September, 2016

The Amazon Echo – A British Perspective

Amazon Echo

NB. I’ve included some detail about how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub, as it definitely seems to be causing an issue to many users who get Error: 7:3:0:0:1. Hopefully this page will help a little.

Amazon has been somewhat tardy in bringing the Echo to the UK. It launched in the US in November 2014, so it taken nearly two full years for the device to cross the Pond. So this review is nothing new and there are no doubt hundreds of others on the web. Nonetheless, localisation was always going to be a key part of the device being made available in the UK.

We don’t tend to think about it, using a service like Google Assistant (née Google Now) in the US is a vastly superior experience compared with using it in the UK. Google has tied down all the key US services, and suddenly it’s an invaluable service as opposed to an OK service as it was in the UK, although the UK has improved over time. Indeed I suspect the reason for the long delay in Alexa reaching the UK is that it takes time and resources to localise it for each market.

I’d been keen to try Amazon Alexa out since I first saw what it was capable of. It does seem that the Echo (the device), and Alexa (the service), is very powerful in interpreting spoken word English and giving you back what you want.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is basically a cylindrical speaker that’s about 24 cm tall. At its top is an array of microphones that can listen to commands from all directions, with an LED light ring indicating what it’s doing and a manual volume control sitting at the very top. A couple of buttons are there to either mute the device or to help with some set-up and pairing processes.

Alexa is the technology that sits behind the Echo, listening out for a command word – “Alexa” being the default – and then either playing audio or performing tasks as directed. These range from Siri or Google Assistant style answers to questions (“What’s the capital of Australia”, “How many yards in a mile”), to online shopping since this is of course Amazon, making diary arrangements, playing music from a connected service to controlling your smart home devices (e.g. your lights or your thermostat).

Key to all of these are what Amazon call “Skills.” These are developed by third parties such as Uber, The Guardian or National Rail, and they allow you to use their technologies to perform other tasks by voice control.

Audio as an interface is really interesting, and of course has the potential to have an impact on audio/radio services. So I was particularly curious to see the Amazon Alexa implementation of these services.

While I bought the Echo device, Amazon also sell the Dot, a cheaper device that doesn’t have a powerful inbuilt speaker. It’s designed to contain microphones, but to be plugged into an existing speaker via an Aux cable.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well, these are based on some early experimentation with the device. I’ll perhaps return to this review, or offer additional thoughts, when I’ve played for it for longer or more services and Skills have launched.

Setup

Note: Including detailed instructions of how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub.

Setup is designed to be simple. The preferred way is to install an app on your phone and set it up from there. The device essentially needs to be connected to your WiFi network. Unfortunately, I found it more complex than it should have been, to the point that if my problems are common, this will cause lots of headaches from the start for many users.

Once you’ve powered the Echo, you open the App, the Android version of which you will be pleased to hear, is in the Google Play Store (other Amazon specific apps aren’t).

Because I had already registered both a Fire TV and Fire TV Stick with Amazon, the app gave me lots of detail about them that at this point that I wasn’t interested in. Indeed, so cluttered was the screen that I couldn’t see how I should initially setup the device. I had to dive into the Settings menu to do it when it should really have been the first thing I was presented with.

You either have to press a button on the Echo or power it on for the first time to get into setup mode, and then it’s a question of connecting your phone or tablet to the Echo’s own WiFi network to give it details of your WiFi password. This isn’t dissimilar to setting up a Chromecast.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I gave it details of my WiFi password it wouldn’t connect. So I tried from a Chromebook, since you don’t need to use a phone or a tablet. This failed to work too.

Finally, fearing I may have a defective unit, I setup a portable hotspot on my phone, and tethered the Echo that way. It worked absolutely fine, so I knew it wasn’t a technical problem with the device.

Trying once again to connect it to my WiFi router I noted the error code I kept receiving.

Error: 7:3:0:0:1

Googling that took me to a Reddit page which contained what I took to be the solution.

My router at home is a BT Homehub 4, and a quick search a day or so later suggests that I wasn’t alone in not being able to initially connect the Echo to my Homehub.

The Homehub 4 (and later versions) uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz to broadcast WiFi on.

All devices will connect on 2.4GHz, but more recently 5GHz frequencies were added to WiFi and newer devices will use both.

By default the Homehub uses the same SSID for both frequencies. That means you see a single WiFi access point when you’re connecting a new device to your WiFi network, with that device connecting over either frequency. Even though the 5GHz frequency tends to perform better, I’d never seen fit to change the default, and all my WiFi devices worked fine choosing either frequency as they saw fit themselves.

But it looks like, for whatever reason, the Echo really doesn’t like that.

The solution I found was to go into the Advanced Settings on my BT Homehub router. You will need the admin password to access this menu, which unless you’ve changed it, will be attached to your Homehub device.

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Click “Continue to Advanced Settings.”

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Then choose Wireless. There are then two tabs for 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You need to change one of the SSIDs so that your router has in effect two access points for each of the frequencies.

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I changed the name of the 2.4GHz SSID to something slightly different (e.g. add “1” to the end of the name), leaving the 5GHz SSID unchanged.

On the 5GHz tab, ensure that “Sync with 2.4GHz” has “No” selected.

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Apply the changes, and then try the Echo’s WiFi connection process again.

This time the Echo connected flawlessly for me. I was properly up and running.

There are other solutions out there, but this worked for me. I’m surprised that Amazon/BT hadn’t fixed this ahead of launch, as BT is the biggest ISP in the UK, so there will be potentially millions of these routers in use.

I certainly never had that issue with either the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, nor any other WiFi device.

Initially, I just left things as they were, with two slightly differently named SSIDs to my router. However, once the Echo was up and running, I found that I was able to rename the 2.4GHz SSID back to its original name, and the Echo still connected. This was useful as some legacy WiFi devices I own are unlikely to have the radios in them to work on 5GHz. Consequently I’d have had to have gone around and reconfigured all of these to work with the differently named SSID.

Depending on how many older WiFi devices you have that you use, you may be happy leaving two different SSIDs running on your router.

Usage of the Echo

The first thing Amazon does once you’re setup is to watch a short video. Unlike those for the Fire TV products, this hasn’t been Anglicised. We get an American video that runs through some of the things Echo can do.

