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.

Update 5 December 02004: The 6 Music site was redesigned a couple of days ago. In the process, it was simplified and several of the pages referred to below have been removed, while others have changed slightly. Where resources have been removed this seems to reduce the potential for learning, though it's possible the BBC is co-ordinating its web-based music features across different stations. We can hope.

1. Learning features

1.1 Documentaries & other use of archive

6 Music is committed to 550 hours of re-broadcast (often from Radio 2) and newly commissioned documentaries and essays each year. That's an hour and a half a day. The bulk of that allocation comes between 3am and 4am each morning in the overnight documentaries slot — which must straight away bring in the on-demand functionality, because I can't imagine many people who are awake at that time wanting to absorb an hour of earnest information.

Wisely, 6 Music recently changed the interface of the online Radio Player to separate out both the overnight documentaries and 6 Music Plays It Again (9.30-10.00pm) features from the programmes in which they were embedded. So you no longer have to listen to the full three hours of Tom Robinson's programme to get the 30-minute documentary feature.

Inevitably the documentaries vary in quality, but they offer a catholic mix of band profiles and special themes (e.g. recent histories of electronic music and sampling, and of black music in the UK). And some are truly excellent. Mark Radcliffe's profile of Frank Zappa is the most insightful and amusing feature I've ever come across about him (including Elaine Shepherd's films and even Zappa's own book).

I discussed the use of the BBC's archive of live recordings in a previous posting on the Dream Ticket programme (the new format of which has, after two weeks, found an energy and personality that it didn't quite have on only its second day, when I first wrote about it). Live recordings are arguably of little 'learning' value, though, when presented with additional context, they can illuminate key points in cultural history. The Smiths @ the Beeb is a great reminder — for those of my age and disposition — of the heady days of the 1983 Peel and Jensen sessions that acclimatised us to the new world of The Smiths.

You can still hear the latter programme (at the time of writing) via The Smiths 6 Music profile page [update 5 December 02004: the artist profiles have been removed from the 6 Music site in its recent redesign], but unfortunately I can find no trace of Radcliffe's Zappa programme anywhere on the BBC web site. I'll come back to this problem later.

1.2 Features & new curatorial work

Many of the best programmes on 6 Music are spiced up with regular short (15-20 minutes) features that throw the spotlight on unfamiliar areas:

  • the Freakzone has a Specialist Corner where Stuart Maconie interviews a 'specialist' like Justin Spear or Eddi Fiegel on the life and work of a range of out-of-the-way artists from Virginia Astley to Basil Kirchin and Ennio Morricone;
  • Andrew Collins presents Kings of the Wild Frontier [update 5 December 02004: this page has been removed in the recent redesign] — another peek beyond the straitjacket of radio playlists — as a once-a-week feature on his own show;
  • the Parallel Universe feature in Marc Riley's Rocket Science revisits a series of weeks during the last 30 years through the lens of contemporary music magazines, including a picture gallery showing clippings [update 5 December 02004: this page has been removed in the recent redesign];
  • OK, now I'm really stretching the definition of 'learning' but the "How to Buy" five-minute feature on Liz Kershaw's programme provides a brief profile of the acts it features in the process of offering consumer advice [update 5 December 02004: this page has been removed in the recent redesign].

Of these, only the How to Buy features are archived as accessibly as the documentaries. The Specialist Corner and Parallel Universe features can only be heard again as part of the full Freakzone and Rocket Science programmes respectively, and after a week these disappear (in contrast to 6 Music's interviews with artists, which often remain available for months).

Andrew Collins has celebrated about 80 artists in Kings of the Wild Frontier, but the audio for these is not accessible at all. The Kings of the Wild Frontier web pages list ten of these artists on each page. The "more info" links are not to Collins' own essays but to biographical profiles, some produced elsewhere in the BBC (e.g. Lee Perry) or licensed from Muze UK Ltd (e.g. Dick Dale). The organisation of pages is, I assume, in chronological order — but this makes little sense to anyone viewing the pages more than a few weeks after their broadcast. People might wish to browse alphabetically or by genre, but few will remember the sequence of 80+ artists.

1.3 Web-specific resources

The 6 Music web site is gradually accumulating a set of artist profiles that collect together all the interviews the station records with them, plus related documentaries, web links and brief histories [update 5 December 02004: these profiles been removed in the recent redesign]. The Pixies page includes all these elements and as such is one of the richest band resources on the site.

As far as they go, these resources are great. However, the range of artists featured in this resource, and the depth of the coverage, is patchy — and this doesn't seem to be driven just by who has been on the station recently. They had a great interview and live session with The Clientele a while back, but there's no listing for them, though I can't imagine their (small, independent and in need of publicity) label or management would have blocked the rights for this.

1.4 Incidental learning

So some of the features might enable more learning if they were more rigorously archived and indexed, but they are still useful, entertaining and often innovative. And there is still a case to be made for more spontaneous or incidental learning where you really just have to be there to get it. 6 Music is blessed with some very well-informed DJs able to fill in factual details that range from useful context to self-aware showing off: Tom Robinson, Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie and Marc Riley are all great for this, as is Paul Morley when he fills in for someone on holiday. But my favourite is Gideon Coe, who, every weekday morning, provides three hours of records interlaced with some of the funniest and most clever gimmicks to spice up the programming. He wears his learning lightly but dishes it out liberally, with a panache that reminds of me of Miles Kington's affectionate parody of John Fowles in an old Punch sketch, The Franglais Lieutenant's Woman: "Stick avec moi et vous serez un bon education reçevoir".

