Archives for October 2008

Automatically linking artists and news on the BBC Music Beta

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Patrick Sinclair Patrick Sinclair | 15:57 UK time, Friday, 31 October 2008

One of the challenges we face on the BBC Music Beta is to provide links to interesting and relevant content on the artist pages we are publishing - and keeping this information up to date.

On the current music site, the BBC Music Interactive team have manually entered links to news stories about a given artist. With the huge number of artists that we are now publishing on the Music Beta site (400,000 and counting), this would require an enormous effort to maintain these links. For example on Cliff Richard's profile there are two featured news stories about Sir Cliff - both dating from 2006. This stale data results in a poor user experience - if the featured news stories are two years old, the user might wonder if the site is actively being maintained.

On the BBC Music Beta we are taking a different approach. Using a simple technique involving hyperlinks and MusicBrainz, we can automatically associate news items and artists.

On many of the news stories published on BBC News journalists add related internet links. If a story covers a music artist, it might link out to their home page, their MySpace site or even a Wikipedia article. In MusicBrainz, each artist can have several URLs associated to them. By simply cross-referencing each link on a news story with the URLs in MusicBrainz, when we find a match we can confidently say that the news story relates to the artist associated with that URL.

For example, this story on confirming Madonna's and Guy Richie's split has a link to Madonna's homepage at When we look up the in MusicBrainz we find it associated with the MusicBrainz artist Madonna, allowing us to link to that news item from Madonna's artist profile. With this we can generate a news feed with RSS for any artist.

This simple technique is completely automatic and will perform across any of the 400,000 artists in MusicBrainz. As it is based on matching links added by BBC editors we can be very confident that a news item will be associated with the correct artist. We also believe that it adds value to the web, as BBC editors will be encouraged to add useful links from news stories so that these can be aggregated on artist profile pages. Editors from BBC Music will play a more active part in maintaining artist links in MusicBrainz instead of manually associating artists with news items, improving the data quality in MusicBrainz.

We would like to extend this technique on other music news sites besides the BBC but it requires that these sites link out to external sites, not just to their own pages. As discussed by Tim O'Reilly, there is a current trend for sites to prefer linking to themselves. Perhaps our approach to linking news stories with artists will encourage such sites to start linking out again.

RadioDNS - making your radio more intelligent

James Cridland James Cridland | 09:30 UK time, Monday, 6 October 2008

Nick Piggott writes with me:

There's a change happening to your radio. It's getting more connected to the rest of the world.

That FM radio in your mobile phone could, if it wanted to, connect to the internet to discover more about what it's listening to. The DAB radio in that wifi radio you have at home can similarly connect to the web to get lots of information about the current broadcast. And listening to radio on your MP3 player could interact with the internet when it docks to your PC. In short, there are a lot of radio sets hidden within connected devices.

However, just because your radio also has an internet connection within it, that doesn't instantly mean that it can find more information about what it's listening to. Listening to Heart 100.7, a commercial radio station in Birmingham, doesn't tell your radio where to look for more, and certainly nothing as to whether it supports particular things your radio does. Indeed, your radio doesn't even know that it's owned by Global Radio. Listening to BBC Radio Humberside similarly doesn't tell your radio where to try on the internet, nor Absolute Radio in London, P4 in Oslo, KCRW in Santa Monica, etc.

One way to achieve this is to broadcast some additional metadata, telling your radio a web address of where to look, and what functions this broadcaster supports. Which sounds a grand idea, until you realise that there are tens of thousands of FM radio transmitters across Europe which would need to be reconfigured, and hundreds of DAB multiplexes, hundreds of HD Radio broadcasts in the US, and that's before you start on the "fun" of establishing a new technical standard for all of this stuff on all the platforms that are out there. It would take years. And we haven't got years.

That's where RadioDNS comes in. Put simply, it uses information that is already broadcast to create a kind 'unique ID', which, by using standard DNS technology on the internet, can point your radio quickly and simply to the broadcaster - and from there, to advertise to the radio what this broadcaster supports.

