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The real request show: BBC R&D trials Responsive Radio

Responsive Radio delivers a variable length, object-based listening experience

The pace of life today is, we’re told, so fast that people need more flexibility to fit in everything they want or need to do. New technology has not only brought that to the workplace but also for the home and leisure activities. There is Listen Again and streamed video players so that anyone who missed their favourite radio or TV programmes can catch up whenever they want. This still means committing an hour or 30 minutes of one’s valuable time, so now there is the potential to specify how long you’ve got to spare and the show will run to the desired length.

BBC R&D last month launched Responsive Radio, which uses the concept of object-based broadcasting (OBB) to construct a programme from existing elements to match a running time specified by the listener. This is a continuation of the broadcaster’s research into the application of object-based audio, which has already produced tests of personalised programmes. The first was in 2012 with the drama Breaking Out, which incorporated the weather and local information of the listener’s location into the action. This was followed in 2013 by coverage of a live football match that allowed fans to select the crowd noise from where their team’s supporters were and how much commentary was in the mix.

Responsive Radio – which, for now, is the name of both the technology and the programme strand – is currently based on a documentary called The Cornish Gardener. This was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 with a running time of 28-minutes. It is now available through the BBC Taster website, with the option for listeners to select their preferred length.

Senior engineer on the Responsive Radio project Matthew Brooks (pictured) was involved in Breaking Out and says that while the basic principles of object-based audio are similar the new test is “more end-to-end” and generic. “On Breaking Out the concern was more about the end effect of what the objects gave,” he explains. “For Responsive Radio we have a back-end that maps the entire story as a graph. Everything involved – the speech, the wild track effects and the music – hang off that and are assembled using its template.”

The core of this is an Excel spreadsheet detailing all the component parts, which are broken down into objects. Once a listener specifies a running time the software assembles the programme to match but still with the correct narrative structure. This means that if one part of the story is mentioned in a specific object, it has to either follow on from another element or continue to appear later if relevant.

The content of The Cornish Gardener was broken down into many parts, which were then organised in the graph database as Narrative Objects, Themes and Audio Objects. These are then put in order using an algorithm that is designed to recognise and retain narrative relationships between nodes.

Brooks says this prototype technology is “the start of a playback solution” for something like Responsive Radio. “What we don’t have now are the tools that we would want producers and editors to use to make programmes like this,” he comments. “Creating tools takes time and effort so we need to start looking at this.” Brooks adds that to do this an engineer needs to do “some munging” in the production world, working out how things are done to produce specific applications for making variable time programmes.

The Cornish Gardener was cut to 28 minutes from a 45-minute original version. Right now it is only possible to create shorter versions but Brooks says that if a longer edit of a programme does exist it will be possible to specify that as well. “It’s also radio over IP rather than over the air,” he explains, “but if this proves popular we will look at tools that will linearise it. What we need now is for someone to come along with a blank piece of paper to create another test programme.”