Then you’re walked through some live examples, getting the news or playing some music.

The ecology of Alexa seems to be multi-tiered. At the top level are things that will work for everyone out of the box. For example, answering questions with factual information, or telling jokes.

Then there are those that are baked in as partnerships with Alexa. If you ask for a radio station to be played, it will by default be served by TuneIn. If you ask for the news, it comes from Sky News.

The third tier are the Skills, and these tend to need a second keyword to alert Alexa that she should be looking there. There can be overlaps, with broadly the same services being offered by different parties, and depending on quite what you ask Alexa, the service that responds can vary.

News is a good example. Alexa has what Amazon call “Flash briefings.” In other words, news headlines of the type a radio station might play at the top of the hour. If you ask Alexa to give you your flash briefing it will default to a Sky News bulletin from the last hour. I’ve not compared this with any radio output, but this is either an Amazon-specific bulletin, or as I suspect, a the same bulletin Sky News sends to commercial radio stations up and down the country.

The bulletin seems to be timed from the last hour – 9pm, 10pm, 11pm etc – and lasts a couple of minutes.

If you delve into the settings of the Flash Briefing in the app, you can find other news sources which you can turn on or off. Sky News is turned on by default in the UK, but you can turn others on. Annoyingly there’s no option to reorder them. So if you want your Flash Briefing to have more than one source, the default order the sources appear in Amazon’s list determines the order you hear them. This feels like something Amazon could fix.

You’re also limited to the sources that Amazon has included, but there’s a reasonable range including the BBC, CNN, The Wall St Journal and others. I had a play with the BBC sources.

First off is BBC Minute, which is a one minute bulletin produced every 30 minutes by the BBC World Service, and aimed at partner stations around the world (it’s not actually broadcast on the BBC World Service itself). The bulletin is available as a podcast and that’s how Alexa is pulling it in, serving the bulletin via TuneIn.

There is also a BBC World Service news bulletin which again comes from TuneIn. This is a two minute bulletin and is your best bet for serious news.

There’s the World Service Daily Commute, a thirty minute daily news podcast. Finally there’s a BBC Radio 4 option which unfortunately is the most recent Today Programme podcast. The Today Programme is of course a very fine morning news programme, but their podcast stream is complicated because it outputs around 3 different clips each morning – a business roundup, a more serious piece (e.g. their main 8:10am interview) and perhaps something a bit more quirky. None of those things are actually a news bulletin, and I wouldn’t really want them in my Flash Briefing.

The sports section is frankly pretty poor.

When you set it up on the app, you’re invited to select your favourite teams. A few Premier League teams were pre-selected for me. But I couldn’t find any Championship teams, let alone those lower down in the leagues. And there were no Scottish teams either! Nor could I find rugby or cricket teams. From what I could tell, this has only been very lightly localised with most of Alexa’s database filled with American sports teams of various sizes.

This is really poor and those other teams need to be added as a matter of urgency. There are no national teams either.

As I’m an Arsenal supporter, I’m OK for my favourite club. So I asked Alexa to tell me the latest score. That night Arsenal had just beaten FC Basel 2-0 in the Champions’ League. However, Alexa didn’t know that and only gave me last Saturday’s result against Chelsea, as well as alerting me to this weekend’s fixture. Good to know, but not enough. Amazon needs to buy in a lot more data sources to cover all the football competitions and plenty of other sports too.

The sport is also very team oriented. If you want general news about cycling or F1, or want to know Andy Murray’s results, it’s simply not set up for it. It would have been rubbish during the Olympics.

As well as baked in services like maintaining a to-do list or a shopping list, not necessarily just Amazon purchases either, although those are easy to manage, Alexa can also integrate with your calendar. At least if you’re calendar is a Google calendar. I couldn’t see how to make it work with Outlook or iCalc. Fortunately, my personal calendar is indeed a Google one, and you can get Alexa to tell your day’s appointments as well as add things to your calendar. What I didn’t see was any email integration. Amazon does warn you that your calendar will be available to everyone in your household, so it’s worth bearing in mind depending on who’s using Alexa.

Music playback is a key part of Alexa, and it works with a number of services – notably Amazon Prime Music (of course) and Spotify. You can choose a default service, and asking Alexa to play Coldplay will come from your choice of service. Notably, it won’t work with either Google Play Music or Apple Music, at least without using the workaround of playing via Bluetooth.

It is relatively easy to pair your phone or tablet to Alexa via Bluetooth, and then use a voice command to connect and disconnect your device accordingly. That means that you can listen to those services, but of course Bluetooth streaming does eat more battery than something like Chromecast.

Incidentally, there’s no Aux socket on the Echo, so you can’t use it as a dumb speaker for sending your audio to.

As I’ve mentioned, radio by default, comes from TuneIn. So if you ask Alexa to “play Radio 1” or “ESPN Radio” it will come via TuneIn. That does lead to some oddities. I asked, “Alexa, play Capital Radio,” and it dutifully played Capital Radio. The Madrid-based, Spanish-language Capital Radio who seem to be a speech service. To be fair, when I rephrased that as “Capital FM” it worked. Then I asked, “Alexa, play CNN Radio,” and it played CNN Radio Turkiye, CNN’s Turkish partner service. On the other hand, TuneIn selected the correct UK version of Virgin Radio when asked.

Fortunately RadioPlayer is a skill on Alexa, and that means you can get all the British services by specifying “RadioPlayer” in your command. So if you say something like “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Capital Radio,” you’ll get a local UK version (RadioPlayer asks you for your closest city when you set it up, so it will serve me, for instance, Capital London). Given the multiplicity of similarly named stations around the world, Radioplayer is the safer bet for getting the UK station you expected. The only shortcoming I could find is the lack of on demand programming which the mobile app does offer.

Having both TuneIn and Radioplayer means that I can get the same radio station in two different ways. “Alexa, play Absolute 80s,” will give me the same result as, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute 80s.” To my ears, they sounded the same. Also, in my tests, I heard no pre-rolls for any of these stations. And when I tuned into ESPN Radio, no geo-blocking seemed to prevent me listening to a baseball game they were broadcasting.

It’d be great if I could teach Alexa to use Radioplayer in the first instance, and then drop back to TuneIn if it can’t find the service I’m asking for.

