iplayer diary and a tool i was never going to use again

A lot of online services have tried to introduce social elements in to their product. This is normally annoying, but in the case of the BBC’s iplayer I found it interesting and useful.

The problem was I was about the only person who did.

A brief recap, when the current design was launched, it had an extra (smaller) column on the homepage. Along with Featured and Most Popular was a column called Friends Recommend or something like that. They made some sensible design choices, rather than having another site where you needed to maintain a ‘friends’ list, you could simply point it to twitter and co and it would do the rest. The problem was that in turned out that at any time it would have maybe three programs to recommend, each of which just one of my friends would have recommended, and that was about it. It was therefore showing ‘anything my friends recommend’ – due to lack of take up – rather than ‘the most recommend programs by my friends’ which would probably be more useful and avoid the slightly narrow topics that came through (oh look Formula 1 and Dr Who).

There were other reasons why it probably didn’t take off. First each program on iplayer had options to favourite, plus recommend, plus share using the usual social suspects. Too many options. I enjoyed something, so I favourite or recommend it? More, to recommend, and see recommendations from you friends you had to be logged in, when to watch or listen did not require to do so – so most didn’t. Quietly the feature disappeared.

But why was I interested in it?

At any given moment iplayer is treasure trove of content. Especially in radio. It’s much easier for good TV to rise to the top, partly because there is less of it, and partly because good TV tends to be expensive. Any sort of semi decent good drama will be prime time viewing and probably on the featured section of iplayer. I’m not shocking anyone by saying Daytime output can be ignored, you’re really looking at a few hours of prime time a night on three channels (well, four if you’re really nice and allow BBC Three to be counted, bless it).

But radio is different. You can make the most amazing radio with a script, voice and microphone. Interesting stuff is being pumped out at all times of the day on various stations.

Sometimes – not often – I’ll fall asleep with the radio on Radio 4. Because it’s not something I often do it makes me drift in and out of sleep, waking for a few minutes every so often, sometimes reaching a level of consciousness that knows what that sound is but can’t quite reach the levels of energy to turn it off. It creates very strange dreams – and snippets of conversations and monologues. The first time I did this, I wanted to listen again to some of the things that were coming back to me once I was awake. It took a while to find, the Radio 4 Schedule just said ‘World Service’ and the latter’s schedule was quite difficult to navigate, but I found the programs in question. Some were really interesting, one was an Arts magazine program with a World slant, and I actually bought a book they were discussing as a result.

All that interesting stuff, in just one nights broadcasting, on a channel I would never listen to, and programs I would never bump in to on iplayer. What if others could highlight these gems as they listen to them. What if I could highlight them to others.

I have a rule that I don’t put the TV on unless there is absolutely something I want to watch – and as I never look at the TV Guides, that is quite rare (though I can smell Family Guy on BBC Three a mile off). I have this rule because I am a Lazy Person. If the TV is on I will sit in front of it as if chained, moving for nothing, even if it was stuck on the test card (I scratch my knee, I have to scratch the other).

Because of this I listen to a lot of radio recordings in the evenings, when one program finishes I stop what I am doing (whether online, or – depressingly rarely – something in my flat that doesn’t require an internet connection, ummm, hang on, I’m going to think of an example… Like… like the washing up! you see, I’m not so boring) and need to find something else to listen to.

Once I’ve exhausted the ‘most popular’ list of things that take my interest I get a little stuck. The categories on the bottom right of the Radio iplayer page never really work for me (long lists, the fact they include stuff from all the regional stations doesn’t help). And browsing yesterdays schedule for each station is a bore. So after the ‘most popular’ list I head for the main radio station pages on the BBC website with the first stop being, of course, Radio 4.

You get six highlights on the Radio 4 homepage. For me, today is a bad day for the highlights. The first seems to be a running fiction series (no thanks), another talks about making chocolate mousse (which isn’t the same as eating them), and while I’m interested in things music related, mostly because I’m so ignorant of it – people talking about how a piece has changed them doesn’t really appeal (I’m guessing a couple met each other as a result of it, and someone from a ‘disadvantaged estate’ was destined for a life of crime until hearing it). What I need is Highlights, sure, but lots of them.

After that I need to make more effort hunting for things worth a listen. And I need to pace myself. Too much hard listening on one night will leave me with nothing to listen to the next. Like Drug barons the world over, Radio 4 has learnt the art of limiting out supply to its addicts. Bastard.

Where was I? Discovering stuff. Yes. And the thing is there is good stuff where you least think it – even Radio 2. Bloody Radio 2! (Henning Wehn, probably the funniest comedian in the UK, and Michael Grade’s documentary on Television since you ask). Radio 3 has debates, I’ve mentioned the World Service, and 6 Music obviously has a lot worth listening to.

It did occur to me this was an itch I was trying to scratch – and perhaps I could make my millions by developing the universal solution (obscure UK radio documentaries surely have the same mass-market appeal as Facebook). And while the BBC have done much with APIs, supporting developers and Linked Data, I couldn’t see any obvious way to build a third-party site to cater to my (and the millions) needs with what was available.

I might need to follow in Bob Monkhouse’s footsteps. Buy the Radio Times each week and going through the listings each week with a highlighter (note to self, must purchase highlighter).

