30 July 02004

Developments in digital radio

For some reason I missed this Guardian article about digital radio and technology wars at the start of this month. It includes much talking up of the additional features coming to radio (pause, rewind, text and even, whoopee, purchasing opportunities) and some quotes such as "People are impatient — they want someone to do the filtering for them, to pre-select some content and for it to be available instantly" which is just as unlikely as the opposite claim that people are only concerned with control and personalisation in their listening.

A lot of commentators are more interested in which technical format will win out over the other. In this case it's DAB vs. 3G, but watch out for a tedious amount of speculation over whether Microsoft's music download service will knock out Apple's coming your way in the next few months. In the long term the people at either end of the supply chain — the 'curators' and programmers of music services, and the listeners — won't care about the transmission medium and storage device as long as it combines features for varying predictability, some kind of personal collecting, user-friendly navigation of massive collections, and some potential for innovative programming.

That said, the article is worth reading all the way through, as is The Guardian's Special Report on Digital Music.

28 July 02004

Preliminary sketch for online music listener research

What kind of data do you need to cut a swathe through all the commentators and tell you whether music download services are really going to spell the end of the album? Or whether on-demand features will change the relationship between listening to new music and owning it?

Notching up each extra zero on the end of the iTunes Music Store sales figures only gives you an impression of aggregate growth of this particular kind of service, the rate of growth, and market share relative to comparable services. This data will tell you that, in the next few years, more people are going to be downloading music, and the relative success of different services will wax and wane — which is not news really.

So I did some no-budget research and collected some data, based on the Last.FM service, the results of which ask more questions than they answer, but this process clarifies what further data would be useful.

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26 July 02004

The Sound of Life

Just started this evening: a series of programmes on BBC Radio 4 called The Sound of Life, which covers the history of sound and hearing. The first programme goes back to the first sounds on earth — all water related: waves, rain, rivers and glaciers — before any ears had evolved to hear them. Here's the BBC programme page, from which you can listen to this programme (and the others in the series, once they have been broadcast), and the Open University (as co-producers of the series) have also created a web site of extensive further information, resources and links.

23 July 02004

Information on the go: an effective publicity stunt

The launch of the pPod software for the iPod has done its job for its makers by being picked up by much more high profile outlets than this, including the BBC News front page. Using a combination of text, spoken word audio, and music it provides a guide to London's public loos. But loos do not attract far-flung travellers: when you get caught short and need to go in a hurry, you just need directions to the nearest one and cannot afford to be fussy about the "lovely clean mirrors" in the loo.

I suspect therefore that the pPod is a mainly a Shoreditch-style publicity gimmick to draw attention to Nykris's other work, such as the Tate Modern handheld device, which is linked from the pPod page. In keeping with self-publicity, here's a link to some more words of wisdom about mobile information appliances for museums.

The viability and design of location-related information appliances must take detailed account of the circumstances and needs of their users.

20 July 02004

Maybe iPods are the end of radio after all?

So there I was, saying that random-play iPods do not a personalised radio station make, and just a few days later someone publishes expensive research saying the opposite (Media Guardian article, requires free registration): "One of radio's main perceived strengths is its spontaneity... iPod can even emulate that with shuffle technology," the research company says.

According to the article, their report goes on to identify two trends "both [of which] present the radio industry with a knock-on effect. The first is the shift towards personalisation. The second trend is a growing demand from younger consumers to have greater control over their media. As a result, The Knowledge Agency claims, 18 to 30 year-old radio listeners now want content that is more personalised and more directly relevant to their own tastes and needs."

Here are two and a half reasons why those two trends (which sound to me a little like different ways of saying the same thing) do not spell the end of radio.

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19 July 02004

BBC 6 Music as a learning resource

Born in the digital era, BBC 6 Music is a radio station at the intersection of traditional 'wireless' programming and less linear, on-demand access to audio and supporting material. It's in the vanguard of mixed (old and new) media and the BBC governors apparently want it to go further and "heighten the level of interactivity, develop the use of the archive and strengthen the station's relationship with its audience", according to this recent Media Guardian article (Media Guardian requires free registration to read its articles).

The Statement of Programme Policy includes an explicit, though very general, statement on listeners' learning: "6 Music aims to extend its audience's understanding of popular music, and programmes will continue to examine the cultural development of music, including less familiar genres like ska and backbeat, supported by information online and on-demand recordings." (As an aside, it's interesting to do a word search for 'learn' through this document to see the different contexts in which it arises for different stations.)

The rest of this (long) article reviews the learning features of 6 Music so far and suggests how they could be extended — using 'learning' in the broad cultural sense that I've referred to before.

