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My radio apps choices for Radio Festival’s Techcon14

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On behalf of the BBC Blue Room, I’m presenting a couple of sessions at The Radio Festival and Techcon (for engineers and technicians).

This morning I outlined some apps I think show interesting trends for the radio and audio industries, and for reference, here they are, with a couple of additions I didn’t get a chance to show.

The first three are all examples of text-to-speech developments. There are many organisations trying to achieve reliable mechanisms to automatically create speech radio.

Soundgecko – for Android and iOS

This takes any webpage or RSS feed and turns it into speech. The computer voice is surprisingly listenable!

Newsbeat – for Android and iOS

Newsbeat adds many more options for customisation and features a combination of computer speech and real human voices to. Weirdly, I find it hard to tell the difference sometimes, not because the computer voices are so good, but because the human voices can be very robotic.

Umano – for Android and iOS

This requires subscription to unlock all the features, but even without a mobile you can get a good idea of what’s it’s like by looking at their website.

Umano is fully human speech. How do they achieve this? The power of crowd-sourcing! You can audition to become an Umano reader, and then upload your finished readings. The users themselves select the stories they think should be turned into audio.

A couple of examples of content companies who have looked at the trends in online music listening and are seeing how they can use those in speech radio.


NPR diligently tag all their live radio and their app creates a live-sounding news and current affairs station. You can tell it what you like, it will start to give you more of that. I like it a lot.

CBC Radio – just for iOS so far

It doesn’t have the personalisation features of NPR, but if you want programme segments, rather than hour-long chunks of radio, this is a nice way of doing it.

Storytelling with audio at the core

Operation Ajax – a comicbook-style docustory. Listen with headphones. I would happily plug in and spend hours going through, not just the story, but all the supporting material as well. An excellent example of genuinely multimedia storytelling.


Vio, is a live vocal processor for iOS. Headphones are a must. Hate the sound of your own voice? You won’t with this!

There must be many other interesting apps for audio and radio, if you know of others that you think are progressive or innovative, do let me know in the comments 🙂



Written by Robert

13 October, 2014 at 10:27 am

BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – How to stay relevant

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Facebook – only part of the current solution

For completeness – here’s the full version of the piece I wrote for the BBC’s College of Journalism website.

It’s since been republished in full by the EBU on their Eurovision Journalism Now site,

On a side note, Newsbeat won Gold for Best News and Current Affairs programme at this year’s Sony Radio Awards. We’re all very proud.

As always, comments are invited, read and appreciated.


About 18 months ago, I was asked by the BBC’s College of Journalism to go to a meeting in Radio 1’s newsroom. The instructions were vague: “Not sure what they need, but they’ve asked for a social media specialist.”

While I’d listened to their main programme, Newsbeat, I’d never actually been to Radio 1 before. It’s different from the rest of the BBC, even geographically. For decades it’s been in a separate building and even now, in the rebuilt Broadcasting House, it’s on its own floor, it has a different entrance, and you need a special access pass to get in.

The newsroom produces hourly bulletins and daily programmes for Radio 1 and 1Xtra. These are tailored to the target audience, 16-29 year olds and the core news topics reflect that: music, technology, entertainment, health, politics.

The main Newsbeat editions pack a huge amount into their 15 minute timeslot, and sound like nothing else on the radio.  Have a listen to a recent edition. 

So what did Newsbeat want?

“We need to know what the future of news is, for our audience”, said one of the Assistant Editors.

(So, nothing too big then!)

This turned out to be a fascinating question, and one that’s relevant to the entire organisation. What the future of news is for a 16 year old, turns into the future of news for the bulk of the working population about 25 years later.

Mandate for innovation and debate

Radio 1 has a very specific direction from the BBC Trust in its service licence, to “experiment with new technologies”. For News in particular “listeners should be encouraged to … provide feedback, ideas and stories and offered regular opportunities to engage in debate.”

