THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

35 posts categorized "Save our Sounds"

11 November 2016

'Honk, Conk and Squacket'... anyone?

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Honk Conk and Squacket. Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening is a compilation of sound-related words by researcher and sound recordist I. M. Rawes.

Honk Conk and Squacket

I. M. Rawes, aka Ian Rawes, is a former British Library Sound Archive colleague. He worked at the Library for years while building The London Sound Survey on the side. This is a unique online sound map documenting the sounds of everyday life in London. It includes urban field recordings made by the author, archival materials, photographs, illustrations and a related blog.

Honk Conk and Squacket  explores the sounds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their surrounding socio-cultural context through what is often - notably in regard to the Victorian, pre-recording, era - the only evidence remaining: written documentation.

For this the author has investigated a myriad of sources including patents, dictionaries, glossaries and out-of-copyright period illustrations from the British Library collections.

The book works as a virtual audio nostalgia trip, laced with charm, humour and insight. On a more melancholy note, it touches on the ephemeral nature of everyday sounds and their eventual disappearance. I would recommend it as playful shared reading for the inevitable procrastination of Christmas and a must-reference volume for accurate historical sound writing.

Some sample entries:

Honk: was naval slang meaning to drink in an impressive way, echoic of the noise that eventually results. Early 20C.

Conk: is a large conch-shell of the genus Strombus, imported and then fitted with a mouth-piece. In former times it was used by fishermen as a fog-horn, producing as it did a loud and distinctive note on being blown. Late 19C. Cornwall.

Squacket: to quack as a duck; to make any disagreeable sound with the mouth. Late 19C. Surrey, Sussex and Somerset.

Laist

 Laist: to listen. Late 19C. Suffolk

Talking trumpet

Talking-trumpet. Late 19C.

If you are interested in sound and would like to know more about the Library’s sound preservation programme to digitise the nation's rare and unique sound recordings check out our Save Our Sounds programme and #SaveOurSounds.

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound.

31 October 2016

Why do people sound funny in old recordings?

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One of the pleasures of listening to old sound recordings is the ability they give us to peek through the glass at another time. Re-experiencing another moment in time, in real time, is immersive and gives us an intimate sense of what life on the other side of the glass was like. Can we take this at face value though? Does our modern perspective affect what we perceive on the other side? I had the opportunity to test this recently, in a wonderfully maintained 1947 Voice-o-graph disc recording booth, located in the Songbyrd Café in Washington DC.

 

The voice-o-graph recording booth


Before magnetic tape recording technology came of age in the mid-1940s, very few people had the means to make a sound recording of their own, and nothing more than a gramophone to play one on. Disc recording booths appeared in the 1930s, and were commonly found wherever people might have free time & spare money, such as fairgrounds, piers and railway stations. During World War II they were often used to send audio letters to and from armed forces personnel, providing an innovative morale boost to separated families and friends.

The British Library has several such discs, some of which appeared in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Keepsake For My Lover. Listening to them, there’s often a stiffness or formality which we frequently attribute to the times they were made in. Is that a fair reflection though? While I was fascinated by the technology, I was just as keen to understand the experience of the person making the recording, to peek through from the other side of the glass.

I decided to make a recording for my daughter, who hates being praised, and also has no particular interest in discs or recording (or this blog post, probably). By the time she’s old enough to be curious about the disc, I reckoned, she might also be willing to hear a kind word from her dad, especially if he’s not in the same room at the time. I turned up at the booth with a couple of friends who were as curious as I was about the process, but I was reluctant to let them in the booth with me, and a bit nervous about telling them so. One suggested filming me from outside the booth, which didn’t altogether calm me down, plus I hadn’t actually prepared anything, other than a lullaby I used to sing to her when she was a baby (and, incidentally, was itself learned from an old British Library sound recording, here, from 30 seconds in).  

  How to make a recording

The booth itself was very warm, the machine noisy as it readies itself to record you, and a giant black cloud of my own expectation hung over me. I had three minutes to fill, with no pause button, and no second chance if I mucked it up. I sang & then mumbled, with no clear idea if I was too loud or too quiet, too near or too far away from the microphone, desperately hoping that no-one could hear me while I poured my heart out. At the end I was literally shaking.