What might you do with it? RadioDNS can support things like RadioVIS, a way of adding visuals to radio. RadioEPG, an electronic programme guide. RadioTAG is a really interesting technology, not unlike Radio Pop, allowing you to 'tag' bits of the radio you find interesting. Whether it's your favourite song, an interesting news story, or just something the presenter said that you thought was amusing. It's then up to the broadcaster to keep those tags, to let you interact further when you've the time.

If some of that looks familiar - some of those are already established DAB technologies, which if you've the access to broadcast data, work just fine over broadcast technologies. But while RadioDNS works on DAB, it also works on FM, HD Radio, a radio technology called DRM, and the internet. In fact, almost any way that we broadcast radio (except for AM, though there's a fix for that, too). In short, it works wherever radio does. And since it doesn't need any changes to the transmission chain, it's a simple technology that's cheap to implement.

Global Radio (the commercial radio company that owns 95.8 Capital FM and GWR in Bristol for example, the BBC, Channel 4, and many international broadcasters and receiver manufacturers have been working on this technology for the past few months. And, while there's nothing out there quite yet which supports these technologies, receiver manufacturers have already announced their support for it, and some prototypes will appear on software devices soon.

If you're a developer, or just interested, v0.6 of the specifications are now available at And particularly if you're a developer for a radio group, we'd be interested to hear from you.

Nick Piggott is Head of Creative Technologies for Global Radio.

James Cridland is Head of Future Media & Technology for BBC Audio & Music Interactive.

Links for 03-10-08

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Tristan Ferne | 16:01 UK time, Friday, 3 October 2008

Information Architecture for Audio: Doing It Right - Boxes and Arrows: The design behind the design
That's radio that is. Some good tips though.

Cheap, Easy Audio Transcription with Mechanical Turk -
Instructions for transcribing audio with Amazon's Mechanical Turk - "First, I split my 35-minute audio file into seven five-minute MP3s. Why? Mechanical Turk workers are all working in parallel, so the more discrete tasks, the faster the job gets done.". Interesting - and you could also do multiple, redundant transcripts of the same audio for better transcription quality.

MIR Research: ISMIR 2008 Demos
Details of several awesome sounding demos around music discovery - "Òscar Celma and Marcelo Nunes presented GeoMuzik which allows drawing a route on a world map. Their system then generates a playlist according to this route. They implemented genre/tag filters. They can also visualize the artists in my profile on top of a map". Also work around shared radio listening and another music tagging game.

Cosmovox - a Musical Instrument for the iPhone and iPod touch
Finally, a Theremin-like iPhone app that uses the accelerometer. It even lets you choose your muscial scale.

More at

Fan cultures in radio (5) - Specialist Music and Public Service Media

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Tristan Ferne | 15:32 UK time, Friday, 3 October 2008

This week we are publishing a series of short posts from researchers who have been studying the online behaviours of listeners and fans of BBC radio and today we come to the last study. This one's a bit different as it started off looking at fans of specialist music but also ended up studying us - the BBC Audio & Music team. So here's Andrew Dubber and Tim Wall of Birmingham City University...

Specialist Music and Public Service Media

Over the past year, we have been researching the activities of specialist music fandom online and BBC Radio professional practice. The aim of this research has been to develop some recommendations to help the BBC further its public service objectives in the area of music broadcasting and online provision.

Our central recommendation is that staff should discuss ways of making a conceptual shift from the practices of 'Public Service Broadcasting' to those of 'Public Service Media'. At first sight the difference may seem purely semantic, but the distinction between an emphasis on 'media' and 'broadcasting' is significant, as it allows a way to rethink the corporation's approach to the public communication which underlies all its activities.

Drawing on our examination of the fan activities of specialist music enthusiasts, and the way BBC staff who serve their interests conceive their professional practices, we think such a shift would allow discussion of the difference between a 'one-to-many', centre-to-receptive-audience model and the 'many-to-many' forms of communication that are more typical online. More to the point, the term 'broadcasting' pretty much just means radio and television, when in fact recorded popular music is a media form in itself.

