Review: BBC iPlayer Radio websites and smartphone apps
The BBC launches new audio-centric radio websites and a new radio smartphone app: comprehensive and feature-rich, it's the app we've been waiting for (for rather too long)
In a context-setting introduction, Mark said that more than half (52%) of people who listen to radio are listening on a digital platform. (A nice stat - RAJAR's published 46.2% weekly reach figure for digital radio is for the entire UK population). He cites the recent Radio 1 Hackney Weekend as being a good demonstration of how radio is now a multiplatform service across multiple devices; and cites that the amount of people accessing radio through iPlayer (which includes the UK Radio Player, by the way) is up by 300% over the last twelve months. These are good, healthy statistics for radio, and it's nice to see them stated.
Mark then pointed out the differences of radio vs TV. In the iPlayer, most radio is consumed live, whereas most TV is consumed on-demand. People have relationships with brands ("Radio 2"), not programmes ("Top Gear"). (To you and me, this seems obvious, but a cursory look at iPlayer over the last few years shows that it's a TV product built for TV consumption, and radio hasn't always fit well within the service).
iPlayer Radio is the overarching radio brand, which shows a new purpose and strategy for the BBC Radio websites - that of, first and foremost, aiming at catchup, on-demand, listening. Too often, websites for radio stations are seen as brochure sites for the radio station output: for BBC Radio, it's now clear that the websites are there for programme information and catchup. This is a very welcome development, in my eyes. The radio websites, including local radio, now have a consistent look and feel, with an iPlayer Radio banner at the top. You've probably already seen them: they've been in beta for a few months. Some stations, like BBC Radio 4, include manually created collections of clips: perfect for discovering more from that network.
Daniel Danker, who as General Manager, Programmes and On Demand runs the iPlayer, says that iPlayer Radio is there for three things:
"1 - Wake up to BBC Radio in the morning": copying Absolute Radio's alarm-clock apps from a few years ago, the iPlayer Radio app includes a configurable alarm clock. (It has to be running in the foreground to work, like other apps, due to iOS's lack of multitasking).
"2 - Access BBC Radio anywhere they go"
"3 - Listen to the radio any time - live, catchup, and having a smooth transition between the two"
I confess: I don't quite understand the difference between #2 and #3. But, assuming #2 was really about "on any device they own", then the BBC have succeeded here. The new websites work perfectly on mobile, tablet and desktop, and while not quite proper responsive design as yet, are fluid and well thought-out. (Of note: the websites contain a navigational element called "Download Podcasts", which shows that the "P" word has made a return to the BBC).
And then he announces the BBC iPlayer Radio smartphone app. Initially launched on iPhone, but with an Android version "coming soon", the smartphone app is quite a smart thing. If you want to stop reading for a little and rest your eyes, here's the promotional video for it.
Daniel gives a quick demonstration of the app: demonstrating the 'now-playing' information with the app. Slightly off-message, he reveals himself to be a big fan of BBC Radio 1, excited about Swedish House Mafia but not knowing who Joan Armatrading was. That realignment of Radio 1's target audience is going well, then...
Daniel points out the video clips which are baked-in to the app, and plays a One Direction clip for us. In a demonstration afterwards from Chris Kimber (Executive Product Manager, Radio and Music), I was impressed at how quickly they took to start playing, and the high video quality, particularly given that the demo was on O2's 3G network within Broadcasting House - O2 being the main mobile phone provider for the BBC, and therefore, one would suspect, a highly contended cell. Impressive.
"Podcasts are here as well", he says. They are; available either in their own section or from each programme. Disappointingly, there's no way of downloading these on the app: indeed, the app has no downloads available at all. Asked about this afterwards, Daniel says that they want to do it, and that they're working hard on it - though I'm guessing that there are rights issues that may preclude this from being quite as fast as anyone wants. But this isn't an app which'll be any good for anyone who commutes on the tube; and with Apple stripping podcasts out of iTunes on iOS6, forcing you to a ghetto of a separate app for podcasting, that's disappointing. The separation of radio and TV apps does, however, mean that radio ceases to look second best in the main iPlayer TV app, and for that, we should probably be thankful.
