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Under the iPlayer hood for radio

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James Cridland James Cridland | 11:45 UK time, Friday, 27 June 2008

People have been asking about the bitrates and codecs that we're using on national radio within the new iPlayer beta.

The quick answer is "they're different per station, they're different whether live or on-demand, and they'll change at least another two times this year". If that satisfies you, you have no requirement to read on. If you want more information, however, I'm happy to help. Note that I'm only talking about national radio, and only for listeners in the UK.

First, you'll notice that for "live" we're currently using Windows Media Player rather than Real Player (for most of you - we still give Real to some operating systems). We're doing this because we know online radio is particularly useful in the office, and chances are that Windows Media is automatically installed on most computers, and most corporates won't let you install other software. It should, therefore, 'just work'. I should though say that if you need RealPlayer for your internet radio or your fridge, those streams continue; we've no plans to remove them.

The future for "live" is firstly to significantly improve the bitrate (which we'll do in July). In parallel with that we're working on a way of delivering higher-quality still, using a Flash-based player and an AAC-family stream. We're working with our distribution partners to enable this; the upshot is that it should sound even better but use less bandwidth.

For "on-demand", you'll have spotted that we're using Flash, within the lovely embedded media player that you're familiar with for TV in the iPlayer. Under the hood is a protected MP3 stream for now: again, we're shifting over to AAC-family later in the year. The real difference here is the quality - we've significantly improved the bitrates we can offer.

For on-demand content, we're launching iPlayer with four MP3 profiles based on the content of the programme: and we're using four different bitrates for these profiles.

These are the launch bitrates; we'll tweak things, and moving to the AAC family will reduce the bitrates we use (to make your listening more reliable, whilst maintaining audio quality). Again, the Real listen-again streams that your internet radio uses will still work.

Finally, perhaps I might be able to let you into a bit of a dirty secret. For the last six years, the online streams from BBC national radio have been taken from satellite: the same feeds you get on Freesat or Sky. So we've been taking a lossy MP2 audio feed, and then encoding it further into even lower bitrates. As we move into higher quality audio online, clearly this has to stop. So, from July, it will - we'll be encoding everything within Broadcasting House, plugged in to the studio feeds. So better bitrate is only part of the story - it's also better sound.

If you've got feedback about radio within iPlayer beta, we're watching your blogs; or if you're blogless, please do comment here.


  • Comment number 1.

    Over on Mark Friend's blog entry I posed a question about direct access to MP3 streams.
    The response was that there will be no direct access.
    Does this mean that internet radio devices that currently access the RealAudio content will not be able to get to the higher quality MP3?

    Will the better audio feeds be used to drive the RealAudio and also increase the bitrate via that route?

    "AAC family" - if this means aacPlus then you will know from previous discussions on this that this can lead to compromised quality on playback systems that only have AAC. If it does not mean aacPlus - then why use the "family" term?

    Is there an official URL that XML-savvy programmers can use to grab the programme name/genre/stream-URLs for the "Listen Again" content?

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the info, I love finding out what happens behind the scenes, but I have to ask.

    But can I ask where 6 Music fits in to this plan?
    I notice it is mysteriously missing and I know DJs like Adam and Joe have been fighting Stereo podcasts (which they now have), so they would be miffed if they then had to fight for stereo iPlayer too. I'm sure you wouldn't do that to them though.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi, this is all great news for listening online.

    I would like to ask a question, when you change your delivery/processing from Satellite, will the delay from the live broadcast be shorter or will it still be about 20-30 seconds delay?

    Also, will there be a direct link, as now I have a direct link on my desktop to R1 live, and it just plays in Media player, the IE popup windows are too big for my liking.


  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for the information James. I still have concerns for the future of internet radios, as the BBC is obviously concentrating on the newer formats (AAC+ and protected MP3) which *aren't* compatible with the millions of internet radios out there. In a previous Radiolabs post in March, stress was placed on not supporting a huge number of formats (for cost issues) and that Real streams would co-exist "for now".

    What reassurances can you give us that the "legacy" streams that our internet radios (and Linux machines) can play won't be lost in a future budget cut? Could you please give us a projected time period in which the existing streams will be protected for - or during which unprotected open mp3 streams will be made available? Five years?

  • Comment number 5.

    "we'll be encoding everything within Broadcasting House". I love this sort of stuff. One question: I know that Radio 1 (and 1xtra) and Radio 2 (and Radio 6) are all based outside of Broadcasting house. Do these stations feed their output on to Broadcasting house and then on to the rest of the world?


  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for the comments.

