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The two sides of visualising radio

Posted on Friday, February 24th, 2012 at 1:05 pm. #

Australian DAB+ slideshow

It’s all the rage to claim “firsts” in the radio industry, and BBC Radio 1 is no exception. Writing in the Huffington Post UK (wha?), the lovely Joe Harland, “Head of Visualisation” for Radio 1, says:

This Sunday at 6pm Reggie Yates will become the first Radio 1 presenter to play not a record, CD, or Wav, but a DVD. … This Sunday, when Reggie proudly presses play on his Pioneer DVJ for the first time, it is the start of something you’ll be hearing – and seeing – a great deal more of from radio stations around the world.

This form of visualising radio – playing the music video alongside the audio – is nothing new, of course. Cameras invaded the Chris Evans Breakfast Show at Virgin Radio in 1998, simulcasting the show on Sky One: while he didn’t play DVDs but rather beta video tapes, the concept was the same.

RMF MAXXX, a station in Poland, did something even closer in the mid 2000s: DJs would self-op their programmes, but wearing in-ear headphones, lit and made-up for TV, and looking directly at the camera (since that was where their notes were, on an auto-cue). It sounded like radio, but looked like television. Videos would play off the station’s playout system: just like the audio.

Making a TV simulcast from the Radio 1 Top 40 – something that Joe specifically denies they’re doing (oddly) – is clearly a sensible, bright thing to do: for all the reasons Joe gives in his post. The Radio 1 brand is, actually, no longer a radio brand but a youth entertainment brand: and that’s a good thing.


The phrase “visualising radio” is, however, being used for two entirely different things within radio, and for two different ends.

First, there’s “making television”. By that I mean producing a live video stream, with cameras in studios, music videos, captions, scrolling tickers and fancy wipes. Putting radio onto a video stream is a great thing to do. KISS is doing a great job, for example, of editing their breakfast show and putting it on YouTube.

If you’ve the resources to make television, that’s cool. Television isn’t a true multitasking medium, like radio is. The benefits of radio’s “theatre-of-the-mind” is laid bare with cameras in studios. Presenters have a tendency to act up to the cameras, and ignore the radio audience. But those are all controllable. Making television from radio is not the wrong thing to do.

Then, there’s “adding visuals to radio”. I’m specifically not talking here about video. I’m talking about things that allow audiences to engage when they want to, and discover more about what they’re listening to.

There are two great examples of this: the RadioVIS-like experience you get when you listen to Capital FM on the Radioplayer. Static slides appear containing news, travel information, now-playing stuff, weather, pictures of the DJs, and more glanceable information. This also appears on radio devices, too.

Another great example of this is the BBC Radio 1 homepage. As you listen, more information appears to let you learn more about what you’re hearing. Images of songs, tweets and Facebook messages from the audience, promotion of other things on the station, and links to video and more. Once more, it’s glanceable information that allows more interaction when you’ve the time to do so.

This is stuff that enhances a radio broadcast – stuff that can be completely automatable, and stuff that reflects what’s on that radio station. It’s not television.

Both of these things are currently called “visualising radio”. I think they’re both healthy for the future of the medium; and very different.


Jeffrey Specter
commenting at February 24th, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Check out TUNEGENIE, which has been visualizing the broadcast for 3 years on over 700 radio stations. Its now added the ability to Create-Play-Share playlists. A social music network for each radio station based on music discovery sourced from the on air broadcast.


are examples

commenting at February 24th, 2012 at 8:17 pm

“Making Television from Radio is not the wrong thing to do”. My hunch is only a person with a radio background and no visual experience would say that. The mediums are completely different and what works in one is actually a drawback for the other. TV is about pictures telling a story. Video is a storytelling medium, the most sophisticated incarnation of something we humans have been doing since we sat round camp fires on plains. Just like our language has a grammatical structure, video does too. The types of pictures and the way in which pictures are sequenced together have a dramatic effect on how powerfully you get across a message, and it’s an underlying grammar which resonates with how the human brain works. It also works across cultures and doesn’t have the barriers that verbal langauge does.

The fundamental problem with ‘cameras in radio studios’ is that you have absolutely none of those creative options to do anything remotely interesting. Your visual vocabulary is effectively limited to that of a 2 year old. Everything is led by the conversation, the audio. But video is about pictures. It’s about seeing something happen, not just people talking about something happen.

Video is also about two mediums (sound and pictures) coming together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. But if the visual medium is giving you nothing additional to what the sound medium is doing, then all you’re really making is dull TV.

At a time when we are literally swamped with so much provocative, engaging, diverse, bizarre and incredible visual content, I find it odd that people would hold out on a form of video where nothing much happens, and where the visuals are to be honest, ugly. It feels a bit like radio snobbery and a lack of awareness of how video works as a medium. Maybe it’s because the uncomfortable truth is that video is a rubbish medium for complex factual information.

