Jack Thurston

New book: Lost Lanes – 36 Glorious Bike Rides

I’ve just written a new book about my favourite places to ride a bike within striking distance of London. Read more about it.

Some thoughts on podcasting and radio

For the past seven years I’ve presented a weekly half hour radio show about bicycling, broadcast on Resonance FM, London’s arts and community radio station. The Bike Show came into being in 2004 at around about the same time as podcasting began to catch on amongst its earliest adopters, according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject or as shown in Google trends.

The Bike Show was initially made available to as an internet listen again service via a Real Audio stream, which continued until March 2007. In May 2005, in response to a request from a listener, I started a podcast of the show as well.

The Bike Show’s home is Resonance, a community FM radio station based in London. This is where the live shows are recorded, it is how the show reaches the airwaves, broadcasting on 104.4fm for a 5 km radius around its transmitter in London Bridge, and via the station’s internet radio webstream.

I have no idea how many people tune in to the show on the FM broadcast. Resonance’s broadcast footprint is too small for it to figure in Rajar surveys. The show is syndicated on a couple of small north American FM stations and again, I have no idea of the audience it reaches. It is possible to know how many people are listening via Resonance FM’s live MP3 web streams, and this is in the range of 800 to 2,000 at any given hour of the day. There are shows on Resonance with large and loyal live audiences. Perhaps the best example of this is Jonny Trunk’s OST show, which airs live on Saturday afternoons and usually features a good amount of live audience interaction, implying that there are more than a few people out there listening.

What I do have accurate figures for is The Bike Show’s podcast audience, which ranges from 4,000 to 12,000 downloads per episode, with an average of 6,000 downloads per episode, giving it the largest podcast audience of any show on Resonance. In terms of comparisons with the BBC, it is way down the chart, somewhere between The Bottom Line with Evan Davis (Radio 4) and Politics UK (World Service) but more than double the podcast audience of the Jamie Cullum show on Radio 2.

Of course I can’t tell if everyone who downloads the show actually listens to it and whether they listen alone or together with other people. I am also not sure about how many times the show is heard through unsanctioned syndication by services like SoundCloud.

I do know that the podcast audience is very much more responsive and interactive than the FM and live webstream audience. How do I know this? Almost without exception the listeners to The Bike Show who enter on air competitions, suggest new feature ideas, ask for track listings, give money during fundraising drives and the like are podcast listeners, not live broadcast or webstream listeners.

When I share this information with some of my colleagues at Resonance they look uncomfortable. For them, radio is all about contemporaneous broadcast. Miss it and it’s gone. They have been known to frown at the mention of ‘listen again’. When I ask more about this some of them say it is taking power away from the broadcaster and gives it to the listener. (If you ask me, that’s a pretty healthy shift of power!) For all the rejection of traditional broadcasting that is at the heart of the Resonance ethos, there is something very Reithian about this attitude – a sepia-tinted view of listeners gathered expectantly around the valve radio, awaiting the weekly broadcast of Hancock’s Half Hour.

They like the idea of people listening to the same thing at the same time. Perhaps they want to create ‘water cooler moments’: shared, communal experiences that bring people together in an increasingly atomised society. It’s true that live coverage of news and sport doesn’t make much sense as a podcast, nor do very long form or one-off radio events. Perhaps they like the enforced serendipidy of broadcast radio. The idea that you tune in and get what you’re given. You can’t skip to the next track – though you can always turn the dial. While this kind of radio offers little in the way of choice, it can offer variety. In the case of Resonance there is more variety than you’ll find on any other station on the planet. This really challenges the listener – as opposed to obediently serving up whatever she commands from an almost limitless selection on the iTunes podcast store. Some of my colleagues say they just like the crackle of FM. The romantics!

I can see virtue in all their points and I love the fact that The Bike Show is broadcast by Resonance. I enjoy the use of a professional studio, the discipline that comes with a weekly slot in the schedule and the feeling of being part of a real radio station. And to its credit, Resonance has been warming to podcasting of late and more and more of the station’s output is available via podcast. Shows like One Life Left have always had a strong podcast audience but this has been wholly driven by the programme-makers themselves rather than by the station. This is unsurprising in a station with just four paid members of staff who are at full-stretch just to keep the station on air and financially afloat. In an interesting recent development, The Pod Delusion, a show that began life and made its name as a podcast, has found a radio home on Resonance and is now a regular in the station’s broadcast schedule. It will be interesting to see how many more podcasts Resonance will invite into the fold.

This is all good because I am convinced that the future for The Bike Show – and ultimately for many programmes on Resonance FM – is the podcast. The most obvious reason is that podcasts are available to everyone with a broadband internet connection, not just the people who happen to be within 5km of Resonance’s FM transmitter and have tuned in at 6.30pm on a Monday evening. There are podcast listeners from Torquay to Glasgow, from California to Australia, from Singapore to Finland.

