Saturday 13 December 2008

New BBC Radio homepage

This week we launched a brand new homepage for BBC Radio on the web. Apart from looking pretty good in the new wide template, and giving quick access to the full radio offer - national, nations, local and world service - the main reason to celebrate is that it manages to expose so much more of our content than the previous version, and almost totally in an automated feed-driven manner.

The top half of the page is driven by data feeds from /programmes, which provides "now on air" information including a short description of the current and upcoming programme (more here). We also allow users to access lists of programmes by music genre, speech genre, or alphabetically, all via /programmes. Then we have some space for some editorially chosen links to key programmes or events.

Lower down we've pulled together feeds of latest published podcasts from across our national radio networks, then most recent blog posts, and lastly a marketing driven "recommended" iPlayer feed pulled in from the main iplayer site.

None of this is rocket science or particularly innovative, but it's a nice development which is updated 24x7 by existing data feeds. Thanks to DUK for design work, and a great team including Sarah Dain, Richard Moreland and Paul Duncan for getting it live so quickly.

Any comments or thoughts on it appreciated.

Saturday 6 December 2008

TV of 2008

Lots of good things this year. Here's what mostly got me setting the PVR:

1. Entourage
Probably the funniest US import on TV, with proper characters, proper stories and proper laughs. Ari Gold is a genius invention.

2. Mad Men
Excellent period ('60's) drama with nice dark elements. Try and keep up with their drinking!

3. Little Dorrit
The BBC doing what the BBC does well.

4. Spooks
The most recent 7th series has been a real step up. They pack a huge amount into 60 minutes. Characters you love get killed. Inconceivable that this kind of drama would have been made 10 years ago. Topical, tense and of course completely unrealistic.

5. Heroes
Can anyone actually follow the story lines in series 3? Still good, but needs to be a little more, err, understandable.

6. Later with Jools
Let's not forget that 2008 saw the new live 30 minute format. It works a treat and leaves you wanting more, which is not always true of the full 60 minute version.

7. Never Mind The Buzzcocks
OMG. The funniest thing on TV made in the UK. Simon Amstell, I salute you: you have given me more TV laughs in 08 than anything else.

What have I missed?

Saturday 22 November 2008

Datz music lounge - another music subscription service that's not good enough

I had fairly high hopes when I first heard about Datz: long term subscription service for as much digital music as you want. Pay £100 for a year of unlimted downloading of music not only from indie labels but the majors too. That's actually less than I currently pay for my eMusic subscription which offers no major label music, so I was gearing up for a change.

But hang on. Now the details are emerging and things are not looking so good. Principally, it's the usual problem in this space, which is that not all the majors are on-board. EMI and Warners, plus some major indies, but nothing from Sony and most importantly, Universal. Which, given Universal's dominance in the market, means Datz is not nearly as attractive an offer as it might have been. To commit to upfront spend of £100 I'm guessing most people - certainly me - would have to be pretty sure that they were going to get good value from it. But with only 2 majors the offer is going to inevitably by patchy. I won't even mention the fact that you can't download an album in one go but have to find all the tracks and download them separately, as I can only assume this is a technical issue which will be ironed out. If it isn't, someone should be shot.

All this got me thinking what my ideal music subscription would be, and how much I'd be happy to pay for it. Yes, I know, paying for music might make me seem odd and frankly old-fashioned in these days of bit torrent and limewire, but as I've said before, I'm happy to pay for music because I value it so highly. Am I getting enjoyment out of the new TV on the Radio album? Yes. Am I therefore happy to pay for it? Yes. Simple as that really.

So, what would work for me?

Firstly, and I may be unusual here, but I'm up for a regular subscription. It's a bit like paying your household bills by direct debit - it's just easier and is less hassle, and cheaper. I also know how much I'm going to spend, which helps budget planning.

Secondly, music is music and at the end of the day I don't care what label it comes from - the biggest major or the smallest indie or in fact unsigned. So, don't confuse me with only offering me music from some labels but not others. This is the equivalent of exposing the inner disagreements of an industry to the public - unneccesary and undesirable.

