Why the BBC's radio strategy does not make sound sense

It is not just Simon Rattle who is talking about sound quality. More evidence that sound is back on the agenda comes from the new controller of BBC Radio 3 Alan Davey. In his presentation to the recent Association of British Orchestras conference Davey placed considerable emphasis on the BBC's traditional emphasis on sound quality, telling delegates how Radio 3 will "through high-quality crafted broadcast sound, say to people that these great treasures are for you and here’s a way in for you", and he has repeated this emphasis on sound quality in a tweet.

There is a lot of evidence to confirm the BBC's long-standing committed to high-quality sound. In addition to Radio 3 FM broadcasts there is 5.1 surround sound for BBC Four HD TV relays of the Proms, and also experimental 4.0 webcasts of the Proms. The 4.0 webcast experiment slipped under the classical radar, but is of considerable importance as it exploits the HTML5 standard which has a native audio API (application programming interface) allowing web browsers to play multi-channel sound without installing additional software. For the 2014 Proms the 4.0 experiments used the simple approach of feeding hall only reverberation to the rear channels. But this test has considerable significance as it could be the first step towards challenging the orthodoxy of concert hall sound by offering alternative sound mixes for different audiences.

But, with FM frequencies scheduled for closure and internet access becoming ubiquitous, the future battleground for radio audiences will be online. When Alan Davey spoke at the AOBO conference three weeks ago, in addition to FM broadcasts, Radio 3 offered via the internet and iPlayer an everyday 192kbps AAC audio stream. (Audio sampling rates are measured in kilobites per second - kbps; the higher the sampling rate the better the sound). But the jewel in the crown as far as sound quality is concerned, was the Radio 3 HD (high definition) stream at the vastly superior sampling rate of 320 kbps. The availability of the 320 kbps internet stream encouraged a number of people to invest in dedicated network music players (aka internet tuners) such as the Cambridge Audio NP 30 which retails for around £400.

But as we have come to expect from the BBC, it is not all good news. Last week, Radio 3 listeners who had invested in expensive devices such as the Cambridge Audio NP 30 found that they could no longer receive the station's much spun - "high-quality crafted broadcast sound" via the HD stream. The reason is that with no prior notification other than an arcane explanation in an obscure blog for techies, the BBC had discontinued the internet streams using the SHOUTcast and WMA (Windows Media Audio) streaming standards. The Radio 3 HD stream has switched to a chunked HTTP stream using Apple’s HLS protocol. This causes a major problem, because the HLS protocol is new and not supported by many network streaming devices including the popular Cambridge Audio NP 30. So, in plain language, a lot of people who had invested in hardware at the behest of the BBC to listen specifically to Radio 3 HD sound using the 320 kbps SHOUTcast AAC standard currently have very expensive paperweights.

This debacle raises a number of concerns. The current changes to BBC audio streams are being justified by the need to keep pace with changing internet standards, and there is much truth in that justification. But there may well be more sinister strategic justifications. Music streaming services such as Spotify are hitting radio audiences - particularly Radio 3's - hard, and the BBC's traditional high ground of FM frequencies is likely to be cut from under its feet in the near future. In addition, broadcasters have failed to establish DAB radios as the substitute for FM receivers. Which means the key to future radio audiences is internet streaming via home computer networks. The latest changes to BBC internet streams push listeners towards the iPlayer radio portal, which supports HD sound. In fact the current changes are grouped within the BBC under the project heading of 'audio factory'. Realigning internet accesss towards iPlayer can be seen as a way of creating a proprietary portal for BBC content in competition with streaming services such as Spotify. This changes the role of the BBC from making great programmes to controlling access to the programmes they make, irrespective of their quality. This strategic shift is given more urgency by the success of Amazon in its new combined role of content provider and content creator.

The emergence of sound quality high on the agenda of the new Radio 3 controller also invites attention. The BBC have been repeatedly accused of cloning Classic FM, and in reaction to this perfectly valid criticism has majored - with little success - on points of difference such as the higher proportion of live, as opposed to recorded, music on Radio 3. Classic FM is currently tied to relatively lo-fi sound via FM frequencies and 48 kbps AAC and 128 kbps MP3 internet streams. I suspect that when HD sound is fully integrated into the BBC iPlayer audio factory project, Radio 3 presenters will be banging on every few minutes about 'Radio 3 HD sound' in the same way that they currently bang on about 'live' (as opposed to dead?) concerts.

To put this seemingly arcane topic into perspective, the difficult-to-find BBC blog post detailing the changes to Radio 3 audio streams generated 442 irate comments in 48 hours - which is considerably more than have been generated by Simon Rattle's views on the sound in London concert halls. Internet protocols and standards are constantly changing, and it is quite right that the BBC is migrating their audio streams to the emerging standards. But this latest change has been handled, taking a lenient view, in a clumsy fashion. Or taking a critical view, it has been handled in a typically arrogant way that ignores the need for backward compatibility, and which serves the BBC brand instead of serving its license fee paying listeners.

The BBC's senior product manager 'audio factory' Jim Simmons has been made the fall guy for this latest piece of corporate chicanery. In a grovelling apology on the BBC blog Simmons blames inadequate funding for the damaging communications failure, explaining "I'm afraid you've just got me, a blog and my monotone voice recorded in my loft so that I don't incur studio costs". At the Association of British Orchestras conference the boasting about the BBC's "high-quality crafted broadcast sound... for you" was done by Radio 3 controller Alan Davey and his boss Helen Boaden, who is director of BBC Radio. Boaden's remuneration is £352,900 and Davey's predecessor Roger Wright received total remuneration of £227,450 (Davey's BBC salary is not yet available), while star Radio 3 presenter Katie Derham moved from ITN to the BBC for a reported salary of £250,000, These figures compare with prime minister David Cameron's salary of £142,000. Despite protestations by director general Tony Hall, the problem at the BBC is not inadequate funding. The problem is that the £3.72 billion it receives each year from TV licenses is being spent on the wrong things.

Update Feb 17 - for once the story ends happily.

My thanks go to the Friends of Radio 3 for their input; however the views expressed in this blog are entirely my own. A complex and arcane technical subject has had to be simplified to produce a manageable blog post, and I am sure readers will point out any inevitable oversimplification. Header photo was taken by me at a caravanserai on the old road between Marrakech and Essaouira in Morocco. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
It seems there has been a serious failure by the BBC to tell manufacturers of network music players about the full scope of these changes. Comment by very respected names such as Linn and Naim is damning - http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?s=40498be22f8fb33356750876bba3dc05&t=2043578&page=7
Pliable said…
These changes by the BBC have opened up a real can of worms. One particular worm that is troubling many people is the dependence being placed on proprietary and licensable Apple HLS streaming protol.

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