There are more of them, but that doesn’t wholly explain why I like my podcast listeners so much. I think it’s because podcast listeners have deliberately chosen to download and listen: they have very much ‘made an appointment’ with The Bike Show – not only by subscribing to the podcast but by choosing to listen to an episode. I believe that they listen much more closely and are more deeply involved in the subject matter. They listen to most, if not all, of the episodes, so they come on something of a parallel journey with the show’s own development. This leads to a closer relationship, both to me as the programme-maker but also to other listeners. Francesa Pannetta, creator of the widely-acclaimed Hackney Podcast, makes a similar point in a discussion of podcasting in the Radio Academy’s own RadioTalk podcast.

I get the sense that the podcast audience is already interested in the subject matter of bicycling and may well already know something about it. At the very least, they probably do ride a bike. I don’t feel the need to explain everything as if to the completely uninitiated. This is a double-edged sword as I may be satisfying the self-selecting group of listeners who have sought out out a podcast about bicycling but at the expense of the casual FM or webstream listener who just happens to have tuned in to Resonance when the show is on air. But if every show about the Tour de France includes a five minute explanation of how the race works I will very quickly turn off the ‘specialist’ listeners. I am mindful of this and hope that the first-time non-cyclist will get something from the show, from a good interview, an entertaining discussion to an engaging travelogue. Having said that, compared with much of the (deliberately?) obscure material broadcast on Resonance, The Bike Show is relatively accessible even when we are geeking out. Another good thing about the podcast is that I can include additional material or longer edits in the podcast edition compared to the broadcast edition, which is fixed at around 28 minutes.

Besides being more interactive and responsive via email and twitter podcast, listeners tend to help spread the word about the show to other potential listeners, which is an important way of building the audience. For a show on a community FM station with a tiny broadcast area and a promotion budget of precisely zero, this is something I really appreciate. Some podcast listeners have become programme contributors. Kieron Yates, Tim Dawson, Matthew Sparkes, Jacqui Shannon, Jen Kerrison have all produced their own features for the show. Other listeners have contributed reportage via AudioBoo. Reflecting this sense of community is a bi-monthly Friends of the Bike Show bike ride. The first one ended with a short tour of the Resonance studio. The next one is this coming Sunday. Listeners to the show seem to enjoy meeting other listeners.

None of this would be impossible with a broadcast-only show on Resonance, but it seems much less likely. But the fact is that podcasting is still regarded as an inferior form by many working in radio. A more enlightened view is that its just another mode of distribution for audio, but one which offers potential for a revival of forms that have previously been in decline, a point made in a recent blog post at Radio Survivor:

“the rise of podcasting breathed life into forms of radio programming that had barely been heard from since the 70s, like radio drama and long-form comedy. Turns out that the international reach of podcasting means a particularly esoteric show can find hundreds or thousands of listeners, even if there may barely be a dozen potential fans in the broadcast radius of a single station.”

I believe it does offer exciting new opportunities for anyone looking to take radio (audio?) beyond the traditional broadcasting model. It is more than just a way of breathing new life into declining programming forms. I think we’re still in the pioneering era of podcasting and that most podcast listeners are still ‘early-adopters’. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the medium evolves.

Walklings Cake Shop, The Cut

At 1.15 am on 17 April 1941 a German bomb landed on the air raid shelter at 50/52 The Cut, on the site of where the Young Vic theatre now stands. 47 people were killed.

Kit Murray remembers what happened:

Walklings Cake Shop by jackthur

This is a short excerpt from the fourth and final part of A Story of Waterloo, a tape slide show that I’m helping to restore to digital format. There will be a screening of the whole thing at 7pm on 24 August at the Waterloo Action Centre.

What’s wrong with RadioPlayer

RadioPlayer was launched today. It’s a collaboration between the BBC, Absolute Radio and a various other media groups and it aims to put all of UK radio in one place. Absolute Radio boss Clive Dickens described it as “the most important development in the 50 year history of UK radio”. My view? It deserves to fail. Here’s why.

1. You can only listen to UK radio stations (currently just 157 stations are offered, this may rise to around 200). Internet radio is global (30,000+ stations).

2. RadioPlayer doesn’t allow ‘listen again’ except for serving up podcasts that are already available. Radioplayer emphasises listening live, when the future of internet radio is on-demand listening.

3. RadioPlayer doesn’t work on an iPhone or an iPad. This is because it relies on Flash, a techology that Apple has chosen not to support on its market-leading smartphone and tablet computer. This is slightly bizarre given that the BBC’s iPlayer, upon which technology the Radioplayer is based, does work on the iPhone and iPad.