Thirdly, give me good recommendations. Learn from what I've downloaded, and listened to. Don't try to offer me the latest from Rhianna or Leonna Lewis (as Napster does) as that will just piss me off.

How much would I be willing to pay for this? Well I'd certainly stump up what Datz are asking for - £100 pa - and in fact I'd probably be happy to pay more if I could get all of the above. £20 per month is about the maximum I'd be happy with now, which is £240 pa. That seems high, so let's agree on a round £200 pa.

So why don't all the major labels get together, and offer their own subscription service which delivers a great service for people willing to pay? There's nothing out there doing this, so I'm confident they'd be on to a winner. It wouldn't even need to be unlimited, as long as the cost per track was reasonable - which means less than the 79p iTunes charges.

Here's a thought: why don't the majors buy out eMusic and make it their own? They could be up and running in a few months using existing serving and billing infrastructure.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Albums of 2008

Here's my draft list of top albums of the year. It may well change, especially as there are still some big releases not out yet. What have I missed?

In no particular order:

Sigur Ros - "Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust"
Uplifting, beautiful, incomprehensible

Laura Marling - "Alas I cannot swim"
All the family love it

TV on the Radio - "Dear Science"
Strange mix of styles, but it works

Fleet Foxes - "Fleet Foxes"
Where did this music come from?

Robert Forster - "The Evangelist"
Because I love the Go-Betweens

Hercules and Love Affair - "
Hercules and Love Affair"
Bizarre but addictive

Ambulance - "Accident and Insurgency"
Nice... really

MGMT - "Oracular Spectacular"
Old + new = fun

Updated 22/11:

Bon Iver - "For Emma, Forever Ago"
Sublime melodies, pure accoustic sound

Any recommendations or things that I should have included?

My listening can be tracked on here

Saturday 18 October 2008

Artist pages and radio

N.B. these are my own views, not the views of the BBC.

Soon - early in 2009 - we will be fully launching into beta our new artist pages on, as blogged about by Matthew Shorter and Tom Scott. In a nutshell, these pages will be the BBC's definitive or canonical page about that artist, with a permanent url, which will aggregate all the BBC has to offer about that artist. They will also pull in various 3rd party feeds of data, which is useful, but the key thing is that they point towards all relevant BBC content. So, like Oasis? There's one page which you will be able to trust to point you to all current Oasis content on Liking Oasis, btw, is a mistake, but I'll leave that for now.

We've been busy sorting both technical and what could be called, err, non-technical issues out (data accuracy, work flow, compliance), with an aim of a launch likely to be February 09. This is a really exciting development for me, as it'll be the first really big step towards our aim of linking up programmes and music in a positive way.

So, what are the benefits of this?

Let's think of some scenarios to see how our new artist pages will help people, and the BBC.

1. People. Many people search on artist names. Artist names are some of the most searched for terms - that's not opinion, that's fact. Currently, you would be very unlikely to end up on despite the fact that there may well be exclusive high quality content waiting for you there. This is down to the unique way in which the BBC has so far run it's website - suffice to say it's not exactly optimised for search and aggregation. With new artist pages hoovering up google juice in clever ways, we aim for our results to dramatically improve. Which means the person searching on an artist may well end up on, and from that landing page may well end up on radio station site where they can watch, listen, read etc. The key thing here is that this will attract people who may not have any relationship with our brands or talent, or be a user of In BBC terms... extending reach. Nice.

2. BBC radio reaches many millions of people every week. Quite a few of these people are interested in what music is played. Some of them are interested enough to go online to find out more. Luckily we offer lists of the music we play for nearly all of our "specialist" shows (often these are evening or night time shows which don't play the most well known music, such as Gilles Peterson) and some of our more mainstream shows. Currently, these tracklists are useful to an extent, in that they will tell you what music we played, but after that it's pretty much a dead end. People don't like dead ends. I don't like dead ends. I want to be offered the chance to go further if I want. I want good links. Which is after all what the internet is all about. Our work will allow these radio tracklists to become lists of links through to the relevant artist page (track pages will follow at a later date). So if you want to find out more about the artist that you heard about on the radio - and many do - then you can simply click through to find out what else the BBC can offer you, and at the same time get some very useful basic info such as a biog (from wikipedia) and a discography (from musicbrainz). How useful I hear you say! Exactly, I would reply. Oh, and there will be tracklists for all shows, not just some of them.