Each of the Skills you enable on Amazon – and you do have to actively enable them – means learning a few new commands. I enabled The Guardian (The Telegraph and Mail were both there too), and you have to say, “Alexa, open The Guardian” to get into a voice sub-menu. Alexa reads back the top three headlines and you can choose to have an article read to you. Because these are likely to be chunky stories, it will alert you to the fact that reading the article might take five minutes. “Alexa, stop,” is a useful command.

The Guardian also allows you to listen to its sports news as well as podcasts and other parts of the paper. The key here is how easy they’ve made it to navigate their articles, and how much information they’ve put into their details in the Skills section of the app/website. The more, the better!

Sometimes the US origins of this device shine through. You can set up your commute on Alexa, but that actually means your driving commute. Alexa will helpfully tell you about traffic congestion on your drive to work. But what if your commute is via rail? Fortunately, National Rail is a partner and you can enable its Skill. It quickly asks you to set up your rail commute. As long as both ends are National Rail stations, it works (although in comments, I see some struggled with getting the right local station variant understood). If your commute is Cambridge to London King’s Cross, then it’s fine. But if it’s Cambridge to Oxford Circus, then you might want both information on the National Rail part of the journey and details about the Victoria Line. National Rail can’t help you with the latter. TfL would be a really useful Skills addition for Londoners, as would other regional transport companies.

One disappointment so far is listening to podcasts. I use PocketCasts to play my podcasts, and that does mean that I have a uniform list of podcasts across different devices and platforms no matter how I listen to them. If I listen to a podcast in one place, PocketCasts in all the others knows I’ve heard it. PocketCasts is Chromecast enabled too.

From what I can see, aside from going via a specific app like The Guardian, podcasts are delivered via TuneIn, but they seem to be very hit and miss. When I asked for This American Life, I got some kind of 24 hour This American Life stream which was obviously mid-episode. On the other hand, asking for 99% Invisible got me straight to the most recent episode. I tried getting both Guardian Football Weekly and the Telegraph Cycling Podcast, but despite trying lots of variants, Alexa failed to find either. Indeed at one point, she decided to play me an audio book from my Audible account! That’s great in itself, but wasn’t what I was after here.

One thing that is absolutely seamless is hooking Alexa up with Philips Hue lightbulbs. Yes… I have some.

At first I was confused that I couldn’t find Hue as a Skill before I realised that it was baked in. You do a search for smart devices, press the button on your Hue Bridge (key to getting the Hue system to work), and hey presto, it found all my bulbs. Alexa then lets you group these smart devices together. In my case I added two bulbs to create the “Hall” and three bulbs to create the “Living Room.” Then I added all five to create the “Flat.”

Having done this you can bark commands like, “Alexa turn on Hall lights,” or “Alexa, turn off Flat lights.” And it does so very quickly indeed.

It’s at this point that you begin to think that you’re living out all your science fiction dreams!

Other Skills I’ve yet to turn on include Uber, Just Eat, and Jamie Oliver. There is a reasonable collection of them, but they could do with more. In recent months, Amazon has been adding Skills almost daily in the US, so let’s hope they’ll take a proactive approach in the UK too.

One real disappointment is the Echo speaker itself. Whisper it, but it’s not that great. Sat next to my dumb Sony X55 Bluetooth speaker, the difference in sound quality is clear. They both cost me similar amounts. Indeed I bought the Echo at a special launch discount of £99. It’s back to £149 now.

I bought the Echo knowing it wasn’t that great sounding, but it’s a shame Amazon didn’t improve on it a bit in time for the UK release.

However the volume is perfectly good for filling a room. I wouldn’t use it for a party, but it’s fine for listening in general – aside from being mono of course. You can control the volume either with the dial on the top of the device, or by saying something like, “Alexa, volume 5.” The only problem I had was after pumping the volume up to 9, Alexa could no longer hear me above the sound of the music it was playing! I had to walk over and manually turn the volume down to regain voice control.

There’s no audio out from the Echo, so you can’t send stereo sound to a better speaker system either. On the other hand the much cheaper (£49) Echo Dot does allow you to send the output to another speaker via a 3.5mm jack. At that price, Amazon might sell stacks of these things.

The microphone pick-up is really excellent. Alexa hears her name above a certain amount of ambient sound (but not maximum volume as I say), and the range is decent enough that I’m able to send instructions to Alexa from my living room and bedroom. But then I don’t live in a mansion. I note that Amazon will be bundling 6 Dots for the price of 5, so clearly they’re aiming at a multi-room world. Using either these or Chromecast Audio devices is vastly cheaper than something like a Sonos system.

In my experience, response time of the Echo is really excellent. Amazon has obviously worked hard interpreting audio as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yes, I have a fast broadband connection, but the Echo is ridiculously fast serving you with what you want. There really is minimal delay in it doing what you asked. It’s mightily impressive.

One small downside is responding to secondary questions. In some instances, a call-response-call-response is required, and if you’re not careful, you can drop back to the main menu. There is a certain language learning curve here, and sentences do need to be formed a bit more carefully than natural language.

Another thing to note is that, so far, I’ve not heard any advertising beyond standard broadcast radio ads. The National Rail mobile app, for example, is advertising supported, but there’s none of that hear. It’s all a nice clean interface. We’ll see if anyone starts adding audio ads.

The one thing that did worry me lot before buying the Echo was the fact that I was essentially buying some kind of bug to put into my home. For Alexa to work, the microphones have to be live all the time. There is a mic-off button on the top which prevents Alexa from working if you choose, but surely everything else is being listened to all the time?

Amazon assures users that Alexa is offline when listening out for its own name. Only when it hears its name and switches on the blue LED at the top does it start sending audio to Amazon’s servers for interpretation. I’m sure that were that not the case, someone would have found out quite quickly, but clearly there are privacy concerns, and I’m certainly not going to ignore them.

I bought the Echo as much as anything to experiment. In many respects, it may have been smarter to wait for the upcoming Google Home device, which will potentially be cheaper, and more tied into Google services. In particular, my music is stored on Google, and I’m not about to replicate it on Amazon, at extra cost. And Google’s Chromecast infrastructure works well. I use it to play music in my bedroom on speakers and via my TV in my living room. Google Home will reputedly allow you to throw to TV from audio as necessary too.

