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Watch and listen to 8,500 programmes on the BBC website

Susannah Stevens

Roy Plomley, presenter of Desert Island Discs - one of the BBC programmes you can listen to online.

Today, any Genome user can go into the database and sift through just under 4.5 million Radio Times listings for BBC radio and TV programmes broadcast between 1923 and 2009. It’s a rich resource for information, but what about the programmes themselves? Many of you have written, asking to watch or listen to them.

We know that the BBC has about 30% of the programmes listed in Genome in its physical archives, which amounts to more than a million hours of output, but many users will not realise that some of them are already permanently available to view or listen to on the BBC website.

In an effort to make this material easier for you to find, we have embarked on a project to link all of the radio and TV programmes which are already available on the BBC website to their Genome listings. This is just one part of a larger initiative to match Genome listings to programmes.

When I started the work to find the programmes, we weren't sure how many published programmes, which are available outside the 30 day catch-up period for programmes available on BBC iPlayer — we would find on the BBC website. Over the years, different departments have uploaded select broadcast programmes, and they sit under different collections on – sometimes categorised and alphabetised, sometimes not. We knew about the large and well-documented collections, and estimated there would be many more obscure, single programmes too.

Our guess when we started was that we might able to link about 3,000 videos or radio programmes – so far, we have found about 8,500 (282 television and 8,200 radio). And we're still working on more.
(Update, 03/08/2015: these numbers have now gone up to more than 300 television and more than 8,500 radio programmes, as we've been adding links and getting very helpful contributions from the public).

Some of the programmes available on the website are well advertised - such as Desert Island Discs, which is a comprehensive and large, single collection curated by the Radio 4 online team that goes back to the 1950s. It has been much talked of on Radio 4 and sporadically added to, as new archive material has surfaced. Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America is another large Radio 4 collection, in which archive material was provided by audience members who had recorded and kept hundreds of episodes of the programme. And BBC Four have a permanent archive collection of TV programmes available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Again, many BBC audience members will already know of the existence of these programmes.

Some material, however, remains harder to find.

In many cases, this content might be on an older version of the BBC website, as is the case with some of the programmes on the BBC Archive site — we are working to update these pages and preserve some of the now out-of-date material elsewhere.

This fascinating programme on the Supermarine Spitfire is a fine example. It was originally broadcast on a regional channel and only made it to national TV three months after its original broadcast date. It would be hard to stumble upon, although it does sit under a curated index.

So how do we, at Genome find these gems? Sometimes this process involves sifting through a chronological list of programmes, like the one you can find here, on the Radio 4 programme page. We have also been helped by developers who work with Genome, who have been able to capture the URLs of permanent programmes that I may not otherwise have spotted.

Then there has been the additional challenge of matching programmes to Genome entries. As those conversant with Genome’s database will know, the listings show what was scheduled to be broadcast – but this does not necessarily mean, in the event, that a specific programme went to air.

Sometimes this necessitated extra research to create an accurate picture of what went on, such as this Desert Island Discs, featuring Umberto Eco. BBC Genome contains two listings for the same programme – which was postponed after the first Radio Times edition had gone to print: and Cross-checking these anomalies against contemporary records which show what was broadcast on the date, allowed us to confirm the actual broadcast date, and therefore create an accurate link between Genome and the programme page.

In some cases, a programme listed on the website may have been only one smaller part of an entire programme listing in Genome – such as this John Betjeman film A Bird's Eye View, which appeared as part of Festival 77 in August 1977. In cases like these, records of the BBC’s broadcast output, as well as extensive searches on Genome have yielded answers about times, dates and titles that have allowed us to produce the most accurate possible match between programmes and Genome listings.

When you now search for playable content on Genome, you will find that about 8,500 entries contain clickable buttons – directing you to programmes on And the work continues, we are still turning up new programmes and will continue to add these to Genome (a hint: If you just want to browse the thousands of available TV and radio programmes, you can run an empty search and click on the "programme available" button - this will show you all the listings linked to programmes.)

As for my personal favourites, this episode of Desert Island Discs, featuring the brilliantly witty Tom Lehrer has to come high on my list. In response to Roy Plomley's standard opening question of what he would be happy to leave behind, Lehrer replies: "I'd hate to say dogs, because then everyone will write in..."

We hope you enjoy the archive as much as we have, and if you have seen a whole programme on the BBC website that you think we haven’t spotted – then let us know and we will add that to Genome too.

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