This is certainly not an argument for BBC staff to disavow a broadcast orientation, because it continues to offer fans of popular music a unique experience. Rather, we think that if broadcasting is reconceptualised as part of a broader Public Service Media mindset, the opportunities to extend the way in which the BBC meets the needs of specialist music fans can be enhanced and made as relevant to their online experience as it is to their radio listening experience.

Our work with BBC staff revealed that there are a significant number of people within the BBC operational teams who have started on this journey, but that different individuals are going at different speeds towards its realisation. We believe that those within the BBC who are already well down this path should be encouraged and enabled to spearhead this transition.

We believe that the BBC is faced with a unique opportunity to develop and advance Public Service Media ideals through specialist music provision, and in our report we have outlined and detailed a number of suggestions that will assist in that transition.

In headline form these include:

  • recognise music fans as more than simply 'listeners';
  • utilise the opinion leadership of specialist music presenters as a key asset for online media, and position tastemakers as focal points for discussing, sharing and making meaning from music (that is, as central figures in music 'scenes');
  • indulge, and provide a platform for, the music enthusiasms of key personnel that expand beyond the bounds of scheduled programming;
  • identify and empower the 'savants' - music fans who possess (and can communicate) high levels of specialist knowledge of popular music through BBC channels;
  • index, tag and make available all music-related content in a modular form, whereby BBC-created content about artists, genres, record labels, scenes, etc. could be navigated, discovered and repackaged (including by future programme makers) in ways that are separate from the individual radio brands, presenters or programme slots;
  • develop and support as a media brand in its own right - on an equal footing with radio brands - so that it provides a focal point for online media engagement around popular and specialist music forms;
  • consider ways to resolve the tension between creating a 'walled garden' of content, and providing free programming to commercial services;
  • continue to link to popular online services such as MySpace and YouTube, but also provide a commercial-free alternative space for Public Service Media;
  • offer and prioritise platform-independent audio formats which have wide acceptance in specialist music fan culture, rather than proprietary streaming software;
  • focus on the development and provision of metadata and metacontent;
  • develop radio programme production workflows that consider online delivery and discussion as an equal partner to the broadcast service

This last suggestion is perhaps the most significant. It will allow the BBC to reconfigure the broadcast production process so that online provision is understood as more than an add-on service designed to enhance the radio brand, within the tight budgets and limitations on the busy programme production teams.

Andrew Dubber is an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellow in online music and radio innovation and Tim Wall is Professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies at the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University. They are key members of BCU's Interactive Cultures research centre, which explores how communities are built through new and emerging media channels, and helps professional, commercial and community bodies in the radio and music extend their work online.

Note: Andrew has written more on the notion of broadcast and online orientations over on one of his many blogs, New Radio Strategies.

One More Thing: BBC Radio via XSPF, SHOUTcast

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Matthew Wood | 12:34 UK time, Friday, 3 October 2008

I recently posted my hack for exposing BBC Radio in iTunes. If you thought that was a bit of a closed platform to target, here's an update for you.

Fire it up and use it to explore our shows with XSPF, and listen via SHOUTcast.

Let us know how you get on!

Fan cultures in radio (4) - Online fan cultures around The Archers

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Tristan Ferne | 15:20 UK time, Thursday, 2 October 2008

This week we are publishing a series of short posts from researchers who have been studying the online behaviours of listeners and fans of BBC radio. Today's post comes from Lyn Thomas, of London Metropolitan University, who has been researching fans of the Archers...

