THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

39 posts categorized "Radio"

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

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Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 11 May 2018.

This exhibition also inaugurates the Library’s Season of Sound which, includes happy hour listening sessions, a series of talks and late-night shows.

What would you find?

  Gallery_blog

100 Sounds

In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.

Hand-out_blog

 Some of my favourites…

  • Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
  • Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
  • An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
  • A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
  • Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.

Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …

‘Mystery tracks’

To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.

Mystery tracks 1blog 

Timeline

For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.

Listen timeline_blog

Artefacts

The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.

Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Edison Diamond Disc phonograph_blogEdison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)

Boy Wireless

To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.

Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.

BoyWireless_B Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski

Aleks Kolkowski_blogAleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night.

Save Our Sounds

The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

03 October 2017

Zino Francescatti and Paganini

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Last year I wrote a blog about the discovery of a live recording of pianist Mark Hambourg and how it had restored his reputation as an artist.  The recording was made in 1955 by Frank Hardingham whose collection of tapes I acquired for the British Library from his son.  Since then, Mr Hardingham’s daughter Gill has sent some biographical information about her father which gives an insight into why these unique early tape recordings are of such good quality.

Just before his fourteenth birthday, Frank Hardingham (1903-1973) left school and went to work in a shipping office in London for several years, travelling up by train from his home town of Romford, Essex.  He used the journey to read magazines like 'Practical Wireless' and after further study obtained the Diploma in the Theory and Practice of Radio and Television Engineering in 1938, which made him a member of the Incorporated Institute of Radio Engineers.  Also at this time he built his own crystal radio set.

Then he and his friend Eric joined the business of Mr Silcocks, Eric’s father.  They set up a small workshop and sold home-built radios through the shop. They later expanded the business from selling and servicing radios to dealing in television and other electrical goods, furniture, and records, where Frank’s knowledge of classical music was much appreciated by customers.

A man of many talents and interests, Frank learnt German, and travelled widely in Europe before and after the war.  Before he married in 1932, he went mountain walking in Europe with his younger brother.  He was a radio ham, and made contacts worldwide. 

Frank was also a keen photographer, and developed and enlarged his own photos, using his artistic talent to hand colour some of them.

Frank had a lifelong love of classical music, and recorded from the radio.  Often he would go to a concert, leaving the recording all set up for his wife to press the record button.  Frank had a happy retirement, pursuing many of his interests.  He continued to travel; indeed, in 1971 he visited many countries in South America, and reached Everest base camp in 1972.  He enjoyed family life with his children and grandchildren, working with his wife in their large garden, and savouring a glass of excellent wine.

Another gem from the Hardingham collection is the Proms debut of the great French violinist Zino Francescatti (1902-1991) who was born in Marseilles.  His father, Fortunato Francescatti (1858-1923) was a pupil of Camillo Sivori who had been the only student of the great Nicolò Paganini.  At the age of ten he played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Marseilles and made his first records in the same city at the age of nineteen for French HMV.

Francescatti gave his professional debut in Paris at the Palais Garnier in 1925 playing the technically demanding Violin Concerto No. 1 by Paganini.  The same year he played in London with Harold Craxton accompanying, and the following year toured with Ravel, who accompanied him in his own Berceuse at Cheltenham Town Hall.  Known as a good but not great pianist, Ravel had George Reeves accompany Francescatti in his rather more demanding Tzigane.  From 1927 Francescatti taught at the Ecole Normale in Paris.

Francescatti made his US debut in 1939 playing the Paganini Concerto with the New York Philharmonic and John Barbirolli.  The Second World War interrupted his progress, but the late 1940s and 1950s were the peak of his career.  During this time he made a series of famous LP discs for Columbia with the greatest conductors of the time including Dmitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein.  In 1947 American critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote of him: ‘Everywhere there was beauty, dignity, repose and the authority of solid worth. If violin playing is in the way of becoming a noble art again . . . this artist is one of those responsible for the change.’  Ten years later Francescatti himself said: 'My philosophie is never to fight a piece. I only want to give the impression that music is poetic, beautiful and easy.'

In August 1951 Francescatti performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Edinburgh Festival with Dmitri Mitropoulos and then made his first appearance at the Proms in September with his calling card, Paganini’s Violin Concerto conducted by Malcolm Sargent.  The sense of occasion and the excitement of the audience can be felt during the first movement after which they burst into spontaneous applause.  This live performance took place in the Albert Hall sixty-six years ago and, thanks to Mr Hardingham's expertly made recording, we can relive the wonderful experience.  Here is the demanding cadenza and close of the first movement.

