30 days of ideas – 04: Modcasts


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This is not an idea about radio as much as it is an idea for radio. And it’s a very simple idea about podcasting – but not one that I’m aware that radio stations have ever thought about or implemented.

Before I tell you the idea, let me describe the issue it addresses. Podcasting is a method of distribution. Nothing more. It’s not a new type of radio, an audio download, a democratisation of broadcasting or a category of content. It’s purely and simply a means of getting media content to audiences. Technically, it’s a media enclosure within an RSS feed.

And radio people have been aware for the past five years that the distribution technology exists and that they should make use of it somehow. Many of them do.

There are two main ways in which radio stations use podcasting:

The first is to make entire shows (often edited to remove copyright music) that can be heard on air available via RSS subscription online. This is usually thought of in terms of ‘timeshifting’. You listen to the same programme, but at a time that suits you, not the broadcaster.

The second is to create and package up extra content that does not make it onto the airwaves. This is more rare, but sometimes involves things like interviews in their entirety that had been edited for broadcast, or additional content designed to reinforce the station brand.

But there’s a third way – and one that I think could make the most of what radio stations already do, promote and enhance their brand, and allow audiences to customise their experience of the radio station. It’s modularisation.

What does modularisation mean?
In short, the process of modularisation is to cut broadcasts up into discrete segments and make sense of them as pieces that can be reassembled in other ways.

Think of them like Lego blocks. If you listen to breakfast radio, there’ll be the news – national stories, local stories, human interest stories… and then the sports – football, tennis, golf… the weather – today’s weather, local, national, long-range forecast… and there’s the traffic report, the regular features, the interview slot – and so on.

In fact, most commercial breakfast music radio shows are so information-intensive (and advertising-heavy) that you’d be lucky to squeeze in five whole songs an hour.

But all of these components are thought of as a ‘show’ not as component pieces that can be reassembled and re-presented in other ways or in different combinations.

And most of those components repeat hour by hour between 6am and 9am, as different people turn on the radio according to their personal routines. The 7am news bulletin is virtually identical to the 8am news bulletin. So for me to listen to the 7am news at 8.42am as I ride the train to work is not a particular disadvantage in terms of staying abreast of the world. In fact, it would not be terribly inconvenient if that bulletin had been recorded at 5.30am.

At least – it wouldn’t be inconvenient for me.

Modular podcasts (modcasts?)
Let’s say I have a 30 minute daily commute. I want to arrive at work informed, entertained and up with the play. However, I’m not interested in sport, what the long-range weather forecast might be or the financial news. I’m especially interested in local news, and international news headlines, given that I’m from elsewhere, and who knows – somebody from New Zealand might do something that makes it into a bulletin.

Now, each of those modules are pieces of the actual broadcast that make it to air, but using very simple digital editing, could be stored on a server and tagged according to what they are.

As a listener, I would like to be able to go to a radio station’s website and customise a podcast just for me. I enter my 30 minute commute time, check the boxes that relate to the items I’m particularly interested in, uncheck the boxes that relate to the items I’m not at all interested in, and then allow the station, on a daily basis, to fill a pre-recorded podcast that is delivered via RSS to my computer and onto my iPod every morning before I leave for work.

The items that I have selected will fill perhaps 10 minutes of that 30 minute podcast, and the remainder can be filled with other bits of the programme to make up the time. Perhaps a discussion about last night’s television, a phone-in competition (that I can listen to, without participating, obviously) and just general radio show banter – perhaps even with a bit of music.

It’s about workflow
People who work on breakfast radio shows get up earlier than you and I do. They arrive and prep before the show starts at 6am (usually) and can be in the office as early as 4.30am. I know. I worked on one for a year or so.

The ability to routinely record a piece of the broadcast as it’s being made, and then tag it as a particular type of content could be as simple as hitting a single button and dragging and dropping an audio file into a folder.

It’s not about getting the broadcasters to do anything especially new or different, but about including tiny tasks such as pushing a button while they take a breath between one module and another (news, weather, sports, traffic) – or even automating that process where it already happens (often there is a recorded ‘sting’ that gets played out to identify a new idea or segment – and the button press is a part of that workflow).

The press of the button splits the recorded audio into segments, which can then be dragged and dropped into the correct buckets. If done early enough – say as part of the show prep, or in the first half hour of the programme, these pieces can be processed and ready to be automatically assembled into customised podcasts before most people have even had their first cup of coffee.

Then there’s a bit of magic that happens
Making the modularised content is not the trick. Assembling that content in lots of different ways and then distributing customised RSS enclosures is the trick. How do you make it so that everyone gets their very own version of the Heart FM or Galaxy breakfast show?

There are a number of ways around this. First, there could be a limited number of variables, and with perhaps as few as 50 different possible variations of options and durations (that’s not a big number for a computer).

Once the different modules have been recorded and tagged (say, by 6.30am), the server could compile all the different combinations into single audio files, and the options chosen by the listener would determine which feed (and therefore which audio file) they would receive by 7am.