But it’s a bit of an unknown, with an expected retail announcement next week, that may or may not see it released in the UK. It’ll be worth looking out for, and there could be an interesting hardware battle played out between Google and Amazon (Apple, despite Siri, really isn’t in this game just yet).

What is clear is that the usefulness of these devices is not just the very clever voice analysis technology, but also the services the various providers sign up. Getting these partners on board is key to the form’s success.

Amazon is clearly backing Alexa in a much bigger way now, with them encouraging other manufacturers to add Alexa to their devices (e.g. Pebble phones, or the Raspberry Pi project), and they’ve announced that the next generation of Fire TV Stick will include Alexa capability in the remote.

I also think that the adoption of voice interfaces is more likely to be successful inside the home or in the car than elsewhere. Despite phones having had Siri and Google Assistant for a number of years now, you rarely see or hear anyone using them in public, as you feel like a bit of an idiot. I’m much more comfortable talking to a device in the privacy of my home or car.

The other thing critical to the success of these devices will be explaining to users how they work, and what they’re capable of. While geeks like me will explore to an extent, others will need lots of demonstrations to see their value. I find that too often, functionality is there, but a bit hidden away. You don’t know what you don’t know. That means lots of examples, and good, clear, documentation where appropriate.

Who’s Missing from the ARIAS?

Virgin Radio's First Sony Award

Earlier this week, the nominations for the inaugural ARIAS were announced. These are effectively the replacement of the former Sony Radio Awards, following Sony departing as a sponsor, and the Radio Academy reorganising itself and slimming down.

Over the 16 award categories, the BBC has 54 nominations, including several catetgories that only feature BBC nominees, while Bauer has 8 nomations, the Wireless Group 3, and several other groups one each.

Notably absent are any Global Radio nominees.

It was hard to see past the thought that Global had simply not entered the awards. For example, you would quite comfortably expect LBC to be up for some of its news and current affairs coverage, while Classic FM has previously always done well.

This morning Radio Today has confirmed that Global simply didn’t enter:

“We aren’t members of the Radio Academy so we haven’t entered their awards. We wish everyone who’s been nominated loads of luck.”

It’s true. The slimmed down Radio Academy is no longer supported by Global. But that doesn’t actually mean that they’re not allowed to enter the ARIAS.

It seems as though Global has taken a “We’re not going to play” attitude to the awards, depsite being the biggest commercial radio group in the country. It would be analagous to ITV not entering the BAFTAs.

Look – I understand that for whatever reason, Global doesn’t want to support a cross-industry body that promotes radio such as the Radio Academy. Getting a group of people in a room to all agree on something is hard, and during the reformation of the Radio Academy, a consensus seemingly couldn’t be achieved.

It’s a real shame, but it’s just about understandable. Global’s attention is probably currently concentrated on their recently opened Global Academy in Hayes.

But not participating in the ARIAS is surely akin to a sulking child picking up his ball and saying he won’t play the game any more because the others have scored too many goals.

“Their awards”?

Was it the entry fees? Awards are expensive and entry fees and selling tickets go towards funding a glizty evening. Traditionally this has been somewhere fancy in London, but the ARIAS are moving away from the capital and will take place at the First Direct Arena in Leeds.

Is it the awards categories? Does Global not think they match the kind of output its stations produce. Actually, I think Global could probably enter in the majority of categories.

By not entering the ARIAS, Global is really denying its staff the chance to compete against the rest of the UK radio industry. Certainly there are the Arqiva Awards, but they’re only for commercial radio (and unfortunately, they suffer their own boycotts).

Whereas if you win one of the ARIAS, you can triumphantly proclaim that you are the best in the country regardless. It’s something you’ll put on your CV and will be with you for the rest of your career in the industry and beyond.

Winning an award engenders an enormous amount of pride in your staff. Winning something like Station of the Year can mean an awful lot, and filters through to everyone including those who don’t directly work on-air. And if you work on an award-winning show, you might find a better job, or get a promotion in your current place of work off the back of it. For commercial groups, advertisers love awards ceremonies. If something they had a part in wins an award, it’s reflective of them too. Agencies and clients love the glitz and glamour of the evening too.

This is the first year of the ARIAS, and undoubtedly there’ll be some teething problems. The entry period was a bit short. Making your entry sound great is key to winning an award, and this takes time. Some of the categories will no doubt need tweaking too. For example, I think that a category that can encompass radio promotions or competitions is important. Yes, that tends to be a commercial category, but perhaps the best and most creative pieces of radio that some stations produce actually come when they run on-air competitions. I’d also like to see a factual award that allows popular documentaries to compete.

And if you don’t think your station makes radio that can win awards in a fair fight against the rest of the commercial sector and a licence-fee funded BBC, I have news for you.

You can.

Be a bit more ambitious, and go out and make something!

Certainly, your schedule might mostly be music, but that doesn’t stop you producing, say, a one-off programme or documentary on something relevant or important to your listeners. And if you haven’t got the skills internally, then bring in an indie to help. It needn’t be expensive, and once broadcast, you’ve got something awards-friendly right there and ready to go! Obviously it’ll need to be good, but your station is probably brimming with creativity just waiting to be let off the leash and do something extraordinary. If you’re really smart, you can get it sponsored and it might actually make you some money too!

So I really hope Global has a change of heart and next year lets its employees, including some of the most incredibly talented folk in the industry, enter what are undoubtedly the UK’s premier radio awards.

My Problem with Reporting of the Fancy Bears Hack

There is much wrong in the world of sport, including doping.

Intrinsically most sports bodies are placed in tough positions, often at odds with their own self-interests. Should a sport admit to a doping problem when it may damage its own future?

Then there’s WADA – the World Anti-Doping Authority. It has an ineffectual leader in Craig Readie, has been criticised for not doing enough, and they’ve been hacked by a group calling itself “Fancy Bears.” While it doesn’t seem to be definitive, it would seem the hacker group is Russian, and there’s a widely-held belief that the hack is in response to the banning of some Russian competitors at the Olympics in Rio (as well as all Russian Paralympic competitors).

