An argument for a digital-first CBC

Paul Adams, writing about the future of the CBC for iPolitics:

Right now, CBC treats its website as if it were an industrial by-product of the broadcast networks, like a slaughterhouse that sells off the bones for fertilizer and the hooves for glue. It’s an afterthought.

From where I sit, this feels accurate.

Bagless Bromptons

Remember that time I wasn’t allowed to bring my Brompton folding bicycle inside the CBC?

After raising a big fuss, I was eventually allowed to bring my bike inside, with the stipulation that it must be kept in a bag. I bought a Brompton cover from our neighbourhood Brompton dealer, Switchback Cyclery, and all has been well since.

Today, Peter sent word that there’s a new BBC series called W1A in which Hugh Bonneville plays the BBC’s Head of Values. I haven’t seen the series yet, but Peter notes that Bonneville’s character is allowed to bring his Brompton into the BBC’s Broadcasting House without a cover.


How to fix a Tivoli radio tuning problem


Years ago, we bought a Tivoli Model One radio for our kitchen.

At first, the tuning was rock-solid. But recently, the radio started drifting. Over time, the tuning knob got very touchy. Even if I was able to successfully tune a station, the LED would glow bright for a moment, then quickly fade. Left long enough, any station would degrade into static. Frustrating, to be sure.

I emailed about the problem. Their suggested remedy:

It is pretty common over time for dust to collect in and around analogue tuners. Dust can cause drifting, scratchy noises while tuning, and difficulty finding stations. Regularly exercising your tuner will help to keep it dust free.

To exercise your tuner you will want to turn the radio on and turn the volume all the way down. Turn the tuning knob to the far left and then to the far right. Continue to vigorously turn this knob back and forth for two to three minutes. This will loosen any dirt or dust that may be lodged in your tuner and will recoat it in grease.

Success! After several minutes of vigorous turning, our radio’s tuning problems went away. Fingers crossed it stays that way.


Last week, I was part of a panel discussion at my alma mater (and sometimes employer) Ryerson University, talking about “Radio in a Digital Age” alongside Steve “Dangle” Glynn, Raina Douris, and moderator/former-prof/sometimes-boss Lori Beckstead.

The video’s online now:

Lori sent out a few questions in advance of the panel, and I used them to prepare a few notes (most of which I forgot). So then, for posterity:

What are the challenges for radio in the digital age? How is it adapting? What will radio sound like in the future?

  • Measurement is a big challenge, because the ways in which people are listening continue to grow, but we don’t yet have great ways to measure. PPM measures broadcast, and some streaming, but on the web, we’re still measuring unique visitors and stream initiations, and podcast downloads, which don’t give us a great picture of who’s listening, or how we can better serve them.
  • Discoverability, particularly online, is a challenge. Great Digg piece about why audio doesn’t go viral outlines why audio is a second-class citizen on the web.
  • Opportunity: I’m excited about digital radio in the car. When you look at how many people in this country have a regular commute (80% of Canadians drive to work, 25 minutes each way). There’s a huge opportunity for radio there. Cars are a natural fit for radio.
  • I’m also really excited by all the really great independent work coming out of places like Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network, or Radiotopia from PRX (Roman Mars’s 99% invisible, and Love + Radio from Nick van der Kolk). Jesse Thorn’s Maximum Fun network. Earwolf. So much great indie stuff. Encouraging.
  • The opportunities are in embracing the digital distribution opportunities, while at the same time, remembering the things that radio is really good at. The inherent advantages that the medium has. Portability. Immediacy. Intimacy.

What is “radio?” If it’s not coming through an AM/FM transmitter, is it still radio?

