BBC’s new Radio Explorer, an addictive radio-streaming experience

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James Cridland pointed us to a delightful and promising work-in-progress from the BBC, called Radio Explorer. Hooking into the resurgence of podcasting and the archived radio trend, this beta service aims to provide instant listening to talk programs, in response to search queries.

As a BBC product, Radio Explorer explores the BBC content universe exclusively. That focus on depth at the expense of breadth makes for an experience that feels carefully curated — program notes on the page add to that feeling.

Podcast searching is hardly new, and it’s tempting to compare Radio Explorer with Stitcher or Swell — podcast-listening apps with broad reach across thousands of programmers. Radio Explorer’s advantage is its content ownership, enabling a more detailed experience — you can read the program description before investing listening time.

We tested the search depth with a couple of difficult queries. First, asking Radio Explorer for programs about “Bulgarian folk music” brought up a program featuring Dobrinka Tabakova, a Bulgarian classical composer. More a glancing blow than a perfect hit — but we fine semi-relevance often more interesting than exact relevance. In fact, it is the unexpected surprises that make this site so delightful.

We tried asking Radio Explorer for “music technology.” The first result described a case of identity theft in 1722 involving composer Thomas Albinoni. It was hugely entertaining and completely unpredictable.

Making things substantially easier, we lobbed a softball into Radio Explorer: “Academy of St. Martin in the Fields,” which is a famous London-based orchestra. We heard a profile of long-time music director Neville Mariner on his 90th birthday. An exact and well-chosen hit.

Radio Explorer would benefit from more surgical packaging — carving up long programs into small units that better fulfill a search request. For example, a search for Lady Gaga brought up a 54-minute episode of You and Yours (BBC Radio 4) with a topical span covering vending machines in the Middle East, the World Cup in South Africa, and a segment on a Lady Gaga concert in East London.

Date sensitivity is a potential improvement, too; that Lady Gaga piece was produced in 2010.

But Swell and Stitcher grapple with packaging and ┬ácontextual challenges as well. Throwing “Lady Gaga” at each of those apps yielded long programs without descriptions, presumably relevant but with no way of knowing in advance.

Radio Explorer is instantly addictive. It’s worth bookmarking, and we look forward to watching it develop.


Brad Hill