Francescatti Paganini

The complete recording will be released by Testament Records.

For all the latest Classical news on Twitter follow @BL_Classical

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

BLCK-SOUND12-small
Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

BLCK-SOUND17-small
Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

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Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Ashgate-Routledge in 2017.

Tippett_at_work

Tippett at work (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an English composer for whom the act of creating music was a constant obsession. His fierce commitment to composition resulted in works that were original in design and devastating in their expression. Each work by Tippett originated as a singular vision and resulted in a singular achievement and the consistency of his creative process allowed him to fashion artifacts of shocking originality. His oeuvre is comprised of works that are remarkably diverse especially when we consider that they were the product of just one composer. What is truly remarkable is that his compositional process remained so consistent throughout his many changeable creative phases.

Tippett was educated at the Royal College of Music and served as Director of Music at Morley College, London. In addition to his creative interests he was also active in broadcasting and television and his talks on music and musicians brought him widespread attention. Many of these have been preserved at the British Library Sound Archive and these will serve as a fascinating exploration into a hitherto unknown side of this dynamic creative artist. By referencing these remarks we are transported back into the historical moment and return to the most authentic source on Tippett’s music: the composer’s own voice.

Michael Tippett lived deep in the English countryside and his creative obsessions required him to live alone. This was both a choice and a necessity but this created a classic conflict between his social-emotional side and his creative side, and it left a deep ‘wound’ on his psyche as he told Dr. Antony Clare during a 1987 session In the Psychiatrists Chair.

1 Clare 23041987

In his interview with Dr. Antony Clare, Tippett continued: ‘The wound is something absolutely autonomous, something of its own …but the price, well, I was always willing to pay the price.’ Those most closely associated with the composer were well aware of his compulsion but some were unable to submit to the severity of his devotion to the creative act. Regarding his relationship with Francesca Allinson he remarked:

2 Clare 23041987

Allinson eventually committed suicide, and in the same interview Tippett admitted:  ‘Another man whom I loved and lived with at times also committed suicide [Karl Hawker]. I may, perhaps, attract people, I don’t know.’

Similar to the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, Tippett’s music was created from a self-constructed mythology. It is, at times, eccentric, but it is never without a guiding narrative or an internal logic. Tippett created characters of fantastical proportions to render these narratives through intricate operatic plotlines and in his concert music he invented such unique timbres for his themes that they required a realignment of the planes of musical abstraction. These attributes often confounded the public and he was occasionally the target of sharp criticisms, but his singular devotion to the creative impulse allowed him to persevere, and with each successive work his creative identity became stronger and his music became more strikingly original.

Tippett spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the details of his compositions and the essence of his originality lay in the conceptual dimensions that were so uniquely conceived for each individual work. Multiplicities abound in his music but they always remain in the service of a strong integrated vision for the particular composition.  

Tippett’s solitary existence allowed him the contemplative atmosphere in which to envision some radical music but he firmly declared that he needed, always, to maintain a strong contact with the world in which he was a part. His compositional process would transform his experiences into the materials he required for his music. Tippett’s imagination was luminous and it radiated outward, through the splendor of Augustinian windows, onto panoramic vistas that resounded with otherworldly music.  He explained to John Warrack on Musical Influences broadcast on 21 May 1969. 

3 Warrack 21051969

Inspiration for specific works often came from some outside source but his creative impulse was internal and his allegiance to it was unwavering. This process was often a mysterious one, even to the composer but he had an implicit trust in his powers of invention to guide his ear towards the sounds that gave the strongest resonance to his fertile imagination.

4 Amis 01071977

Tippet_Jane_Bown_100dpi

Tippett in later years by Jane Bown (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Throughout Tippett’s long life he witnessed many shifts in style but he was unaffected by these changes and remained committed to creating his own original music.  Here he talks to Natalie Wheen in one of his last broadcast interviews from 1995.

5 Wheen 021995

Tippett had an exceptional ability to capture the ethos of his time and he used this ability to create music where the hideous—‘mans inhumanity toward man’—and strongest visions of affirmation were placed into the strangest combinations. In the aura of its release, where chaos and brought into a convincing but temporary reconciliation, we are reminded how essential Tippett was to shaping the soundscape of contemporary music.

