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03 September 2016

On Demand? It's Not The Same

I've struggled for a while to articulate why podcasts, or indeed any type of on-demand audio including listen-again recordings of radio output, are fundamentally different from live radio.

I meet uncomprehending stares from the download-everything generation, then get the kind of nods and smiles that mean I'm being indulged.

Don't get me wrong, I think catchup services are brilliant and I'm convinced podcasts (despite the awful name) offer the best potential for radio to reach new audiences in future. But they're not the same as live radio, happening now and being shared by a disparate audience .. in real time. It's a concept the brains behind BBC Five Live understood when they named the station.

Then, just this week, an example presented itself. An example involving one of radio's finest practitioners.

Jeremy Vine was involved in an unpleasant road rage incident with a motorist on a narrow street in central London. He caught events on helmet cameras and posted the footage online:

Cyclists and cars rarely co-exist peacefully, so the incident brought out the usual extreme opinions on both sides of the argument. Then another national treasure stepped into the debate in the ample form of another Jeremy, who wrote a typically forthright piece in a newspaper column.

Now I've never been convinced by Clarkson's act. There's something in the delicate wordplay in his writing that suggests strongly to me he's extracting the Michael oh so subtly from an audience that laps up the jaw-dropping opinions he claims to hold. Punching a producer gave pause for thought, admittedly, but I've known plenty of ego in far less accomplished telly types.

Vine is the consumate radio interviewer, knowing how to give precisely enough rope so a single step is all that's required to drop a guest through the trap to oblivion. Clarkson is the master of articulately provocative performance. Put the two together and that would make amazing radio .. as I suggested ...
And others agreed ...
The simple fact is a live on-air encounter between Vine and Clarkson would be captivating radio. The kind of radio that would bring workplaces to a halt, would tie drivers spellbound to their car radios and would be talked about in other media for weeks.

Radio is normally a background, hands-free activity that goes well with baking or wallpapering; and of course it remains the only mass medium that can be enjoyed whilst driving. When it becomes a foreground activity it means something significant - like war being declared (via David Lloyd's Radio Moments):

Or in my own working lifetime, when Peter Milburn and Christa Ackroyd gave their first hand account of the trial of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe on his first appearance at the Old Bailey.

In happier circumstances Real Radio breakfast host Terry Underhill held audiences spellbound as he teased contestants with the competition "Risk it for a Biscuit", where the prize could be a car or a custard cream. All of it radio, in the foreground. And radio in the now.

Listening to a podcast or iPlayer recording of Jezza v Jezza, or how the cookie crumbled, would not be the same, because it's not shared.

The outcome is probably known by the latecomer, and will have been discussed in social media. Unlike the old football results, there's little chance in the connected world to avoid spoilers by "looking away now".

But even if, somehow, an individual listener doesn't know what happens it's not the same because there's no risk ... no chance of a four-letter expletive, no chance of a walkout, because the recording would be sanitised. And even if something unexpected remains, the impact is lessened because it isn't shared in real time by an audience of thousands, all experiencing the moment together.

There is something deeply human, deeply affecting in that which can never be replicated by a sound file downloaded and played in isolation.

It's part of the magic of the medium that is radio, and we must never let that be forgotten.


  1. The requirement for "radio to be live or else it's not radio" troubles me.

    Partially because radio isn't live. Yes, this is slightly pedantic, but Jeremy Vine is available with a delay on every single platform you listen to - from FM's near-instantaneous (**near**) transmission to DAB's longer delay or IP's delay which is longer still. I usually ask people what they consider to be live - is a 20 second delay still live? How about 25? Where does it cease being live and start being a delayed transmission? How does the experience change?

    My definition of radio is, when talking about audio, "a shared experience with a human connection". That means that Pandora isn't what I call radio, because a personally random list of music tracks is not a shared experience in any sense of the word. But you'll notice there's no "live" there. Indeed, I don't like the US's misguided mantra of "live and local", preferring "real and relevant" instead.

    Serial, the hit podcast from a few years ago, clearly emphasised that great audio needn't be "live" to be a shared experience. Serial was the discussion of workplaces, of friends in the pub. It started with "What episode are you up to?", so as to avoid any inadvertent spoilers; and then the theories began to be discussed. A shared experience, delivered using a download.

    Indeed, there are plenty of precedents to show that a shared experience doesn't need to be live. A movie. A great book. A fascinating magazine article. A YouTube clip. We probably all have a shared experience of the unalloyed joy of James Corden's carpool karaoke; even though none of us saw it live.

    Linear radio doesn't need to be live. Indeed, I suspect the reason so much of radio is live is because of tradition, cheapness, and self-indulgence. Live radio means "well, we've run out of time", and "I'm sorry, we appear to have lost our link to the Chancellor", and "We're sorry for the quality of that telephone line". Live radio means a delay unit for swearing, a poor interview that could have been tightened up before broadcast, an interview that should have been cut three minutes ago but the tyranny of the transmitter means we need to keep talking until the news, which has to be at the top of the hour because technology dictates a network switch at 00:00 and we have to fill to fit.