Debate and conversation would be a key component of the next few months, both within the newsroom and with our audience. We wanted to be sufficiently plugged in and accessible, and extend the methods we used previously – email (already choked with press releases) and phone text message.

The shakedown of early social media sites was over, both MySpace and Bebo, had slid into irrelevance. Twenty-whatever-year-olds don’t use email, and figures from audience research suggested that text messaging was on the decline as well.

Newsbeat already had a page on Facebook, it was performing well.  The statistics suggested that nearly 40% of Facebook’s UK users were in Radio 1’s target age group of 16-29 which meant us potentially reaching millions more people. But we didn’t understand necessarily why we were there. We didn’t have a strategy yet.

I had two questions: How much better could we do if we put more effort into it? And, can we increase online engagement, try to attract a different audience to the one already listening on the radio?

Let me point out, that the existing audience isn’t bad, radio industry listening figures from early 2013 put Newsbeat’s reach at over 2 million people a week, but, this audience is falling quarter-by-quarter and the FM radio audience is older than Radio 1 has been told to aim for by the BBC Trust.

Fostering conversation

In surveys we’ve conducted in 2012 the standout comment was that our audience wanted more opportunities to share their opinions.

We know those opinions are worth listening to, and our aim is to keep the quality of that conversation high, but we didn’t have the resources to read and moderate everything all the time. The BBC has long had its ‘house rules’ for web boards. These didn’t seem appropriate on Facebook, after all, it wasn’t an area the BBC controlled. So we slimmed them down. We’d hide a post from general viewing if it was:

a) abusive (Radio 1 has led campaigns on anti-bullying online)

b) illegal or encouraged a crime

c) off topic

The quality of the discourse really took a jump up when started to talk more with our audience. When the conversation looked like it was getting off-topic, we would try to steer it back on course. If someone had a question, we’d answer. We asked questions back. Question, clarify, it’s what reporters do.

Newsbeat’s style is informal, but the web can be more so. That doesn’t mean we relax our language further, but we don’t get distracted when our audience does. Teenagers vent and swear, but they’re doing this on Facebook and Twitter (usually using their real name) not the BBC’s website. Their friends can see what they writing and if they’re ok with it, we generally are too.

The effect it’s had on listener engagement has been pronounced. We regularly mention on-air where people can join in the conversations and our presenter, Chris Smith, has become adept at summarising several of those messages live as they come in. We’ll often ring people back to record comments in their own voice. It’s a great way to prove that we actually use all this interaction and that there is a benefit to people taking the trouble to share what they know.

Being active on a platform you don’t control felt liberating for me. I once helped run BBC News’ first web comment forum, ‘Talking Point’, which later became a successful World Service Radio programme and a couple of name changes later is called ‘World Have Your Say’.

‘Talking Point’ was exclusively email based and worked by a journalist painstakingly cutting and pasting comments back into a webpage. Here’s an example of the early days.

Technologically and socially, it feels like we’re light years away from that now.

Fit in – stand out

One of the first things we looked at online was Newsbeat’s tone-of-voice. When the info you’re posting gets mixed together in a newsfeed of (normally) real friends, you need to fit in, lest you be unfriended/unliked.

However, when some of the stuff you’re telling people may be important to their health (a recent story looked at side-effects of dermal filler injections) you want those stories to stand out.

Social media is image driven, photos get attention. Apart from anything else, they take up more space on newsfeeds and stand out a little more. Photosharing apps get heavy use; No wonder Facebook bought market-leader Instagram.

Pictures are our highest rating type of content for social media, they can explain with a single glance. Any modern phone creates them fast and shares them faster.


While communication gets ever more mobile, the humble SMS text message seems to being replaced by chat applications like WhatsApp, and by 2012’s top social media tool for us, Twitter.

Newsbeat’s gone from zero to over 21,000 Twitter followers in 2012. When we started, we knew that there were 6 million people in Britain using it, the majority in the 18-34 age range, a significant part of Newsbeat’s audience.

Part of the increase is down to increased smartphone use. About halfway through the year we reached the tipping point where the stats showed that more people we accessing us on their phone, than on a desktop computer.