The Edison Fellowships are funded by the Saga Trust.  Three of the extracts come from recordings in the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) which was digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Follow all the latest Classical news on Twitter @BL_Classical

31 December 2016

Recording of the week: the first New Year's Eve radio message

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This special New Year's Eve selection comes from Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio.

On New Year’s Eve of 1922, just six weeks after the first official BBC radio broadcasts were aired, the first ever New Year’s message was transmitted, generating a mixture of awe and some wild speculation about what this new medium might mean for the future.

Leeds Mercury 1 Jan 1923

The Leeds Mercury, 1 January 1923

Whereas the Leeds Mercury was ‘bewildered’ at the thought that ‘hundreds’ of people might be listening, the Falkirk Herald predicted that by 1950 ‘men about town will be carrying a listening-in set in their waistcoat pocket’ and that ‘probably we shall be in touch with other worlds’.

Meanwhile, in Lincoln sixteen year old Alfred Taylor made a brief but more down-to-earth note of what he heard on 2ZY (the BBC's Manchester station) and 2LO (London) in his personal Wireless Log, along with the names of some neighbours who dropped by to ‘listen-in’ with him:

Alfred Taylor Radio Listening Log 1 Jan 1923

Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log entry for New Year's Eve, 1922

A decade later, producer Lance Sieveking was making a feature to mark the end of the BBC’s first decade but found there were virtually no surviving recordings with which to illustrate it. He therefore set about reconstructing some of the key radio moments of the 1920s by asking the original speakers to re-read from their original scripts. Today they give as accurate an impression of what the BBC sounded like in those first years as we will ever have.

This is one of them – a reconstruction of that first New Year’s Eve message broadcast from Marconi House on 31 December 1922. Now, as we move from a bewildering year into one which promises to be even stranger, the Reverend Fleming’s message seems as apt as ever: 

BBC First New Year's Eve Address 1922

Happy New Year from all of us here at the sound archive!

28 November 2016

The changing landscape of radio

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The Changing Landscape of Radio is the title of a report commissioned by the British Library into the future of UK radio and radio archiving. The report was commissioned from Rosina Sound with the aim of informing the Library’s developing plan for a national radio archive, which is one of the key strands of the Save our Sounds programme, the goals of which are both to ensure that the Library's existing sound archive is properly preserved, and that there are adequate systems in place for the acquisition of future sound production in the UK. Future heritage matters as much to us as past heritage.

Driverlesscar

Ford patent for an autonomous vehicle entertainment system (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, via Jeff McMahon, 'Ford Turns The Driverless Car Into A Driving Movie Theater', Forbes, March 2016, http://bit.ly/2e6TOFM)

The report has been published online on a new British Library project page, The Future of Radio,  along with project blog posts and a podcast in which radio experts debate the present and future state of the medium. The report is, we think, an entertaining reading, with stimulating ideas on how radio might evolve in the future which should engage anyone who listens to sounds, whether for pleasure or study. The Library's interest is, of course, primarily in sounds for study, and the report looks at the needs of researchers, and the issues the future archivist of radio will need to consider.

The report considers audiences (who are they? when do they listen? where do they listen?), devices, content, the industry, technology and legal considerations, as well as those researcher needs. Will radio become all catch-up or will the traditional 'linear' mode of broadcasting endure? What is the future for podcasting? What happens to in-car radio if we all end up in driverless cars and feel like watching video instead? In what ways will we be able to interact with radio in the future? Will innovations such as immersive audio change how we think of radio? Will we continue thinking of radio as 'radio', or will it turn into/be absorbed by something else? In ten years' time, what exactly is it that the radio archivist will be archiving?

Here are some snippet observations from the report to whet the appetite:

