How BBC Sounds signals how the BBC describes its output and better aligns it with competing streaming services

I’m planning on saving my notes and reflections from yesterday’s marvellous Middlesex University/PRS Music #CMIC2018 classical music conference until later in the week, once I’ve got some paid out of the way first. 

But a recent change to the BBC website – the roll-out of the web-based ‘BBC Sounds‘ experience – presents an opportunity to share one of the ways attending #CMIC2018 has shifted my perspective. 

‘BBC Radio’ now becomes ‘BBC Sounds’

First, the website change. In some respects its a minor affair. it’s the first change in a longer-range strategy I remember people talking about when I was working at the BBC – shifting audience perceptions by changing the label from ‘Radio’ to ‘Sounds’. 

I despise the word ‘Sounds’ (I’d much prefer them just call it ‘Audio’) but I get the strategy behind it. ‘Sounds’ describes the content whereas ‘Radio’ describes how that content is distributed. 

And that distinction is important right now.

At #CMIC2018 one quote flashed up on the screen during Sara Lambrecht’s paper on the shifting role of classical music recordings – the idea that record companies had acknowledged how their identity had changed in the music sphere – formerly sellers of products, in 2018 record companies saw themselves as media organisations distributing content.

This may seem like a subtle point to get excited about, but it means to me that in some respects record companies are competing with broadcasters whose dominance of the content world has historically been underpinned by their USP: linear broadcasting. 

The live experience acquires importance, perhaps even urgency, when there’s an event attached to it – a news event for example. The rest of a broadcaster’s content – that which doesn’t need to be ‘live’ – is just the same as an album track on Spotify.

Now that on-demand is less of a culture and more an expectation (like getting running water when you switch a tap on), broadcasters need to align their product with the other streaming services available to audiences. That means user experiences online have to be similar to meet the implicit expectations of those users the likes of the BBC depend on. 

And that means stopping referring to radio as radio.

I have a fairly good hunch that also means no longer making schedules available online. It means changing the way users access the actual content, signposting types of content as opposed to a point in a schedule. The latter demands newcomers to a platform already possess an implicit knowledge of the schedule. What the BBC wants to do now is fuel discovery with more useful signposting, cutting across traditional schedules and conventional brands to create a content experience that more realistically reflects a user’s mixed range of interests. 

BBC Sounds is the first stage in what could broadly be seen as an attempt to break down content silos, acknowledging that its audience likes different stuff and that the only way of meeting that need is to move away from conventional radio stations and pursue a potential listener’s implicit or explicit needs. 

And to do that means focusing on a user experience both on the BBC Sounds website and in the accompanying app. And aside from the fact that I hate the name of it, I think the content strategy works because it groups BBC content (by which I mean programmes, tracks, features etc) around themes. 

The curated running orders – clips, music and features and stuff. Surprisingly good.

The Fall Into Autumn ‘Must Listen’ (I hate ‘Must Listen’ too – quit being directive – I’ll listen if I want to) is a good example. Things grouped around the idea of there having been a change in season, drawing me in with evocative imagery. It’s clickable in itself and there’s the promise of a range of content that I perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have considered seeking out. 

And in that way, the BBC is positioning itself alongside streaming services and recording companies, conscious that it has a wealth of content in its databases that it wants users to be able easily access. 

And that means that each piece of content the BBC makes available has the same potential as a single track available on Spotify. 

As much as I’m sad about the first step in the demise of radio, I’m pleased to see they’ve cottoned on to what the recording industry figured out (and acted upon) a few years ago. 

But in terms of my primary destination – classical music – I suspect the change may confirm that the path I’ve already set down is the right one for me. I spent most of the summer only listening to live broadcasts on-demand, preferring instead to listen to tracks and albums via streaming services.

I suspect that while the new BBC Sounds aims to attract the new and the curious, it will only compliment my preferred method for discovery online. Mind you, I imagine they probably didn’t implement it for someone like me anyway.

I’m also wondering whether – and this is just a hunch – whether there will come a time in seven or eight years time when the Charter is up for renewal again, that the only way to access the BBC’s audio on-demand will be to pay a subscription for it. In fact, I might even put money on it. 

One thought to “How BBC Sounds signals how the BBC describes its output and better aligns it with competing streaming services”

  1. Interesting I’ve not used it much as yet, though I’m a podcast addict, as well as traditional R3 listener. It’s probably better than the Apple podcast app, which wouldn’t be difficult 😉

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