    @paulwebster: My post is specifically about iPlayer, rather than additional streams, but I'm happy to help. In short, we will have other streams primarily for internet radio devices; and we will ensure that these are better quality than currently available. We're using the "AAC family" term because we wish to offer a range of audio formats - some more suited to aacPlus, some more suited to AAC. Once these additional formats are available, we will be publishing details of how to access them here, and of course I'd like a non-commercial API, but this is a wish and not a statement of intent quite yet.

    @mattcopp: 6 music mysteriously missing? https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayerbeta/bbc_6music looks quite visible to me...

    @darrenj1: no, the delay for live simulcast streaming is built-in as part of the process of broadcasting live audio online. As Scotty says, you cannae change the laws of physics. In terms of direct links, your media player link will continue to work.

    @honeypea: rest assured, we wish to continue running both Real and Windows Media streams for a long while to come. I can't give you a concrete reassurance in terms of exactly how long, only because I cannot see into the future.

    @chriskeene: all the BBC national radio networks go through Broadcasting House, yes. But you're right - Radio 1 (and 1Xtra) are based in Yalding House in Great Portland Street; Radio 2 (and 6music) are in Western House in Great Portland Street; the Asian Network is based mainly in Birmingham; 5live and 5livesportsextra are based in Television Centre. Additionally, BBC London is based in Marylebone High Street, and the BBC World Service is based in Bush House on the Strand. You might think this needs a little consolidation, and you're right - by 2012, 5live will be in Salford, while all the rest I mention will be in Broadcasting House, along with BBC News. There's more info here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/keyfacts/stories/bh_development.shtml

    Interesting fact: the most listened-to programme today so far is Hancock's Half Hour.

  • Comment number 7.

    Without knowing what bit rates and audio codec you're planning on using once you've "significantly improved" the bit rates of the live streams, it's impossible to provide constructive feedback on your plans for the live streams.

  • Comment number 8.

    The iplayerbeta site looks great. As a listener in Germany, can I ask why we don't get any of the flash player action?

  • Comment number 9.

    @honeypea, Wi-Fi Internet radios support firmware upgrades that are delivered over the Internet - you just go to the setup menu or whatever and select "upgrade firmware" and the process is automatically done without you having to do anything else.

    As the BBC's streams are improving in quality, the Internet radio manufacturers are, IMO, bound to add support for Flash streaming and make this available via a firmware upgrade in future. So I wouldn't worry about future support for Real, because you won't need it, because you should have support for Flash.

  • Comment number 10.

    @james007, could you say what month you're expecting to switch over to AAC/AAC+?

  • Comment number 11.

    @digitalradiotech Hi Steve - we're not expecting internet radio manufacturers to "support Flash streaming" and we're working with them in terms of alternative feeds - remember, this post is specifically about iPlayer.

    I'm afraid I have no date for the AAC family switches - other than to say "before the end of the year".

  • Comment number 12.

    The new iPlayer for radio is a massive improvement, both in terms of sound quality and usability. Well done to everyone involved in making this happen.

    It's a little disappointing to see the bitrate snobbery though. Surely all music deserves to be broadcast at an equally high sound quality? Despite what some people would like you to believe, there is no objective evidence that classical music requires a higher bitrate compared to other musical styles.

  • Comment number 13.

    @james007, fair enough.

    Additional question: what would you put the improvement in quality of the 64 kbps WMA live streams down to (because the bit rate hasn't changed) if the Coyopa encoding equipment in Broadcasting House isn't being used yet?

  • Comment number 14.

    @digitalradiotech re response to honeypea

    In general, it is true that internet radios support firmware updates. However, that does not mean that the manufacturer will add Flash RTMP or AAC+.
    Technically there might not be enough memory on the device or portable software to run on their chip set - but commercially they might not choose to incur the extra costs of the licences or not have a way to get it to the existing end-users (if you make firmware available to one end-user you can be pretty sure that other end-users will find a way of installing it - so how would you charge them?).

    I know that you cannot see into the future - but clearly there are plans - so there must be a set of criteria being used to determine at which point Real streaming would be turned off. If you could publish the current criteria then the end-users and manufacturers could comment on them. I expect some of that is commercially sensitive (e.g. costs of renewing support with Real) but some more info would help.

  • Comment number 15.

    There seems to be a bit of an issue with the categories section under Radio 4 on the iPlayer beta. When you expand the Comedy section it shows you various shows that are on BBC7 rather than on Radio 4.

    For example it lists Flying the Flag and Old Harry's Game despite the fact that they aren't being broadcast on Radio 4 at the moment (but I assume are being broadcast on BBC7).

