The BBC, podcasts and the future of TV

There's a lot of fuss around podcasts, but with each iteration of technology that hands production control to the individual, we are finding that it takes less time for high-quality content to appear.

I remember when the Internet was slagged off because it was just full of dorky Americans with pictures of their cars, and porn. How stupid that opinion looks now.

Then there were blogs. It's just the ramblings of idiots, people joked, geek teenagers with an opinion on everything and experience in nothing. And then suddenly we saw experts – previously almost impossible to locate or talk to – readily and easily accessible on their blogs. Now newspapers are crawling all over blogs trying to find a way of making them work.

Now we have podcasts. Podcasts actually are different in that they require new skills that are nowhere near as common as literacy and typing. They also require new tools. All you need for a blog was a computer and a Net connection – something you already had. Now you need microphones, editing software and an understanding of how sound and sound codecs work.

But the thing is that audio has always has a certain warmth and beauty to it – we are, after all, conversational creatures. The speed with which people have learnt these new skills and applied them to the Internet has been extraordinary. And the gap is even bigger in that previously radio was a hugely difficult market to enter – you needed equipment, transmitters and licences before you could even start. Media is being democratised.

And now visual

Next up is TV. And it is with some pride that I see the BBC is leading the way, not in a protective, scared, panicky way, as has often been the case with new media and old companies. No, the BBC is pushing the technology – and it even admits that the cost of producing TV programmes is going to fall dramatically with new Net technologies.

The BBC's head of New Media and Techology, Ashley Highfield, appeared on stage yesterday with Bill Gates at the Mix06 conference in Las Vegas for 13 minutes. [You can see it all here. Highfield is on stage between 39 minutes to 52 minutes.]

It will have seemed much longer for Mr Highfield who was clearly a little nervous. American conference set-pieces inhabit a world of their own. Hyperbole, chuminess, whooping, the whole American thing. For a Brit, this world is so utterly bizarre that you constantly wonder whether these people are actually doing it for real or if they're all a little deranged.

The fact is that Americans absolutely adore being told that whatever you are talking about is the BEST! Yeah! The GREATEST! Yeah! Woo! Us Brits hate it. It's a cultural gap. And Mr Highfield did a pretty good job considering.

Anyway, Highfield spoke about how people's behaviour was changing. Over half the UK population checks out the BBC website at least once a month, he said (I know I look at it at least once a day). But recently, he said, there has been an “exponential increase” in the rich media accessed on the BBC site – and it was far more than just the uptake of broadband, he said. People now want TV on their terms, Ashfield said.

Start your own TV channel

Then some very interesting facts: it costs the BBC £7 million a year to distribute a TV channel over the existing infrastructure. It costs a tenth of that to do so over satellite. But at £700,000 a channel, we're still talking very, very far from accessible. BUT, Ashfield said, it takes a tenth of that again to distribute over a TV channel over the Net.

So there you have it, from the BBC's mouth: It costs just £70,000 a year to run an Internet TV channel. That figure is easily within the grasp of a small business. You can get a £300,000 loan if you can demonstrate profitable returns (ads or sales) to your bank, and you're in business. The possibilities are enormous.

Ashfield then talked about the BBC iMP download programme. Its recently ended a trial of 5,000 people. How it is experimenting with P2P technologies to distribute good, clean, high-quality programmes over the Net. He then demoed the iMP technology – which looks great.

Apparently, most people weren't bothered with watching TV shows on their PC but even so, the BBC wants to work at ways of getting it on the TV screen – and obviously he mentioned the Xbox, Media Centre etc etc because Bill Gates was standing right next to him.

The biggest challenge is digital rights management (DRM), Highfield said, so programmes can't be pirated. The iMP trial saw the material seize up after a week. That is the model the BBC is planning. Free for a week, then free for UK citizens and paid for by everyone else (as they don't pay the licence fee).

But here is the big, big benefit from the BBC's perspective: its archive. Ashfield said the BBC has the largest video archive in the world – 600,000 hours of footage from the 1930s on. And 99 percent of it is on the shelves, he said. The corporation wants to digitise the whole lot – but that leaves two big issues: DRM and effective search. And that's where we're up to with the cutting edge of TV and the Internet.

Back to podcasts

Getting back to podcasts, I was going on about how they were really good last week and someone asked me which ones I subscribe to. Most of them were BBC ones: Today programme, From Our Correspondent, Go Digital and Documentary Archive. The others were: Brett Fausett's ICANN blog [feed], and GoDaddy's weekly radio show [feed] (I have tried and ditched a few comedy podcasts).

The BBC podcasts were a trial and clearly they were popular as it has now extended its podcasts from just the main 8.10am interview [feed] to all the main interviews [feed] on the show – which is terrific news. The Today programmes remains one of the few beacons of sanity out there in that it covers serious events intelligently – you know, for normal, intelligent people who don't give a fuck about the latest celebrity nonsense and who don't need patronising on the important topics of the day either.