2. Enhancements for learning

Here's a few things that I think would make 6 Music an even better resource for learning about music. They're mostly fairly obvious and I've no doubt the first three are already on the drawing board or in development. Arguably it's the fourth one that brings the biggest gains but requires the most ongoing work.

2.1 Managing the volume of information

The 6 Music web site in its current form is already starting to strain under the weight of the accumulated resources — as shown by the Kings of the Wild Frontier. Yet there is scope for a lot more information to be added to increase the value for learning. Some of the full-programme audio streams can only remain accessible for seven days due to licensing agreements, but audio clips of interviews and radio essays are not restricted in the same way, and it would be nice to see them more comprehensively collated. Ditto with the artist profiles.

So the web site will need an overhaul before long, and let's hope this goes along with a more meticulous approach to keeping more information available. There are signs that the BBC already has some changes in hand in this area, judging from the recent revamp of the Radio 2 and Radio 3 web sites. However, they haven't done a great job in explaining the rationale for the changes made, as can be seen from this Radio 3 message board thread [update 5 December 02004: this thread now seems to have disappeared from the site]. Apparently the BBC now has a system to be used "indefinitely" so that all programme playlists can be kept "in the permanent and unique programme pages". There is then an issue of indexing this information, as you start to see with the not-revamped-yet list of two years of John Peel playlists, which is comprehensive but not good on usability. Users are more likely to ask "What was the name of the band that did the song 'One nation under a brolly'?" — which the index doesn't help you find — than to ask "What was the track played at the start of the show in mid-April 2003?" — which it does.

Another by-product of the Radio 3 web site revamp is the the four years' worth of audio and video archive material on the Mixing It programme page has disappeared. If the new BBC system to be used for evermore is to raze all previous web archives to the ground, it had better be good.

2.2 Better integration with other BBC material

I think the BBC radio coverage of music is better now than it's ever been, and it is spread across many of their stations. It's understandable perhaps that cross-promotion of features on other BBC stations is limited on air, but less clear why the web sites for the different stations also show this silo mentality.

At the moment, 6 Music's profile of The Smiths and the general BBC profile of the same band each show a sublime indifference to the existence of the other — there are no links between them — and each provides a different set of exclusive resources related to the band. As I mentioned earlier, Mark Radcliffe's Zappa documentary, re-broadcast on 6 Music in late May or early June, is invisible to the BBC's search engine at the time of writing. However, Charles Shaar Murray's Zappa series on Radio 3, which was broadcast at about the same time, does show up. Since one of these leaves no trace, I guess it's churlish of me to point out that there is no link between them, but you get the point that there is room for improvement. This goes on all the time right across the BBC: last week Radio 4's Soul Music programme was dedicated to the song Stand by me but there was no mention on air or on the web page of all the resources about the song available on the Radio 2 Sold on Song site.

This is one of the areas where BBC Online can sometimes shoot itself in the foot (didn't they have five different BBC web sites for the 2002 World Cup?), and I assume that, in the wake of the Graf report and Ashley Highfield's commitment to innovation, we can look forward to better integration and navigation of the BBC's online resources.

2.3 Use of metadata and search for audio streams

It helps people learn if they can quickly scan a resource to see if it holds information relevant to their interests at that moment. Improving the scan-ability of text information (like playlists or Kings of the Wild Frontier) is one thing, but we're used to audio material being hard to scan because of its linear, time-based nature.

Over the last six nights, 6 Music has been broadcasting the History of UK Black Music in its Time Tunnel slot. That's a lot of information spread over six hours of radio, and there is no dedicated web-based information to help you find out what is featured in each programme. As Media Player technology develops, it will be helpful if the BBC audio streams can be tagged with metadata so that users/learners can, for example, enter a search to find out which programme(s) feature Desmond Dekker, and then skip directly to the beginning of that audio segment without having to trawl through the rest of the material.

2.4 Innovative use of hypermedia, avoiding over-reliance on search

Good search facilities are necessary to support learning, but they are not sufficient in themselves. Learners don't know what they don't know, so they can't be expected to produce well-formed searches to discover the gaps in their knowledge.

As touched on in my previous posting on the usability of archives, I have a nightmare (OK, mildly unsettling) vision of the BBC Creative Archive consisting of a massive slew of undigested resources dumped on the web with just a fancy search engine to help you find what you want.

If you put together all the components mentioned above — original BBC archive sound recordings; interviews and commentary (audio or text); comprehensive storage, indexing and linking; metadata and search; engaging personalities to bring the material to life — you've got the means to make a truly wonderful set of resources to help people develop their appreciation of popular music, its history and cultural context. Real public value.

The other things you might need to cook up a great meal with these ingredients are a rich understanding of how people want to go about their learning in this area and the hypertext/multimedia/usability design skills to apply this understanding to the ingredients. Guess what? I'm available.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) BBC, Curatorial, E-learning, Human-Computer Interaction, Music and Multimedia, Radio on 19 July 02004 | TrackBack
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