Online Radio Drama
Clive Lever


Towards the end of last year, it was announced that Tim Davey, Director-General of the BBC, aims for all BBC Output to go online-only over the next ten years.

Since the beginning of the year, I have noticed a number of nudges to push this agenda forward:

1. At certain times of the day, just before the news, if you are listening to Radio 4 online through a third party streaming service such as Amazon, the programme will be interrupted by a message warning you that that streaming service will stop working some time during the first half of the year. This has the consequence, I hope unintended, that end-credits to radio dramas are lost on these streams. In at least one instance, the last few lines of the play were also cut to make way for the announcement, effectively making that listening experience rather like being told a shaggy dog story without the punchline. Full credits for radio plays are rarely if ever given before the play, so the actors and production team would remain uncredited. Listeners can find the credits on the web page for the drama, but only if they are prepared to jump through a number of hoops to find them (Bring up the page, then activate the ‘Show more’ button.)

2. Drama series and plays are now loaded inconsistently onto the website. One-off plays are usually available to hear, and sometimes to download, through the links on the schedules page and also via BBC Sounds. Serials may not be available via the Schedules page. For example, in the case of Jonathan Myerson’s current serial, “Nazis, The Road To Power” you can listen to the whole series via BBC Sounds but not in the same format as the series airs. It goes out on Thursday afternoons in a series of eight 45-minute episodes. On BBC Sounds, the series is split into sixteen 22-minute episodes. Each one is preceded by the “BBC Sounds! Music! Radio! Podcasts” identification, which sometimes overlaps the beginning of the episode itself. I presume that is done as part of the branding. These 22-minute episodes do not end with cast credits. The extra two-minute introduction to the series plays like a long version of a trailer for it, and credits five actors, but not the production team.

3. More and more radio and TV trailers inserted into or between other programmes end with statements like: “Starts next Monday on BBC IPlayer”. The programme may be available on BBC1 as well, but if you want to find out for certain and make a note to listen to or watch the live broadcast, you have to go online to find out when it actually airs. Many listeners are not confident with internet browsing. Others may live in areas known as ‘computer not spots’, where broadband signals are not readily available. They will struggle to find the broadcast times of programmes which arouse their interest. This approach also ruins the idea of ‘making a date with your radio or TV’. However, the argument has been put forward that linear listening or viewing at broadcast times is on the way out, and that people will pick up their programmes like picking up a glass of martini – any time, any place, anywhere.”

4. Many radio drama serials, including the aforementioned ‘Nazis, The Road To Power” are produced with a full audio equivalent of a film score. Some people with partial hearing loss have said that if there are too many types of sound playing concurrently, they will find it impossible to follow the drama. However, it is sometimes said that producing dramas in the style of modern podcasts will make the productions more attractive to younger listeners. No matter that they will make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for many older people with partial hearing loss to enjoy.

It is unfair on the actors and producers of a radio drama to have their credits clipped from all versions of episodes available through third-party streaming services cut out, especially when the BBC Sounds version of serials carry no spoken credits. It is also unfair on those who listen via traditional radios or smart speakers, perhaps because they are not confident or able to listen online. The members of the demographic to whom radio has been the 'friend in the corner' are the ones most likely to find themselves elbowed out of the service. For some, especially older people living alone, the friend in the corner is reaching for his or her coat and getting ready to leave and head for the internet café.

Like everyone else, the BBC finds itself under pressure to modernise, but at what cost? And who pays? The BBC Diversity and Equality page on the site of the BBC Trust states that: “For the BBC, the Public Sector Equality Duty DOES NOT APPLY “in respect of functions relating to the provision of a content service”. A “content service” is a very broad concept: it covers any content service of the BBC – TV, radio or online. This may mean that not all licence payers can expect the same value for money from the services they receive, because the Corporation is not obliged to go the extra mile to make sure those services: ·

  • Eliminate discrimination against people with certain protected characteristics ·
  • Promote equality of opportunity between different groups; and ·
  • Promote good relations between people who share a protected characteristic under the equality act (of which the Public sector Equality Duty is part, applying to some public services), and those who don’t.

    So, I wonder if anyone at the BBC has asked themselves how those older people, who struggle with technology will be able to access an online only service if it is not made simple, straightforward and consistent in its appearance. At some conferences, people designing state-of-the-art online services are strongly advised to ask the questions:

    1. Could my nan do this? And

    2. Does it look like Google? (in other words, will the site visitor feel they already know their way around, or are they presented with a new and sometimes difficult learning curve?

    What’s to be done? Although the BBC is not bound by the Public Sector Equality Duty in the creation of its content, they should remember we live in a society with an ageing demographic. Perhaps they would be wiser to respect the needs of older and disabled consumers, instead of overlooking them as they chase a younger and ever younger audience, many of whom will have moved already onto streaming services such as Netflix.

    Clive Lever


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