    In contrast the old radio player page just shows you the Radio 4 shows:


  • Comment number 16.

    andynormancx, you are right, something we noticed too. it's a bit of a metadata snafu, and we're working to fix that now.

    it's perhaps interesting to consider the source of the confusion, which is that, way back in the mists of time ( ;-) ), shows like Old Harry's Game were commissioned and first broadcast on Radio 4 (as i understand it, anyway). so this is what the iPlayer for Radio browse-by-network has been based on -- mistakenly, as it turns out.

    mea culpa on that one, as i helped make the wrong call on that in the first place. but, it should be sorted out during the beta period.

  • Comment number 17.

    I don't know about other people but I'm finding it a bit hit or miss as to whether I'm offered a Flash version or Real. As far as I can tell all live streams are Real but some on-demand in Flash - no clear rhyme or reason though - for example the Chris Evans show from yesterday offers Flash playback but the one from this afternoon is automatically loading using Real whenever I click on it just now.

    Is there some preference I'm missing somewhere for switching between Flash/Real/WMP (it's never offered me WMP).


  • Comment number 18.

    I'd also like to point out that the basic functionality around drilling down into categories as a whole lot less feature rich on the iPlayer beta as compared to the radio player. For example when you browse to Radio 4 comedy on the radio player:


    You get to see the list of Radio 4 comedies, but you also get a link to a page that shows you all radio comedy. There doesn't appear to be matching functionality on the new iPlayer. There doesn't seem to be a way of seeing all radio comedy.

    Further to that when you follow the "all radio comedy" link to:


    You not only get a list of all of it, but you also get the hugely informative list of the stations that the comedy is on, complete with a count for each station of the number of shows available.

    Another thing that is missing is some of the more useful show information. On the radio player when you have a show playing you see something like "Broadcast on BBC7 Mon 23 Jun - 08:30". This allows you to quickly see when the show is on and where, so that when you have discovered a new show you can listen to it live next time it is on.

    This information seems to me missing from the iPlayer, there isn't even a mention of which channel the show is on.

    So while the iPlayer beta is undoubtedly, slick it has quite a bit of functionality missing compared to the old radio player. It would be a real shame to lose that functionality.

    P.S. I haven't looked through extensively comparing the rest of the UI so far, those are just the gaps I spotted on a quick play

  • Comment number 19.

    I should of course have played some more...

    Just found the categories tab where of course you can see things like "all comedies". You can even filter on TV/Radio Doh.

    However, I would still like to be able to see what channels those shows under a category are on, being able to sort/group them by channel (and expand/collapse the grouping) would be ideal.

  • Comment number 20.

    Are there any plans for the World Service to be integrated into the new iPlayer ?

  • Comment number 21.

    Can you tell me if the iPlayer for radio will be replacing podcasting please ??

    I normally download the Friday Night Comedy show (The Now Show or The News Quiz), but this weeks edition of The Now Show is not available as a podcast, only on the new version of iPlayer.

    Please advise !!

  • Comment number 22.

    Slightly OT but did you find the volume on The News Quiz to be repeatedly quite low? - I tended to play them back in my car and always found I had to turn the volume up quite a bit more for that podcast than some of the others (and certainly more than for the normal MP3s on my iPod).

  • Comment number 23.

    alanjrobertson - occiasionally, yes.

    You should be able to sync it using WMP and use volume levelling.

  • Comment number 24.

    I've been playing around with the beta iPlayer for a couple of days now and am very impressed - great, smooth and intuitive interface and good to see consistent presentation of TV and Radio. However - some comments.

    1) It seems a bit hit and miss about which programmes it retrieves. For example the beta iPlayer lists the June 28th edition of Jazz Line-up (with correct description) but actually plays the June 21st edition on my Firefox3 / Windows XP system. However the correct version is served up by the "traditional" Radio Player interface. This may be some sort of cacheing issue (I'd started the June 21st edition on Friday evening using the beta iPlayer)?

    2) As noted elsewhere, presenting the Radio services on iPhone / iPod Touch iPlayer is eagerly awaited...

    3) I'm rather worried by the various references to "working with manufactures" for the improved streams for Internet Radios, fridges etc.. I'm praying that you'll also open up the discussion and interfaces to the various Open Source efforts such as AlienBBC (on the Squeezebox), MythTV etc. so that they'll be able to benefit from the improvements - almost all of my family's radio listening at home is now via four Squeezboxes using AlienBBC / Listen Again. A good, extensive and open set of API's to this service is surely the cornerstone of what a Public Service Broadcaster should offer?