  • It’s clear that the definition of “radio” is broadening.
  • Are podcasts radio? Are on-demand streams radio? If you take an over-the-air radio program like This American Life and turn it into an MP3 and put it on the web, is that radio? Is Rdio or Spotify or Pandora radio? Is iTunes Radio radio? If you take a clip of a radio show and put it on YouTube with a static image, is that radio? If there is a video camera in the room and you can watch a radio show, is that still radio?
  • So, the definition is broadening, but there are fundamentals that don’t change. We are human beings and we are naturally wired to respond to other people’s voices. Our voices are a great medium for storytelling.
  • Personally, it’s not super-helpful to try and define what is and isn’t “radio.” For me, it’s helpful to think of what radio is when it’s at its best.
  • People talk about radio as an immediate medium. I remember listening to WBUR during the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. That was immediate. I remember listening to CBC during the storms over the Christmas break, talking about where power was out, keeping people updated. At its best, radio is immediate. Immediacy can come from a different places. Interesting to see experimentation with podcasts that have live chat rooms as they record.
  • People talk about radio as intimate. Radio is with me in the bedroom when I wake up in the morning. That’s intimate. Or listening with headphones to a podcast. It doesn’t get much more intimate than sticking someone’s voice in your ears
  • Don’t forget portability. Radio is something you can bring with you, and it’s there when you want it, where you want it?

What are you doing to engage a young demographic? There’s much handwringing about whether 18-34’s are still interested in radio.

  • The demographic of CBC Radio generally skews older.
  • That said, CBC’s 18-34 numbers have grown in recent years.
  • I think there used to be an idea that listening to public radio was like learning to enjoy olives or good wine. That you grew into it.
  • I know that CBC Radio thinks of itself as an information and entertainment service for adults. We don’t do children’s programming in the same way that CBC TV does.
  • But when I look at what’s going on w/ CBC Music, or I listen to the Jian Ghomeshi Q show, I definitely hear stuff that appeals to the 18-34 demographic. I’m in that demographic (just barely), and I hear stuff that appeals to me.
  • I think podcasting has helped a lot to get people interested in radio and audio storytelling. When I meet people who know the show that I work on, Spark, more often than not they say, “I love your podcast.” Not, “I love your radio show.”

What’s the story of what you do and how you came to this place in your career?

  • Graduated from RTA in ‘05
  • Came to RTA with the specific goal of working in public radio
  • Whenever possible, turned my schoolwork into freelance work
  • I’m not a network-y person, but I sucked it up and tried to find as many people as I could who could tell me about their job.
  • The fact that I was a student was really helpful. It’s much easier to say yes to a student when they say, “I’m a student and I’m interested in learning more about what you do for a living,” than, “Hey, I’m some guy and I want a job. Or I want your job.” Make use of the fact that you are a student.
  • Ask for referrals. If you meet with people who are doing the kind of work you want to do, ask them who else you should be talking to. Ask if you can use their name, or if they can send a letter of introduction.

Advice you have for students interested in getting into radio?

  • Know your audience. If you’re looking for freelance or contract work (which is how many people get started), know which shows or units have money and can hire you. Know where the money is, who has budgets, and what their preferred way to get in touch is.
  • Have samples of your work that demonstrates your skills: being able to get good tape, to be able to perform on air, to be able to write. Having a few real-world examples that demonstrate your skills is good.
  • You get good by making stuff. Make lots of stuff. Start now.
  • Be careful who you take advice from

Digital-first audio

Two interesting stories from the world of American public radio last week.

First, the creation of Radiotopia, a new podcast network:

With $200,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation, PRX will attempt to create a new model for what they call “digital-first audio programming.” The seven shows will make up a collective, helping to market one another, providing guidance on technical issues, and sharing lessons on growing audiences. Radiotopia will provide the framework for raising money through grants or Kickstarter campaigns, selling sponsorships across the network, and sharing revenue between the shows.

“Digital-first” is an interesting focus, with the potential to shake up the way stories are told in public radio. There’s a huge difference between “podcasts on the radio” vs. “radio shows that happen to be available as podcasts, too.”

Second, a nice piece by Eric Athas, summarizing NPR’s attempts to make audio “go viral”:

Audio doesn’t translate to the Internet the same way an image, video, or text article does. It’s not produced for the social web, which means it doesn’t have the look and feel of the things we’re used to sharing and seeing on Facebook and Twitter. That’s why NPR and member stations often “webify” radio stories. This process turns an audio story into a text story.