    Live radio means producing content 24 hours a day, even though the typical listener tunes in for only 3 hours. Just imagine if you could focus all your content costs on three hours, instead of feeding a transmitter twenty-four hours a day. This transmitter mindset short-changes listeners: forced to accept an unedited, rough product instead of a well-edited, perfectly polished one.

    As the next generation of listeners come to enjoy the highly post-produced sound of their favourite podcasts, live radio - already hampered with no skip button, no personalisation, no technical interactivity - will be seen increasingly as a poor option.

    Far from being a requirement to be "proper radio", the traditionalists's love affair with "live" is dangerous: because it ends up hurting those we love the most: our audience, and our industry.

  2. I think live is boring. Easy.

    It's also inefficient. DJs waiting for songs to finish. What a waste of talent and skill.

    My national radio station is entirely pre-recorded, usually between 3mins and 3days before that content is broadcast. As well as making us sound better than if we were live all the time, it also means that we can manage our resources to deliver a whole host of content on-air, but also on-line and through video.

    For UK radio we have one of the smallest content budgets but deliver some of the most content. Surely that's way more important than the excitement that something might happen unexpectedly. Occasionally.

  3. Hi James, hi Matt,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. We don't actually disagree .. much.

    I love pre-rec'd audio. Audio books in the car, Radio 4 comedies that are the perfect length for my walk into work, and I'm especially excited by podcasting.

    I've had students with no prior interest in radio who have come to me for help because they want to make a podcast. There is no doubt "audio on demand" is growing in popularity, and that can only be a good thing. The next challenge (for my students and the wider podcasting community) is to apply proper radiocraft to what is often sloppy, casual output that lacks production because the access to broadcast is infinite on the Infinet. No doubt you'll tell me that a lot slick, well crafted product already exists. The challenge, then, is to find it on the Infinet. Because it's infinite.

    But to the nub of the issue. James - yes, you are being pedantic (and you know) it with the irrelevance that is transmission lag. The essence of 'live' is that it can't be changed. The essence of live is that all the audience hears it together, and at its best there is a 'high wire' element to it. The scenario I imagined in the OP with two passionate and articulate broadcasters arguing over a topic where they have strong, conflicting opinions on has an additional quality when its shared, and when its happening now. That's "a shared experience with a human connection" - your exact definition of radio.

    If I click a download of that confrontation from a tweet that goes "LOL Jezza owns Clarkson" it's not the same because it's not shared, it's fragmentary. I know what's going to happen in advance.

    I accept the analogy with films and plays, but as a play using the same script as a film is not the same as a film (because every performance will be subtly different) listening live is not the same as catchup.

    Matt - I'm quite sure you have procedures in place to deal with the unexpected, but the problem with robot radio is the same as the problem that beset Twitter during the Paris shootings last year. Without human intervention the station can continue its merry tone whilst the audience is in shock at lives being lost. Twitter's algorithm last November delivered me adverts for hotels, flights and Citroen cars as people were being massacred in a concert hall. Because #Paris.

    At a more subtle level, mood (in a local market) is affected in real time by weather, travel chaos, Olympic success (or failure) that cannot be anticipated 72 hours ahead in voicetracking. I do appreciate the considerations apply less to a national children's service, but they're still there.

    I am emphatically not an advocate for live because "that was what we did in the olden days".

    Tech is there to help us. We are not (or should not be) slaves to it. If we can voicetrack locally at 3am, keeping the community references, great - and better than a London based sustaining service or a Pandora style jukebox. If creative presenters can pre-rec and trim a phone call during a song, brilliant.

    But please .. there is a clear, obvious, qualitative difference between asking an MP if he had his fingers in the till live, in front of several thousand constituents, or doing a pre record. There is an emotional connection in tears of joy or of sadness shed live, with shared emotion, not tidied up so she blubs into IRN.

    Can we agree on the best of both worlds?

  4. I think it's sad that there's a reference to 'robot radio'.

    We have presenters in every day and there's flexibility for us to alter the output and take it any direction we want.

    And to be honest, I'd much sooner have an MP gotcha moment on tape. That way I can actually promote it to listeners and non-listeners and give them a reason to tune in, rather than it only being caught by the average quarter hour tuning in.

  5. Surely there is a place for both. As a broadcaster of historic music I know that I enjoy the show more when I am broadcasting live and get live feedback and response from the listeners as I do it - But am very happy that those who can not tune in "live" are able to "catch up" with the show at a later date. More importantly some of the historic recordings I play then remain obtainable for ever after and can act as a sort of reference. That is not a traditional role of radio but is one that is more easily achievable now.