    4) Is there any intention to standardise the inclusion of Track Listings into the core of this service? At present some shows (eg Late Junction, most of the jazz shows) carry track listings linked from the show's home page, but it would be great if this could be carried as standard metadata in IPlayer (and available through the API I'm hoping for above..).

    BUT... A really nice piece of work - thanks.

  • Comment number 25.

    When listening to Radio shows, I think it would be good to show some form of visualisation, using existing data, such as the webcam images from the show, R1 text cloud, and now playing info, this will give a much more immersive environment for the listeners who are listening again.


  • Comment number 26.

    @digitalradiotech Steve, I'm delighted that you think that the quality of the 64kbps WMA streams has increased; there's been no change there, though. Coyopa -will- change that, next month.

    @paulwebster the BBC has no plans to switch off Real streaming for national radio. (Hope that's nice and clear!)

    @alanjrobertson you're correct, there are currently some bugs with serving you the Flash versions. We've spotted around four cases, and we're working to fix some of these bugs (and some have already been fixed for the next code drop). No, there's no preference - you'll automatically be offered Flash (and there's no WMP on-demand audio - in fact, we're using boxes originally intended for WMP content to produce Flash).

    @andynormancx you ask for "all radio comedy", and here it is: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayerbeta/categories/comedy/radio
    I found it by going to 'categories', 'comedy', and then using the switch on the right-hand side for 'just radio'. Interesting you think it's not clear enough; I'll feed that back. (And I note your followup!)
    - Second, you point out that the actual information "Broadcast on BBC7 Thursday at 8.00pm" isn't visible: you're right. Our bad. Let me see how we can change that.
    - iPlayer will be the home for all BBC radio in time, so yes, the World Service is coming. My understanding is that it's coming for v2.1, which is end July, but I am not entirely connected to the World Service team.

    @CBers The iPlayer will not be replacing the podcast service. I'll forward that enquiry to our podcast team. In terms of podcast levels, I can tell you that we're aware of level inconsistencies and we're working on it.

    @florca of course, I didn't just mean "manufacturers" in my comments. The iPlayer will contain RSS feeds as well, making it rather easier for people. And track listings are coming to our /programmes product "shortly".

  • Comment number 27.

    -- @paulwebster the BBC has no plans to switch off Real streaming for national radio. (Hope that's nice and clear!)

    Thanks - it is clear. Even clearer would have been
    "The BBC plans not to switch off Real streaming for national radio".
    However, which ever way round it is written ... it is only a plan and plans are always subject to change.

    In any case - I welcome the overall approach.

  • Comment number 28.

    Hi. All this sounds very exciting, but I can't help noticing that the flash player controls in the IPlayer are not all that accessible for a blind person such as myself who is using a screen reader. I am using the latest version of JAWS for Windows and whilst I can access the 'Play' and 'Pause' buttons I cannot access the controls to move backwards and forwards through a programme (whether radio or TV). From your description of your plans to implement 'click and drag' functionality, the fast-forward/rewind functions will not be made accessible to someone who cannot use a mouse. This is causing great concern amongst many blind listeners. Any chance of ordinary 'Forward One Minute' and 'Back One Minute' buttons and/or an edit box which allows you to manually enter the position to jump to within the file being added?

  • Comment number 29.

    Sorry, reference to 'click and drag' was in fact in Mark Friend's post on the BBC Internet Blog, rather than in this post, but my message still stands.

  • Comment number 30.

    Hi James,
    The Flash streams seem to play a lot quieter in Firefox than IE. Is this a peculiar quirk of my system or is this is a known issue?

  • Comment number 31.

    @james007, you're right, just been listening to the live streams and they sound absolutely appalling today, and no better than they used to sound. I must've been listening to a better-produced show on Friday.

  • Comment number 32.

    One thing you can't do at the moment, which I think would be useful, is to be able to launch the pop-up player after you've started listening (and you've chosen not to listen in the pop-up player).

  • Comment number 33.

    Ignore that last post, I've just found out you can do what I said you couldn't...

  • Comment number 34.

    One thing bugging me about the iPlayer with live radio... on the current iPlayer for Radio, it has that little flash app showing the live text - which is sadly not integrated in to the EMP when listening live. Hopefully this is coming, as things like current track are very useful listening to the radio.

    My wish for the further in the future, and I know this is a considerable way off, but the visualisation mock video on this blog ages ago, it was of Radio 1, the day that comes I will be very happy.

    Oh yeah, and also on the visual front, is there a way to vary the images for shows? I'm thinking of things like shows on Radio 1 airing 5 days a week, when navigating iPlayer to see the same image 5 times... eeeh, it's not brilliant. If there was a way of having a different image depending on the day of the week, even if it was just a slight colour in the background, would be grand.

