Noisy beds

John Humphrys in Liberia

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?

Radio 4’s Pick of the Week – all at once

All the clips from Radio 4's Pick of the Week stacked up in Garageband

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.

You’ll hear: Supermarket Symphony (Radio 4), Composer of the Week, Gian Carlo Menotti (Radio 3), Barbara Windsor’s Funny Girls, Hylda Baker (Radio 2), George Bernard Shaw, Widowers’ Houses (Radio 3), Bird Fancyers Delight (Radio 4), Afternoon Play, Gilda and her Daughters in Looking for Goldie (Radio 4), Twenty Minutes, Romance (Radio 3), Down and Out in the the City of Angels (Radio 4), The Robeson Files (Radio 2), Johnnie Walker meets Neil Diamond: New York City Born and Raised (Radio 2), Tim Key’s Suspended Sentence (Radio 4), A Hundred Years of Mervyn Peake (Radio 4), Afternoon Play, Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You (Radio 4), Desert Island Discs, John Graham (Radio 4) and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (Radio 4).

Getting used to the new BBC Radio 4 web site

I know I work there so my impartiality is hardly to be relied on but I’m not a member of the design or tech teams at Radio 4 and I’ve only worked at the BBC for a few months.  I had nothing to do with the redesign and I’ve had no special tours or guidance so I met the new Radio 4 site at the same time as everyone else.

I’m a forty-year Radio 4 junkie (I was a small child but I can actually remember the day it stopped being the Home Service!) and I’ve used the Radio 4 site daily for years so I’ve been thinking about abusing my editor’s privilege and chipping in with my own experience of the site so far. I discussed this with some colleagues and everyone thought I ought to do it here, on my own blog, and not on the Radio 4 blog (where I’m editor) where the response to the new site has been almost universally negative and I might just wind people up.

To begin with, I’m enjoying exploring the new site. After a couple of weeks of wandering the corridors like the new boy, I’m getting it. I’ve been systematically trying out the different ways of finding programmes (partly because I’ve been ferreting out programmes for unhappy customers). Via the schedule; via genres and formats on the Programmes page; via home page promotions and also via thematic tags and it really does make sense.

Finding programmes. I’ve been finding myself clicking ‘Schedule‘ and jumping from day to day using the calendar, scanning for programmes available to listen to out of the corner of my eye (the bright pink iPlayer flag helps here – lovely bit of subliminal signage). For a pool of content as large as Radio 4’s (probably the largest of any radio station in the world, remember) this is fast and efficient navigation – probably my favourite way around the programmes. I can think of some improvements, though. I should drop into the schedule at the current time, for instance, so I don’t need to scroll.

I find genres and formats – which are a totally new addition to the site, inherited from the BBC’s wider information architecture – more difficult. It’s a bit of a pain to have to stop and think which genre a programme belongs to. And these categories are pretty baggy because they have to accommodate all of the BBC’s output, including television, so they often feel arbitrary or even contradictory. You’ll also find lots of empty ones, since quite a lot of them only work for television (‘Reality‘ and ‘Animation‘ for instance). I have enjoyed exploring the genres, though, with no particular object in mind, when I’ve had a minute to spare. This is how I discovered Stuart Hall’s lovely contribution to Great Lives on the ‘Discussion and Talk‘ page, for instance, when just kind of wondering what it was.

I’ve also been using the alphabetical lists under ‘Programmes‘ a lot and switching between ‘all’, ‘current’ and ‘available on iPlayer’ display modes depending on whether I’m looking for something to listen to or for something historic. There’s definitely something reassuring about knowing that absolutely everything is there (the catalogue of programmes on which the site is based is definitive) although that makes it doubly frustrating if I can’t play a programme when I get to it (as happened last weekend when there was a big iPlayer snafu).

Podcasts are much easier to find. I’ve already signed up for two that I didn’t know existed: Sunday and The Report and the integration with programme pages is much better – clear and predictable, so you’ll always know where to look for a programme’s podcast. A big improvement over the old, essentially random arrangement.

A lot of unhappy users have been lamenting the loss of the old ‘Listen Again‘ feature, which was essentially a jumbly list of most currently available programmes. I can see their point: it was a comforting sort of thing, like a worn sofa, and there’s no obvious replacement for it in the new site. I can exclusively reveal, though, that there’s a reasonable proxy here: a page that’s not actually linked to from anywhere in the site but which can be persuaded to display all currently available Radio 4 programmes on one page. I’ve bookmarked it.

Content. It’s frustrating to find ‘dead ends’ – programme pages that used to have lots of content but which now just have the automatically-produced stuff but it’s also quite exciting to anticipate how Woman’s Hour, Analysis, Crossing Continents et al will fill their new pages. They will now find it easier to do too, so we should see more interesting pages quite soon.

Leigh has pointed out that all the content from the old programme pages is still available via links at the top or side of each programme page but I’ve found myself jumping out and searching for programmes using Google’s site: syntax to drill into the site quickly (and there’s nothing wrong with Googling your way into a very large proportion of all traffic to BBC pages comes from search engines anyway).

Design. This one’s easy: almost anything would have improved on the old site: it was miserable, narrow and dark. In the two weeks since it went away I’m pleased to note that I can hardly remember it. Good riddance (with appropriate acknowledgment to the many good people who laboured in its sepulchral confines over the years: it was a great web site five or six years ago!).

On the new site, I love the chunky and open top-third of the page especially – makes browsing a pleasure – and I think it’s an excellent opportunity to give the BBC’s awesome picture archive some room. I’m really looking forward to seeing this new space used creatively. I’m intrigued to note that it took me a while to notice the content right at the top of the page, though – above the Radio 4 logo – including the vital ‘ON RADIO 4 NOW’ and the little green plus sign that reveals what’s on next.

When you’re using a browser these days the top inch or so of your screen is all horizontal bars – menus, bookmarks, navigation and search, plus various plug-ins and add-ons. It’s easy to lose additional horizontal bars. I think I was unconsciously assigning these page elements to the browser because of their horizontal orientation. I wonder if the design team will consider giving them a more prominent look.

Summing up: there are some frustrations – especially in the loss of content and archives – but I’m enjoying the new site and I think the new design and architecture are a clear improvement. Programme makers and interactive teams now have a really useful framework for their content. All they’ve got to do now is fill it with good stuff.