Day-to-day, one of our reporters is on hand to talk to the audience on Twitter, and while the programme is on-air, provides a live feed of additional background information. It’s “second screen” for live radio.

How effective has it been?

We more than doubled our online reach in 2012, and the engagement – people talking about Newsbeat stories on Facebook – tripled.

We’ve also been able to increase the number of stories we can cover. Newsbeat would normally rack up around 2,000 web stories in the course of a year. When we added in the social media platforms, we found the amount of content we published had increased around 60%.

Social media views can amount to a 10% increase in our audience overall, important at a time when traditional radio listening is falling.

The type of stories we’re able to cover has changed, some that we’d have huge difficulty in getting otherwise. Recently we covered the unusual cases of rape claims against men which turn out to be false.

We received several private Facebook messages from men who were affected and wanted us to know what the accusation was like for them. Had we not been a simple button push away, I don’t think we would have received these.

We’ve been able to provide an active forum for the opinions of our target age group that we can represent every day. The debate over 18-24 year olds having to work to receive a benefit payment achieved a record, with 800 people commenting on a single story.

We had a viral hit for this photostory about a fire in Chicago which turned the building into something like an ice sculpture.

One in three who saw this the pictures we posted, shared them with someone else. That’s massive, not just for Newsbeat, but for social media response as a whole.

I’ve also learned that a lot of things are completely outside your control. You can’t implement a set of procedures and then sit back anymore. The environment is changing too quickly. New tools constantly appear, the use of familiar ones shifts little by little meaning the way you handle them has to alter as well. Sometimes you’ll wake up and find a site has been completely redesigned, with functions you used daily, suddenly no longer there.

Next steps

Relevant news and information is a core part of Radio 1’s offering but staying accessible is getting harder. Fewer people in our target age group listen to the radio and those that do are listening less.

In the last year we’ve succeeded in increasing the reach of our original journalism. We’re making up the difference in falling radio listeners online and are able to use sites like Facebook as an extension of our own publishing platform.

It’s clear we need to continue to position Newsbeat’s tailored news service in front of the people it’s designed for, and the stats show 15-24 year-olds continue to desert live radio. Why would you carry on listening when online music and TV services, and social networks fulfil your needs?

Bar the relatively new Newsbeat website, the last time Radio 1 made a big shift towards where to audience was drifting to, was in 1988 when the station transferred to FM.

With Tony Hall, the new Director-General placing emphasis on future strategy, the time is arguably right for change. The audience is clearly drifting mobile now. Newsbeat, rather than being primarily news on the radio, will become a mobile news brand, inherently social, more visual, and with the ability to go live to any of our users, and with a much better way to listen and interact with our audience.

The key question for us now is: For someone just starting to listen to Radio 1 now, aged 16. What does Newsbeat look like in 5 years?

The issues haven’t changed, but how we report and deliver those stories must.

Written by Robert

13 June, 2013 at 1:40 pm

News, social media and BBC Radio 1

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Mobile and digital

You can listen to the radio on this. Chances are you don’t.

I’m a tad proud today. I’ve become just learned enough to be invited to write for the BBC College of Journalism’s website.

The future of news has become something of an obsession and a specialty over the last three years. I’ve been part of a team looking closely at the way newsrooms work and factoring-in new ways of working incorporating, in my case, social media.

For a chunk of that time, I’ve been working at Newsbeat, on BBC Radio 1. It is has been a brain-stretching joy to be back in a radio newsroom. The place buzzes with energy. Even with the alarm going off at 5.30am, it’s a place where you look forward to going into work.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far, on the college’s own site.  This has been tidily subbed down to fit their style, but in a couple of days, I’ll post the longer version.

If you work in journalism, radio, or social media, I hope it’ll be interesting reading, and I would really appreciate your comments.