But what video is good at, it does incredibly powerfully. It can captivate and engage and change the way people think and feel like no other. But it will only do this if you are honest about its strengths and weaknesses and play to those strengths. My argument against ‘radio as pictures’ is that seems to play to video’s weaknesses rather that it’s strengths.

The second form of visualisation you talk about I feel is much more is promising and interesting. But then is this really not just taking advantage of the internet as an amorphous medium which is very good at being anything and everything? While you could call it visualisation, is it not really a combination of many mediums coming together? I would suggest that’s less an exercise in ‘visualisation’ and more of a kind of ‘simulplatformisation’.

Sorry, that’s probably the ugliest word ever invented.

James Cridland
commenting at February 24th, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Hi, Tel.

Find “The Bottom Line” on a TV system near you (you’re in the UK, so you’ll use BBC News Channel; readers elsewhere might find it on BBC World News).

That’s a discussion programme – four talking heads, where, to use your comment, “everything is led by the conversation, the audio.” It happens to be filmed in a radio studio; though nobody uses headphones, and the equipment is rather smarter than the average studio (notably, no brightly-coloured microphone cables or dirty windshields). It is also (in an edited form) broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and on the BBC World Service.

It’s another example of great television from radio – entirely similar to NBC’s Meet The Press, Question Time or Have I Got News For You – except it’s based in the radio studio, not in a brightly-lit television studio. Indeed, the BBC World Service programme “World Have Your Say” is also broadcast on BBC World News tv in the reverse – it’s based in a TV studio, but works perfectly for radio.

You could call The Bottom Line or World Have Your Say uninteresting television, and to some people they are. You could similarly claim that Have I Got News For You or Question Time are uninteresting television; and it’s interesting that the BBC persists with radio versions of both of these programmes (The News Quiz and Any Questions in this case).

But it’s not naive to claim that making television from radio is the wrong thing to do – as the success of those programmes demonstrate; and it’s disappointing to see you attack me as having no understanding of what makes good television, rather than attacking the argument. I’ve seen enough television to have just as valid a point of view as you.

commenting at February 24th, 2012 at 8:54 pm

No offence James but bringing up a bunch of discussion programmes as an example of how radio works on TV is depressingly predictable. For every example you highlight one could very easily switch off the pictures and listen to them as if they were radio programmes. (Except maybe HIGNFY where the visual interaction of the panellists does add a lot). So my question is this – what are you actually adding by including the visuals? Why bother?

If you are presenting visuals that do not stimulate the visual system you hold people’s attention less.This is biological fact.

I’ve worked (and still do) as a radio producer for some 10 years. I’ve recently moved into doing a lot of video production. I’ve also had to try and do ‘visualisation’ for radio teams. If you ever care about the quality and effectiveness of what you’re producing you rapidly reach the conclusion that what stops your video content improving and having more resonance with audiences is the radio side of it. It gets in the way and limits you. The mediums are different, they work differently. The average Joe knows this subconsciously and they demonstrate it in their media consumption behaviour. It’s time for us professionals to start being honest about it.

James Cridland
commenting at February 24th, 2012 at 9:17 pm

“For every example you highlight one could very easily switch off the pictures and listen to them as if they were radio programmes.” – yes, that’s the exact point. The moment you make them require the images, they cease to be radio with additional video, they turn into TV.

I have to say that, like you, I’m not a particular fan of slinging cameras into radio studios. I find the visualisations from Radio 5 Live are particularly poor examples of the genre. That said, for some programmes – like The Bottom Line or the Top 40, it ought to work well: assuming we don’t see any headphones or faders.

Mark Jones
commenting at February 25th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

I remember “sight and sound in concert” that worked well .. Listen on the radio, watch on the TV OR (wow!) put your fm stero speakers by your tv and get stereo sound on the pictures.

We were easily impressed back then …

James Stodd
commenting at February 25th, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Whilst not actually visualisation, Radio 1 did a whole week of the radio 1 Roadshow back in 1992 where all of the music was played on air (via audio) and to the crowd (the video) from Beta Tapes. It was driven by Jeff Smith (now Radio 2′s Head of Music) and Mark Goodier.
Whether or not we think it works, this is a new attempt at doing something different by Radio 1. Let’s not forget, it won’t make any real difference to the radio show; this is to purely enhance the online stream. And Radio 1 have to investigate lots of different ways to make radio more visual – younger listeners will increasingly consume the station on devices with screens – so there is a real need to try a variety of techniques to help develop future thinking.
There’s a photo of a very young Jeff Mith tech opting the Radio 1 roadshow (taken by me) here:

Jonathan Marks
commenting at February 29th, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Remember the one night when BBC 2 and Radio 4 interacted. It was very wierd when the radio interacted with the telly in the same room. Could’nt find a way to record it though. BBC should put that into its Facebook timeline.

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