And because we know how important brands are, we are making sure that the relevant BBC brands are given full credit for both playing that artist, and for creating great content about them. So it's a win-win situation - audience get a great service which means they are more likely to come back often and recommend the site to their friends, and the BBC benefits by being seen as a good source of music information and content. And the brands benefit because the content is all fully branded and credit given.

3. Programmes. Artist pages will also really benefits programmes. By linking our programmes with music, this is just as much about programme discovery as it is about music discovery. People will start by wanting to find out more about the music they have heard, which they will be able to, and because we'll be reflecting our programmes love of certain artists, we can point people to relevant programmes they may never have heard before. For example, I start by wanting to find out about a band called MGMT. I end up on our MGMT artist page and find out that Steve Lamacq has a show on 6Music which happens to play quite a lot of MGMT, so I end up clicking through to listen to his latest show on-demand. Nice.

4. Artists. Lastly, it seems fairly obvious that it's not just audiences and potential audiences and the BBC who will benefit from this. The artists themselves who have frequently put alot of time and effort into appearing on our programmes will benefit because their fans, and new potential fans, will be able to discover their contributions on the BBC, whether that's a live session or an interview. And because we have a remit to link outside the BBC as much as we can, we will include a link to the artists official site and other good sites about that artist. Which means we will naturally send traffic to official artist sites, where people will have different opportunities to engage and perhaps even purchase music, tickets or other merchandise.

So, artists pages on, a good thing for all.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Recent podcast listening

For no real reason other than list-making, here's a list of my most listened to podcasts in recent weeks:

I'm also liking the The Media Show podcast (Radio 4) with Steve Hewlitt, but it's too early to really say as it's only just launched, but it makes for quite a good 30 mins listen so far. Interesting comparison with the Guardian's Media Talk (also often featuring Mr Hewlitt) - one very prepared, researched, with lots of "experts", the other 3 journalists chatting and generally being less than objective.

The Word podcast is an interesting one - terrible sound quality, no structure, no planning, just 3 middle aged blokes (sorry Matt) sat around in their office having a chat. It sounds like you are eavesdropping on them talking in the pub or round a dinner table, which I guess is the beauty of it. Once you get over the poor sound quality you ignore it and get lost in anacdotes from Mark Ellen, David Hepworth or the excellent Andrew Harrison.

I've been trying to work out if there's any unifying feature or consistency about these podcasts, something that might point to what makes a "good" podcast, and I've found two consistent things: none of them are particularly time sensitive - they all have a shelf life of about a week if not more, and none are longer than about 45 minutes. Some are broadcast radio programmes, some have never been near a transmitter. Some are high quality professional recordings, others recorded in a garage. So my only conclusion is that these are all pieces of audio that I value highly enough to download, synch with my iPod, and most of all, spend time listening to them. The important word in that last sentance was "I": this is a very personal form of media, listened to almost always on my headphones. In this case, it really is all about content that works for me.

I'm sure I'm missing lots of fantastic podcasts... so suggest some new ones.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Scheduled podcast listening?

Now this is strange. Podcasts are meant to free us from linear broadcast schedules, and from broadcast-receiving devices such as, err, radios. You can listen to podcasts anywhere you want, at whatever time you want. Total freedom from the old broadcast schedule world. Fantastic.

So, why am I finding that I have, without thinking about it, created my own listening schedule almost (but not quite) as rigid as a broadcast schedule like this. For example, I nearly always listen to the wonderful Mayo & Kermode film podcast from Five Live whilst lying in bed on a Saturday morning, about 8.30am. I've been listening to this podcast since the very first edition several years ago now, and I reckon 90% of my listening has been at the same day/time. Likewise, I pretty much always listen to The Guardian's Media Talk podcast on a Monday morning.