Particularly resonant is NPR’s focus on finding “must-listen” audio. That is, radio stories that contain some sonically interesting element (i.e. not just an interview) that can be excerpted and used as a hook. Examples:

Indeed, Spark found some success with this when my colleague Kent produced an interview with Julian Treasure about the most beautiful sound in the world.

Podcasts are based on loyalty

Speaking of audio (not) going viral, in episode 76 of UnprofessionalMarco Arment makes an important point about podcast listenership:

[47:46] Podcasts are a very different kind of medium than most other things on the web. Most “new media” is all about getting this flood of hits, and things “going viral” (or whatever that means), and just getting tons of drive-by hit traffic.

Podcasts don’t work that way. Podcasts are based on loyalty, and getting people subscribed who are going to listen to every episode. So, there’s your core audience of people who you should cater to. That’s what the advertisers pay for. That’s what people tune in for. That core audience is the backbone of the show.

And then there’s the people who will listen to one episode and complain about it. And so you have to prioritize what you do and the way you do things to please that core audience, because they’re the ones who matter a lot more.

If you measure the success of long-form audio content using the same yardstick as a listicle, you’re doing it wrong.

While we’re on the subject, Andrew Kurjata makes some more good points about audio virality in his post on the subject.

Our former selves

As anyone who’s been to Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids probably knows, I’m fascinated by the relationships we have with our former selves. Most often, when a person gets up on stage to read juvenilia at GRTTWaK, there’s a distance. A distance between who they were, and who they are now. At a really basic level, I think that’s the tension that makes a GRTTWaK reading funny, or uncomfortable, or bittersweet.

And it’s a big part of what I love about Chino Otsuka’s photo series Imagine Finding Me. In it, Otsuka takes old family snapshots, and pastes in present-day versions of herself:

1976 + 2005, Japan

1976 + 2005, Japan

I first saw Otsuka’s work in Glenn Fleishman’s Glenn’s Gumbo newsletter.

Speaking of Glenn’s newsletter and nostalgia, here’s a lovely excerpt from earlier this month:

My friend Leah used the word saudade from the Portuguese recently. Wikipedia has a surprisingly lyrical definition:

It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or deeply melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.

I don’t know Portuguese, but I wonder if it’s possible to feel saudade for a younger version of yourself. Because deep down, I suspect there’s a fair amount of that blowing around at GRTTWaK, too.

Vitality, not virality (or, a Few Thoughts About Online Audio, CBC Radio, and “Going Viral”)

If you work in or care about public radio, podcasting, or online audio, I strongly recommend Stan Alcorn’s terrific piece Is This Thing On? Why Audio Never Goes Viral.

In it, Alcorn digs into some of the reasons audio is a second-class citizen online: the web is a primarily visual medium, audio content is difficult to index, search, and skim through, etc.

But he also drops some telling data points about just how non-viral audio really is. For instance (emphasis mine):

In June 2013, the list of the 100 most-shared news articles on Facebook included three from NPR, but none included audio.

And this:

“Radiolab” and “This American Life” — public radio shows that are among the most popular podcasts and the aesthetic guiding lights for young public radio producers — are both approaching a million digital listens for each new episode. For these shows, the occasional episode will get shared more than others, but that “viral” bump is on the order of 10 to 20 percent, and even that seems driven less by social media than old-fashioned word of mouth.

Needless to say, Alcorn got me thinking a lot about the way we approach online audio and social media at CBC Radio, which at the moment seems to be placing an increasing level of importance on online metrics like pageviews and audio streaming.

If virality is indeed a worthy goal for a public broadcaster (and I’m not convinced it is, but more on that later), what are some things that CBC Radio could do to help make that happen? If we want more of what we do to (pause for cringe) “go viral,” how do we create the best possible conditions for that to happen?

Here are a few thoughts.

More pupose-built audio tools

When CBC Radio producers make radio shows, we use tools purpose-built for audio. In studio, we use pro-level audio gear. We mix and edit sound using software built specifically for radio.