The app also includes a few nice touches: I can make a note about a track ("favourite") and it appears in an shareable list in the app. That's a nice idea. Not demonstrated, but shown to me afterwards, is a neat integration with full tracklists from programmes: so I can view full tracklistings from music programmes after they've been broadcast. This is really impressive: the sort of thing you can do if you have access to the rich data that the BBC has access to.
Local radio is properly in the app, with a consistent interface too. GPS is used to find your local station, though you can also add other local stations to your list of stations. It is good to see local radio getting equal billing.
In summary, Daniel says that iPlayer Radio is "about making a brand new home for radio in a connected world.
We believe radio has an amazing future in a connected world and we've only just scratched the surface."
So: what does this mean to the launch of the UK Radioplayer iPhone app, which we only saw last week? Does iPlayer Radio mean a retreat from UK Radioplayer? In short, no. Radioplayer is still used when listening to radio on the websites, as it always has been - and that's the primary focus of Radioplayer, a consistent UI for listening to radio wherever you are. And, as I noted last week, the Radioplayer app is not designed to replace a station's own app: it's there to encourage listeners to discover new radio. These do sit well together: Radioplayer being for breadth, iPlayer Radio being for depth.
The Android app? We'll still have to wait for that. Daniel points out that they're working on the Flash integration. I've written before that the BBC fascination with iOS is probably politically motivated, so apart from linking to that article, I'll probably frown quietly to myself on that point. That said, they're right to launch the iOS app as soon as it's ready. Shame there's no iPad app, though - given that many people use iPads, rather than iPhones, to listen to music.
Given that the iPlayer (TV) app launched in February 2011, nobody dares ask the obvious question: "what took you so long?" - so I won't either.
Radio will come out of the iPlayer (TV) app - on mobile devices and desktop, at least. There are no plans to remove any radio services from connected TV apps like YouView, which is heartening. It should probably be mentioned that the amount of people who use the iPlayer interface for both radio and TV is very low: and this won't be an issue for most audiences. And, sorry, overseas folks, the BBC licence-fee paid for it, so it's only available in the UK iTunes store.
If you're in the UK, you can download the app from this link.
In summary: this is a capable, comprehensive and impressive radio app: using the depth of information available to the BBC. It's great to see local radio being there; and it fits well alongside the UK Radioplayer's app too. Additional information, like tracklistings and video clips, are very impressive. Disappointing: no downloads, no iPad app, and no Android, yet. Inexplicable: what took them so long?
James Cridland worked at the BBC between 2007 and 2009, overseeing radio's move into the BBC iPlayer, and working on what was to become the UK Radioplayer. He also works for Radioplayer Worldwide.
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.
E-mail James Cridland | Visit James Cridland's website
The only problem I see at the moment is that it has doubled by clicks to get music! So before, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/ Click the station. Get music. Now, go to site, click on stations (get full list), click in station, try and find the player somewhere on the page and click on that. Not a better journey :-(
It’s a good app for what it does – that is stream radio. The one main reason I’d use to listen to the app is on public transport or in the car. 3G up and down the country is terrible. It’s a shocking service. I’m not bothered that it has so many 99% (or whatever) coverage, it’s the blackspots that stop live radio streaming that make it a terrible service.
Maybe it’s too much to ask for, but an app that could create a buffer of up to 2 minutes of previous live radio, so when the dropouts occur it doesn’t cut out, would have been better.
As for the app itself, it looks good, and it does its job. I do think, though, that if I can download TV to my iDevice to watch, I should be able to do the same for radio. The whole show – or at least the live mic sections. Not a problem for r4/5live, maybe more for music stations.
However — 3 Apps: Radioplayer, iPlayer normal, iPlayer radio, plus the web, plus podcasts. The BBC have certainly invested in all possible markets. Maybe over-invested, and the services are duplicated…? Maybe i’m wrong. It’s what it seems like to me, though.
3G up and down the country is variable and highly network dependent.
O2 actually seems to be getting worse – I have trouble getting 3G in London at times and coverage of the motorway network is very poor. EE’s combined Orange/T-Mobile network is surprisingly reliable to stream on the motorways.
Still no download for on-demand. And looks crap on an iPad, as do all iPhone-only apps. But, a good start. I like navigating the schedules and just playing what I want whether live or on-demand.
Could someone kindly explain why this is not available in the US? I can access iPlayer on my Mac laptop; why not my iPhone?