Sounds Disappointing

Hoping for a better BBC Sounds

It’s a great time to be someone who loves spoken word audio. The recent rise in popularity of podcasts has brought many more people and organisations into the community, and mostly for the better. There’s a glut of high-quality audio programming available today.

Of the organisations producing audio content, the BBC must be one of the largest. There are pages upon pages of programmes covering myriad subjects. Though they’ve been producing radio for decades now, in 2007 the BBC were also some of the earliest adopters of podcasting.

The BBC began by distributing their programming via both podcast RSS feeds and the iPlayer service. Then in 2018 they launched their new audio platform, BBC Sounds, with services spanning the web to native apps.

Not unlike iPlayer Radio, I do not like the BBC Sounds app for iOS. I’ve tolerated the former for many years and the latter for the past nine months. My quibbles have nothing to do with woefully old hardware, out-of-date software or being afraid of change, unlike others. Rather, I’m unhappy with how the app works, particularly in the context of alternative audio players.

Spoilt for choice

I listen to podcasts using an iOS device almost exclusively. This is fortuitous because there are fantastic choices for listening on iOS: Castro, ’sodes, Overcast and Pocket Casts, only to name a few. All of these apps are just for consuming podcasts. They have thought through and designed every interaction with the user, from subscribing, managing, listening and controlling the audio output.

Again, it’s a great time to be someone who likes listening to people talk, particularly if you’re a bit fussy like me. Because I listen to so much spoken word audio and I’m also finicky, these sorts of apps delight me. I benefit most from being notified of new episodes, easily managing my queue and normalising audio output so it’s more clearly heard.

Improving BBC Sounds

The BBC Sounds app helps me in none of the ways the aforementioned podcast players do. As it stands today, nine months old and at version 1.7, its sole advantage is that some content I want to hear can only be played through Sounds. Even after accounting for upcoming features, I’m left feeling mostly disappointed with the app.

Some of this sentiment can be assuaged by accepting that BBC Sounds is not a podcast player – not only in nomenclature, but in functionality. Mind you, that’s not so much a complaint – this time – as it is a statement of acceptance.

I understand that the Sounds app must cater to many different kinds of listeners with varying needs. Consequently, I don’t expect Sounds to specialise solely on spoken word audio. In spite of that, however, I do think the app could benefit from additional work to make the experience better for listeners.

Unlistened programming

This is the single-most important lesson I’d like Sounds to learn: Almost always, I only want to see new or unlistened programmes.

This could be achieved through optionally hiding listened items in the ‘My Sounds’ tab or by adding a ‘New’ category to the tab. This alone would go a great distance in improving the Sounds experience.

Returning series notifications

I don’t know how other digital-only listeners keep up with new programmes and returning series, but for me it’s a struggle. Too often I find out too late and have nearly missed the first episode. More than once, I’ve missed it entirely.

This problem could be mostly rectified by implementing the suggestion above. Alternatively, I’d happily settle for a list of new programmes from for example, a fortnight prior to and after today. Being notified of subscribed series would be fantastic, though I understand those can be costly to implement.

Presumably the personalised recommendations feature in BBC Sounds could help me catch these cases. Regrettably, though, I can’t imagine I’ll begin using Sounds often enough to make these effective.

App speed

The app feels slow because it appears that little or no data is being cached on the device. This means that every time the user changes screens, new data must be downloaded. It can feel interminable. By caching data like artwork and programme listings on the device, the experience improves for the user, even if the data is still refreshed in the background.

Lost opportunities

The BBC are certainly keen on the Sounds platform, but I’m still not certain why. It could be because they’ve invested huge sums of money into it or because they’re interested in building revenue streams abroad. Their reasons notwithstanding, so far the app doesn’t do enough to compel me to use it regularly.

BBC Sounds is a closed system, and a young one at that. It will be difficult to compete against well-established open systems upon which a rich ecosystem has developed. Perhaps the BBC will be able to compete against this by providing superior content despite the lacklustre app. However, with the current proliferation in high-quality podcasts, it may be dangerous to trust in that alone.

3 April 2019