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iPlayer Day: Introducing the Audio Services team

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Sarah Prag Sarah Prag | 14:45 UK time, Friday, 12 December 2008

I manage a small team within BBC Audio & Music (the division responsible for national radio) called the Audio Services Team.

There are four of us (me included) and we're responsible for working with technology and production colleagues to develop and help run the various services you use to listen to BBC radio online. We're responsible for the podcast service, and used to run the old Radio Player, but since July we've been mainly focusing on the BBC iPlayer.

As you may know, there have been a few teething problems with radio in iPlayer, so most of our time since the summer has been spent on trying to fix and improve things. I'd like to explain a bit about why this is, but I'd also like to tell you about some of the exciting NEW things we're hoping to move on to in the New Year.

So, first the teething problems... The big challenge with moving radio into iPlayer was that we already had a very popular listening service that had been running for over 7 years. We needed to migrate all of the listeners, all of the content, and all of the producers to a new way of doing things. It was rather like changing all four wheels while you're driving down the motorway, and writing the manual at the same time.

Unlike TV in iPlayer, which has one team managing all of the content, radio is managed by teams in all of the radio networks - so there are people sitting in Radio 1 or Radio 4 responsible for setting things up for their station. There are also over 2,500 episodes of audio arriving in iPlayer every week, compared to several hundred hours of TV. This means a lot of people to train, and a lot of people using new tools. Some of the tools have also taken a while to bed in, which has added to the challenge. Oh - and one further thing, there are actually seven different systems that audio and information have to pass through to get out to the listener!

If your interested in such things, these systems are: Coyopa (which does the encoding), PIPs (a database which stores and handles programme information), PIT (the Programme Information Tool which producers use to schedule and manage their content in iPlayer), Radio Bridge (which picks up the audio files and moves them to a public folder), MAD (the Media Availability Database which keeps a record of which audio should be available), Dynamite (the publishing platform that publishes the iPlayer website and console) and EMP (the Embedded Media Player, which plays the audio). All of these were either new, or being asked to do new things when we moved radio into the iPlayer. So maybe that's like changing seven wheels on an articulated lorry while driving down the motorway? I think you get the picture.

2008_iPlayer_Radio.jpg

None of this is meant to sound like an excuse for things not working, but hopefully it's a bit of an explanation. On the plus side, my team and many others have been working flat out since we launched to overcome some of these challenges, and I think we're really making progress, which is why we're now starting to focus on how we can add to the listening experience with new features.

So, what about the NEW things? Well, one significant development that we've all been working on is improving the quality and reliability of our streams. James Cridland has written about this here. We're also planning to redevelop the pop-out radio player based largely on feedback from listeners (this should arrive some time in March), and we're looking at how we can introduce audio downloads and podcasts to the iPlayer next year. We'll also be feeding into wider iPlayer developments from a radio perspective including how to make the iPlayer experience more personalised, which is something we're all really excited about.

Sarah Prag is Executive Producer, Audio and Music Interactive.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    James Cridland is a great man!

  • Comment number 2.

    Thank you for making such a tremendous effort to make the end-user experience pleasant! Keep up the good work!

    Best,
    Lautus Design

  • Comment number 3.

    Here's the link to the blog about Coyopa without the comments being omitted:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radiolabs/2008/09/the_latest_on_coyopa_the_mayan.shtml

    I can't think why you'd want to link to a version without any comments.

  • Comment number 4.

    @Sarah Prag,

    I wonder if you could given an answer to this, because I made a freedom of information request about this but the BBC FOI department acknowledged that they'd received the FOI request, but they then never actually bothered to provide an answer - that was about 3 months ago now, so they clearly have no intention of providing any answer to the question.

    The question I'd like answering is why the live Internet radio streams didn't start using MP3 at higher bit rates in July straight after the on-demand streams started using MP3? That was the original plan, but for the last 5 months the live radio streams have still been broadcast at poor audio quality.

    There are 10 BBC national stations, so you would only have had to launch 10 new MP3 streams, which doesn't sound like a great deal of work to me. And considering that people spend 17 million hours listening to the BBC's live Internet radio streams per week, I would have thought that the BBC could have provided a few hours of overtime to improve the quality of the live streams. But apparently they couldn't.

  • Comment number 5.

    "If your interested " - you're!

    a small quibble with a great blog post, thanks!

  • Comment number 6.

    Your team's efforts are greatly appreciated! Radio content may not be as sexy as much of what's available through the iPlayer but for those of us who prize radio above all else you guys are the bees knees!

  • Comment number 7.

    It's worth mentioning that the Nations and Local Radio stations have a different encoding solution at present, so there's some additional complexity when dealing with the likes of Radio Ulster (as some of our listeners will know about).

  • Comment number 8.

    @digitalradiotech: you asked "why the live Internet radio streams didn't start using MP3 at higher bit rates in July straight after the on-demand streams started using MP3?"

    The on-demand streams used hardware we'd originally earmarked to produce Windows Media format streams. It was a simple switch to a different format/codec, and the costs were minimal.

    Given our plans were always to retire the Maidenhead streaming facility, it would not have given great value for money to temporarily invest in a set of additional streaming encoders (and the additional blanking and distribution infrastructure that's required) for live radio - particularly given that our new infrastructure, Coyopa, was nearing completion. (It's not a question of BBC overtime, incidentally; the facility is managed for us by Siemens.)

    Hope all that helps, and hope that this reply doesn't include a grammatical howler for @pipthepixie to pick up on... (grin)

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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