Online fan cultures around The Archers

The research confirmed that the BBC Archers website is used by large numbers of listeners who mostly like it as it is. A very small number of respondents - mainly IT professionals - were critical of the design of the site. It's possible nonetheless that a more 'modern', less traditional look would attract younger listeners (such as members of the Facebook Archers Appreciation group). There is a deep attachment, however, to the mustard colour! Our sample of online fans is predominantly female (76%), white British (81%) and aged 40-59 (62%). The level of education is very high indeed - 74% have been through Higher Education. The Archers is unique among British soap operas in attracting this demographic, and the website has clearly reinforced this effect - providing a space for keen listeners to keep up with the programme and exchange views with others. Catching up with the programme via Listen Again, podcasts or synopses is the most popular use of the site. The weekly vote - which significantly is easily accessed from the home page - is also popular. For some, the website provides a visual accompaniment to the programme.

Only a third of our respondents say they use the BBC Archers messageboards, which nonetheless are the most active of all the Archers fan sites we mapped. The second most active board is the Facebook Archers Appreciation group, which is growing rapidly and has over 1500 members (though clearly a much smaller number are actively posting) and a younger demographic. Most of the independent fan sites are now used by very small groups. The official fan club site, the 'Archers Addicts' is popular, and the messageboard has a faithful group of around 20 posters.

For some, the BBC messageboards are an important social network, and they can be a lifeline. They can also intensify the pleasures of the programme by providing a 'double dose soap' in the form of the messageboard 'characters' and their exchanges. Some of the posters on the BBC Discuss The Archers board negotiate the apparent contradiction between their middle-class cultural status and soap opera fandom by adopying ironic or even 'anti-fan' postures, while others are more celebratory. The clash of different versions of fandom - or 'fan-tagonisms' (Johnson 2007) - found here is, however, typical of fan cultures generally, and by stimulating discussion, it contributes to the liveliness of the boards. Those who find the discussion 'too critical', too fast-moving or intense, migrate to other online spaces such as the 'Archers Addicts' or the Facebook Archers Appreciation group. It's possible that if the BBC Archers site provided an alternative, easily accessed space, with a lighter kind of discussion, they might find their way there. The presence of the host 'Mr Keri' on the BBC boards and the sense of connection with the programme and the producers that this provides make the posters feel at home and 'listened to'. This contrasts with Klein's findings in relation to the Radio 1 and 2 messageboards, where feelings of confusion and alienation were reported. Here passionate engagement, however critical, is the order of the day, and a marker of and contributor to the programme's and the website's success.

The various Archers messageboards provide a space in which very detailed visualisations of characters and scenes can be developed, shared and compared. In this sense, the messageboards add a new, shared dimension to the pleasures of the imagination which a radio programme can provide (see Thomas 2002). Comparing imagined versions of characters or scenes permits multiple interpretations, in contrast to the threatening closure of photographs of actors (which in the case of The Archers, listeners frequently refuse to look at). In this way, the messageboards extend the openness of radio, by providing a space where new meanings and stories can be generated by listeners, and where the imaginative work of listening can in some measure, be captured.

The Archers has a unique relationship with its audience because of the fact that many have been listening since childhood. The culture of the programme and of many of the online websites we analysed is one of femininity, which of course does not prevent a minority of men from participating. However, for the mainly female fans narratives which emphasise the capacity to repair relationships and the role of community in supporting vulnerable individuals are likely to be pleasurable. These qualities of commitment to relational work are also found in some of the online spaces, alongside, particularly in the case of the BBC boards, a middle-class highly educated culture which values critique. Our recommendation would be that rather than regarding the 'anti-fan' and ironic fan postures adopted by some posters as a threat, the BBC should consider these discussions, like the website as a whole, as a successful adjunct to the programme - a broadening of its cultural wings and a sign of the passionate engagement of some listeners. Fan cultures, as the independent development of the Facebook site attests, have their own modalities and conventions, and cannot be predicted or indeed controlled.

Johnson, D. (2007) 'Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom', in J. Gray, C. Sandvoss, C. Lee Harrington (eds) Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, New York University Press: New York.
Thomas, L. (2002) Fans, Feminisms and 'Quality' Media, Routledge: London and New York.

