My BBC iPlayer Radio app stopped working this week; the BBC has been using “a staggered approach” to switching off access from September 16th.
First I got this notice “BBC Sounds will soon replace iPlayer Radio.”
Then, “download BBC Sounds to continue listening.”
Finally, “BBC iPlayer has now been replaced.”
I do still want to listen to radio shows on my phone, and so I reluctantly downloaded the ‘BBC Sounds’ app (currently rated at a cool 1.5 stars on the Google Play repository).
The first thing BBC Sounds presents you with is a login screen.
That’s user interface design failure number one: I want to listen to the radio, and now I have to make an account? The iPlayer Radio app didn’t ask for a special account login, and this is a fairly basic principle, you shouldn’t have to register for a BBC account in order to listen to the radio.
The account registration process asks for an email address, gender, date of birth, and a full postcode. It’s surprisingly demanding, and we all know the BBC doesn’t need your personal details, they’re just asking for information because they can. At this point it’s pointless busywork, so without any respect for the process I filled it out with nonsense information.
They already set off to a bad start by switching over podcasts to distribution exclusively on the app. This is fundamentally not how podcasts work. They’re supposed to be open RSS feeds which you can subscribe to with whatever software you want. When you’re doing things properly, anyone can listen to your podcast whether they’re using
iTunes Apple Podcasts or VLC or the unix shell. When the audio files are freely available, anyone can copy them onto an mp3 player, listen to them on a laptop, email them to your granddad, why not.
Podcasts were born in the internet, they’re punk affairs, the products of a crazy wonderful age when anyone could start their own radio show and just drop the files online for people to listen to. Podcasts are definitely not ‘exclusive to BBC Sounds.’
Maybe you could argue that this was already a long time coming, that nobody actually subscribes to podcast feeds anymore. People don’t carry mp3 players like they used to, and everything’s all on
spotify soundcloud now. It looks like the BBC was too afraid of being out of touch, so in a moment of insecurity it jettisoned the ethos of public service broadcasting and bought into a vision of bland corporate innovation.
The worst part of this relaunch of ‘Radio’ as ‘Sound’ is that it seems embarrassed about the very thing which makes the BBC stand out. The BBC is one of the few institutions which still invests in quality radio; they provide the script-writers, editors, sound technicians, professional actors, studio equipment, and all the resources required to pull off a production. Through most of the 20th Century the BBC maintained a full-time staff team of writers and actors all dedicated to radio, and it’s a testament to that period that you can occasionally recognise the voices of semi-famous actors appearing on radio shows today.
For example, Benedict Cumberbatch voiced the character of Martin on the radio series Cabin Pressure after voicing the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit in the same year. Admittedly, Cumberbatch has probably grown out of radio, given that he now pulls in a salary counted in the millions. He is a unique case, but the BBC did get him to appear on Cabin Pressure.
You don’t need big actors to record a podcast. A podcast is cheap enough in terms of time and resources that almost anyone with a microphone and a laptop can start their own show.
The truth is that anyone can make a podcast, but only the BBC can make radio. The music and the chat shows are entertaining enough, they fill the airtime, and you can put them on in the background. But a good radio drama really deserves your attention, it can fill your imagination, and weave stories with real emotional impact. The best radio documentaries are on par with the best TV documentaries. The BBC has higher standards.
The complaints about ‘discoverability’ in BBC Sounds aren’t just symptoms of a terrible interface, it’s about priorities. It’s more difficult to find the radio shows you want because you have to scroll past various music shows, Radio 1’s Live Lounge, or Football Hour. If it takes longer to reach your favourite shows, that’s a conscious decision, because the motivation behind the app was to “reach out to more than hardcore BBC radio fans.”
I grew up with BBC 7 - that effort to appeal to young people by broadcasting all the best horror stories, sci-fi dramas, and comedy the BBC could find. At least in my case that was a success, it definitely made radio appealing. I’m not sure if I’m a ‘hardcore BBC radio fan,’ although I do care enough to record and save the shows that I like.
And I care enough about the BBC’s radio output to know that BBC Sounds sucks.