Written by Robert

23 May, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Posted in journalism, radio, social

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It’s HARD to listen to the radio

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LIstening to BBC Radio 5 Paralympics over 3G mobile

And they wonder why radio listening is falling

It struck me tonight what an effort radio listening sometimes is, and this came as a shock. After all, this is radio: the original electronic medium, the simplest, the most pervasive, most easily consumed.

Yeah, I thought all that too, until I tried to catch the grand finale of London 2012, the Paralympic Games closing ceremony.

I was on a train to Manchester for most of it. The on-board wifi isn’t up to TV distribution, and although I brought my digital TV USB stick with me, (yes I am that much of a geek) reception is impossible on the move.

No problem, I thought, I’ll listen. After all, I love radio – I started my career at Radio NZ (after listening to BBC World Service all through my teens) and radio is perfect for a couple of hours on the train.

I got out my phone, pushed in the headphones, flicked on the built-in FM radio app and fell at the first hurdle. Not from poor reception, actually I could get 10 FM stations from the start-up scan.

No, the problem was partly to do with paralympics broadcasting rights and partly technology.

For reasons I don’t have the strength to go into, the Paralympics on the radio is only on BBC Radio 5 Live. 5 Live broadcast on AM, DAB and online.

My phone doesn’t do AM (sensible device, it’s rubbish) but neither does it do DAB (for the same reason).

That leaves me with online, and I spent a good 10 minutes poking round in Android’s app downloads to find a suitable radio player.

I found one, Tune-In Radio if you’re that bothered.

Luckily the 3G signal on that bit of the railways is better than the TV reception and eventually, I’m listening at something close to FM quality. (Incidentally the module sticking out of my phone in the picture above is a battery extender. Continuous 3G data doesn’t half suck up the power!)

Now what a hassle just to listen to the radio! And I was thinking that accessibility was the least of radio’s problems. Listening hours are falling, even though overall reach is high, and the younger you are, the less you listen.

Thinking back what irked me more deeply was the thought of how wasteful it was. Even though we’ve built up a network of AM, FM and now DAB networks, to get what I wanted I had to have a dedicated signal of it transmitted to the train simply because none of the others was an option.

This leaves me suddenly with lots of questions over radio’s future that I hadn’t asked myself before, and it makes me look again at the ways in which you can receive 5Live and knowing exactly why they leave analogue radio languishing at the bottom.

Please leave your own opinion.

Written by Robert

10 September, 2012 at 12:35 am

Posted in Media, Mobile, radio, Technology

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The Tower lives and grows

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BT Tower, 47 years and still going strong

Transmit til it megahertz, 47 years and counting.

It is such an iconic part of the London skyline, central to telecoms, and in particular television development in the UK.

I have a soft spot for the BT Tower / Post Office Tower. I gaze up at it. I watch it. I take photos of it.

When the antenna galleries were stripped of all the original (and subsequently added) microwave aerials at the end of 2011, I wasn’t the only one worried we were at the end of an era for the Tower.

In an era before fibre optics and before satellite transmission really got going, you moved signals across the country in point-to-point hops from one transceiver to the next, and the Tower was the centre of the network.

But I’m pleased to report a small return to form. The picture on the left I took in mid April 2012. The picture on the right was taken on 2 May 2012.

Spot the difference (apart from the weather) There’s a new white microwave antenna – the tower is beaming long-distance signals again! 47 years on, it still performing its original purpose.

Interestingly, the new dish isn’t located in the traditional gallery, but much further up the tower which means it probably has a range of around 25-30 miles depending on the power output. It’s facing west, which takes it out to about Slough.

The diameter is about 2 meters, so a significant sized dish.

It’s highly likely that this link is being used by a company other than BT, but if you know any details, let us know in the comments.

Written by Robert

3 May, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Business, Media, radio, Technology

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Guardian audio – I can hear the changes

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Both obsolete

Restructuring doesn’t just affect paper


I’m a huge fan of time-shifted and downloadable radio. I currently have 12 regular ‘must listens’ on my phone at any one time and they’re brilliant accompaniment for walking to and from train stations as well as drowning out other people’s overly-loud personal music choices once you’re on the train.

