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Review of 2018: radio

21 December 2018

BBC targets youth, W1A-style


Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) introduces the BBC ME online platform, in series three of the BBC’s W1A satire. It bears similarities to the new BBC Sounds app

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) introduces the BBC ME online platform, in series three of the BBC’s W1A satire. It bears similarities to the new BBC So...

LAST YEAR, the ever-prescient comedy series W1A, on BBC TV, portrayed the evolution of a new online platform — BBC ME — championed with the obsessive enthusiasm and oppressive vigour with which the BBC typically promotes new technical infrastructure.

The BBC ME campaign looks and sounds like what we are experiencing with BBC Sounds, the new app designed eventually to replace the BBC iPlayer. No programme link, it seems, is free of a plug for this innovation, launched over the summer: an app targeted unashamedly at a youth audience that the BBC has always envied and never captured to its satisfaction.

Similarly, anybody navigating the new BBC Radio website will have noticed some telling changes. The website requires us to register and log in, so that our listening habits can be stored, and so that we can be directed towards content tailored to our tastes.

The algorithms that determine these recommendations do not appear to appreciate the omnivorous nature of the contemporary listener’s habits. Like the flight-booking websites that, as soon as you have arrived back from your holiday, suggest that you might like to revisit the same destination next year, your list is populated with earnest documentaries or depressing Afternoon Plays, because you were once a bit down about the state of the world, and casually tuned in to You and Yours and a play about a Yemeni refugee trying to make a go of it in Maidstone.

BBCBBC Media Show: Revolutions

More significant, in terms of mind-set, is the inaccessibility of schedules on the new website. You must now diligently type in the website address, where once there was an obvious link. It is a modest change, but one that reinforces the new topology of radio space in which content floats freely, unshackled by the mundanity of time, forever present and downloadable by a new breed of audio consumer, themselves unshackled by routine or timetable.

The prospect of ever-present content is undoubtedly exciting — like the ever-present library of tunes offered by Spotify. But there is a danger that in all of this we mistake one kind of listening for another. We consume much of our radio as we consume nibbles at a drinks party: it is opportunistic, unthinking. We might briefly comment on the exotic flavour of a particular crisp, but we rarely take a whole bowl into a corner and gorge the lot. The podcast assumes that we are all dedicated gorgers, attentively and exclusively consuming that one programme.

My single piece of recommended listening for this Review of the Year is, therefore, The Media Show Revolutions (Radio 4, December), in which a panel of experts discussed the future of radio; and the most striking statistic quoted here is that podcasts still account for only three per cent of the radio listenership.

This is an extraordinary figure, bearing in mind the amount of hype surrounding the format; and one is tempted to draw an analogy, as did one of the contributors to this show, between the podcast bubble and the dwindling enthusiasm for blogging, which, a few years ago, was lauded as marking a new age in democratic communication.

So, my New Year’s message is: don’t fret if you cannot access the latest top-trending podcasts; and keep your Radio Times subscription — at least for the time being.

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