April, 2017

Fortunately…

The first ladies of radio, Fi Glover and Jane Garvey have a new podcast out that’s really quite essential listening: Fortunately…

Glover and Garvey are fantastic radio people, and to a large extent, the joy of this podcast is just to hear them in fairly casual conversation with one another. Episodes are recorded in various non-studio places around the BBC in London.

In fact, the purpose of the podcast is to guide the interested listener to other things they might like across BBC Radio 4 and its sister station Radio 4 Extra (more on this anon). Each presenter takes it in turns to recommend something that they’ve listened to over the last seven days. Often these are current programmes, but sometimes they delve deeper into the archive. The key thing is that they have collated links to all these programmes and you can go back and listen to them in full at your convenience.

Since the primary medium of this programme is as a podcast (it’s not being broadcast on the radio), it’s very easy to either add a new podcast or find something on iPlayer Radio while you’re actually listening to their recommendations.

Now you might think that there’s already a Radio 4 programme that does this – it’s run for years and is called Pick of the Week. And you’d be right. Sort of.

Glover and Garvey are careful not to use the words “pick of the week” in any context where they’re too close together. But I suppose their point of difference is that as people many of us have come to “know” after hearing them so much on the radio, we’ll know the kind of things they’re likely to choose. You do need to know a reviewer to help determine whether what they’re saying will chime with you. Conversely, if I know that your tastes are markedly different from my own, then I will treat your recommendations with caution.

While I’m sure that every presenter of Pick of the Week assiduously listens to vast amounts of BBC Radio output, you do get the feeling that some editions are a little scripted, and that the presenter may not always be quite as diligent as they present themselves.

Fortunately… exists in a podcast-only format, and I suppose it’s a slight shame that three episodes in, they seem to be restricted to national BBC radio output – more specifically the Radio 4 network. Such is the wealth of good radio, guiding listeners to otherwise unknown gems around the various networks is a worthy service, but adding in some third party podcasts might be interesting too.

At one point in an episode, Helen Zaltzman’s name came up, initially described as someone who does a lot of crafting. This was quickly elaborated upon as not being the only thing we’d know her for (she’s a regular guest on programmes like Woman’s Hour, where she has indeed talked about crafting). But it felt like they were avoiding the obvious – she’s actually rather famous for making popular podcasts like Answer Me This and The Allusionist, to the extent that she’s been doing a two-hander live show with Roman Mars of 99% Invisible fame.

I’d hope that perhaps in due course Fortunately… expands its remit to include other radio stations and particularly podcasts. One of the main issues facing both podcast creators and listeners, is discovery. How do you find out about new shows? Some of the broadsheets make a good effort to alert readers, but for the most part, it feels that successful podcasts breed successful podcasts: This American life begat Serial. Serial begat S-Town. And so on.

While the cream is said to rise to the top, I’m not sure that’s always the case if the cup is incredibly deep, and the cream goes rancid before it gets a chance to reach the surface – to enormously overstretch a metaphor.

Incidentally, was I the only person left a little disappointed by the discussion about podcasts on The Media Show a couple of weeks ago? There was a pre-recorded interview with Brian Reed, presenter and producer of the excellent S-Town, before a short state-of-the-nation discussion about UK podcasts with Caroline Crampton of The New Statesman’s SRSLY and Ellie Gibson of Scummy Mummies.

The tenor seemed to be that the UK couldn’t do big podcasts like S-Town because it’s expensive and there’s the BBC here which cripples the opportunity. But I’m not entirely sure that we were comparing apples with apples here. As Reed had pointed out in his interview, much podcasting in the US is still a few people sitting around a microphone plugged into a laptop. A massively successful podcast like Marc Maron’s WTF, for example, is still recorded relatively simply in his garage.

It’s only the very top layer of podcasts that is are at the heavily produced and expensively made level of This American Life, Gimlet, Panoply or Radiotopia. And yes, US scale, and a less well funded public radio system means that there’s more space for podcasts to breathe. But neither of the podcasters in the studio was really in the same market as those big beasts. Indeed, I’m not sure that even the BBC could have put through the resources that went into something like S-Town, where the story germinated for a number of years before finally being made as a standalone series.

But, the aforementioned Allusionist is part of the successful Radiotopia family and is made by a Brit, and the podcasting output of organisations like The Economist, The Guardian and The FT is first rate by any measure, utilising sophisticated sound design and first rate production. However, it’s clear that the UK podcast advertising marketplace has not yet developed to as significant an extent, which means that nobody is getting rich (or even moderately wealthy) just yet. Spin-off live events, books and other merchandising are still a requirement.

There are high quality podcasts being made in the UK. Many of them will be celebrated this weekend at the first British Podcast Awards, and I’m just not sure that was entirely reflected in the piece.

Disclaimer: I am one of several producers on The Cycling Podcast, which is nominated in the sport category at the awards.

Northumberland

Northumberland from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

I recently spent a week in Northumberland and took the above video. I’m pretty happy with it, although the drone footage is so superior to anything else I shot, that it just goes to show that shooting good video isn’t easy (and definitely needs a tripod). Incidentally, there’s an awful lot of really bad drone footage being used in dramas – even very big dramas. A bit of drone shake or slight jerks really shows up on a big screen and should be reshot. Yet it somehow ends up in the finished product.

Photos to follow in due course. And watch the video fullscreen!

Believe in Worse: Sky’s Streaming Options

You often hear that we live in a digital non-linear TV world. That’s not actually true. We very much live in a linear television world with lots of people watching television live. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But I digress.

It’s certainly true that digital streaming is now a key part of television. iPlayer, Netflix, ITV Hub, Amazon Prime and so on. Binge watching The Crown or catching up on last night’s Broadchurch – it’s all part of the many ways we watch TV.

Sky is part of that, and it offers Sky Go. Available as either an app or via a PC browser, it’s theoretically the equivalent of the aforementioned platforms. Except it’s much worse, and seemingly deliberately so.

With a regular Sky account you get two logins for Sky Go, which seems generous. More specifically, it means two devices. So your phone and your laptop perhaps. But not your tablet, or your partners’ or kids’ tablets as well. Sky will sell you Sky Go Extra for £5 a month. That gives you four devices and adds in offline downloads – saving mobile data and useful for long car, train or plane journeys. But that’s a facility most of the others offer free.

Sky doesn’t want to make it free because they know your kids would be just as happy streaming on an old iPad as watching a TV in another room, and they make very good money selling families in particular extra boxes on the same subscription for another £10-12 a month. Those families would quickly cancel multiroom and make their kids put up with a tablet if they were able to.

But it means that the Sky Go experience for most users is, at best, sub-optimal. On a long train journey over the weekend, I could binge watch Netflix, Amazon, ITV, C4 or iPlayer programmes should I have chosen to – downloading them first before travelling. But not Sky – at least not without streaming via mobile data, which was impossible in some locations, or paying them even more money (£5 versus £7.50 for an entire Netflix subscription!).

Those issues are nothing to trying to watch Sky Go on a PC.

The most popular desktop browser is Chrome.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Chrome.

The second most popular desktop browser is Firefox.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Firefox.

Microsoft’s current browser, shipped with Windows 10, is Edge.

Sky Go doesn’t work with Edge.

It doesn’t work with Opera either.

It only seems to work with Internet Explorer, and perhaps Safari on Macs. The final version of Internet Explorer was released in 2013. There won’t be another version. While Internet Explorer did also ship with Windows 10, Microsoft is very keen to move IE users over to Edge. Edge was the default browser in the version of the OS that Microsoft offered free, to hundreds of millions of users.

The reason for Sky Go only works with positively ancient web browsing technology and doesn’t work with any of the latest browsers, is because it also relies on Microsoft SilverLight. SilverLight is another, now deprecated piece of software that delivers video streams in an encrypted fashion.

Microsoft announced the end of life of SilverLight back in 2012. It’s now 2017, and as is made clear above Microsoft’s own current browser, Edge, does not work with SilverLight.

So why is Sky still using it?

I can only think that it’s something to do with how it limits you outputting your video. You see while most of the other video service providers are more than happy for you to watch their wares on your big screen using either a cable (e.g. an HDMI lead), or something like Chromecast, Sky really doesn’t want you to do that.

They don’t build Chromecast into their Sky Go app. They restrict you outputting the signal via a digital output like HDMI (I don’t believe they can restrict an analogue output like a VGA connection, but VGA connections are found in fewer home computers these days, and require a second cable to output the sound).

Again, this comes back to Sky not wanting using to be able to output to a big screen. When I’m away visiting my parents, Sky allows us to crowd around my laptop screen to view a match, but doesn’t allow me to output it to their TV set.

It’s positively user-unfriendly. And I say this as someone who spends a lot of money on my monthly subscription with Sky.

While I understand it’s part of their business plan, it’s notable that BT Sport, for example, is very happy for you to, say, Chromecast a game to another TV set somewhere.

Sky says, “Believe in Better.”

Yet it offers the single worst streaming experience of any major UK broadcaster.