A 21ST CENTURY TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY FOR BBC RADIO

by GRANT GODDARD

www.grantgoddard.co.uk September 2011

Technological advances made during the last two to three decades have changed our world almost beyond recognition. Everyone now has the ability to be almost permanently 'connected' to a world beyond their immediate personal space. Has BBC radio fully embraced the benefits of these technological advances? From an external perspective, the answer appears to be both 'yes' and 'no'. BBC radio seems to have implemented new technologies less obviously than BBC television. Yes, BBC radio programmes and stations now have an online presence, receive e-mails and tweets, and distribute their output live and ondemand via IP. But no, the basics of radio production have changed very little beyond a conversion from analogue tape to digital hard-drive storage. In the 1920s, a male radio announcer would sit in a BBC radio studio, dressed in a dinner jacket and reading a pre-prepared script. In order to be interviewed, guests would have to physically come to the studio. Everything had to be broadcast live, as there was no technology to include 'actuality' from beyond the studio's confines. All the news and information had to be filtered through the on-air presenter. Listener involvement was limited to letters submitted, selected, edited and read on-air by the presenter. Surprisingly, the radio production format has changed little in the interim ninety years. Presenters still sit in studios filled with expensive radio hardware and they still act as filters for the information that flows into the studio. Only three substantial changes are evident: recording systems have allowed interviews and actuality to be incorporated into programmes, and a programme itself to be time-shifted; phone-ins have allowed listener voices to be put live on-air via the telephone; and BBC reporters can be incorporated live into programmes via ISDN or IP from around the world. All these developments were pioneered by the BBC. If we look at BBC television, we see that an increasing amount of content broadcast on the BBC News channel comes in the form of photographs, poor quality mobile phone video (viz the Arab Spring in Syria), eyewitness reports by phone line and Skype video/audio interviews supplied by the public from their offices or homes. In the current jargon, much of this could be called User Generated Content. However, in radio, this revolution has simply not happened. When did you last hear a piece of audio on BBC radio that had been recorded and submitted by a member of the public? Never? In radio, public participation in the output still remains limited to content initiated or filtered by the production team. A member of the public will be asked to connect to the studio for a formal interview with a presenter either live in the studio, from a BBC contribution studio or via a phone line. Or a reporter may take a portable audio recorder out to interview a member of the public on location and the outcome is edited before transmission into an audio 'package.' The result is that, just as in the 1920s, what we hear on the radio has still been filtered through the programme presenter and producer, so that the resulting
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programme is delivered from the confines of a cosy, air conditioned studio. Radio is still largely produced in a vacuum that is far apart from the real world. Of course, there are obvious exceptions such as 'From Our Own Correspondent' and 'Question Time.' But these remain exceptions. The continuing reliance within radio upon the hardware equipped studio is particularly hard to understand when digital audio equipment is smaller, lighter, more portable and cheaper than its analogue ancestors. A radio programme can be produced, mixed, edited and broadcast from a basic laptop computer using software-based technology rather than considerably more expensive hardware. In this sense, radio should by now be far ahead of television, where digital equipment remains expensive, complex and still requires substantial bit rates and data storage for broadcast quality. These incredible technological advances in radio production have been well understood and seized upon by people outside the BBC who do not have privileged access to expensive hardware-based recording studios. In their thousands, these people are making their own radio programmes (podcasts) and creating their own online radio stations. The technology has filtered down so far that even a local primary school has its own radio production studio, linked to a low-power FM transmitter on the school's roof so that children can listen on ordinary radios to the programmes they make. London is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Yet, when I listen to BBC London 94.9 FM, I do not hear that excitement reflected much in its output. What I do hear are presenters sat in hardware-base studios, talking with guests they have invited there or talking via phone lines to selected contributors outside. What is sorely missing is 'actuality.' News stories are often reduced to 'packages' that can be inserted into hourly news bulletins. Yet the technology already exists (smartphones, IP, 3G) so that the hundreds of news stories that happen in London each day could be put to-air quickly using actuality live or 'as-live' recorded by either BBC reporters or the public. Existing technologies could be implemented to create an exciting news and information driven radio station for London that more closely reflected life in the capital. It would entail taking risks, but it is only through risk-taking that innovation will happen. BBC London's share of radio listening in London is only 1.4% and the station reaches only 5% of the population each week. Licence Fee payers could be better served by a local radio station in London that used new technologies to create an audio soundtrack that reflected their lives in this city. Such opportunities to use new technologies to change the face of radio are being missed, or being left to television to implement. I lived in Toronto for five years and the city's only independent television station, CityTV, offered one of the most impressive uses of new technology I have ever seen. For a start, the station did not have traditional TV studios. News programmes were presented by anchors perched on the corner of their own office desks. The nightly one-hour local news programme was filled to the brim with reports from a small team of one-person 'videographers' who whizzed around the city all day and recorded every available story using a
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single handheld camera. Sometimes the quality was not great, but the content accurately reflected the life of the city much better than any other local medium in Toronto. AT CityTV, the weekday morning show was presented from the station's ground floor foyer. Cameras, lights, cables, production staff were all left inshot, as were the people on the busy street outside and casual visitors to the station's offices. CityTV's owner, 'media visionary' Moses Znaimer, called this infrastructure "the streetfront/studioless television operating system" and it worked fantastically. Every Friday evening, the same foyer was turned into a free nightclub that was televised live for several hours with DJs, visiting music acts and short interviews. Admittedly, CityTV's output was sometimes chaotic but it used cheap, lightweight technologies to successfully break down the barrier that had existed previously between formal, studio-limited programmes and their audiences. The people of Toronto felt truly connected with CityTV because every city dweller knew the location of its downtown building and could wander in, even during its live shows. I had marvelled at CityTV's bold use of cutting edge technology fifteen years ago. And, since then, technologies for television have advanced much further. But it is the medium of audio where even more fundamental breakthroughs have taken place. The ability to use a smartphone, a laptop or a cheap audio recorder to record perfect digital sound quality in WAV format has opened up the possibility to produce content for broadcast much more significantly than in television. Yet, from the outside, there seems to be no strategic vision to implement these technologies within the BBC in order to change the way in which radio more pro-actively involves itself with the world outside its radio studios. Individual BBC reporters are doing amazing things with new technology. Nick Garnett provided live interviews for Radio Four about the outcome of the last election from a moving tram in Sheffield using only his smartphone installed with the Luci Live application for broadcasters. His personal website demonstrates in videos his evangelism for these new technologies. He contrasts his ability to produce live coverage of the recent Salford/Manchester riots safely using only his handled smartphone with the impossibility twenty years earlier when a high-tech van was necessary, even for a short live report, and the job of holding the microphone remained the responsibility of a BBC Studio Manager. At the heart of technological change is a necessary accompanying change in working practices in many parts of BBC radio. Whilst television underwent fundamental change when it was transformed into BBC Vision, the radio infrastructure has remained much the same. Whilst BBC television has been mostly casualised by freelance staff, radio remains dominated by full-time employees. Although BBC television has stiff competition from commercial stations, BBC radio attracts the majority of listening (54% currently) and its share continues to grow. The grave danger is that complacency in BBC radio from high ratings can stunt innovation.