  • "The overall radio audience is stable. The majority of radio listeners have not changed the way they consume their content. Radio audiences are not, at present, being affected as dramatically by the digital revolution as audiences for music, newspapers or television."
  • "While linear listening is likely continue, there is a trend for media to be consumed in ever-smaller chunks. Shorter segments do not necessarily result in less linear listening or less listening overall. The shareable, ‘snackable’ nature of segments means they can be used for promotion alongside linear broadcasts, or to reach different audiences."
  • "Alongside the car, the home – and in particular the kitchen – remains the place where British people listen most to the radio. This helps explain why breakfast shows tend to have the biggest audiences and budgets, and therefore why these shows should be high on the priority list for inclusion in a national radio archive."
  • "Radio apps compete for people’s attention with all the other mobile apps available on a device – audio and otherwise. Streaming audio will quickly burn through most people’s data allowances, a problem that content downloaded over Wi-Fi avoids."
  • "The medium of radio is about emotional connection. People like radio for its companionship and for the connection it provides with the wider world. For these reasons the availability of music streaming services has not and will not kill off radio."
  • "Content that is related to radio output but provided on other media is becoming increasingly common and important in driving audience behaviour. A national radio archive would ideally include such content (e.g. web pages with further information, social media or live video streamed from the studio)."
  • "Increased choice means listeners can turn towards content that is more personal to them. The larger number of DAB stations increases the likelihood that one will be tailored to a specific need. The logical progression is for modular delivery of content to provide highly-personalised stations curated for individuals."
  • "Modular delivery mechanisms provide the building blocks for new ways to deliver radio: more personalised, more interactive, more contextually relevant. The BL should note that modular delivery could see the demise of the linear radio channel but we believe this will not be for at least ten years."
  • "A key factor for the success of a national radio archive will be accessibility, both in terms of how and where the system can be accessed as well as how easy it is to use the interface. Many archive projects have failed because potential users cannot get to them or if they can they do not understand how to operate them."

The British Library cannot guess the future for radio, but it does want to be informed about the options and the possibilities. Our next step is to start building a pilot national radio archive, the development work for which will begin next year.

06 October 2016

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

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The British Library is working with the UK radio industry to develop a national radio archive and has invited experts from across the radio and music industry to consider what the future of radio might look like.

Nicky Birch
Nicky Birch

Nicky has been working in the radio and audio industry for 20 years, as a senior exec at UK indie Somethin’ Else, a director at Sound Women. In 2015 she founded radio and technology agency Rosina Sound, which has been leading a project for the British Library to explore the future of radio to help inform the launch of the National Radio Archive in 2017.

The future of UK podcasts

Much has been written about the rise and dominance of podcasts in the US. Meanwhile many producers and listeners in the UK believe our output is not up to the same standard – that American shows are better funded, better made and better distributed (although those who have discovered home-grown successes like Kermode and Mayo, the Football Ramble or My Dad Wrote a Porno might disagree).

There are several reasons why the UK podcasting industry hasn’t grown as fast as in places like America or India.

The main issue is the dominance of the BBC, which offers a high standard of speech content on its radio stations and simply converts this output to podcast format, thereby dominating the podcast charts with licence-payer-funded content.

There is also the fact that UK speech producers have traditionally not worked with advertisers so closely – they don’t have the same commercial background as US producers. In the US producers are more adept at working with brands creatively to sell a product and don’t feel uncomfortable doing so.

Finally, the strength of the BBC and commercial radio in the UK combined has meant many listeners haven’t needed or wanted to look elsewhere for their audio content.

But times are changing. During our research with the British Library we have spoken to many producers and business leaders from across the radio and audio sector, including content discovery platforms. The word is that in the UK, our podcast revolution is coming. We put this down to four reasons:

  • Commercialisation

In the US, podcasting is in a start-up frenzy – people are rushing to invest because the advertising spend is increasing quickly. There was a 48% increase in 2015, and Edison Research is estimating $150million will be spent in 2016. This isn’t a huge amount in advertising terms, but it’s the rapid growth that has excited people there and made producers and advertisers here look up.

The problem for UK podcasters has been the inability to sell their own advertising space or market their programmes successfully, being reliant on iTunes as their shop window where few shows are visible at any one time.

Companies like Acast are now offering a service that includes hosting and ad sales, and recently Audioboo pivoted its business to rebrand as Audioboom, a podcast advertising sales company, and the big US network Panopoly has just announced it is opening a UK arm.  Most podcasters using such services are still not making their fortune or indeed financing the time spent producing the content, but these are still early days. Ruth Fitzsimons from Audioboom believes podcasters need to invest now to grow their audiences in order to reap the rewards later, and she expects things to change significantly in around two years time when more advertisers realise the value of podcasting.

One of the big changes in the commercialisation of podcasts has been the introduction of dynamic advertising, where a chosen advert can be placed within the audio for a period of time and then replaced with an alternative advert at a later date. This means a large archive can have great value. Unlike linear radio, more like Netflix, podcast consumers tend to explore back catalogues so old shows can continue to make money for as long as new shows continue to be released within the same series.

  • Democratisation

The fantastic thing about podcasts is that anyone can make them, and a lot of people do. This has parallels with video where we’ve seen the rise of the YouTubers who have no fear about embracing brands and making money.