But my ‘must listen’ count has just reduced by one. The Guardian has decided to drop its regular business podcast. This is a shame, because at a time when I feel we need more analysis of business, there’s slightly less choice now.

I also feel it’s loss should be noted, as when I looked around last week to see if anyone was noting it at all, I was surprised and saddened to find almost nothing bar the odd mention on Twitter:

This might be for a couple of reasons. The mention that the current episode was the final one came in the final 30 seconds, perhaps people had dipped out before the end and missed it. The second reason might just be that there were few people actually listening at all.

That annoys me because it was genuinely good. But I’m a realist, things change, efforts are put in other places. I don’t read the Guardian’s business pages, so sadly, my contact with that part of their journalism ends here.

It’s worth touching on another change I’ve heard while listening to another Guardian programme, Tech Weekly. Talented long-time producer Scott Cawley left at the end of January.

With the Guardian’s former Head of Audio and presenter of Media Talk, Matt Wells, now in New York, there are clearly changes ongoing to the area he launched and championed.

I’m trying to think what else will be in the pipeline. Media Talk itself has competition now in the form of the Radio 4 Media Show, and I haven’t heard an episode of the US edition of the podcast in years.

Also a loss.

In the meantime, here’s some other business and economics programmes that are worth adding your feeds to replace the Guardian.

BBC In Business/World Business with Peter Day (if you’re not already listening to this, go to the back of the class)

NPR Planet Money – twice a week and addictive

And finally the Economist’s weekly “Money Talks”. Don’t look for it on their site. Due to their hopeless search and out of date RSS feeds (which I’ve mentioned before) you’ll be taken to an episode from October 2011.  This is a shame, because the programme isn’t bad, just hard to find.

iTunes keeps their podcast directory nicely up to date. But if you don’t have an Apple device, here is the actual RSS for it.

Written by Robert

19 February, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Changing address? Redirect your RSS

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So many ways to choose. Except if your RSS is dead, then you have zero.

The Economist, this means you!

If you move home, you can get the post office to redirect your letters so they come to your new address. If you change your internet address, it makes sense to tell your users where you’ve gone too.

So why do websites make it difficult for themselves by not doing this on their RSS feeds?

I almost never visit homepages, they are generally a waste of my time to flick through and find out what the new stuff is. I’ve even set my browser to come up with a blank page. Like most webusers, I begin with a search, or if I’m using some type of internet news reader software, then I’m using RSS.

If you change the address of your feed and don’t tell me, you’ve just lost me and everyone else who used to read you from that source.

Better still if you’ve decided to retire the blog, tell me and suggest alternatives. Don’t just stop updating. Best practice here from the Financial Times.

And the bad practice award also goes to the FT, as that’s exactly what they did almost a year ago when they moved their Tech Blog from


This means my feed just hangs on the last entry, 30 Dec 2010, and my tablet/phone/desktop newsreader stops working.

No more news for you

It’s not just news articles. Media downloads or podcasts depend on RSS. I haven’t had a new piece of Economist audio or video on my MP3 player since the end of October! No reason as to why in the feed. It still works, it’s just got nothing new in it.

So I pop over to their multimedia page.  Lots of new stuff on there, so at least they’re still making it. The RSS indicator on the page takes me to which oddly mostly contains links back to the main websites, rather than to RSS links and certainly not a working multimedia RSS.

Their (possibly out of date) video portal at does have a front and centre RSS link. But that takes me to yet another (possibly even older) list of feeds, none of which is the one I’ve requested.

So, the Economist was making interesting stuff that used to turn up on my MP3 player/tablet/phone.

It’s still making useful stuff, except that now I can only watch/listen when I’m at my computer (which is increasingly irregular).  Or maybe I can get it on a more useful device, except they’re making it really hard to find out how.

If you’ve got a working feed for the Economist’s multimedia output, do let me know in the comments!

Written by Robert

29 December, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Posted in Media, Mobile, Newspapers, radio, Technology, video

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