Talking about digital on the radio? Keep It Simple, Stupid

An incomprehensible red button mention is just one example of where we are letting audiences down

By James Cridland
Posted 26 January 2015, 8.39am est
Horia Varlan

If you were listening to BBC Radio 2 on Thursday, you'd have heard Radio 2 in Concert with Ed Sheeran.

It was a good concert in the Radio Theatre - a pared-back performance and well worth a listen - it really is what the BBC does best, and well worth enjoying again.

Here's Jo Whiley at the end of the concert:

What a wonderful night! Thank you for being an amazing audience, thank you Ed for being just superb! Er - if you're listening to Radio 2 right now you can go and you can press your red button and you can watch the whole concert to your heart's content - it's been going out there straight away. So, Radio 2 listeners, go and check out the red button, er, when you leave here when you go home go and check it out as well. Thank you so much for being here tonight, it's been a tremendous evening, one more time please: Ed Sheeran!

Radio programmers talk a lot about the need to constantly 'reset'. Always explain the competition mechanic as if you're a brand new listener. Always explain a feature really clearly because new people join all the time. Always explain what the phone-in topic is, regularly, in case someone's tuned-in halfway through. Explain, reset, explain, reset. This is drummed into us as presenters and producers.

I would challenge almost any listener to understand what that stuff about "the red button" was.

I think we need to be very careful when we're talking about new technology. We need to constantly explain; constantly reset; constantly hand-hold. We need to ensure that someone aged 65 understands what we mean and gets best value from what we're doing. We need to help someone who's just tuned into Radio 2 for the first time, perhaps just for that concert - no commercial stations do 'red button', so their listeners need help. If I'd just flown in from America, would I understand it?

This is particularly important for radio's digital innovators. In trying to do new, unfamiliar, things on the medium, we need to keep things really crystal clear.

Radio 5 live talks too much about "over on Sports Extra", as if most people understand what that means. They don't. BBC Radio 4 does a good job cross-trailing programmes on Radio 4 Extra, but doesn't explain that it's a separate digital radio station often enough. Stations gabble through app details or website addresses. We have to make this simple, otherwise this is lost.

For 'red button' stuff, particularly, it's important to get value for money from the investment required to film a concert like that. Listeners should be under no doubt what they are being asked to do, and when they should do it.

Still at a loss as to what that 'red button' stuff was about? Here's what perhaps she might have said.

Now, if you're listening to Radio 2 and you'd like to watch that concert - and hear more tracks too - then tune in to any BBC television channel and press the red button on your remote, and you'll see it there. We've put it there all weekend long! Just tune in to any BBC television channel, and press the red button on your remote.

And yes, the power button is also red - so "hitting the red button" might just turn off the telly. Probably for the best, though, eh?

More information

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.


6 years, 3 months ago

This is a great post, and something we talk about all the time. Radio needs to hold the audience's hand and walk them through everything from how to stream to how to use the app to acccessing our podcasts. At CES this month, we saw many indicators that electronics manufacturers are dumbing down their products, making it simpler to use them, from "connected cars" to TV. Great piece, James.

6 years, 3 months ago

Thank you, Fred! You've reminded me of the way Ira Glass explained how podcasts work - well worth a watch.

6 years, 3 months ago

Good example of this on BBC Radio Nottingham just now.

LIve broadcast from Nottingham Forest press conference (new manager). Press conference runs late. Radio coverage has to stop to cover royal visit locally but "you can keep listening to the press conference online."

Hang on, I am online (radio player). No further details given. By the time Someone tweets me the feed (not Available on my Android phone or iPad, incidentally) the press conference has finished.

6 years, 3 months ago

(And, like your red button example, this is where there is some good valuable extra content, just let down by the signposting).

6 years, 3 months ago

My frustration with complicated podcasting apps led me to invest gobs of time in an Android app that just simply plays the latest headlines or live news stations with one button push. For me, I just want to quickly listen to the latest popular news shows.

Initially, I just wanted an icon on mobile that when pressed would play the static MP3 file the BBC updates every hour with radio news headlines. You can't bookmark an mp3 file on the web on Android however. James gave this a mention in a past newsletter, but here it is again:

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