Audio

What I’m Listening To… October 2017

It feels like it has been a long time since I wrote about what I’m listening to, and I thought it might be worth just recording my current listening patterns, for my own interest at a later date, if nobody else’s.

In any event, this week I was a panellist on this month’s Radio Today round-table podcast talking about a couple of these podcasts.

This piece is more about podcasts than radio stations per se, and I am an awful podcast downloader in that I download vastly more than I can actually listen to, later spending a lot of time sweeping off the unlistened programmes in big bouts.

Podcast discovery is still a big issue for the industry, as there’s no really good way to find out and discover new podcasts. Many of the lists you see in other places name all the “usual suspects” and however much Apple tweaks its charts, the same candidates are always riding high. And of course, if you big then you can spin-off another big podcast and so on. Hence This American Life begat Serial which begat S-Town. There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there with more launching all the time. Right now, finding the right podcasts for you can often be down to word of mouth. Hence this piece!

You’ll note that there’s basically no music programming here. That’s sort of deliberate, but also I fear, says something about the kind of radio I’ve been listening to of late.

Incidentally, I’ve inserted a link to each of these podcasts and programmes, but this is not an easy thing to do. While many have distinct websites, or pages on larger websites, complete with lots of links to enable the visitor to subscribe, for inexplicable reasons many don’t. In particular there are major providers who consider podcasts as other “content” on a wider site and don’t point people in a direction to subscribe. Or they just embed the audio into a random page and don’t do anything beyond that.

Worse than that are those who rely solely on third party sites – an iTunes “page” often being a ubiquitous link. That’s great if I’m using an iPhone, and next to useless otherwise. I’m not a massive fan on only using something like SoundCloud as your host page either. What happens if something happens to them? Do you have any other web presence? Your own website at least means that if you ever find it necessary to move podcast hosts, you’ve got some continuity.

Make life a little easier for yourself and your potential listeners – build either a no-frills site, or a single page with details of how to access your podcast.

That all said, here’s what I’m listening to right now in no particular order:

  • The Daily. From The New York Times. I probably only listen to one of these per week (they currently published every weekday, with the output due to increase soon), but the range of subjects and the way they cover it is fascinating. Obviously it’s very US-centric, and it’s a shame that Radio 4, for example, doesn’t do something quite the same.
  • Slate Money. This might well really be called Slate Business, because what it’s not about is personal finance. The podcast addresses three stories a week, with the three presenters lead by Felix Salmon being highly opinionated on a range of things. While they can be US focused, it still makes for a great listen, and I eagerly download each Saturday morning.
  • Tweet of the Day. This is less than 90 seconds, and could therefore probably do without the double “This is the BBC” stings at beginning and end. But something that started as essentially an audio guide to the birds of Britain, is now a brief thought from a writer or commentator on a bird. It’s so short, there’s no excuse for not listening.
  • The Media Podcast, The Media Show and Broadcast: Talking TV. All my UK media in three different podcasts (although two share a producer). Between them and the Radio Today Podcast, I’ve got all my media bases covered.
  • The Adam Buxton Podcast. This is an obvious one, but worth stating nonetheless. It’s basically Adam Buxton having extended conversations with people he’s interested in. The subject matter may not always be the obvious ones, and the interviewees tend not to have something to promote. In any case, he often records the interviews some months before they’re edited and broadcast. A good example was the recent episode with Louis Theroux, where they started talking about S-Town and then got into traits of US NPR-style podcasts. Buxton and Theroux referenced an episode of This American Life, which I too had heard, where they took on the sexism of some people who don’t like the “vocal fry” of many female presenters of This American Life. As Buxton and Theroux pointed out, this isn’t necessarily sexism (although it may be in some instances), but partly as a consequence of the stylistics that many podcasts have taken on – often mimicking those of This American Life itself.
  • The Coode Street Podcast. I discovered this when I randomly attended a recording at WorldCon in London a couple of years ago. Essentially its a serious science fiction literary podcast, with the two presenters, each living on different continents, talking about recent books. To say that they’re both voracious readers would be an understatement, but if you’re interested in the genre then they will point you in worthwhile directions.
  • 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This has been a big hit and rightly so. Therefore, if you’ve not listened then you really should. The series is nearly over with an online poll currently being used to decide which of six items should be the “51st thing.” Each episode is only nine minutes, with presenter Tim Harford giving a little background on why Concrete, Barbed Wire or Double Entry Bookkeeping have been so important. Great audio snacks!
  • More or Less. If you’re going to listen to Fifty Things, then of course you’ll be listening to this. More or Less, also presented by Tim Harford is simply essential listening, taking apart the numbers in the news, often quite strongly. For example, when Boris Johnson recently raised the £350m a week nonsense again, More or Less explained very simply why it is very very wrong.
  • Fortunately. This is the Fi Glover and Jane Garvey podcast, two of our preeminent radio broadcasters. Fortunately is one of the BBC’s podcast-only programmes, and we’re now into the second series. The first series was mostly a rambling recommendation programme, highlighting things on BBC radio that you might have missed or not even heard. The second series is more interview led, and is as much as anything an excuse for the pair to natter on about anything that really comes to mind, perhaps with an element of how radio works. I did previously complain that the BBC-only focus was a bit of a missed opportunity, and although Fortunately is leaps and bounds better, it would seem to have replicated the service already provided by Pick of the Week. I guess the reality is that unless you’re some kind of audio-butterfly, there are only so many things you can recommend on a regular basis. So while there’s still an opportunity for someone to do a decent podcast/radio-recommendation programme, this is just great fun.
  • Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. But of course.
  • Seriously. This is really a catch-all bucket to place many of Radio 4’s one-off documentaries. As such it can be a little hit and miss, with the emphasis on the hits. That does mean I pick and choose what I listen to on the feed. The good thing is that when you find yourself reading the review section of Sunday paper the following Thursday and see that they’ve recommended a particular Radio 4 programme, the chances are that it’s already in the Seriously podcast feed. I’m going to duck a little now and just say that the only thing I don’t like about it are the podcast-only wraparounds from Rhianna Dhillon. It’s not Dhillon herself, so much as the tone of the scripts that try hard to personalise everything. It can sometimes feel as though I’m having my hand held too much to get into something. When the programmes are broadcast, the continuity announced it likely to only have time for a couple of lines to set-up the premise of the programme. I don’t feel that I need a great deal more. Now if there’s extra material, or perhaps a chat with the producer, that’s one thing. It’s just the cosiness of it. Sometimes people think there’s a particular “way” to do podcasts, and I simply don’t agree, any more than there’s a single “way” to do any kind of artistic endeavour.
  • Strong and Stable. This political comedy podcast launched during the election, and then disappeared, only to recently start up again. David Schneider and Ayesha Hazarika have different guests each week to take apart what’s happening right now. Even if you’ve “had it up to here” with Brexit, you should still listen.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask. One of a stable of podcasts that includes the Recode Media podcast with Peter Kafka. The latter can be great when he has someone really good, but occasionally there’s an interviewee who seems more intent on pushing their business model, no matter how untried or untested it really is. So I think I prefer the former podcast which gets its hands a little dirtier with the nuts and bolts of technology. The only other technology podcast I’m listening to right now is an occasional episode of The Vergecast.
  • Slate’s Political Gabfest, Slate’s Trumpcast and the Five Thirty Eight Politics podcast. This is my triumvirate of US political podcasts (with a mention for the NPR Political Podcast which handily timestamps to the minute when it was recorded such is the fast moving nature of today’s politics). Between them, I get as much news about US politics as I need or want. They’re all slightly different in tone, with the Gabfest having a wider ranging take on the political issues of the week. Trumpcast is there to cover Trump, and publishes on a “more than once a week” basis. The Five Thirty Eight Politics podcast has expanded beyond the psephology of analysing polls, and moved into more of a “what this means” turn of its existence. All told, they offer a comprehensive look at the car crash that is US politics, and which I can’t take my eyes off.
  • The PC Pro Podcast. I feel I must be missing a UK technology podcast. I used to listen to The Guardian’s one, but it morphed into something that I became less interested in. There’s Babbage below, and the BBC World Service has its Tech Tent, but most technology podcasts seem to be American. This is an exception, and I’ve been a listener for a long time now. I do wish they’d record it in a room, altogether, but I suspect that the finances of the magazine industry being what they are, that’s a bit too much to hope for.
  • Reply All. Gimlet makes a lot of great podcasts, but Reply All is one of their best. Somehow PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman manage to maintain quality at such a high level for so much of the year. There are so many good episodes including the most recent on a video game that had disappeared, and solving the case of someone’s 800-number being filled with recorded randomness. Over the summer, when they were on a break, Reply All “rebroadcast” some of their most popular episodes. So you’ll find hits all the way in their podcast feed right now.
  • The Two Shot Podcast. This is an interview podcast from the bloke from Line of Duty. That’s rather unfair since this is a terrific listen. In each episode, actor Craig Parkinson has an extended interview with someone, usually from the entertainment and drama world. He tends to really dig into their background and how they got into the business, but does it in a really engaging manner. The episode with Neil Morrissey is absolutely fantastic. I didn’t know his background at all, but I couldn’t stop listening to this particular edition.
  • The Economist: Babbage. This is essentially The Economist’s Tech podcast. While it takes its lead from the technology section of the magazine, it digs into the issues and stories a little further.
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz. If you’re interested in sound, then you may well be interested in this. It addresses all aspects of the medium in short and punchy episodes. 20,000 Hz incidentally, is the frequency above which the human ear can no longer hear audio.
  • Reasons to be Cheerful. We’ve only had one episode of this so far, and I should point out that I’m a friend of one of the presenters. This is podcast with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, in which they talk about big ideas. So in the first episode they examined Universal Basic Income. This might seem to be a dry subject, but it’s addressed seriously but with a lightness of touch that makes it very accessible. Geoff Lloyd seems to be leading a one-man mission to dominate podcasting since he and Annabel Port have also recently launched their Adrift podcast, following their departure from Absolute Radio earlier in the year. Both are very much worth subscribing to.
  • The Life Scientific. I confess I pick and choose which episodes to listen to based on how interested I think I’ll be in the subject. That’s a shame, but there’s so much science that I could be listening to, along with The Guardian’s Science Podcast and the BBC’s Inside Science.
  • Between the Ears. This could be just about anything on any given week, but all the better for it. Because it goes out on-air on a Saturday night, it again lends itself well to the podcast form.
  • The Danny Baker Show. If you don’t listen on 5 Live on a Saturday morning, then this is always an entertaining listen a bit later. Baker is a natural for radio, and this is my weekly hit. He has another volume of his autobiography due soon.
  • A Twin Peaks Podcast. When David Lynch and Mark Frost brought back Twin Peaks, there was instantly a whole batch of podcasts that swung into operation, dissecting each episode of the series as it aired. For complicated reasons that I’ll get into another time, I ended up binging the first seven episodes, and so it was only after then that I looked for something to listen to. This podcast comes from Entertainment Weekly and frankly I largely picked it at random from the crowd. But it has been an intelligent discussion from the two presenters after each episode, and post- the series, we’ve also had a few interviews with stars and people involved in the series’ production.
  • A Stab in the Dark. This is funded by UKTV and is essentially there to promote the TV channels Alibi and Drama. But as much as anything. it’s actually mostly a crime book podcast with presenter (and crime writer) Mark Billingham interviewing writers of crime fiction. Sometimes there are interviews with actors too, but mostly it’s with writers. And it feels like as the podcast has progressed; the level of interviewees has really gone up a notch. Billingham is such an amiable presenter that makes you think it’s all quite effortless. It really isn’t, and this is an excellent listen.
  • The Business. A KCRW radio programme on the entertainment industry. While it’s not always perfect, and can sometimes be a little ingratiating in the way it deals with subjects, it has a robust structure, opening with a brief chat (they use the hideous term “banter”) about the big entertainment news of the week, followed by a longer-form interviews with writers/directors/talent.
  • The Bike Show. These days it is relatively occasional in its appearances, but presenter Jack Thurston is charming and it addresses elements of cycling beyond the obvious. Indeed it doesn’t really get into the kinds of racing that most media coverage of cycling seems to be.
  • Page 94: The Private Eye Podcast. This isn’t currently “on-air” as it seems to only be commissioned one series at a time. But it’s worth adding to your podcatching software if you want to know the stories behind the stories. Indeed, it has really become quite a news-focused podcast rather than addressing the comic elements of Private Eye.
  • >Wireless Nights with Jarvis Cocker. Another Radio 4 programme, but it suits the medium superbly, especially as the radio programme airs quite late at night, and can be easy to miss.
  • The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson. This isn’t strictly a podcast because it’s currently only available to Audible subscribers. But it’s a podcast in tone, in that it follows a story over six episodes, exploring the consequences of something. In this instance, it’s the availability of free pornography online. Indeed my only real issue with the series is that it sometimes feels that pornography gets far more coverage from documentarians than many other subjects. To be completely fair, since this is presented in audio form, there’s not the same titillation that so many TV documentaries can run the risk of (either deliberately or inadvertently), and there are certain areas this series gets into that I never knew about. Clearly there was some significant money put into this project.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are plenty more I subscribe to, but they’re either really obvious podcasts that “everyone” listens to, or I really only dip in and out. Some are “off-air” right now, and therefore aren’t front of mind. Then there are the podcasts that are so occassional, it’s not worth even mentioning them.

Missing from here are plenty of news and current affairs podcasts I subscribe to, mostly actually listening to based on what the subject matter is. The same goes for some arts podcasts or things like Radio 3’s Essays.

I am looking for a good TV related podcast that deals with the industry from a viewer’s perspective (rather than the media industry side of things). I used to listen to KCRW’s The Spin-Off and Vulture’s TV Podcast, but sadly, both ceased production within a few weeks of each other earlier this year. The former did say that it was transitioning into something new, but unless I’ve missed it, that’s not happened yet. Both of those were obviously US-focused, and I wouldn’t mind something more UK-US or international in flavour, but I’ve not really found anything.

Finally, I should also mention The Cycling Podcast, but since I do a certain amount of production work for them, I am enormously biased when I say that it’s the world’s best professional cycling podcast.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2016

It has been a while since I’ve properly looked at RAJAR’s MIDAS survey, and it really does bear some close attention because it gives the most accurate picture of audio consumption in the UK right now.

As a reminder, MIDAS is a separate survey to the main RAJAR measurement, in which over 2,000 respondents are asked in detail about their audio listening habits by platforms, location, device and who they’re with.

It’s there to provide additional listening information and generally add ‘colour’ to the main RAJAR survey. Over time it allows some tracking in behavioural changes.

The full dataset is only made available to RAJAR subscribers, but RAJAR publishes a very good summary, and this provides plenty to get stuck into.

The key measure is Audio Share – the percentage of time spent listening to various types of audio. This is also known as “Share of Ear”, although I believe this is trademarked by Edison Research who carry out similar research in this area in the US.

Of course, simply saying “audio” is too simplistic because, for example, watching YouTube music videos is undoubtably a competitor to traditional audio sources for some audiences. So MIDAS does measure video as well as audio, although in most of the charts below, visual media has been excluded.

Share of Audio % (excluding visual)

The topline results show that live radio accounts for 76% of all audio consumption. The next closest category is digital music (downloads) at 9%. To put this in context, here is how radio’s share has performed over the most recent MIDAS surveys:

Careful examination of this data would seem to suggest a few things:

  • Radio remains vastly important in the audio world. While the last couple of MIDAS releases showed it declining a touch, it seems to have bounced back this time around. I’d be surprised if it didn’t fall some more over time since there are such strong radio competitors. But there’s still only one gorilla in this room.
  • Online Music Streaming (OMS in the above chart – e.g. Spotify, Apple Music) is growing. They seem to be growing as digital music tracks and CD listening is declining. Do you pay 99p at iTunes for a track or £9.99 a month for as much as you like? Consumers are shifting towards the latter.
  • Listen again is growing a bit, while podcasts remain static. The latter in particular definitely suggests something different in the UK, from say, the US.
  • Vinyl and cassette is basically static (although the graph doesn’t really show that it was at less than 1% at the start of the period displayed). You can safely treat all those news stories about vinyl’s resurgence as the hyperbole they truly are. Yes, a few albums are being sold as nice to have items, but in the scheme of things, they don’t amount to much in behavioural changes.

Now this chart doesn’t show the whole story. As I say, only RAJAR subscribers get the full dataset of MIDAS, but RAJAR publishes different aspects of the data in each release. And this time around they’ve published the demographic breakdown of listening. Indeed I think some of this has been presented at the Salon de la Radio in Paris over the last couple of days.

This shows some really clear differences by age group.

  • 15-24s spend 51% of their time listening to the radio (the green bar above) compared with 88% of 55+’s time. Radio is still the clear leader, but in time spent listening there is a competitor on the block.
  • Online Music Streaming is vastly more popular amongst 15-24s than other demographic groups. 15-24s spend 21% of their audio time on these services. This drops to just 9% for 25-34s and right down to 1% for 55+. This is as clear a behavioural change by age as you’re likely to see.
  • If you’d asked me to predict which age group spends the biggest proportion of their time listening to CDs, I have definitely said it was an older group. But in fact, the actual biggest group is 15-24s! Are they borrowing others music, or perhaps they can’t yet afford a Spotify subscription?
  • Podcasts are most popular amongst 24-34s, spending significantly more time than other age groups.

One thing to be careful of is that these are percentages within each age group. It’s important to note that overall volume of time spent listening will be different by different groups. So amongst CD listening, 5% off 55+ listening might be significantly more hours than 6% of 15-24s (the data doesn’t let us see).

What will be interesting to see is future growth of streaming. While there are free/bundeled streaming options – notably Spotify, or Amazon’s free offering for Prime members – there is surely a top limit to those prepared to pay £9.99 a month for music? There are ways to reduce the cost including family plans and logins shared with others; and some will happily bounce around different services taking advantage of free three month trials, creating new disposable email accounts as necessary. But continued growth within the UK market still isn’t clear.

Hours isn’t the whole story of course, and it’s worth looking at reach too. That shows that usage is much closer for most of the platforms. So while 90% of 55+ listen to the radio accounting for 88% of their listening, 82% of 15-24s listen to the radio but it accounts for just 51% of their listening.

Audio Reach % By Age Group

A couple of other charts. Ever wonder what people are doing when they listen to the radio?

Live Radio by Activity

Most radio presenters will recall being told to broadcast as though they were speaking to a single listener. There’s a good reason for that. A slight majority of radio listening is done alone, although this changes for younger listeners who listen more socially.

Live Radio by Who Listened With

Other things of note:

  • While most services are split evenly by sex, podcasts are notable for being significantly more male than female – 61% v 39%.
  • While laptops and tablets are used a lot for live radio, on smartphones the majority of use is for digital tracks and on demand audio.

There’s more in the original presentation which you can download on the RAJAR website.

Source RAJAR/IpsosMori. Sample 2,191. Conducted November 2016.

The Cycling Podcast Review of the Year 2016

I seem to have been a little backwards in coming forwards with details of this edition of The Cycling Podcast put together by yours truly and published over the Christmas period.

Obviously it won’t be of enormous interest if you don’t follow professional cycling, and you’ll miss all the running jokes if you haven’t listened to previous episodes of the programme. And if you do follow cycling, and already listen to The Cycling Podcast, then you should have already heard it.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of effort went into making this, since we all know that searching for audio clips is relatively slow going. You can’t easily “scrub” it as you would video.

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Diversity in Radio

portrait

Yesterday, two things happened.

I got an email from Sound Women telling me that the organisation will be closing down at the end of next year.

And I went to a radio and audio conference in London.

I’ll explain the link in a minute. But let’s just say for the moment, that I learnt a new word yesterday too: manel.

It’s sad news that Sound Women is closing, because I think it’s fair to say that it has achieved a lot in the five years of its existence. As their blog explains, it’s a consequence of time (of their volunteers) and resources that has led to the decision.

What’s clear is that while the issues raised by Sound Women have been tackled to some extent, that does not mean that sexism in the radio and audio industry is over.

The medium still has a lack of diversity, and when I say this, I include sex, race and social background. I trust that their legacy will live on.

I received the email as I sat in a London radio and audio conference – the RAIN Summit Europe – in The British Museum. Overall I like this event, and there are a good range of speakers including some really excellent ones.

Notably Megan Lazovick of Edison Research gave a really good talk about in-car radio listening. It included some frighteningly dangerous footage of drivers explaining how they used their mobile phones to stream audio while in the car (coming in the week that a truck driver was imprisoned for ten years after killing a family while using his phone). But there was some really good insight into usage in the car.

Then in the afternoon we got entertaining presentations from David Cooper of Spotify and Sam Crowther of A Million Ads.

But there was also this.

Yes – that’s a NINE person panel for a session. And all nine, plus the moderator, are white men from around Europe. I’d tell you what it was about, but I practically fell asleep as it was as interesting as watching a supertanker conduct a turning procedure.

This size panel does not work. Panels are generally not great at conferences unless they’re incredibly well focused. You can’t have a meaningful discussion with this many people in the room.

And if you are going to have a massive panel, or even a small one, couldn’t you have at least found ONE woman?

My Twitter feed taught me a new word at this point: Manel.

I don’t think Sound Women’s job is quite yet done…

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.

Podcasting: Data/Tech Improvements or Leave Alone?

A couple of interesting pieces on the development of podcasts, and Apple’s role, have been published recently and thought worth thinking aloud about (that’s effectively what my blog is – me thinking aloud).

The New York Times published a piece that suggests major podcasting groups have been talking to Apple asking for extra functionality from them – in particular access to data, but also the ability to better promote podcasts.

Meanwhile Marco Arment challenges the NYT, and argues that podcasting is better off as it is now.

I do understand Arment’s perspective. He argues that Apple has actually been pretty open – for example providing an iTunes API that lets apps like PocketCasts use the iTunes directory to find podcasts.

And he takes a certain purist view that the current way things work is fine. Anyone can make a podcast, submit it to stores like iTunes, and host the podcast wherever they like.

Podcasts are simple mp3 files, playable in a vast range of apps, and on a multitude of devices.

I understand all that, and yet…

The main thing the unnamed podcasters seem to be asking Apple for is more access to data. At the moment, data is very low-level and actually quite hard.

Assuming your host is capable of supplying information, the best it can really tell you about how your podcast has performed is the number of times it was downloaded (although what about partial downloads?), the IP address of the downloader (therefore some idea of location), and the platform it was downloaded by.

And that’s basically it, unless the podcast is listened to via a specific third party app.

Now I do agree that I don’t especially like the idea of Apple dictating terms of podcasting. Apple has a built in advantage in podcasting that the two articles suggest leads to around 65%-70% of the market being on Apple devices. (I suspect that’s the US market, and believe ex-US Apple may have a higher share).

While Google has soft-launched podcasting in the US via its Google Play Music app, and there are plentiful excellent Android podcast apps, the market is massively skewed towards Apple compared with overall device ownership. In any case, I’m not sure that Google has yet shown the desire to truly push podcasting as a platform.

For better or worse, Google Play Music is not every Android owner’s default audio app, and so Google doesn’t have the same power that Apple has by pre-installing a non-removable podcasting app on every Apple device.

I’m not saying anything new here, but to re-iterate previous blogs, I do think podcasting needs some work. The status quo works at an enthusiast level, but doesn’t really work for those who want to build a stronger commercially viable medium. So there are things that need “fixing” with podcasts:

1. Data

Sorry, but it’s needed. If you’re hosting your own podcast for fun, as an enthusiast or for your own pleasure, then fine. But if you’re trying to produce podcasts as a business – and they’re a form of media, so this is totally legitimate – then you need some data.

Beautifully constructed, heavily produced podcasts with excellent production values take time and money to make. In any other part of the creative industries, there’s a means to earning if you’re good enough and enough people love what you do. Podcasting needs to be no different.

Now Apple handing some more data over probably doesn’t cut it. They may still represent the majority of listening, but that should decline over time, and mean that a broader form of data is required.

That said, Apple almost certainly does know how consumers are listening to podcasts including metrics like whether a downloaded podcast was actually listened to, how much of the podcast was listened, were pre/mid-roll ads heard, and so on.

Does providing data run the risk of decreasing diversity? Actually I don’t think so. Sure, a big network like Panoply or Gimlet may decide to ditch certain types of offerings and change direction to the mass market, but that shouldn’t affect what everyone else makes. These are businesses that have to make returns to their backers or else they go under. They have to work within the advertising market place. If they don’t, they go away and we lose their podcasts.

I would look at something like YouTube to prove that a platform can be completely open to all, even if there is strong underlying data. I upload a drone video I made to YouTube and do it for the fun of it. I make no money; I expect no money. Perhaps I hit lucky with one my videos and it becomes a viral hit. There’s a mechanism that allows me to prosper a little should I choose. And then at the other end I might strike it lucky, become a YouTuber, and earn a decent crust on the platform (highly unlikely, I realise). I can use the platform for promotion.

YouTube isn’t directly analogous. It’s a closed Google-owned platform. But there’s little to stop me uploading my own work to YouTube as much as I like, incorporating a number of different commercial business models should I choose to.

Look – I know as much as anyone that much digital data is flawed, misleading or downright wrong. Data is open to manipulation, and advertising agencies are still too in awe of it. But if I buy an ad in just about any medium, the least I can aspect is you to provide me with details of who had an opportunity to hear, watch or see the ad.

Data is necessary. But it’s needed across the piece, and I’m not sure how that would work across multiple platforms. To be treated seriously by advertisers you need some data. Every advertising medium offers data, and podcasting can’t be an exception. Of course if you don’t take advertising from advertising agencies, then this perhaps isn’t an issue to you. But I’m not sure it

2. Promotion

If you’re launching a new podcast, you may be really up against it.

If you’re an existing podcast publisher, then you promote your new podcast on your existing programme. You might mention it lots, run promotional spots for it, or even include an episode in the RSS feed of your podcast. But if your new podcast is aimed at a different audience to the one your current podcast appeals to, this doesn’t really work.

If you’re a big media organisation – a radio station or web publisher – then you can promote across your own platform.

Seemingly a major issue with the big podcasting companies is that promotion on iTunes – still the best way to drive new listeners to a podcast – is at the whim of a single person in the US iTunes Store. Others are in charge of their national/regional stores.

Now podcasters may be treating those individuals as restaurateurs treat celebrity reviewers – “Pick me! Pick me! Write nice things about me!” – but surely the major issue is that we need more avenues to promote podcasts. And critically, there need to be methods to subscribe in a simpler manner. I really shouldn’t have to copy an RSS feed from a web page and paste it into a box in my podcasting software. But that’s what I have to do…

3. Android

As I’ve said again and again, it’s ridiculous that Apple has such a hold over podcasting when so many more devices are Android. You can buy a $50 Android phone that’s capable of playing podcasts, but have to pay 8 times that for a new Apple device. Look beyond the coasts of the US, and the metropolitan centres of Western Europe. There’s a massive market to reach – whoever your podcast is targeted towards.

Apple is not going to provide all the solutions, and more importantly, it shouldn’t provide them.

Yes – Apple has the whip hand now, but that’s not a sustainable position for a medium that is actually technology neutral.

4. Technology

Not really mentioned here, but perhaps underlying everything, is whether we need a kind of “Podcast 2.0” format – something that offers better data about whether a podcast was listened to and who listened to it. There are talked about hackabouts that sort of let you do things with mp3s, but they tend to work hidden pixels and the like. But an RSS feed is structurally limiting.

What I am certain is that I don’t want to see us go down a bespoke private networks route. Podcasting is a very open platform.

But as the web has developed, so do podcasts. Like many others, I don’t want podcasters to know my name and address, unless I choose to provide them (e.g. on a subscription basis). But I know that the medium is limited without some developments.

Summary

I don’t want to destroy an ecosystem that allows anyone to make a popular audio piece and serve it to millions of people around the world. It’s brilliant that anyone can produce a podcast on just about any subject and it can be made available to all. But I’m not sure that anything I hear stops or prevents this. Data and technology move hand in hand, and while Apple can help, it shouldn’t be the be all and end all. It’s worth remembering that podcasting extends well beyond the US!

Elsewhere: read this week’s Hot Pod on this whole issue.

A Sheringham Soundscape

Sheringham Beach-3

Recorded along the coast during a near high-tide this morning. The promenade in Sheringham was quite badly damaged during December 2013 storms, and more than two years later, there is still work being carried out to repair some of that damage.

The audio is a mix of different sounds with some “treatment” particularly to the workmen repairing some of the metalwork.

The Encounter

The Encounter is a tour de force piece from actor, writer and director Simon McBurney and the Complicite theatre company. I confess that I mostly knew McBurney from his acting roles including the excellent Archdeacon Robert in the wonderful Rev with Tom Hollander, but you soon realise how accomplished he is simply from this one production.

It is simply overwhelming, and all the more remarkable for being in essence a one-man show. It makes remarkable use of enveloping the audience in binaural sound, taking us on a journey into the depths of the Amazonian rainforest.

McBurney begins very casually, the houselights are still-up and he notes the latecomers still finding their seats. We are warned once again (we’ve already had many warnings) that we really should turn our phones off or put them in airplane mode. The reason is not just as a courtesy to the actor, but because phones will inevitably cause interference on our headsets if audience members are receiving calls or texts.

And slowly we drift into the story. McBurney is going to tell us about the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 was dropped off deep in the jungle by the side of the river on assignment to photograph the Mayoruna people. Very quickly he found them, or rather they found him, but he foolishly got lost, having left most of his kit by the riverbank. He realised that he was going to have to rely on this tribe that he shared no language skills with in order to survive.

The play is based on the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu which records McIntyre’s story. But we’re also getting McBurney’s own telling of the story including “interruptions” from his daughter as he tries to deliver it.

This is fundamentally a play that uses sound remarkably well. As I mentioned, it uses binaural sound, but it also mixes in elements of pre-recorded music and speech, live sound effects, pre-recorded sound effects, and a whole host of different microphones both worn by McBurney but also placed at a table on the stage in an almost studio setting.

At the start of the show the technology is explained a little to us. The audience is suddenly in awe of the power of binaural audio, the incredible ability it offers via our brains to “place” the audio source around our heads, and the way we can be tricked into experiencing things that aren’t there. Then pre-recorded elements are added. And there are loop machines on the floor to create broader multiplying sound mixes. As well as a theatrical experience this is all a technical accomplishment.

As the story gets deeper so the sound becomes more all-encompassing. It’s clear that Mayoruna people have some very different beliefs, particularly in relation to time. At certain points we’re suddenly brought back to the present with recordings of the familiar sound of Professor Marcus du Sautoy talking about time in relation to physics. At other points, McBurney uses a phone to play back clips of conversations with Petru Popescu relating what McIntyre had told him.

McBurney has also been to Brazil to meet some of the descendants of the people in McIntyre’s book. All of this is infused throughout the piece.

A word on the technology. This does not look to be a simple undertaking. Both the wing’s of the circle at the Barbican Theatre were taken up by massive units that deliver the sound to the audience. The audience itself is some 500-600 and each member has a pair of Sennheiser headphones wired into their seats to listen through. Test audio is played on a loop at the start of the show to ensure that everyone gets their left and right the correct way around, and ensuring that duff headsets can be replaced ahead of the performance.

The headphones are Sennheiser HP 02-100s, and the sound quality is excellent. While wiring is fiddly, you don’t suffer from the hiss that wireless headsets often include. Indeed Sound Designer Gareth Fry explains that he didn’t believe that wireless provided the quality he was after with this production.

Centre stage is a dummy head – made by Sennheiser. It sits on a microphone stand and clearly has some very sensitive microphones places within it, because the effect is superb. More effects are delivered using, for example small speakers playing a mosquito sound and then waved around the head. And when at one point McBurney blows softly into one ear, you “feel” it through your headphones.

Additionally McBurney uses a pair of skin coloured theatrical microphones, and a couple of other microphones used for closer work. One of them has an effect applied to lower his tone and deliver the voice of McIntyre. The technicians and producers who are mixing all of these live microphones along with pre-recorded material that has to be carefully timed to match with McBurney’s live narration are superb. They are rightly recognised at the end of the show.

Entertainingly, the backdrop of the set has the look of an anechoic chamber – a room specially designed to be soundless. It’s used to good effect with light projections, if not to completely dull the sound since theatres are designed to do the opposite, and in any case, the production can solely be experienced through headphones.

I can’t say enough good things about this production. Regardless of your interest in the technical aspects of it, it’s simply a wonderfully powerful piece about a remarkable people, and their beliefs. Sound is used fulsomely to deliver some of their rituals, and as an audience you are simply captivated.

Superb!

The entire run at the Barbican is now sold out but The Encounter is going to be live streamed on Tuesday 1 March on the Complicite YouTube channel at 7.30pm GMT. Don’t forget that it’s essential to listen via headphones! I’d also recommend settling down in a nice quiet room with your other devices turned off and no interruptions. I’ve no idea if it’ll stay there on-demand afterwards, so I’d recommend being there for the performance if you’re going to watch and listen.

Complicite also has an excellent resource section on its website.