But what about the other side of the coin, sharing the things I have listened to? There’s nothing really charitable about this aim. This is good honest preachiness – I’ve decided you should listen to something and YOU’RE JUST GOING TO OBEDIENTLY LISTEN TO IT. You will like what I like.

This is easier. The iplayer has sharing tools to post to various social network sites. I use Twitter and Reddit (and have a Facebook account so I can’t stalk people, don’t we all). So what if I could use one of the other services offered as a way of recording and sharing what I liked.

Long story short (though if you have reached this far you will have realised it’s more long story thankfully a little less long) – I went with delicious. You may have heard of it.

Delicious was my bookmarking tool of choice for years until the famous Yahoo! ‘Sunsetting’ slide leaked out – even though it did not state the site was closing – and it provided (as it should – but many don’t) easy export options, I didn’t like the idea of my bookmarks being on a service whose future was questionable. Besides, a recent change to their system seemed to require me to constantly re-enter my password no matter what I tried. When would these first world problems stop haunting me?

So I moved to pinboard.in – in the knowledge that there is no safer place to store my bookmarks than a one-man operation – the one-man spending much of his time promoting and baiting his competitors and mocking his users. Using pinboard felt good – in as much as a service that remembers links for you can ever make you feel good, and as it had imported everything from Delicious. I haven’t ever needed to log in to the latter until last week.

So it goes something like this. If I listen (or watch) anything I feel noteworthy I now use the Delicious share option on iplayer. I use the Delicious note field to add (get this) notes, and text I want to share. I wanted this to be frictionless as possible and originally wanted to not use tags, but then decided that to spare those who follow me on twitter I would use the tag ‘t‘ for those i wanted to share. Next I use twitterfeed (now owned by bitly, which pleases me as I could never work out how they would find a business model) and pass it the RSS feed the t tag on delicious, and tell it to tweet what ever comes in.

And so Delicious – a site I thought I would never use again, is now (until I get bored with the idea) my iplayer diary, and via twiterfeed, a way of telling the world (where world = my followers) what they should be listening to.

The first tweet to come out of this was for Masters of Money: Marx written and presented by Stephanie Flanders – which yes is a TV show (a prime time one at that) flying in the face of most of this article. Interestingly it got a few replies and retweets and a favourite – all down to the brilliance of my tweeting I’m sure, and nothing to do with the program being an incredible smart, interesting and well made.

So for as long as I remember to do this, I will have a record of what I have watched, and with careful consideration of the annoyance-threshold of my followers, a way to share what I have been listening to and watching.

Monday 8th October

I wrote the above on Saturday. I didn’t quite finish it all, and kept on meaning to get around to hitting ’publish’. Then on Monday: BBC launches iPlayer Radio to promote audio content. The literally minutes I had spent typing this were now wasted – to think I could have spent that time staring at new DMs on twitter saying “have you seen what they are saying in this video….” (No I haven’t, I’m totally clicking on the link later). This post is out of date before it is even published. BBC Iplayer has changed, the new version seems to be merged with what was the main BBC Radio page.

Now, when things change on the internet strange things happen to people, especially when it’s the BBC Homepage (OMG the direct link to 16th century weather formations over Essex have been removed from the homepage, do those overpaid autocratic plebish so-called experts have a clue how much they have destroyed it for EVERYONE) or Facebook (OMG my profile page now has two columns rather than one – does no one understand the pain). Yet for once I feel like getting my green pen and joining in.

I mean on the plus side it gives Radio its own space (but some will note bbc.co.uk/radio/ was pretty much a space for radio) and makes listening online to live and recorded items an integral part.

However – green pen time! – where are my Featured and Most Listened to? While by definition highlighting what the editors decide to promote, or what others are listening to, is hardly finding that rare nugget that no one else has found, it was a great way of bumping in to things that you would not normally – well – bump in to.

In fact the nearest thing looks to the highlights on each stations homepage, similar to those I describe above on the Radio 4 homepage, back in the good ol’ days of early October 2012. Ironically – or intentionally – this highlights and strengthens the original stations that produce the content – on iplayer they were just shows, it was easy to listen to something and have no idea what station it came from (except Radio 4 Extra / Radio 7 – which oddly always adds four or five minutes of recording to the start and end of each programme).

We do have categories, like before, but these always seem to have a little too much noise to signal. For example Factual (the place to go to for things like the chat/music/comedy/not-many-facts Loose Ends, The Bottom Line and Midweek) is currently dominated by “Everything you need to know about Cumbria’s day.”, “All of Oxfordshire’s news, sport and essential information in one place.” and “Digon o sgwrsio, cyngor, cerddoriaeth a chwerthin yn fyw o stiwdio Caerfyrddin yng nghwmni Iola Wyn.” (ok, there was the odd national broadcast in there, the odd one, I didn’t have to point this out. This is how honest I am). Of course, all of these are just lovely I’m sure, but I don’t want to wash up to them. and I can’t be bothered to scroll through page after page looking for the odd thing I want.

My final observation is that it seems to focus on the current. I’m sure this is deliberate, but, for example, iplayer will default to showing yesterdays schedule, which is useful when you just want to listen to things already available. I’m guessing the search feature of the Radio page is going be quite a key feature – and they do allude to it in the introduction text – as a way of finding regulars (it could really do with auto-complete).