I could have prepared better I suppose, but didn’t want simply to read something out, and the rhythm of the preceding morning hadn’t allowed a moment of quiet contemplation before piling into the booth. All of which, I suspect, would be typical of anyone making this kind of recording back in the day. What I ended up with then, is a recording sounding just like it was made in the 1940s: reticent, a bit shy, sincere. As the radio programme and my experience made clear, it’s not that the people being recorded have changed, so much as the context and technology of sound recording. Life on the other side of the glass isn’t so different after all, it’s just the glass that makes it look that way.

24 October 2016

Treasures of the Black Country

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

We were delighted recently to welcome acclaimed novelist, scriptwriter and actor, Meera Syal, to the Library to explore the accents and dialects of the Black Country for a forthcoming episode of Treasures of the British Library (Sky Arts, 21.00 Tuesdays). Born in Wolverhampton, Meera grew up in Essington, a small mining village in Staffordshire and went to school in nearby Walsall, my mom’s home town (hence she’s my mom, not my mum, mam or ma). So it was a particular pleasure to introduce Meera to the Library’s unique sound recordings that capture the distinctive voices of the area.

Meera Syal

Like me, Meera has moved away from the West Midlands, but we’ve all probably experienced the way in which language or a familiar accent immediately re-connects us with a favourite place or childhood home. The Library holds several collections that capture regional speech across the UK and across time as demonstrated by a remarkable recording of a World War One soldier born in Wolverhampton and recorded in a German Prisoner of War camp in 1916, an interview with a farm worker recorded as part of the acclaimed Survey of English Dialects in Lapley in 1955 and a conversation with Black Country poets and dialect enthusiasts recorded in Dudley in 2005.

Perhaps best known for her comedy, Meera rose to fame as co‐writer and star of Goodness Gracious Me, a series credited with popularising the British Asian word chuddies [= ‘underpants’] as confirmed by the dictionary entry below:


CHUDDIES

Dalzell & T. Victor (eds.) 2015. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

so she was, I hope, reassured to discover the Library’s sound archives document the emergence of new voices and fresh influences on British English as demonstrated by this explanation that locals have adopted a Punjabi word, thandā [= ‘cold’], albeit wonderfully anglicised to a Black Country pronunciation, and by a conversation recorded by BBC Asian Network in Birmingham in 2005. Alongside this story of evolution and change, the Library has numerous recordings that capture the endurance of established dialects as confirmed by a recording of Mr Tickle (© Roger Hargreaves) submitted by a visitor to the Library's Evolving English exhibition in 2010, in which you can clearly hear a real sense of pride in the local accent.

Evolving English VoiceBank [C1442X1477] Mr Tickle in a Dudley accent

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

 

30 September 2016

Dialects not only connect, they sometimes divide

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Towards the end of the 1980s a close northern friend once confided in me his disappointment at being consistently overlooked for international honours in cricket and rugby due to perceived selectorial bias towards players based in the south of England. The fact he hadn’t played either sport for a recognised club since leaving school seemed irrelevant: there was a principle at stake. There are constant debates in sport about the relative likelihood of selection for national squads depending on which school or club a player represents, but until this week I hadn’t considered the possibility that quizzes might be anything other than geographically impartial.

As a fan of Only Connect I was intrigued this week to see a question which required contestants to predict the final element of a sequence given the following stimulus:

Only Connect Clue
The sequence required contestants to solve a mathematical and linguistic puzzle by recognising that a descending mathematical sequence of 2 to the power of the given number produced an answer supposedly homophonous with a synonym of the corresponding word or phrase:

23 = consumed (i.e. ‘eight = ate’)

22 = in favour of (i.e. ‘four = for’)

21 = also (i.e. ‘two = too’)

20 = was victorious in a quiz (i.e. ‘one = won’)