The young audiences who watch YouTube are prime for conversion into audiences for podcasts. They are used to searching for their content and used to their stars selling to them – it is totally normal. In the world of audio we’ve yet to see any mainstream celebrities grow out of podcasting, but the medium is waiting for a young presenter who isn’t constrained by old-fashioned broadcasting to tear the rulebook apart.

  • Mass niche

Podcasts are a success because they fulfil a need to hear more of what people love. Listeners make an active decision to search out and subscribe to a feed. You are unlikely to stumble upon a podcast (I’ll talk more about discoverability later) so they tend to be driven by user interests.

For example, I love cycling so I listen to the Cycling Weekly podcast, and it’s even better during the big tours, because they can put out extra editions of the show which radio can’t always fit into a limited schedule. They serve my needs when I most want it.

While a cycling show may never be mainstream, there are enough fans of most minority sports to make such podcasts viable. When you advertise on a cycling podcast, you are guaranteed to reach thousands of committed cycling fans – that’s pretty attractive to a Wiggle, Evans or Cycle Surgery – which makes the value of the sponsorship greater.

Some sales houses like DAX are starting to understand this power. It sells programmatic advertising space to agencies across all audio platforms, including podcasts, so on-demand audio can now be part of a wider campaign across radio and streaming services.

A mass niche programme that knows its audience well can provide lots of user analytics to help sell those spots. Programmatic adverts in podcasting are unlikely to cover the full costs of producing a quality podcast on their own just yet, but combined with host sponsorship readings, funding drives and branded events are turning mass niche brands into stable long term offerings with growing audiences and increasing potential.

  • Discoverability

Finding podcast content is the biggest hurdle. The user journey around most podcast players is pretty challenging. There simply isn’t enough room in the shop window for the many thousands of new programmes being created every week.

This means listeners are driven by what the platform tells them is popular and hence the top 100 chart becomes self fulfilling. This is a big design challenge, and technology is rising to overcome it.

If each programme provided a richer set of data – such as fully automated transcripts, key topics and mood – this could be linked between programmes to help users discover similar shows they might like and should lead to an explosion in discovery. This is akin to the successful Spotify Discover playlists that look at what users have listened to and create a new playlist each week accordingly.

Bigger platforms, like Amazon, Spotify and Pandora, have good experience of personalised algorithm driven content selection that they will use to their advantage as they move into the speech radio game.

Technology aside, the BBC understands one can’t rely on algorithms to serve up the hidden gems listeners never knew they wanted. The personalised service myBBC will rely on a mixture of serendipitous discovery, curated content and algorithm driven discovery.

If the BBC get this right – and listeners feel like they are taken on a journey being offered on-demand content to suit their mood that they didn’t realise they would like – they will have cracked the holy grail of on demand content. Many others will follow suit.

These are exciting times for audio producers in the UK. Brands, technology companies and the BBC are all looking to content creators to tell compelling stories to their audiences. Podcasts are just one of the many ways to deliver these messages but there is a great opportunity to play to the strengths of the audio medium being cheaper, simpler and quicker than video, film and emerging multimedia.

For creative British audio producers and presenters now is the time to experiment, to create better and bolder content ideas, to show that an idea that begins with a podcast could grow into something much bigger. Now is the time to invest in those ideas, build those audiences and the commercial support will follow.


The views and opinions in these blog posts are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Library.


Other blogs in this series:

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

The future of radio: no. 2 - Matt Deegan

The future of radio: no. 3 - Paul Bennun

Listen to a special British Library podcast discussion of The Future of Radio

 

03 October 2016

The future of radio: no. 3 - Paul Bennun

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The British Library is working with the UK radio industry to develop a national radio archive and has invited experts from across the radio and music industry to consider what the future of radio might look like.

Paul Bennun
Paul Bennun

Paul Bennun, former CCO and non-executive director of UK content agency Somethin’ Else, considers how technology will affect the future of radio and the implications of this for the British Library's radio archive.

The future of radio from a technology perspective

Since its inception, radio has always been the testing ground for human endeavour in communications technology. If we’re asking ‘where next?’ for any medium, one could ask ‘where next?’ for technology – but radio will give you the answer first.

Maybe this is because at its root, radio is just the unalloyed human voice – the defining human technology – and it’s always been easier to apply ‘the new shiny’ to radio first.

The initial task was engineering: recording, broadcasting, amplification. With the basics down, radio tackled culture (and dogma): production, commerce and licensing – even the mechanics of celebrity. All these served radio first.

With transistors came portability. With micron-scale transistors inside PCs came digital production and delivery – more people could make more media, faster. This made a huge difference to radio producers (who previously chopped up tape) but made only minor qualitative difference to the listener. Again, radio led the way when nanoscale transistors in consumer computer processors and widespread packet-switched networks (i.e. the internet) came along.

The second-order quantitative and qualitative effects of communications technology mean hardware, content, network and author form a complex system not a stack and thus the immediacy and multiplicity of voices is innumerable. This is where we are today: any audio you want, anywhere you are. You’re the broadcaster, too, if you want to be.

So what’s next for radio? I’d point at two interesting technologies: firstly that set of technologies we call ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) – systems that learn; secondly, audio as an unobtrusive human-system interface (don’t laugh at Apple’s AirPods)

The first order effects give us bots and basic control of devices like Siri on the iPhone. But combined these technologies can bring us autonomous cars that come when you whistle, systems that make sophisticated cultural choices about content previously restricted to humans, and systems that seamlessly merge human intention and desire with changes in a database. How far this can take us is very hard to predict.

Imagine a pop-up audio service programmed by bots that ensures everyone in an ephemeral social group (e.g. ‘trip to the pub’ or ‘Claire’s Hen Night’) can share a hilarious ‘radio show’ in their respective Ubers, where a personality-rich robot slags off their selfies and makes rude comments about Claire’s ex. You didn’t ask for it; it’s just there for a while and then it’s gone.

Your politics and cultural preferences are just another pattern to be interpreted. If we connect them to a survey of current events, a news-and-music service presented by a bot, keeping you in the bubble of what you want to hear, is easily imagined..

We can be sure that in the domain of time-based media these things will happen in ‘radio’ first. All this poses the most enormous challenges for a library of record that wishes to capture public culture in a way that is useful for future eyes and ears.

If, ten years ago, ‘radio’ was a simple concept, that is no longer the case. Linear, audio-only broadcast has given way to podcasts, audio-on-demand, extended universes of supporting content surrounding the audio ‘programme’ and cloud music services – all make a claim to being ‘radio’ to some degree.

This volume and variety of content poses unique challenges in discovery, selection and capture, if a useful, usable record of radio’s contribution is to be made for future generations. In particular it is currently impossible to capture every second of audio published. We’re limited by available resource, which is something not even measured in money, but in storage density, network speeds and computing power (although this is in all likelihood a temporary problem given the projected increase in computing horsepower).

We can most certainly put ourselves on the path to an archive that does not act under any such constraint. And if we take a limited sample of radio content, we can still create an archive that may have many of the benefits of a complete set (if we choose carefully, and we augment our sample with data about the audio we did not capture).

Let us start with the assumption of the impossibility of creating a complete archive of radio content: we therefore have to choose what to sample. We have to ask: ‘what, in the future, will we find interesting or important?’

Given we are not restricted to the capture of audio, and indeed want to capture audio in its full context, the question of what our sample should contain becomes interesting and challenging. The descriptive words used by its authors, the individuals featured on it and its categorisation by third-party publishers are just some of the useful data which can help us analyse what radio in the late 2010s can tell us about ourselves. In the future it will help tell us how we got to where we’re going.

In fact, building on the theme of AI raised earlier, it may be the question of our choice of sample is not something best left entirely to humans. ‘What did we think was important in 2016?’ is an interesting question, and building a sample based on a human’s understanding of this question is important – even if it tells us more about the selectors than the creators – but AI could take us further.

Indicators of ‘importance’ and ‘novelty’ may be less useful than indicators of evolution — we can turn to good old physics to say, with certainty, something is changing. Evolution is propelled ultimately by gradients between two actors in an environment. Patterns, and the change in patterns, in properties of our cultural output are most likely to reveal information of importance to someone accessing the archive in the future. Complex patterns are best unearthed by computers.

Neural networks, ‘deep learning’ and machine learning are all excellent at pattern recognition. Using this set of technologies to assist the decision making process may be crucial.

While not without its own potential issues, it may be automation of a daily (or hourly) census of available material will lead to the sample of captured information containing greatest utility to a future researcher. The surveys of the information space, can, themselves, be of enormous value in the future even if only a small sample of the content in that space is captured.


The views and opinions in these blog posts are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Library.


Other blogs in this series:

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

The future of radio: no. 2 - Matt Deegan

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

Listen to a special British Library podcast discussion of The Future of Radio