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Jem Stone Jem Stone | 10:53 UK time, Thursday, 30 December 2010

A sketch for the Archers tweetalong app for the 60th anniversary.

Editor's note: this weekend sees a special 60th anniversary double episode of The Archers on Radio 4, set to 'shake The Archers to the core'. Jem Stone introduces our planned online activity by reminding us that interacting with listeners is nothing new.

On Sunday mornings, if you're a Radio 4 listener, you know where to look. On Twitter, talking about the station's legendary daily drama The Archers (five million weekly listeners!), you might bump into a famous writer, a Radio 4 broadcaster, an Archers scriptwriter or a funny passionate listener you've never met or a plethora of Archers characters (are they real or the product of the fevered imaginations of fans? As someone recently pointed out: "The Archers is real. There is no cast."). For some, listening to the Archers live now seems inconceivable without turning to a screen of some kind (the jargon here is a 'two screen solution', although the phrase makes more sense for TV viewing).

One of our jobs in the social media and interactive teams in BBC Radio is to take that real-time feedback (not just on Twitter on course) and present it back to scriptwriters, producers, editors and presenters in ways that make sense to them. More importantly how do you visualise it for listeners? Or should the BBC even try? How would you make it accessible to the (still) millions of online Archers listeners who've never used a message board let alone Twitter?

Zane Lowe

Zane Lowe reviews tweets

Of course BBC Radio has been trying to incorporate and reflect listeners' feedback, ideas and opinions into its programming since 1923. For nearly 50 years this was relatively simple given that it was almost entirely by letter. I can still remember the BBC postcode for Radio 1 - W1A 4WW - so frequently was it used as a 'call out' and it remains embedded in my memory alongside that other BBC staple: 01 811 8055. It wasn't until the proliferation of local radio and new commercial stations in the 70s that the ubiquity of the phone started to change live radio formats and it was another thirty years again before the mobile phone and SMS, (apart from a very brief moment in the sun for the fax machine) changed everything again. Now of course the blur of noise around any cultural event is fragmented, frequent and crucially very live. For example BBC radio networks receive over half a million SMS/texts a month, there are over 100,000 posts just to the messageboards for Radio 4, and tens of thousands of replies to our Twitter accounts and likes and comments on our Facebook pages every day.

We've been trying to make sense of this activity and document these links and recommendations publicly via what are often private closed systems online for several years. A few months ago we launched buzz, where on many of our pages now you can see, after an episode, the online discussion; currently an edited selection of the most relevant blog posts about that particular radio programme episode (for example, this episode of Desert Island Discs). The Archers, itself, has a regular blog post that rounds up social media comment a few days after the episodes have been aired.

As anyone who has clicked on the #xfactor twitter hashtag during a programme will confirm you can sometimes see 1000 messages fly by in a instant. It's virtually impossible to read them all or make sense from them. So trying to do this in real-time, last year, I hosted (with Steve Bowbrick) Something called Good Radio Club. We reflected the conversation and online chat about radio programmes while they were on-air. We do this with our music events all the time. See Chris Evans' regular live events or Radio 1's spectacular UCTRLKATY with Katy Perry.

So how do you actually weave this into a programme or onto a screen whilst a programme goes out live? On January 2nd we are having another go using the 60th anniversary episode of The Archers as our excuse. We've already been experimenting through December by tapping into the existing online conversation.

As with The Archers itself, it's easy to think that every new development 'shakes us to the core'. In fact, of course, things are remarkably the same. Join us on the Archers blog from the beginning of Sunday's omnibus episode for the build-up to the big one and, if you're on Twitter, use the hashtag #TheArchers.

Jem Stone is Executive Producer for Social Media at BBC Audio & Music

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