BBC Radio 4

    Reith 2009 in the Twitterverse

    As I've explained in my previous blog posts, the 2009 Reith Lectures team was keen to extend the reach of the programmes beyond the traditional Radio 4 and World Service listeners.

    A key part of our strategy was social networking site Twitter. We wanted to find people already talking about Professor Sandel and his work, or related ideas, and establish a community of listeners which could start engaging with the lectures' themes before the programmes were even broadcast.

    Some people found being followed by a broadcasting legend rather unsettling. One user commended Twitter for its ability "to do pure Python at the drop of a hat"; another wondered if we were "lurking behind that bush".

    But most people seemed pleasantly surprised to discover the programme's Twitter incarnation: "So delighted you are using Twitter", "Am excited to see such a resource" and "Oh! Oh! You can follow the Reith lectures on Twitter!".

    We also wanted to collaborate with our colleagues who run Good Radio Club, an exercise in "social listening" which invites people to tune in to particular radio programmes while logged into Twitter, and then share their comments. And we promised to let you know how it went.

    I write this after the first transmission of the second Lecture, and although the experiment has not quite followed the path we intended, it has in fact completely exceeded our expectations.

    We had issued invitations for a Good Radio Club event during the first Reith lecture repeat on Saturday 13 June. But the Twitterverse had other ideas. Ten minutes before the first transmission of the opening lecture on Tuesday 9 June, a few messages ("tweets") started to appear, urging people to listen.

    That trickle became a torrent, as users spontaneously twittered about Professor Sandel's lecture on the moral limits of markets. Some were already following our feed, but most were not. As radio producers, it was electrifying to see the tweets come in - we were effectively watching people listening to the programme.

    The comments were almost universally positive, praising Professor Sandel's arguments, timeliness and approach: "Highly recommended", "Very clear and lucid speaker", "not to be missed", "right on the zeitgeist", "really exceptional", "challenging yet inspiring".

    Or as one particularly vivid tweet put it afterwards, "High brow shiznit for your brainbox".

    Many people made explicit reference to the BBC's public service broadcasting remit:

    "As Lord Reith said, the purpose of the BBC is to educate, inform, entertain...well done!"

    "Demonstration of why BBC/PSB is essential - Murdoch wouldn't broadcast this."

    There were some critics - one listener was "not that impressed by this year's Reith lectures - no new ideas, or new ways to approach the 'ethic with a busted gut', unhelpful". Another wondered whether "If I say the #Reith Lecture is smug piffle, will it get retweeted [republished]?". It was.

    What was also fascinating was the number of unprompted references to listening to the podcast or via iPlayer. Lots of people who had not been following our message stream were so keen to recommend the programme that they published their own links to the podcast, website etc. Many heard the original transmission but wanted to listen again online.

    We were able to build on the tremendous response generated by the first lecture - helped in part by Elisabeth Mahoney's warm review in the Guardian, which highlighted our "new-fangled" approach to promoting this year's lectures and the "overwhelmingly positive" response.

    Our band of followers continued to grow - sometimes a tweet about Reith was a user's first, suggesting they may have signed up to Twitter just to participate. And the appreciative messages kept piling up.

    In Twitter's world, popular topics are given a hashtag (ie "#Reith") which users include in their tweets, thus allowing all related messages to be easily aggregated. As the number of people using #Reith grew, so did our sense of an increasingly engaged community.

    The culmination of the week of the first lecture's broadcast was to be the planned Good Radio Club event during the Saturday night repeat.

    As a warm up, one user proved you can say much within the famously tight 140 character limit of Twitter, summarising the lecture in a few pithy messages: "markets replace moral judgements with costs" and "Market incentive corrupts/distorts/undermines intrinsic incentive - replaces moral/value judgements with costs".

    As before there was a real sense of occasion as we watched the debate unfold in real time. There was a small but dedicated group of active participants joining in across the world - from the UK to New Zealand, Berlin and Tehran. But by tracking the number of people who followed the related content links we posted during the programme, we know that a much larger group was watching (and clicking) in silence.

    And more clever technology meant that people who missed the debate could recreate it afterwards, prompted by recommendations from users - many of whom had not apparently taken part the night before: "essential overnight Tweet-reads; #IranElection and #reith discussion of 1st lecture".

    The event went very well. In some ways it didn't quite match the excitement of the informal "Good Radio Club" which exploded into life so unexpectedly during the first lecture - and indeed during the second as well. But in terms of plans-not-going-to-plan, the result is pretty good.

    As I write this, we have almost 850 followers. In turn they have hundreds - or in some cases thousands - of followers of their own, many of whom find themselves knitted together across the globe by a common interest in the unashamedly challenging thoughts - or "High brow shiznit" - of the Harvard Professor who wears this year's Reith laurel.


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