Clearly, it's not rocket science to work out why: it's just a habit I've got into in the same way that I always wake up to Radio 4's Today programme. Freed from any place or time constraints, I still choose to effectively listen at a scheduled time. OK, it's a scheduled time of my own making, but it's still a scheduled time.

Not sure if this has any significance at all, or if it's just me that does this, but it's fairly amusing when you think of it.

Thursday 7 August 2008

The Verve at Maida Vale

Last night I was lucky enough to get on the guest list for a live radio session by The Verve at the BBC's famous Maida Vale studios in London. It was the latest in a series of sets by important artists who get to perform a 45 minute set live on BBC Radio 1, often on Zane Lowe's show. We were filming it and taking photos, which you can see here. With only about 20 people allowed in to stand on the mezzanine above the performance space, it was a real privilege to witness the band at such close range. My camera phone photos are here.

There's something incredibly powerful about The Verve, and from the first song you could tell they weren't messing about - this was a full on performance not a half-hearted studio session. I have to admit to one of those BBC moments, where I felt genuinely proud to work for an organisation that can pull in bands like The Verve into a studio to play live on the radio.

Because it was invite only - mainly friends, family and record label people - its not like a normal gig. You bump into the band afterwards on the way out with their family or talking to mates. Well, most of the band. Richard Ashcroft didn't hang around afterwards. In fact, he didn't hand around at all, putting his jacket on and walking puroposefully out of the studio the second he had finished his vocals on the last song, whilst the rest of the band played on. Bizarre. There was certainly a lack of eye contact between Richard and most of the band, and the rumours were flying about how they don't talk to each other. How can a band who don't talk to each other write such good material? Maybe that's what gives them the creative spark. Or maybe they just need some money. Who knows. All I do know is that it was an amazing session, and if the new album "Forth" is as good then it could be a decent follow-up to what many including me think was one of the albums of the mid-90's, Urban Hymnes.

And yes, they played Bitter Sweet Symphony. Stunning.

More on The Verve

Monday 4 August 2008

eMusic vs Napster

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in paying for music. Partly because I feel that if someone makes great music then they deserve to get paid, and partly because (and I know this is going to sound strange) I value it more if I've paid for it. I also figure that if I pay for it, I'll get a good service which you won't necessarily get from places where its free.

So for most of this year I've been subscribed to both eMusic and Napster. I wanted to do a proper comparison to see which service i valued the most. eMusic costs £11 p/month for 30 permanent MP3 downloads (existing users get a better deal), Napster costs £10 p/month for unlimited streams and DRM tethered downloads. So for eMusic, that works out at 37 pence per track.

So there's a fairly big difference in the offer, with Napster having just about every major artist and release, and eMusic having no major label artists but lots of artists from small independent labels.

Why then, have I just cancelled my Napster subscription but not eMusic? Here's why:

  • Obviously, I can't take my Napster tracks with me as I use an iPod which doesn't support Napster's DRM
  • Some people record their Napster tracks using software like Tunebite or Replay Music, but frankly life's too short to sit correcting the metadata and making sure tracks are split correctly
  • The Napster application stinks. Or rather, it's slow, very slow, and temperamental which means that quite often albums I've downloaded simply won't play when I want them to
  • It recommends me horrible music that I've never downloaded or listened to. In other words, it hasn't learnt what I like and dislike
  • There's no sign of any other users on the site: it's a lonely and isolated place to be
  • It's a bit like going into a bright soul-less record store run by people who don't actually like music
On the other hand, I'm still liking eMusic. Why?
  • It's web based, not desktop based
  • No speed problems
  • I can transfer the music to my iPod or wherever I want
  • I get to keep the music forever, even if I leave eMusic
  • Once i've downloaded music, I can download it again at no cost. So if I want a copy on my work PC as well as my home PC, no problem. Or if I buy a new computer I can re-download everything I've already downloaded, for free
  • Good quality audio - 192kbps VBR
  • There are lots of ways of discovering new music that I haven't heard of: straight forward Amazon style recommendations based on what I've downloaded, artist based recommendations, user ratings, most popular lists, and best of all other eMusic users recommendations/lists, and musical neighbours.
  • It offers me a personalized experience - it's learning from what I listen to
  • Recent improvements now offer better integration with the web with relevant content from YouTube and Wikipedia etc
  • It seems to be run by people who actually love music
  • It feels a reasonably sociable place - you feel the presence of other music fans out there using the service, and that feels good. Every album and artist forms part of someone else's favourites list, and has an eMusic review and user reviews, and is connected to user playlists
So there you have it. eMusic 1, Napster 0.

