Please excuse a lengthy, self-indulgent post (unusual, huh) in which I take stock of the last year at work. Partly this is public thank you to the teams I work with at BBC Radio & Music Interactive; our own excellent Technology & Design team in particular (take a bow!), and the many teams around the organisation who support and enable our work. But this is also me using the blog as the proverbial 'outboard brain', the notebook-cum-scrapbook-cum-sketchpad with the web attached. So excuse the inward focus and switch channel if you like, but I figure some people might find the dispatches from the front line of the BBC interesting, given how little info actually makes it out of large organisations. So here's a (currently flu-ridden) design manager's view, as I see it from our third floor haven at Broadcasting House, overlooking the new building rising from the ground. The Technology & Design team I run is responsible for designing and building the BBC's interactive services around radio and music ...
Last year was fairly intense for most people working at the BBC. Our department and team was no exception. However, in a sense it was business as usual i.e. much of the year was spent creating the conditions for the next few years' worth of production, whilst keeping the sites and services ticking along, covering major broadcast events, projects with indies, across high-profile tight deadlines with brands which genuinely mean something to people. Not an easy trick to pull off, and not without tensions.
But not without highlights either. Here are a few things which spring to mind, in no particular order.
We actually started 2005 with a new version of the Radio Player. Most of that work was done in '04, but our streaming radio-on-demand - or 'Listen again' - feature has continued to prove popular with punters, pulling in over 100 million requests during 2005.
We also managed to embark work on a new web-based content management system, which also served as a trial of the kind of multidisciplinary team-working I've wanted us to pursue for a while. I'm happy to report both project and team are doing well. One of goals here is create conditions which can enable "viral metadata" (as per the true definition of viral marketing), in which useful metadata is invisibly accumulated as a side-effect of production processes, not a separate task in its own right. This kind of thing is familiar from the last few years' worth of social software projects, but it'll interesting to test its efficacy when applied to content management and existing workflows in a production process. This, as part of a metadata-accumulating ecosystem alongside tags and other annotation and media analysis. It was great to meet David Weinberger about half way through the year to discuss these things, and more. We've been playing around with some Radio 3 keyword browsers at work, which are getting interesting enough to develop to product now. Watch this space.
I was hugely pleased that some of the team got to present their 'Reinventing Radio' presentation at O'Reilly's Emerging Technologies conference. That presentation is a good place to go to get a (relatively) concise summation of some of the thinking buzzing around the place.
Our Radio 3 'Beethoven Experience' was a huge step up in terms of enabling radio programmes as downloads in terms of impact and profile, moving on from the simple mp3 download trial we started a year before with the Reith Lectures. It still resonates through our conversations and strategy. (See Mark Thompson's speech to the BPI.) The current programme download trial is being extended shortly - more programmes to follow.
We particularly pushed our download trials forward with podcasting, which we nipped in with in 2004 but built up last year. This latter has been one of the themes of the year across a lot of media, of course, and I'm proud that it was our team that made it happen at the BBC, as one of the first major media companies to really explore this space (working well with BBC News Interactive, too). We particularly tried to help create good user experiences around the process. There's more to come here, but it was nice to receive a New Media Age Special Award for Innovation for this stuff - not that the award means much per se, compared to the way it's altered radio's trajectory in interesting ways, and also as the innovation came 'merely' from a few people hacking on it in one afternoon. That's not devaluing it. It's a quite deliberate strategy; one day I'll write up some thoughts on the way we do 'innovation-from-within' and R&D here.
We managed to roll out our programme information platform (described previously here) with another network, Radio 4. With more to follow, this should give us a powerful, flexible platform on which to build interactive services. A key bit of plumbing, this, and therefore deserves to be heralded as much as any more obviously user-facing experience.
Radio 1 has been the forum for a couple of steps forward: firstly, the Superstar VJ, initial outing of the Creative Archive, has been covered elsewhere and the credit is largely due to those Matt Locke points at, plus Radio 1 (though it's nice to see the fruits of some conversations I had with Paula Le Dieu in BH cafe a year before! And I'll also point at some great free urban footage in there!); secondly, a couple of team-members did a few broadband video gigs with Radio 1 towards the end of the year (The Strokes, Kanye West etc.), which were hugely popular. The 'Radio 1 Presents' section, now just holds photo galleries from those gigs due to rights reasons (tho' remains one of my favourite URL structures!). It's going to be an interesting ride, helping brands like Radio 1 continue to morph across on-demand, multimedia experiences.
We also did an awful lot of work on the way we work as a team, developing that multidisciplinary ethos I mentioned previously, finding the synergy and tension between user-centred design, agile programming methodologies and plain old sketching, shifting to ever more effective project management processes, getting better at communicating and managing - all the plain old stuff of work in the post-Fordist organisation, which nonetheless is as vital as any other part of the operation. This would include beginning to sort out development environments and support structures as well things like quality accommodation. Never underplay this aspect of a creative enterprise!
There's much more to come from 2006. Extrapolate each one of these activities above, fold in many more, and stretch beyond the hubris of Web 2.0 and you'll get a sense of the ambition, at least ...
These are just a few highlights, and even omit the majority of the work. Thanks to all who have contributed to all these and more. I'm not intending to thank particular people for their hard work over the year. (I hope I do that in the day job anyway - if I don't, I'm sorry, you know who you are, and thanks!.) However, I've been meaning to post this for ages and wanted to say thanks to Tom Coates for all his sterling work over the last couple of years. He was an instrumental member of my team as we shifted up through the gears over the last couple of years, and really helped us move on to another level of thinking, innovation, influence and production. He's since moved on to Yahoo! and will be doing great things there for sure. So long overdue thanks from me, Tom.
And equally, I'm really pleased that Tristan Ferne has taken over in the R&D position in our team. Tristan brings a wealth of experience in R&D thinking, radio and interactivity to the team - he blogs at Cookin/Relaxin, so you can find out more there. Moreover, Matthew Wood is already doing great things as our new(ish) Software Team Leader - he also brings years of experience to this role, and is a great addition to an already excellent bunch. I'm very lucky to have assembled such a management team. The team will be further strengthened shortly.
Personally, I played some part in all of this, but sometimes difficult to know which one! A major part of my work involving working with teams to set the creative and technical agenda for the next couple of years and ensure there are the finances and support to match, and here I should mention the management team I work within too. They're a particularly strong, resourceful bunch. Additionally, I was proud and pleased to have been picked for the Creative Future: Beyond Broadcast team, name-checked by the DG here:
"Soon after the festival, we launched Creative Future. