The BBC iPlayer app: treating radio as second-best
The BBC iPlayer's new download service, on Apple products, doesn't include radio programmes, in spite of them already being available
In the mid 2000s, you could buy a mobile phone with rather a good feature, for the time. Without using any 3G connection (since they didn't really exist at the time for many), you could press a button or two and watch live television. This device, the Virgin Mobile "tellyphone" (see what they did there?) was supposed to revolutionise television watching. It delivered live TV and radio using an inbuilt DAB chip. But the research quickly came back: people were buying this mobile phone for the television, but actually using their phone for the radio.
Radio works perfectly on a mobile device. So it's disappointing to see the new iOS BBC iPlayer app, which now has a download facility for television programmes, apparently ignore radio listeners. Because, in spite of obvious demand, there's no download feature at all for radio within the product. Which is perplexing.
Radio has been downloadable for a while: the BBC started podcasting "In Our Time" in 2004. Now, the BBC offers hundreds of podcasts: with the most popular, the Scott Mills Daily, doing 709,845 downloads in April.
The main problem with making downloadable radio programmes available - the content rights - have already been 100% cleared for these programmes. Yet, these downloadable programmes haven't made it into the BBC iPlayer app, nor in the desktop version: and the iOS app page doesn't make any reference to radio programmes at all. Elsewhere, you can find a short note that downloads of radio programmes are not supported in BBC iPlayer just yet, but we are working on this.
The BBC's podcasts are distributed by a simple mechanism called RSS, which is a simple XML format that allows easy display and download of audio files. These RSS feeds are simply parsed in iOS, and the audio files themselves are in MP3 or AAC format, both of which play in iOS without issue. Yet the BBC iPlayer app does not take advantage of the incredible content available through BBC podcasts: even when it's comparatively simple to include them.
BBC radio listeners are required to download Apple's podcast app, or any number of other apps, to download radio podcasts. Yet the iPlayer's help makes no mention of this workaround. And it's sad that it's required.
The BBC has some of the best radio output in the world. However, the iPlayer team appear to have treated radio as second-best. Shame. I hope - and I'm sure - that radio will be quick in appearing.
James Cridland is the Managing Director of Media UK, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business.
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Daniel Danker, the BBC’s iPlayer boss was interviewed about this on PM/Radio 4 on Tuesday.
See 48 minutes in
When asked by Eddie Mair about radio downloads not being in the iPlayer app he said:
“There are 3 excuses. About 90% of radio listening is actually live but you’re right. Not a good enough excuse ..There’s a lot of right issues, with radio particularly around music…and we still have podcasts so you can still download, but the truth is they are all excuses so in reality we are focusing on bringing radio into the download space very soon.…As soon as its ready we will bring you that”
As I make clear above: there are no rights issues with the BBC’s current offerings via podcast: and the tech infrastructure is simple to implement (simply RSS and MP3 downloading).
Top of the Pops 2 is downloadable on the new BBC iPlayer app, and therefore rights issues are difficult to fathom, but I do understand that full seven-day availability for radio downloads could be difficult to achieve. However, the most popular “listen-again” material is speech-based anyway (whether it’s Chris Moyles or The Archers), and it’s hard to understand why this has any rights issues at all, given the availability on unprotected downloads.
Danker is right to just point out that they’re “excuses”; but it’s sad that he has to make excuses for treating radio as second-best.
It’s not only iPlayer. The new(ish) Sky+HD interface has some bugs with displaying the now & next programme information for radio channels. Radio channels are also completely missing from the Sky+ iPad App channel listing.
As you’ve said many times James, I suspect that this is due to the relative lack of interest in on demand radio compared with television.
Since the inception of downloads on the desktop iPlayer, radio has been excluded, and I don’t know if anyone’s particularly shouted about it thus far. There’s no real reason – although additional rights agreements may be needed to be made with the various copyright bodies and unions. But the’ve been concluded for television, so radio should be straightforward. However, the current agreements which already allow 7 day streaming may suffice.
I believe DRM is required for some categories of radio. In particular the BBC Trust talked about classical music and book readings being excluded from podcasts in 2007, and I think those categories remain in place. So directly implementing the podcast feeds is probably not a straightforward solution (in any case, the iPlayer version of a radio programme and the podcast version can and do differ). Of course that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be able to download a DRM protected version of last night’s Prom to listen to offline, as much as I could stream one online.
Yes, 90% of radio is live. But downloads are specifically for those situations where you can’t get a decent internet stream – on the tube or a plane, as an example. In this situation, 100% of radio listening is downloads.
I, too, believe that DRM would be required; and I also know that sporting rights, rights around drama, and of course music rights, all need to be sorted for downloads of radio. (The iPlayer for TV doesn’t include great swathes of BBC output for that reason).
But there are hundreds of excellent downloads of radio available now, all rights-cleared, via the BBC’s podcast service. This can be directly implemented in a straightforward solution. The links between Scott Mills’s radio show and his podcasts are already there – take a look at the bottom right of this page. If the metadata’s already there… ?