The other way is to podcast multiple tracks, with each component numbered. So you would receive tracks 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 11 to 13. They would arrive independently of each other, but on your iPod, they would play in order. As you had selected not to subscribe to tracks 3, 6 and 10 (Sport, Long-Range Weather Forecast and Financial News), they would not appear in your playlist.

Advantages on both sides
Clearly, there’s an advantage for listeners. They get to build their own radio programme that fits into their own routine, and contains only the bits that they’re interested in, plus a few surprises to make up the rest.

For radio stations, there’s a way to superserve your audience, reinforce brand identity and sell sponsorship at an even more granular level. There’s the opportunity to make and include additional content and the chance to engage with an iPod listening audience in a way you were previously unable to do.

But perhaps even more importantly, you can get entirely accurate statistics about what people like and don’t like at a microscopic level of detail far beyond that of the quarter-hour RAJAR figures.

Not just for pop music stations
Obviously, this can be done for any kind of radio station – and, in fact, could offer the opportunity for radio station groups to offer modular packages that cut across brand identity, and allow listeners to (for instance) get the news from one station, the celebrity gossip from another, and the sports from a third – all packaged up into a neat and tidy daily bundle that automatically arrives each morning on my mp3 player, and is of exactly the duration I require.

All I have to do is put my iPod on its dock when I go to bed, and when I leave the house the next morning, I’m listening to the radio.

MY radio.

Table of contents for 30 Days of Ideas

  1. The other way of following first
  2. Now we’re up and dancing
  3. 30 days of ideas – 01: Keymash
  4. 30 days of ideas – 02: Radio Alerts
  5. 30 days of ideas – 03: Only Famous (a romantic comedy)
  6. 30 days of ideas – 04: Modcasts
  7. 30 days of ideas – 05: Numberless Calendar
  8. 30 days of ideas – 06: SpringCleanr
  9. 30 days of ideas – 07: Street Gallery
  10. 30 days of ideas – 08: Smart Business Cards
  11. 30 days of ideas – 09: Recordings in Concert
  12. 30 days of ideas – 10: Vinyl scanner
  13. 30 days of ideas – 11: Photo Stack-and-Scan
  14. 30 days of ideas – 12: A Box of Cool
  15. 30 days of ideas – 13: Karaoke-Tube Celebstar Idol
  16. 30 days of ideas – 14: I Made You A Tape
  17. 30 days of ideas – 15: Newspaper download codes
  18. 30 days of ideas – 16: Pebble Splash
  19. 30 days of ideas – 17: Digital radio, somewhere useful
  20. 30 days of ideas – 18: Public domain music collection
  21. 30 days of ideas – 19: Blog cast-list automator
  22. 30 days of ideas – 20: The Retirement Pile
  23. 30 days of ideas – 21: Nationalise EMI
  24. 30 days of ideas – 22: The Stainless Steel Rat (the movie)
  25. 30 days of ideas – 23: WordPress Bandcampify template
  26. 30 days of ideas – 24: Rollercoasters as public transport
  27. 30 days of ideas – 25: Next-gen personalised music radio
  28. 30 days of ideas – 26: New Music Trust
  29. 30 days of ideas – 27: Tamagotchi Gardening
  30. 30 days of ideas – 28: Charity shop clothing subscription
  31. 30 days of ideas – 29: ‘Now Playing’ social music app
  32. 30 days of ideas – 30: House of Spare Ideas
  33. Mixtape for You by Ray Kuyvenhoven
  34. What can you do in 30 days?

7 Responses to “30 days of ideas – 04: Modcasts”

  1. Hey Andrew-
    Pretty neat idea, but one thing I don’t get. You use the example of creating your own radio station of sorts with news and what not. But, wouldn’t you always be one day behind on the news?

    Andrew

  2. Dubber says:

    No. Couple of hours at the most. The first news bulletin of the day is the primary source material. Other elements from the show from (say) 6am – 7.30am are recorded and made available for the customised podcast (as well as other pre-recorded segments), which hits your iPod by about 8am, and at 8.15 you’re out the door and on your way to work with pretty much up-to-date information.

  3. Simon Tucker says:

    Hi Andrew,

    This is really interesting – at Sheffield we developed technology that could analyse speech transcripts and use this analysis to produce speech recordings of any length by progressively removing irrelevant content. Whilst this analysis was purely statistical, there’s no reason that some element of personalisation could be included. So high modularisation may not be necessary – a podcast player could automatically determine which portions of the recording were of interest and just deliver those.

    Another thing we explored was using high level “gists” as a means of leading people to content they were interested in. So you could take an hour long news broadcast, play a gist and allow listeners to drop out of the gist and hear the full content – all of this being an automatic process. I think large vocabulary speech recognition is at a point where these technologies will soon be relatively simple to implement (we got good results on meetings data) and so it would be interesting to see where this kind of stuff goes in the next few years….