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Whilst there is no doubt that technological innovations have been successfully incorporated into current working practices within BBC radio, it is a much greater challenge to incorporate the disruptive influences of those technologies in a way that forces change in current working methods. For example, at present, producers and editors of radio programmes set the agendas of programmes themselves and then seek to fulfil those plans by inviting 'talking heads' and commissioning 'packages' to make their points. This is a demandled production system, working from the demands of the producer. However, in a world where there are already hundreds of pieces of audio content available to choose from to make a programme, the production system could become more supply-led. The editor would use a mix of commissioned pieces and the best or most appropriate of what already existed from BBC contributors or the public. In fact, the radio editor would become more like an editor of a newspaper, selecting from what content already existed, rather than commissioning every item from scratch. If the thought of including 'user generated content' from the British public in network radio output proves alarming, it is worth remembering that there are dozens of media courses up and down the country whose students would love to add some BBC radio contributions to their CVs. There are also 300 community radio stations that have an existing Memorandum of Understanding with the BBC to share content in both directions. Yet BBC radio at network level does not seem to have reached out to the wider constituency of audio producers beyond its own staff and ex-staff. When I interviewed senior BBC network radio staff last year for a BBC Trust report and asked why no audio was being recycled from BBC local radio, student radio or podcast producers, I was told that they would not meet the 'quality' threshold. Equally, you might ask why the Sony Award winning 'Hackney Podcast' is not a regular part of BBC London's output. This 'quality' barrier is an anachronism that remains in place in radio and yet seems to have been largely overcome in television. Within BBC radio, 'quality' is even used as a means to segregate one division's content from another's. In television, if the content communicates something newsworthy or significant, blurry mobile phone footage is broadcast. Yet, in radio, the audio quality often seems more important to producers than the content itself. This requires not so much a change in technology, as a change in attitudes and editorial policies that have not caught up with the technological possibilities. A station such as BBC 1Xtra should be an exciting and groundbreaking experience to listen to. Yet, on the occasions I have listened, its output has seemed hideously studio-bound and insular to me. There appears to be little difference between 1Xtra and 1920s BBC radio, as a presenter still sits in a hardware studio, but with an assistant who reads tweets instead of letters. During one show I heard recently, the presenter was reduced to bemoaning that he had left his lip balm at home, and a clip was used of musician interviews made earlier in the week backstage at an awards ceremony.