Only Connect Solution

The first problem here is that, for many speakers, eight and ate are not homophones. For most speakers in the UK eight rhymes with ‘gate’, but for many ate rhymes with ‘get’. Both words were included in the questionnaire of the Survey of English Dialects – a nationwide study of regional speech in England carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. For the vast majority of informants the simple past tense of the verb ‘to eat’ rhymed with ‘get’ and there are very few unambiguous examples of rhymes with ‘gate’. The only examples of an apparent past form rhyming with ‘gate’ were in places like Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and Cornwall where, historically, the local dialect makes no distinction between present and past tense – i.e. eat is unmarked for tense but is pronounced to rhyme with ‘gate’ regardless. This reflects a middle English vowel sound that survives in a small set of similar words – meat still occasionally sounds like an RP pronunciation of ‘mate’ in these dialects. Interestingly, despite only fleeting glimpses in this survey of ate rhyming with ‘gate’, we increasingly hear this pronunciation nowadays, presumably as a result of a pronunciation falling in line with spelling – a trend confirmed by data published in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells, 2008:54). A similar process is happening with says so that, as with your pronunciation of ate, whether you pronounce says to rhyme with ‘fez’ or with ‘phase’ may reveal a good deal about your age.

Four and for and two and too indisputably rhyme in most varieties of British English (if we exclude for convenience the Scots preference for twa), but one and won present a similar problem. If you speak RP – the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England – you probably rhyme one with won and chances are if you’re from the south of England you will, too. If, like my sister-in-law, you come from Leeds you might also do so, but with a completely different vowel to the one used by RP speakers and southerners. For many speakers in the UK, however, one rhymes with ‘gone’ while won rhymes with ‘gun’. Data from the Survey of English Dialects suggests that one was almost universally rhymed with ‘gone’ in the north and Midlands, apart from a small pocket of West Yorkshire (cf. my sister-in-law’s pronunciation in Leeds) and the far north, where the dialect form yan competed with one.  In contrast, speakers in the south of England varied between a rhyme with ‘gone’ and a rhyme with ‘gun’ with the latter more common. According to a survey conducted for the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary roughly 70% of British English speakers favour a rhyme with ‘gone’ meaning that one and won are homophonous for a minority of speakers (Wells, 2008:563). Thankfully the captain of the team presented with this clue was a young RP speaker, but I wonder if contestants from the north (or older speakers) subconsciously struggled to make the connection between the mathematical and linguistic clues, as for them the link may not be immediately apparent for either the first or fourth item in the sequence (or both).

So my friend may have been deluded all those years ago about his chances of ever playing for England, but he might genuinely have a case to argue about his relative chances of winning TV quiz shows.  The British Library holds the entire set of recordings made for the Survey of English Dialects thus allowing researchers to explore and enjoy these fine distinctions between dialects.

Only Connect Series 12 Episode 12, Genealogists v Surrealists. 2016. BBC2. 26 September, 20.30.

29 September 2016

The future of radio: no. 2 - Matt Deegan

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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.

Matt Deegan, September 2016 (Photo by Paul Wilson)
Matt Deegan

Matt is the Creative Director of the new media and radio consultancy firm Folder Media. Prior to this Matt worked in the Strategy and Development department for the GWR Group and GCap Media (now Global Radio). In 2011, with James Cridland, he created the annual Next Radio conference.

The future of radio from an audience development perspective

The media sector has seen a huge amount of change as the world has become constantly connected with high performance devices in everyone's pockets. This change has meant that some new media has replaced old media, but devices and connectivity have also extended the amount of time that people have to consume all sorts of content, new and old. Some forms of media have been better at coping with this behavioural change than others.

The big transition the most successful media companies have made is in better understanding consumer behaviour and making sure the content they produce is what people want to consume, delivered in a way they want to consume it.

Many legacy media operators confused the historic barriers to entry in their sector with a belief that they were making the perfect product for their consumers. If there's only one TV channel, it'll likely have 90% reach. That doesn't mean that everyone likes it.

Radio's history has been littered with pronouncements that the medium will be replaced – by television, CDs, the iPod, the Internet, mobile devices – the list goes on. In the UK though, radio has stayed remarkably stable with around 90% of the country consuming some radio each week, around a billion hours of radio each week in total. If anything radio's consumption has seen increases over the past few years, not declines.

My personal take on this success is that radio has always been quick to evolve. From cat’s-whisker receivers to transistors under the bed, from in-car sets to radio being available on a Walkman, from being part of digital television to being on a Nokia mobile (next to Snake!), and of course in streamed form on desktop and mobile apps.