This followed what would seem to be prima facie evidence of state sponsored doping conducted in Russia in recent years, and notably during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The target of the hack group seems to be Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE); certificates given to athletes that allow them to continue to compete, while taking drugs that would otherwise be deemed illegal. TUEs are usually granted at a fairly high level, with doctors representing the governing bodies determining whether they are allowable.

While an athlete’s overall health is, like anybody else’s, a matter for them and their doctor, some have chosen to talk about them publicly in the past.

In this instance, the hacking group is presenting details of the TUEs of select athletes. And when I say select, I mean predominantly American, British and German. Curiously they have not published the details of any TUEs given to Russian athletes.

And that’s where my problem lies.

This isn’t like Wikileaks putting up a full database and letting people sift through it. It’s a staggered and potentially incomplete leak with a particular story to spin. And the press seems to be falling hook, line and sinker for it.

The weekend’s newspapers were full of stories about the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. But since it’s an incomplete set of records, we’re not getting a full picture. We don’t know, for example, how many TUEs are awarded full stop. Perhaps the majority of athletes have them, or have had them? We simply don’t know.

Instead we’re being drip fed records to support a hacker group’s own story.

Now I do think that there’s a very legitimate set of questions to ask around the use of TUEs. For example, if an athlete is so ill that they need strong drugs, should they be competing at all? Some sports may inherently cause health issues that mean many competitors are on similar sets of drugs e.g. asthma amongst swimmers and cyclists. Again, we don’t know. R

The problem is that we’re falling into the hands of selective leakers who are dictating the story.

Maybe all TUE certificates should be made public when they’re awarded. On the other hand, health records are normally very confidential documents. Many of us prefer not to have all our maladies out in the open. Should part of deal of being a professional athlete be that your medical records are an open book?

One way or another, a hack took place, and once the information is out there, it can’t be ignored. But let’s not forget the bigger picture, where all things seem to point east…

Getting Burnt

The whole fallout over the failure of the BBC and Love Productions to agree a deal over future series of The Great British Bake-Off is fascinating.

The series started as a run-of-the-mill weekday evening BBC2 cooking competition show, where it was essentially one of many. Yet it morphed into a beast that became the biggest show on British television in fairly short order, transitioning across to BBC1 and making stars of its presenters and competition winners alike. Along the way it gained a number of spin-off shows.

Love Productions owns and makes the show for the BBC. Since 2014 it has been 70% owned by Sky, and perhaps its other best known show has been Benefits Street on Channel 4. But a quick look at their website shows how important the “Great British” brand is. As well as the flagship, there have been a Sport Relief and “Creme de la Creme” versions this year. We’ve also had Junior Bake Off, and Bake Off Masterclasses, and there have been two Mary Berry series as well as a Paul Hollywood series. There was also a two part documentary for primetime BBC1 featuring Nadiya, the winner of last year’s show. Then there are the sewing and pottery sister shows as well.

Bake Off is clearly Love’s core brand, since it would seem that Benefits Street seems to have had its day. Of the 2016 series on their website at time of writing, 32 hours are “Great British…” related, and 8 hours are all its other programmes.

So this contract extension/negotiation was clearly going to be a big deal for Love, and from media reports, negotiations have been long with rumours first surfacing back in April that all was not right and the two parties weren’t seeing eye to eye.

On Monday, as news broke, The Guardian reported an internal Love Productions email that said “this has never been about who might write the biggest cheque but about where we can find the best home for Bake Off,” which is clearly a load of nonsense. It was always about the size of the cheque. Maybe they did turn down an ITV offer in favour of Channel 4, as is the rumour. And perhaps that was a good call, with Channel 4 perhaps better suited of the two commercial services that could seriously bid for it. (NB. This really wouldn’t have made sense for Sky to bid on. The audiences would be tiny, and it just doesn’t seem to fit in with any of their core channels.)

Then came the bombshell that the talent hadn’t been tied up – or even consulted – before the show was sold to C4! Mel and Sue promptly decided that they would be bowing out (neither is short of other work, and they’ve done seven series at this point). Has C4 essentially paid £25m a year for a large marquee in a field?

I think what’s clear is that C4 won’t get anything like the ratings that the BBC got. But there’s probably a commercial equation that means, subject to relatively good ratings, and perhaps becoming C4’s biggest show, there’s a net commercial win for the channel. But at what cost?

A few questions come to mind beyond the emotional ones of whether the show is just quintessentially “a BBC show.”

  • How was a deal done without the talent already signed up? Now that Mel and Sue have dropped out, this really gives the whip hand in negotiations to agents of Mary and Paul. C4 will now be desperate to secure them, but if the production fee has gone up several-fold as rumoured, then the talent will be looking for something similar. It’s also probably slightly awkward that they’ve publicly said they want to stay with the BBC.

    I would imagine that what really comes into play here is what else they get as part of the deal. That probably means both Paul and Mary getting their own cookery shows, and the opportunity to really cash in on associated book sales. Channel 4 probably also lets them do more overtly commercial deals with their own ranges of baking or cookware, as well as other endorsements. But this will almost certainly come at the cost of audience, and that also impacts on what they can achieve in the wider marketplace. It’s not as though neither of them has had cookery shows on the BBC after all – with bestselling spin-off books. I’m sure the BBC would be very happy to keep offering them cookery slots as well.

  • What does this mean for future indies working in formats with the BBC? It’s an interesting time at the moment with indies and the BBC. The new Charter agreement allows for the opening up of more shows to be made by independents. And the creation of BBC Studios allows BBC producers to pitch for shows on other channels. We’ve not really seen a format owned by third party switch networks in the UK unless the format was dropped by the original broadcaster. Channel 4 chose to stop making Big Brother for example. Probably the biggest recent example was The Voice which the BBC also decided not to get into a bidding war over. But that was a format that the BBC had been criticised for buying in the first place as it was something they could have developed. While the intellectual property of Bake Off resides with Love Productions, it’s fair to say that the BBC helped develop the brand.

    But my question is whether this means tighter contracts over what an indie can do with a format that airs on the BBC, particularly after it’s grown and nurtured? Do exclusivity clauses become more onerous? Or when a commissioner is faced with two options – one from BBC Studios and one from an indie, are they now more likely to go for the BBC Studios option? I think I’d be a little worried if I was an indie.

