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.

On its launch just over two years ago, the BBC press release said that 6 Music "will offer its audience unique interactivity on a daily basis, enabling them to select their favourite classic concert recordings from the vast BBC archive".

Running from 10pm to midnight four nights a week, the original format for Dream Ticket was to feature recordings of four bands or artists: the first three ran for 20-25 minutes each, followed by a 'headline act' that took up the rest of the show. Often the nights were loosely programmed to feature, say, four Australian bands, or four goth bands from the '80s and '90s. Each band was introduced with a short profile delivered by Janice Long. Though she might have been recording these intros live (since Janice has a show on Radio 2 starting at midnight), the impression was that they might as well all have been recorded in one job lot on a rainy Thursday afternoon in February and stockpiled for later use.

So the "audience interactivity" referred to in the press release was, for this programme, limited to sending in a request for a particular artist/show and waiting for it to come round. Which is fair enough. And when the Dream Ticket was featuring one of your favourite bands, it was great to be able to hear rare performances well recorded and uninterrupted (it being digital radio, however, copy-protection is built in and you had to switch your mini-disk player over to analogue input to be able to record it — not that I ever did). But the rest of the time, the programme was like a four-course meal where every course was a variation on black forest gateau or crême brulée: too rich!

The new version is more like tapas or a series of aperitifs. It's more like all the other shows on 6 Music, and follows more tried and tested formats, with vestiges of the old approach forming the centre-piece features. It's presented live by Jane Gazzo, and the web page is overflowing with what someone no doubt calls 'interactivity opportunities', including votes, ratings and teasers to get you to participate in the hitherto underused message boards. The "featured session" and "featured album" both comprise three or four songs distributed through the three-hour show, in the time-honoured format established by John Peel's sessions. The "headline set" is still played straight through from beginning to the end, but is now truncated from 50-60 minutes to 20 or so. Not so much to get your teeth into. And in between all of these runs the standard 6 Music playlist, which is already over-familiar to this regular listener.

Altogether the new format Dream Ticket is more digestible — more 'bite-sized' in the trashy jargon of some e-learning people — but correspondingly less rewarding to those wanting to indulge in serious fan behaviour. As with many user interface issues, you can't avoid making trade-offs between the conflicting needs of different users (typically, say, between what works for new users versus expert users). 6 Music starts to come into its own when it allows its 'users' to adapt their use of the programming to suit themselves, as the 'listen again' feature allows. No doubt the future for 6 Music in particular and the BBC Archive in general lies in more of these adaptive features — though these will involve usability trade-offs of a different kind.

None of this is any kind of complaint about 6 Music, which by and large is bloody brilliant (read the BBC's Submission for the Secretary of State's review of the BBC's new digital radio services for a slew of evidence that does not overstate the case ). As Don Norman said of the original Mac user interface, "It's good enough to be worth criticising". I don't know what prompted 6 Music to re-style the Dream Ticket: whether it was just their own judgement or audience figures. If it was anything to do with the latter, I think they should bear in mind the possibility that the BBC is becoming a victim of its own success. In the 10pm-midnight slot Radio 1 has the words-fail-us-all John Peel, Radio 3 has the wonderfully catholic Late Junction, and Radio 2 has recently introduced a great new Mark Radcliffe show. We are spoilt for choice. Thanks, BBC.

Coming later, when I get a chance to write it, a review of 6 Music as a learning resource.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) BBC, Curatorial, Human-Computer Interaction, Ideas and Essays, Radio on 7 July 02004 | TrackBack
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