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17 July 02004

Saluting the Placard London Headphone festival

Placard festival flyerI'm just back from the 02004 Placard Headphone festival. Attendance seemed to be up on last year's festival which is a just and gratifying reward for the organisers who make nothing from this free event. As I write, there's still nearly 4 of the 14 hours left, and 11 of the 39 artists to perform to a silent room where the audience sits on the floor listening on headphones.

This is one of the things I love about living in the east of London: being able to drop in on the stuff that people like [no.signal] (Eric) and yaxu (Alex) put on in their own un-showy but determined and persistent way. Thanks.

16 July 02004

'Innovative practice' e-learning article published

There's an article Innovative practice in the use of ICT in education and training: learning from the winners published in the current issue (Volume 6, Issue 5, 2004) of the journal Education + Training from Emerald. It's based in part on the successful bid for a National Training Award by the Learning to Teach On-Line course, and I am one of the authors.

I have four spare off-prints of this article to give away — first-come, first-served — so get in touch if you'd like one (remember to include your postal address). The article also includes case studies of two other initiatives recognised by the National Training Awards.

14 July 02004

Jem Finer on music and creative commons

Jem Finer has an article in today's Guardian giving his perspective on the history and future of copying music outside the normal bounds of copyright control. He includes reference to Gilberto Gil, who — as Brazil's culture minister — is adopting Creative Commons for his own work. The Brazilian government has been making lots of noises about innovative and farsighted policies that could challenge the hegemony of Microsoft and the other big digital corporations. It'll be interesting to see how these get converted to implementation.

Jem's work gets special mention here on grounds that he is composer of the wonderful Longplayer, and his blog sits on the server as this one (both hosted by Paul Makepeace).

10 July 02004

The new gatekeepers for discovering music

As the means of accessing and consuming music change, so do the kinds of intermediaries who act as 'gatekeepers' controlling how listeners can discover new music. If you're shopping at the iTunes Music Store, surfing among thousands of online radio stations with Windows Media Player or RealPlayer, or using 'personalised' streaming services like Last.FM, then what you see and hear is not influenced by the same group of radio DJs/pluggers, music weeklies, in-store promotions, and friends' recommendations that were your your 'interface' to new music fifteen years ago.

And the sheer quantity of music available now makes the interface more important. It has to do more work to filter that quantity down into something that you find manageable rather than overwhelmingly complex or tediously unimaginative.

Some projections of what this means for future music consumption habits still seem dubious to me. For example, contrary to the predictions of one music journalist in this article on the impact of the iPod Mini, setting your iPod to play your entire music collection randomly sequenced is not like having your own personal radio station, and I've said before why I think reports of the death of the album are exaggerated.

Here's a few glimpses of the technological, media and social gatekeepers that may become influential to differing degrees.

Continue reading "The new gatekeepers for discovering music"

7 July 02004

BBC 6 Music and usability of archives

The campaign to lobby for the BBC Creative Archive is principally concerned with the form in which the archive material is made available, and specifically whether this is 'open' enough to allow (re)use for non-commercial purposes. My lobby is also to consider how the 'user interface' to this massive archive is made usable enough to ensure that everyday Jo(e) Punter can extract some value from it without needing to expend the time and energy that a researcher or artist might be prepared to commit.

The BBC's first digital radio station, 6 Music, is committed to digging up and re-presenting many of the amazing recordings they have in their archive. This week it has re-launched it most archive-based programme — the Dream Ticket, which replays recordings of live gigs and a few BBC sessions — in a tacit acknowledgement that the original format wasn't working. I think one of the problems was that it was serving up the archives in 'lumps' that were too large to be indigestible to the casual listener. The new format breaks the archives down into more refined grains, though this has cons as well as pros.

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5 July 02004

Online tutor workload and poor research publishing

The paper Faculty self-study research project: examining the online workload ought to tell us more about the pressures on online tutors than it does. The gist is that, based on six university staff keeping records of their online teaching time, they found that the total time taken was marginally less than the offline equivalent, but that its impact was potentially more disruptive since the tasks are spread through a day rather than being concentrated in dedicated teaching sessions.

It takes quite a lot of work to extract that unsurprising result from the paper, and I'll be impressed if anyone can get much more substance of it. There's no insight, for example, into the relative time taken by different kinds of tutoring tasks or how to manage online tutors to make best use of their time.

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4 July 02004

Review of David Toop's Haunted Weather

I read much of Haunted Weather on holiday, on an apartment balcony overlooking the kind of Costa del Sol villa-sprawl that provided the setting for J G Ballard's Cocaine Nights. It's possible to read Haunted Weather through Ballardian spectacles: the latter's coining of phrases like "the marriage of Freud and Euclid" and "a Krafft-Ebing of geometry and posture" (both from The Atrocity Exhibition) could apply as a synopsis of Toop's concern with spatial and uncanny qualities of music, its root in our relation to our own bodies.

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