and it’s always a pretty big deal – the magnificent Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House is the venue and it goes on all morning, spilling out into surrounding conference rooms for smaller sessions.

Tomorrow’s is about innovation and we’ve taken a small step to opening it up to the world by encouraging participants to use Twitter to talk about the meeting, to ask questions of speakers and to provide their own ideas for discussion. We want people from outside the BBC to join in too as the morning unfolds.

You can see the discussion on the BBC Internet blog, which we’ve hijacked for the morning. Join us there if you can and, if you’ve got a useful insight about innovation or a question for participants, share it by tweeting with the hashtag #amint.

Five nines? No nines at all, more like

Twitter error message

A very long time ago I ran a web-based email service (allow me to tell you about it one day). It was moderately successful and, before the latter unpleasantness it had well over a million users and substantial traffic and brand awareness. I learnt one really big lesson from that particular experience, though: never run an email service. It’s a mug’s game. The problem is that email is essential infrastructure.

For email users it’s like dial-tone. Pick up the phone: if you don’t hear dial-tone what do you do? Do you say: “Hey, no problem, I’ll try later”? No. You say “what the fuck’s wrong with the phone?” “Hey everybody! the phone’s out!” “Shit. Did society collapse? Was there a nuclear bomb?” and so on. No one is sanguine or relaxed about a phone outage. Likewise with email. If clicking ‘send’ doesn’t work first time or if you get no email at all for fifteen minutes you’re pretty soon popping veins in your neck.

Phone networks and email systems have to be reliable. In the telecoms world they call it ‘five nines’. They mean that a phone network has to up 99.999% of the time and they engineer their systems to deliver this. Email systems are now engineered to the same standards. And it’s not cheap because the 80/20 rule applies.

Keeping your network up for 80% of the time costs about 20% of your systems budget—piece of cake. The difficult final 20% costs 80% of your budget (and it’s actually probably more like 95/5). And that’s before you’ve spent a quid dealing with the legion of bottom feeders firehosing your servers with spam. Like I said, it’s a mug’s game. And this explains why email provision is consolidating fast and why even big in-house systems are being outsourced to specialists.

Which brings me to Twitter. As you know, Twitter’s clever for all sorts of reasons. I’ve gone on about Twitter here before: I think it’s the most important application to appear on the Internet for years—possibly since the web itself. Seriously, I do. But it’s especially clever because the Twitter experience has been engineered so that users aren’t really bothered if it’s not working. Even big users (I would count myself as a big user) can live without it for a few hours, even for a day or two.

Nobody uses Twitter for anything important and, although it supports direct messages between users, it’s principally about the buzz of daily life—so even a longish period of extreme flakiness like the one we’ve just seen barely spoils the experience. Twitter’s remarkable achievement is to be important enough to produce addiction but nowhere near important enough to produce a phone call to the complaints department. Twitter’s a long way from five nines and it doesn’t matter at all.

What is Speechification?

Here are some words I wrote to prompt me in a meeting that Russell and Roo and myself went to at the BBC yesterday. It was like the nicest pitch meeting you’ve ever been to. Lots of important and interesting people from the Internet side of the BBC asked many questions and made many suggestions: a really open and positive reaction to what we’re doing with BBC stuff at Speechification and Watchification. Thanks especially to Jem Stone and to Sophie Walpole for putting it all together.

What is Speechification?

It’s curation. For years now visionary-types have been saying that pretty soon people will be curating media. Well, we’re actually doing it. The world’s just been waiting for a large enough and accessible enough bank of content to play with. So we roam the corridors of the BBC’s archive selecting the stuff we think is really excellent, unusual or important and putting it on display at Speechification.com.

It’s cheeky. We definitely push at the edges of what it’s OK to do with BBC content and we do this not because we’re pirates or vandals but because we want to exert some gentle pressure on the corporation’s leaders to do the right thing about rights, access, archiving etc.

It’s shareholder activism. Greens who want to influence the behaviour of smokestack corporations buy a handful of shares and show up at the annual general meeting to heckle the board. We don’t own shares in the BBC but we’re licence fee-payers so we’re at least stakeholders: opinionated, supportive stakeholders.

It’s a celebration. The BBC’s speech output is one of the glories of British culture. I don’t want to sound smarmy but listening to an evening of great programmes on Radio 4 is a privilege: the kind of condensed emotional and intellectual experience that leaves you smiling without knowing exactly why. We want the world to know about this stuff.

It’s unofficial PR for the neglected stuff. Mark Damazer is on record as saying that Radio 4 doesn’t do a good enough job of marketing its own output. He’s dead right. More than once we’ve featured programmes at Speechification that go out at ungodly hours, don’t have any useful information at bbc.co.uk and weren’t important enough to warrant a press release. We’re often the only people to write about a show anywhere. For these shows we’re an unpaid marketing department. We should bill them.

Radio stars

Lovely_Shoreditch_small.jpgLiverpool_Street_Station_sm.jpgMatt_Hall_at_Somethin_Else_.jpg
To unlovely Shoreditch via lovely Liverpool Street Station with its disfiguring retail warts (the station concourse and train shed remain beautiful but only if you hold up your hand to block out the ghastly sediment of Sock Shops and Soup Shacks up to about first floor level) to meet Matt Hall (pictured), head of radio for Somethin’ Else and Tamsin Hughes, top radio producer, to talk about… a radio programme. What else?

Somethin’ Else is a success story of the post-independent-production-quota broadcast landscape. Despite the economic slowdown and the recent dot.com unpleasantness the firm still produces hundreds of hours of TV and radio for the Beeb and other outlets (including British Airways jets). They’re responsible, for example, for one of the BBC’s biggest external commissions, Jazz on 3 and for Channel 4’s Black Like Beckham.