  • Comment number 35.

    From what I have seen the new IPlayer is truly terrible. Pandering to the visually starved. Navigation is awful. On bbc7 for the current Rumpole of the Bailey series there are graphics of wigs without there being any reference to the date of the broadcast or its number in sequence. All flash and glitz with less information. Must you emulate my American compatriots who seem to need pictograms rather than information. The new site is a profound disappointment.

  • Comment number 36.

    A brief mention of podcasts was made but only really with regard to volume levelling. An obviously missing item of the new iPlayer (very good, by the way), is the lack of synchronsiation with podcasts. What happens if I find a programme I like on the iPlayer, and then decide to download it to listen again on a player? You need to link them in so I can immediately go to its podcast (if it exists); and vice versa, really.


  • Comment number 37.

    You say:
    For "on-demand", you'll have spotted that we're using Flash, within the lovely embedded media player that you're familiar with for TV in the iPlayer.

    As far as I can see, users of screen readers can't access the seek slider to jump around the program. Can this be accessed using the keyboard?

  • Comment number 38.

    Please can you put a button on all of the iPlayer Radio pages to open in Standalone RealPlayer?

    I know there is a workaround by going to the non-graphical page, but it is a pain and why would you have to do that if you use broadband.

    I always listened to BBC Radio on my Apple laptop, and only through RealPlayer could I get it loud enough for home listening. Using the Equalizer on RealPlayer.

    Turned up to 11 and with the computer on full volume it simply is not loud enough.

    Please can you incorporate a Play in Standalon Realplayer button ASAP so I can listen to Radio at home again.

    Many thanks indeed.

  • Comment number 39.

    Could you make the streaming radio easier for mobile users?

    I currently want to listen to the Olympics which is streamed live on Radio 5 live. The Nokia N95 8gb has a flash enabled player and realplayer installed and yet when I try to listen to radio 5 it loads the Iplayer which tells me I need install real player, which I have, for some reason it just does not use trigger the loading of real player like everything else.

    I visit the Radio 5 Live web page and click the 'Listen Live link'

    This informs me its openening a new window for the iPlayer
    The new window is titled "iPlayer Radio Console"
    With an error message in the middle saying "please first install real player"

    But it does not
    1, use the flash player I believe is built into the 8gb browser
    2, automatically open Real Player to play the stream :(

    as this phone only has an FM radio I cannot use that feature for radio5 live.

  • Comment number 40.

    Great post, thanks James. I love the way blogs can cut through what one should say to give you real info.

    I do have one question. If you move from Real in Flash playing MP3 to an AAC solution for the on-demmand content, will one still be able to record them with tools like WMR Recorder? Sometimes I'm eager to hear a show but know I won't get round to it in the next seven days, and so being able to take digital recordings for personal use is handy.

  • Comment number 41.

    Listening to iPlayer TV programmes the 'trailer' section plays either loud/very loud/deafening/unbearable compared to the main segment of the programme.

    Is this just me or my kit/software?

    I'm running Ubuntu Linux/Firefox.

    Hope a solution is found before my hearing is lost/ I have a heart attack!

  • Comment number 42.

    Finally, perhaps I might be able to let you into a bit of a dirty secret. For the last six years, the online streams from BBC national radio have been taken from satellite... So we've been taking a lossy MP2 audio feed, and then encoding it further into even lower bitrates...clearly this has to stop. So, from July, it will - we'll be encoding everything within Broadcasting House.

    Is this EVER going to be fixed. You mentioned July, it's now October and the audio is still being transcoded from mp2.

  • Comment number 43.

    Just started trying out iPlayer "on-demand" for Radio 3 and found your blog very helpful.. Interested to see that Radio 3 is coded at a reasonable 192kbps, but my first impressions are nonetheless that iPlayer comes nowhere near DAB for clarity.

    Wonko's comment on13/10 suggest one reason for this - is that assertion about the already compressed mp2 feed true, in fact, and if so how does Wonko know? - but another reason may have to do with Dynamic Compression. Is it still the case that Radio3 uses DRC very sparingly in its DAB endoding - and is it perhaps the case that your current chain for iPlayer uses it more obtrusively? And if so, is there hope that imminent changes may offer some improvement here?

  • Comment number 44.

    Have you at all considered FLAC format? The sound quality is sooo much better than and lossy format like AAC, mp3, etc. Your listeners will appreciate it. Interested to see what you do.

    Adam@Liquid Trust.com


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