The main point here, I suppose, is that I'm willing to pay a monthly subscription for music. If eMusic could just get the majors on board I'm pretty sure alot of other people would be too. Going to be very interesting to see what BSkyB do with Universal

Here are some recommendations from me that I've got from eMusic:

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Yeasayer - All Hour Cymbals
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Elbow - Cast of Thousands
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Little Dragon - Little Dragon
Midlake - The Trials Of Van Occupanther
Portico Quartet - Knee-Deep in the North Sea
Robert Forster - The Evangelist
Bjork - Volta
Killer Shrimp - Sincerely Whatever

Sunday 6 July 2008

iPlayer 2.0 - what it means for listeners and producers

So here's a quick summary of what iPlayer 2.0 means for listeners:
  • TV and Radio together: choose a tv show if you want video instead of audio only
  • more ways into our programmes - via /iplayer, and for exampole /radio2
  • better sound quality (128k)
  • full FF an RW navigation within a programme (no more "skip 15 mins")
  • smaller, simpler pop-up console makes it easier to use
  • play in page, or in a pop-out console
  • navigation in the page, not in the pop-up console
  • UK users have no need for a separate audio download (Real)
  • recommendations based on the programmes you like
  • "resume" functionality means you can pick where you left off
  • iPlayer remembers the last 10 programmes you've listened to
  • search by radio station, genre, schedule or "most popular"
  • extra written programme information on the play out page exposes programme content
  • attractive promotion area for all of Radio, and individual radio stations
  • social bookmarking
  • a more visual offer: nice big image for every programme
  • Guidance and PIN protection (coming soon...)
And what it means for producers of radio programmes:
  • need to write better, more detailed programme specific descriptions
  • need to provide a good quality image per programme
  • we need a new solution for "off schedule" content
  • "programme within a programme" issues
  • Guidance flag
  • Revocation

iPlayer 2.0 live at last

Well it's Sunday morning and i'm listening to last week's Gilles Peterson show from BBC Radio 1 via the newly released BBC iPlayer 2.0, which slunk out of formal beta on Friday afternoon (4th July). Yes, Friday afternoon. Great time to launch a big new project huh? We'll be integrating the new iPlayer pop-out console into our BBC radio and music sites this coming week - keep an eye out from Monday on 1Xtra and 6Music to start with.

Anyway, from what i can see it seems to be working pretty well. The audio quality is frankly a huge improvement over the old BBC Radio Player Real streams which were 44kbps. 128kbps flash streams sound, well, proper. On my home set up using Logitech Z4 speakers it sounds as good as listening to anything thru' iTunes.

Love the fact that it remembers what i've listened to and lets me resume where i left off - it's going to be one of those features which comes in really handy.

There's still lots to do with some programme images not looking right, with programme titles not working in this environment and not being prominent enough, with poor quality programmes descriptions, with some programmes turning up in the wrong genres and therefore being recommended ("More Like This") inappropriately, with some on-demand shows still playing in Real not Flash, and the whole thing sometimes defaults to the Text Only version for some reason. But hey, it's a new product and it's a step change in the BBC's online offer.

The really interesting thing for me is how many people are now going to discover radio programmes despite coming to iPlayer to watch a TV programme? If we get this right, we could see a nice increase in the number of people listening to on-demand radio via internet. And it'll expose lots of programmes which are not on in mainstream listening hours, which, imho, are some of the best programmes the BBC produces. There'll be traffic the other way too - from existing users of the Radio Player who discover online TV via the new "tv and radio together" interface.

Back to Gilles, then maybe some Deviation from 1Xtra, then Jazz on 3. Oh yes.