Radio has used this technological progression to consistently launch more content to better serve listeners. The few AM frequencies were supplemented by FM and now DAB, taking people's station choice from 5 to 20 to 70. Alongside this there’s been an explosion in specialist jukeboxes online and through mobile apps.

On form, radio has also changed, from only broadcasting live to most stations now providing seven-day catch-up alongside downloadable material in the form of podcasts. As a platform, radio is also an aggressive user of social media with stations running strong Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram and Snapchat accounts. Radio’s liveness means it's been quick to adopt Facebook Live and Periscope. The fact radio is based on sound without pictures has always meant that it can be fleet of foot, something that positions it well as it adopts and occupies any new platforms.

The internet has often been seen as the destroyer of legacy media, though I think this is often inaccurate. The internet has heavily affected newspapers by decimating their key income drivers: classifieds and job ads. Newspapers were the best way to deliver this content until websites did a much better job. US print revenues declined from $44.9 billion in 2003 to just $16.4 billion in 2014 – a devastating structural change to that industry. TV and Radio have fared much better through a more solid control of platforms and distribution. For television, their content has become more highly valued with the explosion of new platforms like Amazon Video and Netflix. For radio, the internet is still a small part of distribution with most listening still happening on broadcast radio receivers.

Perhaps the greatest risk to the future of radio is complacency. Radio stations are so used to being listened to on radio receivers that they are ignoring the fact that they are badly consumed on some other platforms, particularly mobile. This is where radio's co-option of platforms has started to look a little shaky.

Radio stations have essentially taken the approach of transferring their existing linear product: expanding it to cover more formats and shoving it on new things. Mobile, though, seems to be a little more resistant to the Today programme and Chris Moyles' charms.

While linear radio is certainly available on mobile devices, data collected from radio operators around the world has shown linear mobile listening has plateaued. Where audiences are increasing it is for the more interactive services – services like Pandora (the internet radio streaming service currently available in the US, Australia and New Zealand with plans to launch in the UK soon).

The mobile is a complex device that can do lots of things. You have a much wider choice of content types to allow a more specific, tailored experience. The games that you choose, the videos that you choose, are not the same as everyone else. A mobile does not have the limits on content choice that a broadcast device has, so the types of media and types of content are split a number of ways. For radio broadcasters – who tend to be in the mass, non-personalised business – this makes mobile less easily conquerable.

For broadcasters, on-demand and mobile are still a very small part of listeners' consumption, and broadcast has remained reliably resilient. There is still little sign of this particularly changing. It would be quite easy for broadcasters to ignore mobile/on-demand and still be very successful and I'm sure we'll see many operators do just that.

The question for the future is can radio remain aligned with consumers as differentiated format and programming demands continue to increase. Netflix, YouTube and iPlayer are training consumers to pick and choose, self-scheduling content that appeals to them. Radio needs to continue its journey by allowing listeners to pick and mix its product to continue to satisfy these needs.

Products like Capital Xtra's app have already started to do this, allowing listeners to skip tracks from its broadcast streams and replace them with songs and content consumers better like. To achieve this requires shifts in how content is created, stored and distributed. It also means that stations have to re-think the priority that they give to live and the primacy that the linear product has.

For radio, unlike other media, it's not about thinking mobile first – potentially that would be disastrous – as for the foreseeable future that would still represent a small part of its audience. The best approach will be to think about audiences and content first, and then the means of distribution second. What is the piece of content, who is it for, what job does it do, and then how is it distributed and marketed to listeners to encourage consumption? Considering audiences and content first allows any broadcaster to support multiple products for different audiences. This is what’s needed to ensure radio's future multi-platform success.


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. 3 - Paul Bennun

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

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

 

26 September 2016

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

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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. 

Charlie Phillips
Charlie Phillips

Charlie is the Head of Legal and Commercial Affairs for the Association of Independent Music (AIM) in the UK and the Worldwide Independent Network of music companies globally. He was formerly Music Manager for Napster UK and Head of Music for Capital Radio’s DAB stations.

The future of radio from the independent music sector's perspective

Today there’s so much choice for listeners and music fans, both from multiple ways to access music, and from other pulls on our entertainment and leisure time outside of music. Radio listening has declined over the last few years, but overall use of music has grown hugely. So radio has a challenge ahead if it’s to stay relevant.