  4. Andrew Cowie says:

    I’m pretty sure the BBC already does this with one of their factual programmes but I’m struggling to find which one. They have several consumer programmes like You And Yours and Money Box and I heard a presenter say one day if you just want something like their pensions advice or their mortagages advice you could subscribe to that topic but I haven’t managed to find the website where you can do it.

  5. Brent Noorda says:

    Andrew,

    We’re building the project you’ve described. Most of it is up and running now, at RadioWeave (http://radioweave.com/). I hope anyone interested in building a personalized, modularized, multi-source radio will test it out and give some feedback on whether we’re getting it right.

    For a couple of years we’ve been trying to tackle the issues you bring up: how to create a radio program containing only the bits any particular individual is interested in, for the mutual benefit of the listener and the content creator (and the union of those sets).

    Here’s a youtube video of me driving to work (as if I didn’t actually just work at home) listening to my unique RadioWeave variety show and describing each bit of audio as the radio delivers it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhQhPHJCIuE That’s my experience on one particular day. Everyone’s show will be different.

    Our paradigm for how to personalize the radio experience is for each user to subscribe to multiple micro-channels, where each micro-channel represents a particular interest. For example, car-racing, turtles, news about Sri Lanka, local weather, local traffic, hip-hop music, and so on. A user can also create microchannels composed of music they own, recordings of friends directly into the system, audio-bloggers (e.g. from audioboo, cinch, soundbiter…), all tracks with a particular tag, blogs converted via text-to-speech (through odiogo or hearablog), tweets and facebook messages robotically read. Really, we want to get anything available as audio so that the “radio” experience is just as personalized, relevant, and hyperactive as any desktop web experience.

    The part of the process for bringing all of these elements together in a way that is interesting to each listener, that process you describe as “a bit of magic”, has turned out to be a lot more complicated than we originally expected. To facilitate content creators to make appropriate “modcasts” we are encouraging more tagging and shorter podcasts, and chapterization of longer podcasts, but until we get more buy-in from content-creators we are using some automatic sound processing and breaking up of long podcasts so any particular segment is generally no longer than 6 minutes. Another important part of working with content creators is to make sure they get their metrics about listeners, location, feedback (through thumbs-up/down/skipping). Of further interest to content-creators is the ability to interact more directly with the audience through voting or direct replies (aka “backchannels”) from their computer or device microphone (so that you can participate, even in a time-shifted way).

    The bulk of our content currently is straight from podcasts. If a podcast isn’t in our system already then any user can add that podcast for the benefit of all. I hope those is only a temporary solution, and that your idea of “modcasts” catches on; then our piecing together of multiple content types will work even better for the users and the broadcasters.

    Our premiere platforms for listening are the web site and the iPhone application. We’ve also released a chumby basic player and have android and blackberry versions nearly complete. We have recently published the server API, and much of our client code, so that others can participate in creating more clients (or making better ones that ours), and creating tools for adding more content. (Anyone who wants to work on this area with us, let me know.)

    Where the current RadioWeave differs from your description is that we’re concentrating our limited resources on a live experience, and not the one that would be downloaded to an offline such as an iPod. This is important for getting real traffic reports or news breaks, for instance, or hearing twitter buzz within minutes of your friends tweeting it. We do have a tool in the labs for creating the off-line iPod experience, via a standalone apple script that interacts with iTunes (so that it can correctly get heard, skipped, and votes), but that tools is still looking very inelegant so we haven’t officially released it.

    I’ve gone on too long, sorry, but it’s quite exciting to come across someone describing so well a shared vision. The above is just a brief introduction to where we are and where we’re headed with RadioWeave. Any feedback is greatly appreciated.

  6. Hi Andrew, I was referred to your website by Steve Lawson. Would you be interested in sharing more of your thoughts on this topic (it’s obviously one that’s close to my heart!)?

    Cheers,

    Bren.

  7. Andrew says:

    Really interesting post….
    I thought of something similar a few years ago using podcast ‘links’ which would be recorded each morning, downloaded into a smart playlist which also contains a random selection of tracks from your iPod.

    e.g.
    Link 1 – Intro/Sponsor Credit
    Track from your library
    Track from your library
    Link 2 – Weather for your area today
    Track from your library
    Link 3 – Topical Link/News
    Track from your library
    Link 4 – Throw forward to ‘live’ station content

    The smart playlist would contain variables so you’d hear your most played or highest rated tracks (or on the flipside, different music each day) inbetween topical content relevant to you and tailored to the duration of your commute. Ideally you could choose from different presenters or channels and commercially the links could be bumpered with sponsor credits (as opposed to ads which could be skipped).

    I tried it out with edited portions of links from a show (Richard Bacon on Xfm IIRC) and it worked quite well but I just don’t have the programming skills to pull it off unfortunately.

    I guess booting up the pc each morning, downloading and docking my iPod is a habit I’d have to get into and it might have limited appeal but somehow, I think it might work!

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