Listen up! 

16 December 2007

BBC Listen Again temporarily goes upmarket. Was it an experiment, a mistake or a sign of things to come?

Whilst others may have little time for the Real Audio formatted Listen Again feature from the BBC for practically all nationally networked radio, I find it an excellent way of keeping up with radio series which are otherwise on at times when I’m not near a radio or otherwise engaged. True, it may be the poor sibling of high quality DAB, digital satellite feeds or even a good FM signal, the fact remains that it is the only way of catching up without pre-planning timers for recording devices. It also has the benefit (although not widely known for obvious rights issues) of being able to be recorded for even later consumption.

My dedication to recording the Radio 4 18:30 and 23:00 comedy slots had been on the wane for quite some time and I was now down to only recording shows which were a known quantity. Since my first introductions to radio comedy in the mid nineties, I had recorded to cassette, minidisc, DAB radio (via an Secure Digital card in a Roberts RD1) and even to DVD+RW from a Sky Digital feed from which the audio could be ripped off on the computer. The latter two of these methods at least gave me the option to copy to CD afterwards, but with the DAB feed being recorded in MP2 and DVD audio coming as unwieldy AC3 files (both of which required conversion to be useful on any other audio device), I was struggling to stay dedicated to the task.

The discovery that it was possible to record Real Audio streams was something of a revolution. For the first time, I had the opportunity to retrieve something for up to a week after it had been originally broadcast and didn’t need to plan my week around setting up recording devices. In the past I had made a few recordings directly from Listen Again feeds being played through the sound card, but the quality was always poor and subject to dropouts on my 56kbps dial-up account. It was also considerably easier and faster to convert from RealAudio to MP3 using a freely available package such as Winamp.

Up until early 2007, all my Real Audio files were downloaded over the same 56kbps dial-up internet account. I would need to set up all the downloads on a Friday evening, ready for the unmetered weekend session. If I was lucky, the files would be downloaded in around 30 hours. When broadband finally arrived in Somerset (prompted more by the termination of the BT SurfTime plan rather than anything else), the downloads that had taken me some 30-35 hours a week now took less than an hour, meaning that if I wanted to I had the option to download more.

This situation continued on quite happily for several months until I noticed during the week of Monday 24th September 2007 that the file sizes had suddenly jumped up and some stations were noticeably clearer than previously.

Radio 1 shows were now up from 45Mb for a three hour show to around 89Mb. Despite this doubling of the bitrate for the file, the music was still quite mushy in places.

Radio 2, which had previously been around the 8Mb mark for a Saturday lunchtime comedy show, was now weighing in around 15Mb, a similar increase as had been seen for Radio 1, with both stations having gone from around 15Mb per hour to 30. Perhaps because of the speech based nature of the shows, these seemed to benefit more from the increased bitrate.

Radio 4 was slightly less well increased, with a half hour comedy show being upgraded from just under 10Mb to around 15, which brought it roughly in line with Radios 1 and 2. However, here the increase was very noticeable, particularly when such features as audience applause was featured. Having previously sounded very mushy and indistinct, it was now considerably clearer, although still suffering a little from the poorly handled compression.

Five Live also received a similar improvement, moving an episode of Fighting Talk from 14Mb to around 27.5Mb. As this runs slightly shorter than an hour, it was now being brought in line with what was appearing to become a ‘standardised bitrate’ across the Listen Again platform.

BBC7 has always predictably been the place from where I have recorded the most programming, and their (already high) 12.5Mb for a half hour show was now around 18, although due to the way they are presented on Listen Again, these run to around 36/37 minutes for a half hour show and 66/67 for an hour long feature. This was an increase from approximately 20 to 30Mb per hour and seemed to fit in with the bitrate standardisation.

As I’m not a regular listener to Radio 3 or 6 Music, I don’t know if these two were brought inline with with others, but I’m guessing that they would have as it seemed everyone was included for the experiment. The introduction was also staged, with Radio 4 having increased during the weekend of 22/23 October and the Radios 1, 2 and BBC7 following suit on Thursday 27th.

Sadly, I have to use the word ‘experiment’ as the bitrates returned to their previous levels across part of the network on Tuesday 2nd of October, which was rather disappointing, particularly for Radio 4 for whom the increase had been most noticeable. Radio 4 and BBC7 dropped back to their original rate of around 20Mb/hour, with all stations that I had been monitoring following suit and levelling out around the same mark. For Radio 1, 2 and Five Live this represented an improvement over the original rates.

Of course, it may not have been an experiment, but a mistake by a technician in the web department, but we can hope that it was a genuine ‘toe in the water’ to see if there was any positive response from the audience and from this scribe, there certainly was. The difference between the first episode of series six of ‘Old Harry’s Game’ and the second is stark, possibly exacerbated by the orchestral opening to the programme.

With the hype surrounding the beta testing of Auntie’s iPlayer, its easy to forget that we’ve been quite happily able to do the same with radio for several years now and it doesn’t need all the overly paranoid security measures that the TV shows do, which has led to the outcries from all the Linux and Mac using fraternities over the BBC’s decision to go along with Microsoft’s protected Windows Media format leaving them out in the cold. RealAudio may not be ideal, but at least it is out there doing a job and available in a format which can be understood by practically all computers in mainstream usage.

Whilst most of the national radio live feeds are now available in both Windows Media and RealAudio, I sincerely hope the future doesn’t lead to Listen Again switching to the Microsoft platform with the same level of protection as has been employed with the iPlayer setup, but then again as iPlayer has DVD sales to protect, the income and market generated by the BBC Radio Collection must be comparatively tiny, so hopefully the few of us who are out here enjoying programmes such as ‘And Now In Colour’ as a complete series from BBC7 in the weeks after its original broadcast can be left to enjoy it in peace.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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