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Surely a station such as BBC 1Xtra that is aimed at young people should have an immediacy and an incredibly 'live' feel to it that is able to challenge the speed of competing information sources delivered via the internet. 1Xtra should be overflowing with exclusive news, information and music, artists dropping in for short chats and 'actuality' broadcast live or 'as-live' that reflect the diversity of the British black music scene. Yet I do not hear this kind of excitement when I listen to 1Xtra. The station would be a perfect candidate to adopt CityTV's studioless operating system, where it could operate from an open-door shopfront rather than from the remote bowels of a BBC office. It could even broadcast from different cities week to week, like an ever-travelling roadshow. I have a particular interest in 1Xtra because, twenty years ago, I had launched KISS FM in London as the UK's first black music radio station. Even then, I had used what few new technologies were available to make the programme content less studio-bound. I regularly sent one reporter out with my mobile phone (at a time when they were uncommon) and her interviews and actuality were put live to air using nothing more sophisticated than the phone's low quality microphone. The audience loved that immediacy. Then, after work, I would take a digital recorder to London clubs and record the whole night's DJ set for subsequent broadcast. These technological innovations made KISS FM one of the most successful station launches of its time because listeners understood that the station was 'out there in London' rather than always studiobound.
30

27.1

26.0

26.3

UK RADIO LISTENING BY AGE (average hours/adult/wk) [RAJAR]
24.2 24.0

23.3

25 22.2

21.0

20

15 15-24 year olds 25-34 year olds 35-44 year olds 45-54 year olds 55-64 year olds Q1 2000 Q1 2009 Q1 2001 Q1 2010 Q1 2002 Q1 2011 Q1 2003 Q1 2004 Q1 2005 Q1 2006 65+ year olds Q1 2008 Q1 2007

Let us be clear here. Radio needs to implement as many new technologies as possible in order to adapt and change what it can do if it is to remain relevant and valuable to its audiences. Although, in total, radio listening in the UK has reached an all-time high (partly as an outcome of the increasing population), there are some disturbing long-terms trends. Six years ago, 15-24 year olds started to spend significantly less time listening to broadcast radio. More
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16.5

19.2

22.3

25.7

recently, 25-34 year olds are also spending less time with broadcast radio. If this trend continues, part of an entire generation could lose the radio habit. BBC Radio needs to compete for consumers' time with every other distraction out there – particularly the internet, games, social networking and video. To do that, radio has to re-invent itself so that it is exciting and entertaining for a whole new generation. That requires radio to respond to the disruptive influences of new technology, not in a defensive way, but to embrace change and to understand that, just as with other businesses, if you do not change and adapt with the times, your brand could easily die. At present, the BBC's strategy for implementation of new technologies in radio could appear to be somewhat slow, scattershot and disjointed. What is needed is a joined-up roadmap to bring BBC radio firmly into the 21st century, a determined push to move radio beyond its 1920s production methods, and a programme to combat internal complacency and inertia through persuasion and education. The biggest enemy to such change often derives from the people entrenched in an organisation, not from the availability of technologies. In that sense, the imperative for change has to come from within. The BBC has a long tradition of being at the forefront of new technological developments in radio. It is admired the world over for its innovation in the radio medium and the quality of its outputs. The biggest current danger is that, unless a strategy is developed for BBC radio that combines the implementation of new technologies with changing methods of radio production, the BBC's track record of innovation could be acceded elsewhere. In our enlarged globalised radio marketplace, it would be perfectly possible for Google or Microsoft to invest sufficient R&D seed money to develop a new style of radio that could set the youth of the world on fire (viz Facebook). Until now, the main threat to broadcast radio from the internet has been in back-toback music applications (Spotify, Last.fm) which add no value to widely available pre-recorded music. However, compared to the visual medium, it would prove relatively cheap to add value to that audio content if you could identify the appropriate editorial that will appeal to a whole new generation as 'the new radio.' It is important that BBC radio faces this global threat by implementing innovation as a must-have-now rather than as a long-term objective. Within the BBC, there are already plenty of staff embracing such change on an individual level. More than 300 BBC staff have signed up to Audioboo, a UKbased online exchange for short audio clips. Similarly, some BBC programme makers are contributing to PRX, a US-based online marketplace for both complete programmes and short audio clips. I understand that the BBC is currently developing its own in-house version of these sort of E-bay's for audio content. The imperative to centralise data storage of BBC audio so as to create an internal 'cloud' system for radio content provides the perfect opportunity to develop new production systems that can share content, both internally and
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from outside the BBC. The traditional 'silo' system, whereby individual radio programmes and individual radio stations have managed their own content resources, cannot be productive during a time when the Licence Fee produces pressures to share and consolidate resources as much as possible. More than ever, in BBC radio, change is necessary. But change can also be very hard to make happen, particularly within large organisations. I would suggest that the task ahead is to develop an interlocking roadmap for radio technologies that embraces:          more agile content ingest, storage and accessibility (avoiding transcoding) radio production processes that focus on the intrinsic public value of content, more than its audio quality or source the evolution of radio studios from fixed hardware to portable software a plan for multi-platform distribution based on cost-benefit analysis and accurate usage data (RAJAR platform data are inaccurate) IP delivery of radio via frictionless technologies, reducing bandwidth through multicasting a focus on content availability, connectivity and 'searchability' the unlocking of BBC archive radio content an appropriate and future-proof metadata architecture for audio content distribution use of commodity software or collaborations with external suppliers wherever possible.

The aim: to ensure that the connections between BBC radio and its audiences are maximised through available technologies, delivering content efficiently and easily wherever and whenever it is demanded.
Grant Goddard is a media analyst / radio specialist / radio consultant with thirty years of experience in the broadcasting industry, having held senior management and consultancy roles within the commercial media sector in the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. Details at http://www.grantgoddard.co.uk

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