August, 2008
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There was quite a fuss recently about a speech made by Sir Antony Jay, creator of such BBC hits as Yes, Minister, when he suggested that the BBC should retreat from many of its digital services. He is reported as having said that the Beeb is wasting a lot of its licence payers' money providing services that aren't needed or are being done better by commercial enterprises. Thankfully, he defended Radio Four for its unique content, but criticised BBC 7 as a station of repeats. And why, he asked, should Radio One exist, when it is merely repeating the kind of output available on a hundred other stations that broadcast at no expense to the listener? As someone who would pay the full licence fee just to receive Radio Four (well, BBC TV as well, of course), it's difficult not to resent the reported payments to some of the more populist presenters, whose fees presumably only add to the cost of our licence. Although I defend the BBC to the full, I am beginning to think that they should be investing MORE in digital services, not less. I recently completed a survey for RAJAR, the audience market research company, and realised that, although I am listening to more audio output than ever, especially during the ever-lengthening car journeys I have to endure in overcrowded England, hardly any of it is live radio. Sadly, I actually like The Archers, but the BBC is now delivering it to me every day as a podcast, automatically downloaded into iTunes, and then to my iPod or iPhone. I listen to it whenever I want, wherever I want. The same is true of The News Quiz, Andrew Marr's Start the Week, and Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time. They even do a daily Newspod, half an hour of news digest from BBC News (both audio and video), and if I really wanted to, I could snuggle down with an iPod and Woman's Hour! This week alone, the BBC were offering 44 of their programmes on Radio Four as podcasts. But just take a look at the Podcast Directory in the iTunes Store: the BBC is only one of thousands of such providers, from major organisations such as National Geographic and the European Commission, through broadcasters, charities and magazines, to a single person showing all the creativity and flair that comes with committed enthusiasm. And what a force for education it's proving to be. The iTunes Store hosts hundreds of podcasts from universities and colleges, usually course material as presented to undergraduates. Yes, they are mostly American colleges, but University College, London, is there, along with Trinity, Dublin. And the Open University has just uploaded some as well. Arts, Sciences, Technology, Humanities - they're all there. Now there's also a section I didn't understand at first, K-12. Turns out to mean primary education, and there are already scores of really imaginative podcasts for primary school use. The potential is endless. So, what does all this mean for the Beeb? Well, for a start, there is technically no need to restrict its output to specific programmes broadcast at specific times on a specific frequency. There are already hundreds of thousands of people all over the world listening to the BBC by podcast. Why shouldn't WE be encouraged to do that, too? But what would be the advantage? Well, if, as many claim, the BBC really is dumbing down, and it certainly is being squeezed by cash considerations, then there is a fear that the more cerebral, limited interest programmes may disappear altogether. It might be my imagination, but it feel like that's already happening. Not because of the cost of production - that's just a few pence compared to the BBC's coverage of the Olympics, for instance - but because of the the resources needed to distribute it. But what if programmes could be distributed extremely easily and cheaply - by podcast? If they were included in TV and radio listings in newspapers and magazine, there is no reason why they can't achieve audiences far above anything they could get on Radio Four. Yes, I know millions of people here don't use computers, for a variety of reasons. But a computer isn't actually necessary. John Lewis (and everybody else) are selling lots of internet radios, giving access to thousands of stations all over the world, mostly ones you haven't a cat in hell's chance of getting on your little Bush portable. This includes all the BBC's digital radio stations. Yes, you need an internet connection, but that's all, and the radio itself doesn't need to be wired to the internet. It connects wirelessly and just needs electricity, either mains or battery. And the thing is, there are already plans to produce radios like this, but with the added capability of selecting and downloading podcasts. So we have the imminent prospect of having a portable device that offers access to many thousands of radio stations, with the ability to download and save podcasts to a hard disk for listening to whenever we want. Actually, this isn't restricted to audio podcasts: the Apple TV already allows downloading of video podcasts, and other video content, without the need for a computer at all. That's what BT Vision and other on-demand services do, as well. It's only a matter of time... The battle cry of the technophile used to be 'Get Wired!' Now, the whole world can be your audio and visual oyster, wired or wireless.