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BBC boss outlines ambitions for Sounds app and its “public service algorithm”

By | Published on Tuesday 14 May 2019


The BBC’s Director Of Radio & Education yesterday promised that a “public service algorithm” would drive recommendations on the Corporation’s new-fangled BBC Sounds app, designed to burst the bubbles that other stats-based recommendation tools often create.

Speaking at the Radio Festival in London, James Purnell said: “Algorithms can be positive. They learn from what you don’t like and stop recommending you the wrong things. And they can surface things similar to what you are listening to, that you would not otherwise have found. That’s why we are developing our own: a public service algorithm. [But] this is not an algorithm that just gives you more of the same, [it’s] an algorithm built to surprise you, to direct your attention to new information, to different points of view, to pop your bubble”.

The launch last year of BBC Sounds – with its extra content and functionality – received a mixed response from listeners who had previously got used to the iPlayer Radio app. Meanwhile, in the music industry, the playlists element – and talk of more interactivity down the line – sparked a bunch of licensing debates. BBC services remain licensed via collecting societies PPL and PRS/MCPS for now, but labels and publishers might want to push some direct deals onto the Corporation as the Sounds app evolves.

Noting that Sounds was, in part, competing with some very well established on-demand audio apps from launch, Purnell went on yesterday: “When we launched Sounds, we knew that we were taking on the biggest businesses in the world, and that we were going to market late”. Possibly referencing the mixed response the app had received, he then said: “We also know that the best way to launch a product is to test and learn from what does and doesn’t work – then respond to feedback and change”.

“But as with any product, you launch, find ways to improve, and learn”, he added. “The app, for instance, is built for personalisation, but is not yet fully personalised. This means that right now a user sees programmes that have not been curated for them. That is changing, as of this month in fact. By the autumn, Sounds will be highly personalised”.

As for other future plans, Purnell concluded: “We want to open BBC Sounds up to podcasts made outside of the BBC. And we are in discussions about opening the app to commercial radio too. We’ve seen this play out in other industries. The incumbents failed to collaborate, which allowed the new entrants to aggregate their content and walk off with the audience. We mustn’t repeat that mistake in audio”.