But online, we use tools that were never really intended for audio.

Most CBC Radio websites run on a blogging engine built for text. Our audio content lives at a CDN that describes itself as an “online video platform.”

Should we be surprised when tools built for sharing text and video don’t work particularly well for a completely different medium with its own set of strengths, weaknesses, and modalities?

If you want me to mash potatoes, don’t hand me a whisk.

So then, it comes as absolutely no suprise when Alcorn writes, “If there is any company attempting to create a modern web alternative to the podcast, it’s SoundCloud.”

Why? Because SoundCloud was built from the ground up to be an audio platform.

Speaking of tools…

Build audio players with sharing and spreadability in mind

The existing embedded CBC audio players are terrible. I’d embed one here, but I don’t want to put you through that. How terrible are these players? Let me count the ways:

They’re built in Flash. They don’t work on iOS. You can’t embed them on Facebook. By default, they auto-play. They’re wasteful, because they start downloading and playing an audio file regardless of whether the user clicks play or not. They don’t link back nicely to related non-audio content. And finally, the CBC has an agressive expiration policy for archived audio. The player enforces this, even if the underlying audio is still available.

Luc Latulippe summed it up nicely:

Trying to embed the CBC’s audio player is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree

Public broadcasters can’t realistically expect listeners to share and spread radio stories if the experience of doing so is absolultely miserable.

Slice it up

As I wrote back in 2011, segmentation matters:

People want what they want when they want it. Offering easy access to individual stories (like TAL does, or how Quirks and Quarks offers a segmented podcast) helps people share and spread the stories they love. It helps create the conditions for virality.

Things are getting better at the CBC. We’re slicing up audio, and making individual stories available. But this kind of thing is still far too common:

“Fast forward to 10:34″ or “Skip ahead to 23:30″ is a terrible user experience.

The good news is that there are tools and specs built to address this very problem. Audio deep-linking is possible. There’s a whole W3C recommendation for media fragments. Groups like Podlove are actively building tools that address these issues.

Pay attention.

Vitality, not virality

The subtitle of Alcorn’s piece comes from this quote:

“Audio never goes viral,” writes radio and podcast producer Nate DiMeo. “If you posted the most incredible story?—?literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

The thing is, so many people in public radio world really want it to. They want so very badly for audio to be able to (again, pause for cringe) “go viral.”

When you stop and think about it, if you swap out the word “audio” for something else, the whole question seems a bit silly.

People eat food all the time. Why doesn’t taste go viral? Almost everyone has a nose. Why don’t smells go viral? Is it because hip Berlin startup-types have yet to build SmellCloud? I doubt it.

There’s something more basic going on here, and Alchorn gets at it when he asks:

is a hit-machine for audio possible? And is it something anyone even wants?

Other than radio execs, I’m not sure anyone does. And I’m not sure that virality should be a goal for public radio. I’m not sure it’s achievable. Past performance suggests it’s not, at least when we measure success using the metrics of other media.

The last thing public radio needs is a cargo cult approach of aping what works for other media, then acting all disappointed when it doesn’t work out so well for us.

A very savvy CBC executive once advised the Spark team to “fish where the fishes are.” I think that applies to CBC Radio more broadly.

Radio excels in certain contexts. For instance, commuting. In Canada, 82% of commuters travel to work by car. Audio is great in cars, and tech-wise, lots of exciting things are happening in cars: iOS in the car and the Open Automotive Alliance to name two. So then, what is public radio’s car strategy? What is CBC Radio’s car strategy? Analog transmission?

Part of CBC’s mandate is to ensure our programming is “made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose.”

I would much rather CBC Radio’s digital efforts go towards figuring out how to do a better job of what we’re already good at, rather than trying to get good at making empty-calory web content (listicles, memes, GIFs, etc.) that simply cannot compete with the stuff coming out of Upworthy, BuzzFeed, and others.

I don’t know exactly what digital success for public radio looks like. But I do know getting it right means embracing the best qualities of the medium itself, not shoving radio stories into listicle-sized holes.