  • What will audiences do? It may well be the case that if you have a TV (or internet device) you have access to both BBC One and Channel 4, but the fact remains that the same show on different networks will achieve different audiences. And in this instance, it means a smaller audience for C4. Making lots of money is not necessarily seen as a good thing in UK culture, and the fact that this is front page news means audiences know full well that the show has changed channels to make the producers more cash. Does that therefore devalue the show in audiences’ eyes? Paul and Mary are probably in a tough position right now. Stay with the show, and they might look like they’re greedy.

I’m sure Channel 4 can make this work commercially – with premium spot-rates, sponsorship and product placement opportunities. However, if it becomes too overtly commercial that does cause issues with the audience. And they’re going to have to fork out for talent one way or another.

It wouldn’t take a great deal for the BBC to come up with another cookery related competition show that didn’t break anyone’s intellectual property rights. They already air Masterchef after all, and like many other reality formats, it’s notoriously hard to pin down what’s original in this format that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before. I’m not sure that this will be the route that’s followed. There won’t be a “The Grand Tour/Top Gear” re-imagining happening. But star talent is star talent, and at this moment, I suspect Paul and Mary can choose what projects they want.

Is the show right for Channel 4? Perhaps, but it’s hard to see this sitting cheek by jowl with Naked Attraction. Yes, Jamie’s at home there, but the channel is still edgier after 9pm, and it’s not completely clear to me that it’s actually the right fit for a channel who’s remit is to be “Innovative and distinctive,” and “Champion alternative points of view.” Over on Mediatel, Ray Snoddy notes the broader issues about what such “poaching” might mean for the future of Channel 4 itself. Is it a smart thing for one public sector broadcaster to outbid another to buy the show? This isn’t the same as F1 or horse racing.

Incidentally, I don’t actually watch Bake Off very often. But I completely understand the appeal of the programme, and this is a fascinating case study.

Backup Storage Solutions and Costs

Old Technology

More than a year ago, I wrote about some experiences I’d had with backup storage and thoughts about “off-site” back-ups. It prompted a couple of responses on the blog, and a few more on social media. Not the most exciting of subjects, but an important one, as I still believe that in this age of digital collections, backup will be a key issue. Just one that most people don’t spend much time thinking about.

To recap.

I use a lot of storage:

  • I shoot video and although I upload edits of what I shoot to Vimeo or YouTube, I like keep the original materials (in one instance this paid off, when I sold a shot to a company who’d found part of it on Vimeo).
  • I shoot photographs. Lots of photographs. Anything I take on my phone gets backed up to my Flickr and Google Photos accounts. (They also go temporarily to a Dropbox account.) But that doesn’t help for shooting with my cameras, where I prefer RAW. These large files end up on a local NAS drive once I’ve moved them off the PC where I edit them. I should note that I do delete files. If I shoot a batch of ten broadly identical photos, then assuming I like any of them, I’ll only keep one version. So for every 100 photos I shoot, I perhaps keep 10, and upload 5 to Flickr.
  • I have a digital music archive. I keep a local copy of it in iTunes – loathsome as that software is. And it’s mirrored on Google Play Music where they upped the limit to 50,000 tracks (I have more than 25,000 on there currently). I mostly play back music via Google Play Music either on my phone or via Chromecast devices. Beyond music, I have lots of other audio, both field recordings and radio recordings.
  • I have other legally purchased commercial video files – including iTunes downloads and DRM-free mp4 files.
  • I have a myriad of other documents, mostly much smaller in size.
  • I have several PCs and tablets, including the hard drives from a number of older computers, some of which files I’d like to have retrievable.
  • I have around 100 MiniDV tapes that I’d like to “rip” and store (A project for another day).
  • I have a large box of film photos that I want to scan at some point (Another project for yet another day).
  • Probably other stuff too…

While some files sit on various computers, I try to mostly copy files onto one of two Synology NAS drives. Cumulatively they have about 6TB of space, of which I’m using more than half. One NAS in particular will need its 2TB drives replaced by 3 or 4TB drives fairly soon (Yes, I Know 6TB drives are available, but I try to be cost efficient).

I also have a plethora of old hard drives and expansion drives that I have been slowly consolidating onto larger, newer portable hard drives (Three old small hard drives might now sit on one larger capacity drive).

Services I use that offer storage:

  • Google Drive. Through various promotions and purchases, including a Chromebook, an HTC phone, doing work for Local Guides, and running security check-ups, I have a cumulatuive 2.2TB of space. However, this space is not permanent, with 1TB disappearing at the start of next year when my Chromebook will be two years’ old (Plus, they don’t hand out 1TB for new Chromebooks now, in case I was thinking of upgrading).
  • OneDrive. Beacuse I have a paid subscription to Office 360, I get 1TB with this. In fact, I could have five accounts, each with their own 1TB. But that would be painful with multiple logins required. For those with lower usage needs, this offers a great deal however.
  • Dropbox. Just the basic free account with 2GB of space. Although I have occasionally gone on the paid plan for a podcast I work on.
  • BT Cloud. My ISP gives me 500GB because of the plan I’m on. I’ve never used it, and have heard it’s a bit slow.
  • Evernote Premium. Used for note taking and scanning. Not for files, but scanning magazine articles I want to keep and making them searchable, for example, does take space. But it’s not for files per se.

What I need:

Let’s say I need 6TB of space. It’ll probably more than that in due course, but 6TB is a good starting point. Let’s try to price that up at the various big vendors.

  • Google Drive is £7.99 a month per TB. So for 5TB of additional storage (1TB drops off my account in January don’t forget), we’re looking at £479 pa.
  • OneDrive is £1.99 per 50GB. So for 5TB of additional storage, it’d be £2388 pa although I feel sure that there must be most cost efficient ways of buying storage from Microsoft. I just can’t see them – aside from opening multiple Office 360 accounts which seems mad.
  • Dropbox seems to push me towads a Business plan at £110 pa for “As much as needed” (which may not include VAT). Still, that seems to be pretty decent value.
  • Amazon Cloud Drive has finally updated its UK offer and either gives Amazon Prime users their free “Prime Photos” service which is unlimited space for photos, and 5GB for other files including video, or their Unlimited Storage offer which is £55 a year, with a free three month trial.