The BBC has also added a new “BBC Radio Newspod” [feed] podcast which is basically a round-up of the day's news. I look forward to seeing how it pans out. And then there are a huge range of others – check them out at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/downloadtrial/.

I was asked for my opinion of podcats by Graham Holliday for an article the other day. He subsequently wrote this article on Journalism.co.uk. I'll stick my full email to him below for anyone interested.

And well, that's it, this post is already far too long and I've got to get on with other things. But I have to say I am excited about the new possibilities. If you're enthusiastic, imaginative and determined a whole world of media is opening up like never before.


My podcast ramblings

I'll tell you the great thing about podcasting: you get to learn a huge amount about sound, and you really starting appreciating the radio.

The best thing to do is to jump straight in, record something, edited it and then stick it up and ask friends and family to listen and tell you what they think honestly.

Suddenly you learn about all sound quality, you learn all about microphones and revel in capturing a purer, rounder sound. You learn what does and doesn't work. You start listening to how the professionals do it, how they bring in different ideas through sound, how they cut interviews, how they fade in and out background noise. It all adds to a smoother listening experience.

You learn not to say “okay” when interviewing people but merely nod. You learn how to use the microphone as a controlling tool in an interview. You learn to take people aside or put them in corners to get a better sound. Better still – get in a car.

But here's what you also learn: it takes bloody ages to get a sound package right. You have to develop a system of listening and grabbing what you want. Of building an audio story as you go along – you can't just intercut points like you do in a news story – it sounds weird and disjointed.

You get faster the more you do it, but it ends up far, far easier just bunging up what you've recorded – which is something I don't like doing because as a professional journalist I want to condense the material down to the most relevant bits to save people the trouble.

It's no mistake that most podcasts are of people just saying what they think. Because that way you can self-edit as you go along. You just can't do that if you're trying to mix and blend interviews.

I am annoyed with myself that I've not done more podcasts. The problem is: I over-record. I have hours and hours of tapes and at some point it becomes overwhelming. Since I am so much more comfortable (and faster) with writing I can actually feel myself writing stories so I don't feel obliged to spend six hours going through tapes.

It's just laziness and I'm sure once I've got better and faster, it will seem less of a struggle. I also love listening to stuff – it feels so much more real than reading words. I suppose that's always been the joy of radio. It's one thing to read someone's words, but it's a much deeper experience to hear that person say them. Much more alive.

For example, I have some great recordings of the recent protests in Oxford over animal rights. You can read all you like about it, but actually hearing the sounds of chants and speeches throws you straight in there in a way words will never be able to.

Of course one of the biggest issues is the editing software. Lots of good software out there these days, and some of it pretty self-explanatory. But it's still requires a lot of learning and experimentation. Especially when it comes to getting the right sampling rate etc for a podcast. You have to finely balance quality with file size. And the only way to be certain is save it and then listen on a high-quality system.

As for software, I went with Adobe Audition for the simple reason that it is more or less the industry standard. I figured it I was going to learn a software package, I might as well skill myself up on one that could be useful later in my career. Same reason I know Photoshop.

The other problem with podcasting, journalistically, is that whether you like it or not, your notes get sloppier if you know you are recording the interview. Often if you're writing a story, you then find going through the whole interview a hassle so you end up basing an article on weaker notes than you're happy with.

And then there is the eternal issue of *not actually recording* the interview. Which is so infuriating it's unbelievable. Never ever rely on it just working. Make sure it says it is recording. Make sure you have a noise level that moves when you speak into the mic. Make sure the batteries will last (my mini-disc recorder has just given up a few times when the batteries were at 50 percent only 10 minutes ago). Make sure that the mic is on. Make sure you lock the controls once you've started recording so you don't accidentally nudge it and stop it. Just check and double check. And even then sometimes you screw it up.

But I suppose the reason why I don't do more podcasting is because no one wants to pay for it at the moment. Radio is the only real outlet – despite the whole fuss over podcasting, you just try to sell a newspaper or news site a podcast – and radio is not set up for buying quick packages. That's just not how radio works at the moment. Probably because established radio stations would turn their nose up at the quality of podcast recordings. In fact, radio stations are missing a trick here. I'd like to think some smart radio exec is out there somewhere seeing what they can do.

I now have a super interviewing mic – a Beyer M58 – and a fancy editing package and a much greater knowledge of radio.

I also use my mini-disc recorder to record interviews because – very annoyingly – the iPod records at terrible, unusable quality. I understand the new Video iPod can record at stereo quality, although I'm not sure if the accessories are there yet to get radio-quality sound into it. I'm itching to have a hard-disc high-quality recorder because then you don't have to deal with lots of discs, you can transfer the information much much faster to a computer, and you can record huge quantities without worrying about running out of space.

There you go – hope that's helpful – you've caught me in a typing mood.

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