4. RadioPlayer attempts to integrate existing browser consoles like the BBC iPlayer with those of commercial radio stations, but preserving each station’s visual branding makes for a disorientating and inconsistent user experience.

5. If stations have to pay to be on RadioPlayer, that will exclude community stations like Resonance FM (which broadcasts my own The Bike Show). My hope is that community stations will be offered free participation.

6. People don’t want to listen to the radio via a web browser. For radio on the internet, the future is all about mobile apps, dedicated WiFi radio tuners or plain old iTunes. There will also be a growing share of listening via internet-enabled TVs.

7. Integration of BBC content on Radioplayer with social media like Twitter and Facebook requires registration for an iBBC user account. This unnecessary barrier that will put people off. Social media plays an increasingly important role of crowdsourced content curation. It should be easy.

8. I suspect much of the BBC content won’t be available outside the UK.

For the moment, much better than RadioPlayer are the various platform-specific TuneIn apps for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. For power users who who want to be able to record radio broadcasts (including setting scheduled recording like an old school VCR), the desktop radio client RadioShift will be worth the $32 price tag. Remember, both these services offer tens of thousands of radio stations, not the couple of hundred that will be offered by RadioPlayer.

BBC and the rest of the British radio establishment got it wrong when they backed crappy DAB as the technology of the future and it looks like they have backed another dud.

RadioPlayer will no doubt boast impressive statistics of the millions of listeners in its first week but this is only because existing browser players are automatically redirecting to Radioplayer. Traditional radio is all about broadcast range and live listening. Internet radio is a global and on-demand. Radioplayer’s limitations make it ill-equipped for this exciting radio future.

A Story of Waterloo

I’ve lived in Waterloo since 1996. Over the past six months I’ve been helping Mike Bruce with the digitisation of his A Story of Waterloo, a ‘tape slide show’ that since it was first screened in 1982 has achieved something of a mythic status in community circles. These days nobody has the machinery to play ‘tape slide shows’ so the 600+ slides have been gathering dust in Mike’s attic and the only way of seeing the Story of Waterloo has been on a very poor VHS bootleg copy that I’m told exists, though I’ve never managed to lay my hands on it.

A Story of Waterloo is a really outstanding piece of local history, blending archive material with interviews with local residents (many of whom are long since dead, being in their 80s back in the 1970s and 1980s when the research was done).

A Story of Waterloo is in four parts and covers the period up to the end of the Second World War and Mike has plans to add further parts to cover the post-war era. Yes please! For the digitisation we’ve gone back to the original quarter inch reel-to-reel audio tapes and had the slides cleaned and scanned professionally (thanks to a grant from the London Eye).

UPDATE (Feb 2014):

All four parts are now digitised and put onto a DVD. The Association of Waterloo Groups, based at the Waterloo Action Centre, has copies available to loan to local residents.

Malcom Gladwell v. Barry Schwartz

Two excellent TED talks. Malcolm Gladwell says more choice is making us happier:

Barry Schwartz says more choice is making us miserable:

Podcasts on the radio

I love listening to the radio. I love podcasts because it means I can listen to my favourite radio programmes from around the world whenever I like. And I’ve recently made a fantastic discovery. Read the rest of this entry »

Email still the key to online campaigning

Last week I ruffled a few feathers with a post about the sorry state of Labour and the internet. One of my main points was that Labour seemed to be drawn into a battle of the blogs and was neglecting investment in a responsive email campaign. Thomas Gensemer, founder of Blue State Digital, the firm which helped run Barack Obama’s online campaign for the US Presidency, gave a talk a couple of days later at City University. He made the same point. Hopefully City will publish a video of the talk before too long. I watched it live on the web stream and it was compelling. Click on the image below to watch the talk.

Gensemer really understands this stuff. If only someone in the Labour Party did too.

The sorry state of Labour on the internet

It’s taken thirty-six years but last week it finally happened. I found myself – however I might wish for it to be otherwise – agreeing with an article in the Daily Mail. It was a stingingly accurate critique of the Labourlist group blog which has been online for a while now but was ‘launched’ last Thursday.

Labourlist is not something that I would normally spare much thought about. I’ve been happy to drift away from the day-to-day dogfights of British politics since I stood down as a Special Adviser at the 2001 General Election in an effort to reclaim my life and start up some of my own projects. But I have found something sickly compelling about the way Labourlist has unfolded into a tragi-comedy that reveals more than it should about the troubled relationship the Labour Party has with the internet. Read the rest of this entry »

One in four US Presidents have been assassinated or survived attempts on their lives

Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States. Four of his predecessors have been killed while in office and there have been near-miss assasination attempts on six others. There have been abortive or ham-fisted attempts on their lives of a further five Presidents. President Obama has, by my reckoning, at least a one in four chance of facing the same. Read the rest of this entry »