Lyn Thomas is Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University

Fan cultures in radio (3) - TOGs or "This Ordinary Group"

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Tristan Ferne | 15:55 UK time, Wednesday, 1 October 2008

This week we are publishing a series of short posts from researchers who have been studying the online behaviours of listeners and fans of BBC radio. Today's post comes from Matt Hills and Amy Luther, of Cardiff University, who have been researching the TOGs ("Terry's Old Gals/Geezers")...

TOGs - "This Ordinary Group" - Official and Unofficial Listener Activities around Wake Up to Wogan

Our part of the project looked at online listener engagement of a very specific kind: fans of celebrity DJs. We focused on an off-BBC case study: "Terry's Old Gals/Geezers", or TOGs, the loyal audience contributing (additional) wit and wisdom to Wake Up To Wogan (WUTW).

We analysed material in the public domain at and interviewed a number of TOGs. We rapidly discovered two things:

One, although TOGs can be analytically thought of as "fans", they don't really think of themselves in this way.

Two, although Sir Terry Wogan (STW) can be analytically thought of as a "celebrity", TOGs don't really think of him in this way either.

All was not lost. TOGs, we had learnt, felt a real sense of closeness to STW, hence for them he was just Terry rather than a distant, celebrity 'other' . WUTW was a "conduit" for their humour, and participating in the show provided a very real sense of achievement for some. And we learnt what TOGs wanted from BBC online content.

Some didn't know - they used the Internet but didn't always feel like experts. They were quicker to identify what the BBC didn't seem able to do: real-time interactivity accompanying the show, or letting audiences properly record the bits they wanted.

Others did know, and were far more expert than us. They argued for on-BBC interactivity as well as information provision; basically a bit less WUTW 'broadcasting on the web'. They wondered why there wasn't specific online content for established listeners as well as for new audiences curious about STW's 'underlings'. Above all, they favoured greater online integration with the radio show, and hence a meaningful web "overflow" of what WUTW meant to them on the radio: irreverence; gentle mocking of celebs and BBC shows; wordplay and badinage; TOG emails and commentary. Some TOGs are already creating their own archives of emails sent into the show, but the BBC itself could be posting, organising, and reorganising TOG emails online in all manner of interesting ways.

And why weren't TOGs "fans"? Well, because they didn't talk about STW and WUTW at In fact, ultra-rare mentions of "Terry" were greeted with knowing responses of "Who?" 'Fans' are supposedly dependent audiences; TOGs happily display their autonomy from any one "brand."

But then the BBC's not a commercial broadcaster. It wants to serve different audiences. Distinctively. The TOGs, we suggest, are the BBC's 'heartlands audience 2.0.' An older, middle-class audience who trust and value the Beeb, and talk about a lot of its output, even if not WUTW, but who are also socially-networked just like those trendy young things. By not fully keeping pace with the online migration of this audience, the BBC is missing out on opportunities to support much more than just brand extension online.

Because although the TOGs don't talk about WUTW, they live it. The radio show banters and refuses to take life too seriously - that's the TOGs. The radio show involves invented names, wordplay and jazz-master-level improvisation of the chattering class - the TOGs do all that too. But they're not a dependent audience; they're co-creating, building their online identities through qualities in the show they (mostly) love.

Commercial broadcasters wouldn't care about the TOGs. They're not even talking about the brand, dammit. To any commercial logic, this is a no-no. But to a public service institution? This audience have integrated a brand or two (STW/WUTW) transformatively into their online lives. Viewed outside of a purely commercial gaze, the TOGs are brand performers, and may be that's worth supporting online. Distinctively.

The last thing that's important to remember about the TOGs is this: they are ordinary listeners. Some don't catch WUTW every day; some miss hearing whether their email's been read out. Not all are regular contributors. They are not an aberrant or "hardcore" group of listeners. They are the mainstream, but they happen to act in fan-like ways.

Dr Matt Hills is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University
Amy Luther is a PhD student at Cardiff University

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