There are of course lots of other providers which are and aren’t aimed at the consumer end of the market. And different not all cloud services are aimed at the same use cases. I’m not really looking for a shared working environment so much as reasonably priced archival space.

I’m looking for something that’s reliable, that allows me a clear understanding of cost, and doesn’t place many limits on what I store and how large the individual files are. While I’ve not shot many yet, a 4K video file lasting more than a few minutes is likely to take up an enormous amount of space. I don’t think I have any single file that’s larger than 4GB, but some services top out what they’ll accept at 5GB per file.

I also want to be certain that a provider I use is going to be there next year, in five years and in ten years.

Amazon has actually built an enormously profitable business offering cloud servers and storage. However, S3 storage pricing is a little opaque – essentially it’s based on how much access the files have. While Amazon Glacier is intriguing because it’s a very low cost backup solution at $0.007 per GB / month. It’s based around archival needs, and the data might take a few hours to become available once you’ve requested it.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Amazon Cloud Drive is the winner here. £55 for unlimited storage is a good deal from my perspective. But there are a few provisos worth getting into. This is for non-commercial use – they particularly seem to be concerned about people running photography businesses who no doubt generate lots of files all the time. I’m not running a business, but am an enthusiastic amateur. I assume I won’t be in trouble!

They’re also unsurprisingly worried about people sharing illegal files, or storing such files in the first place. I’d guess that this is not going to be home for your massive collection of torrents. That said, I’m not clear how they can determine a film bought legally and an illegal one. If I rip my DVD collection, can I store it in the cloud?

If you have large files, then you won’t want to use their web interface to upload them (But you didn’t want to do that anyway). And files with more than 255 characters or special characters, unsurprisingly, cause problems.

If you stop paying Amazon, they may delete your files. Kind of obvious, but worth knowing anyway.

To be clear, I’m using this as purely a backup service. There will be no files on Amazon that I don’t also have locally. Indeed the NAS drives I own are in RAID arrays themselves (although other files that will eventually reach Amazon may only have a single local backup).

Finally there’s the small issue of getting terabytes of data into the cloud in the first place. My BT Infinity 2 service is fibre-to-cabinet, and claims that it has no upload or download limits. But if I’ve got something like 6TB of data I want to initially back-up, that’s going to take quite some time.

At time of writing, I’ve only been uploading a 2TB NAS drive for less than 24 hours, and it’s not clear how long it’s going to take me in total. But it could easily be a full month before that first NAS is in the cloud. It does seem that Amazon “drip feeds” the files across. This is probably a good thing, because I don’t want all my bandwidth used up all the time as files fly back and forth.

Indeed I’m actually using a Synology app called Cloud Sync to do the backups, and that can limit the number of simultaneous files being uploaded. Furthermore, I’ve scheduled the syncing to stop at various points during the week when I’m more likely to want unfettered internet use myself. So I’ve got three hours in the morning and another six in the evening when it pauses syncing. At weekends, the syncing process will also be halted during the day.

To be honest, I was happily streaming Netflix while syncing over the weekend, so it’s probably not really necessary. But it lightens the load on the network during peak hours.

The good thing about using a NAS drive app is that only the NAS needs to remain on while the upload happens. Amazon does have a PC/Mac app for backing up your local PC, but there seems to be a question mark over whether it keeps your computer “in sync” with the cloud, or simply does a one-time back-up, requiring you to manually sync additional files at a later date. Either way, I’ve not bothered yet, since I’ll do one at device at a time. The good thing is that there are plenty of third party applications that will work with Amazon and will probably do what you need.

Amazon also has a mobile app which will dutifully send through all your photos and videos, but as mentioned above, I’ve got these covered already.

I will report back on the success of Amazon Cloud Drive and any issues I have with it in due course. In the meantime… let the upload continue!

Note: All prices and offerings are correct at time of writing. This is clearly a very fluid market.

Doing Something Different on DAB

It does now feel that with extra DAB radio capacity from the second national mux launching earlier this year, to the various minimux that Ofcom is continuing to allow to trial, there is now a bit more experimentation going on in DAB.

We’ve seen Magic launch Abba and Soul pop-up services, building on the various Christmas services we’ve seen in the past.

And today sees the launch of Union Jack, a new national offering from the team that brought the Jack FM brand to the UK.

[Full disclose: The team includes Donnach O’Driscoll and Clive Dickens, who of course I worked with at Absolute Radio. Ian Walker is also on the team, but I didn’t work with him previously!]

Union Jack is not simply a national version of their successful local franchises, but a slightly older skewing version musically with a playlist of around 1500 tracks solely featuring British artists, including new music. Uniquely, the audience can vote tracks “up” using their app (I say uniquely, but anyone with long memories may remember Dabbl which did a similar kind of thing before it was shuttered in 2010).

The station features Paul (Avon from Blakes’ 7) Darrow as the voice of the station, and there will mostly not be any presenters. It’s broadcasting in DAB+ on the D2 mux, so not everyone will be able to hear it, but of course it’ll be streaming too.

Interestingly, their test stream this morning seemed to include quite a bit of US music. Perhaps they were getting it out of their system? Appropriately enough they launched with Good Morning Britain by Aztec Camera.

I wish them well.

A couple of other interesting things have been happening, both of which look to be experiments that at least bear exploring.

Weather 24/7 Radio is available on the Portsmouth minimux, and comes from Angel Radio’s Ash Elford. Utilising a bit of spare spectrum, the station is simply updated and looped radio weather, localised for the Portsmouth area and based on Met Office data.

In a similar vein, there is also the upcoming News Radio UK which will be ten minute loops of radio news and is a creation of Radio NewsHub, RadioToday and Radio Response. It too will be launching on the ever-inventive Portsmouth minimux at 10am on 10/10…/16. All the tens… geddit!

These are all interesting and slightly different ventures. Although none quite matches the simplicity of the Radio Reloj, a service that has been running in Cuba since 1947, and simply broadcasts news and information against the ticking of a clock. A digital beep alerts you to every minute followed by a note of the time. The station has been broadcasting since 1947! If your Spanish is up to it (and you’ll soon work out the times), the station live-streams!

How Podcasts are Being Listened

Podcast listening metrics have long been seen as something as a bone of contention. In the digital advertising world, they’re seen as inferior to metrics delivered by other parts of the industry, because while you can be pretty sure a podcast advert has been delivered, you can’t be sure that it has been heard.