From the independent sector’s perspective, indie record labels love radio. We are very supportive of all broadcasters, with a particular relationship having developed with the BBC. However there are always concerns over access to playlisting and actually getting music on air. This is becoming more transparent, and AIM has helped develop relationships with the indie sector and the BBC and other broadcasters over several years. But it’s still a crowded place with only so many hours in the day for radio to be able to fill with music. Concerns about the proportion of independent music that makes it onto radio is a permanent agenda point in AIM’s work with its members.

So what does the changing music landscape mean for the future of radio? As the amount of music released increases, the challenge radio faces to ensure the ‘best’ music gets airplay will only get harder. Some radio stations are broadening out their services and launching narrower, more focussed, stations, for example Absolute Radio’s ‘decade’ stations on DAB. But by doing so the audience for each station may decrease, perhaps moving away from flagship stations. Is there a paradox in offering a range of services that risk taking audience away from ‘flagship’ stations?

Indies are concerned that commercial radio is under more pressure than ever to deliver audiences to satisfy ‘mainstream’ corporate advertisers and sponsors. This seems to have narrowed the playlists of many commercial stations (although not all), and has led to access only being available to those with the capacity to support high level plugging and media campaigns for obviously mainstream, ‘commercial’ music.

Access to radio is easier for the larger labels with deeper pockets, who tend to champion more mainstream music. Airplay can be harder to achieve for many indies, and especially those who produce more specialist music. Mainstream music is an expensive and crowded place, with a lot of very large players chasing the next big airplay hit.

Most independent labels are not so focused on the mainstream but more interested in seeing choice and discovery develop, such that traditional radio can happily exist alongside today’s very broad on-demand digital music services. If narrowing of playlists is happening, this means narrowing of choice and discovery for listeners, and this in turn means a less attractive radio offering, and perhaps fewer listeners listening for less time. This can’t be good for radio, audiences or music producers. Add to this the fact that streaming services offer almost the opposite experience (access to millions of tracks whenever you want rather than linear programming) and you have a situation where many indies are thriving on streaming services and have in some cases left ‘traditional’ radio behind.

From a purely commercial perspective, the successes of collective licensing organisations like PPL in the UK and its counterparts overseas in extracting real value from broadcasters’ use of music is very much something to applaud. In fact in most years since 2000, global revenues from performance rights as a whole (including broadcast and public performance together) have seen double-digit growth year on year, according to IFPI figures.

Broadcast usage of music is now a key revenue stream for music companies, and when independent labels do achieve airplay, the financial rewards can be significant. The downside is, as mentioned already, that bigger players are able to deploy significant resources to achieve and sustain airplay of their repertoire, which smaller players are less capable of doing. As a result, the bigger players go on to take the lion’s share of the available licensing revenues.

To ensure future sustainability of audiences, radio will need to work with music companies to manage music selection carefully, in order to prevent stagnation and ‘copy paste’ music programming policies which favour bigger players, and which may risk turning audiences off. Radio needs to remain fresh and exciting, and the independent sector is the home of the freshest and most exciting music around.

Looking ahead to the future, radio will have to deal with a number of challenges. Radio is not set to disappear any time soon, but it will need to change to keep up with a very fast moving digital marketplace. Developing offerings to compete with the breadth of other music and non-music services will be critical. Ensuring music programming is relevant and not too narrowly focused will also be essential, to allow for competitive differentiation as well as a fresh and interesting offerings to serve and maintain audiences, and in turn to enthuse advertisers and sponsors.

Radio needs to recognise that there are commercial drivers on the music industry producing the music they play. This requires radio to be vigilant and attentive to ensure broadcasters are doing all they can to find the best music, rather than favour what is directly offered to them. This is happening, and there’s cause for optimism as the industry develops better relationships with radio, be that through AIM for the indies, or on an individual basis.

The question of ensuring enough independent repertoire makes it onto radio is not set to disappear any time soon. The independent music sector is keen to keep working with the radio industry to develop this, and hope that the future of radio, whatever this looks like, will bring increased opportunities for independent music. This will be the best outcome for listeners, broadcasters and producers of music.


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. 2 - Matt Deegan

The future of radio: no. 3 - Paul Bennun

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

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