As a consequence, the emerging podcast sector, especially in the US, has had to battle the advertising industry to gain full acceptance. This has meant that a large majority of current podcast advertising is led by direct response advertisers i.e. coupon or offer codes when you sign up to buy a product or use a service.

Advertisers are happy to go along this route because they can easily track how successful a particular campaign has been on the basis of sales made using the various coupon codes.

That’s great as far as it goes, but it leaves a large chunk of the advertising market on the table. If you watch a TV break or listen to a commercial break on the radio, you won’t normally get quite as much direct response activity, particularly from national advertisers. Ford knows that you’re not going to buy a new car right now, and in any case, the price will be a negotiation between the customer and the dealer, and probably not subject to a 20% off coupon code! They just want you to consider a Ford the next time you buy a new car.

FMCG products (Fast Moving Consumer Goods such as washing powder or chocolate bars, and often referred to as CPG products in the US) make up a significant chunk of consumer advertising, but largely go unheard on podcasts because there’s no easy way for marketers to track whether an ad for a detergent placed on a podcast has been successful and shifted product.

That’s not to say that the success of traditional television advertising is easy to track either, and advertisers continue to happily spend billions on that medium. It’s not for nothing that the most famous quote in advertising is, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Of course, ironically, while digital is supposed to be the ultimate targeting device, it turns out that P&G, one of the biggest FMCG advertisers on the planet, has decided that it has been attempting to target far too much on platforms like Facebook. That’s perhaps not surprising because, well, everyone needs to buy washing powder and toothpaste, so advertising widely would seem to make the best sense (see the Ad Contrarian for lots more on this).

And it’s not as though there aren’t other problems with advertising in the digital space including fraud and ad-blocking amongst others.

Anyway, the US podcast community is trying to gain more acceptance among the advertising community by working to ensure that everyone measures podcasts the same way, which is very sensible. While this might seem straightforward, in reality, counting podcast downloads is actually a case of interpreting server log files.

This week the IAB has released its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, to both explain the challenges and to ensure that everyone counts podcasts the same way.

The document itself is fairly readable and it’s has a few interesting facts that are worth examining in more detail. It’s probably a first iteration of a living document, with a working group sitting behind it.

One interesting piece of information is the detail of how podcasts are consumed. Five groups on the working party submitted data about podcast platforms, and a table was published as a result, which I’ve reproduced below. Note that the data was based on April 2016.

Platform requesting podcast fileRange of market share %
iOS - Apple Podcast App45-52%
iTunes8-13%
Browsers6-14%
Stitcher2-7%
Everything else12-30%

NB. It’s not explicitly clear if these are US-only figures, or global numbers based on a number of firms based in the US. The partners are Podtrac, Blubrry/RawVoice, WideOrbit, Libsyn and PodcastOne, all of whom I believe are available globally to podcasters.

What I found especially interesting is that Apple isn’t quite as dominant as I’d previously thought. At least in terms of apps used to listen, with a cumulative 53-65% share of podcasts which is lower than the ~80% I had previously thought it might be.

That’s not to say that Apple isn’t vitally important in the transmission of podcasts. Many non-Apple apps use the iTunes Search API to populate their apps with a current list of podcasts. If you’re launching a new podcast, there are a lot places you want to list it. But first and foremost, it’s still the iTunes store if you’re trying to maximise audience reach.

The other interesting question is about downloads versus streams. The report goes into some detail about this, and of course different companies can do this differently. While “traditionally” an app has downloaded podcasts in the background for later playback, today apps allow you to “stream” directly as the podcast downloads.

Beyond that, there is in-browser listening where often a podcast player appears on a webpage and is played back from there. The chart above shows that as much as 16% of podcast plays are listened to this way. Depending on the technology being employed, an in-browser podcast player might be a proper streaming solution, or it might in fact be simply pulling an mp3 to a wraparound player. The user will not notice the difference.

What’s interesting is how this compares with other research on podcast listening and the emergence of the “click and listen” model. A recent Edison Research/Triton Digital report showed 59% of podcast users saying they click and listen immediately, as opposed to just 15% saying they subscribe in the traditional manner.

download

These numbers seem to suggest that although people are actually mostly listening through traditional podcast platforms like podcast apps, they’re actually choosing to download and listen at the point of consumption. It’s for that reason that so many podcasts implore listeners to subscribe, because if you’re relying on click to listen, then it’s entirely likely that listeners will miss episodes of podcasts.

But I’d also love to dig deeper into the numbers in the chart above, because the opacity to the regular podcast listener of how podcasts actually work means they may not actually know what they’re doing or how the audio is getting to them.

I say this because the chart above suggests that 38% of people either subscribe or manually download to listen later 42% of people say they listen to podcast two days or later after the podcast has downloaded. Add in a proportion of the large percentage of people who listen with 24 hours of a download, and you have a larger number of people listening via a download-and-listen-later method than say that’s what they do.

download (1)

Separately, the podcast hosting company Blubrry has crunched the numbers of how its own podcasts are delivered as best it can.

Blubrry defines four different categories of distribution:

Mobile apps – which can both download and “stream” (i.e. download to listen instantly)
Desktop apps – mostly for downloads, and most likely iTunes (accounting for 80% of listening in this category)
Desktop browsers – where you can either “stream” from the page (in this instance an HTML wrapper around a hosted mp3 file, as opposed to a properly streamed file as the BBC often provides)
Mobile browsers and TV apps

Blubrry estimate that within the 71.6% of mobile apps consumption, 39% is accounted for by the iOS Podcast app. And half of that is streaming rather downloading. Whereas of the desktop browsers, two thirds is streaming, while a third is downloaded.

All in all, bespoke podcast applications, whether on mobile or desktop platforms, account for 85% of podcast listening.

Returning to the data in the IAB paper, what it also makes clear is that bespoke podcast apps – e.g. apps created for a particular podcast or podcasting company – are not very popular. The advantage to the podcasting companies is clear – they can properly track listenership and advertising consumption. But to the listener the benefits are less clear. It means one more app on your phone, and the app probably won’t let you listen to other podcasts.

All interesting detail about how people actually listen to podcasts.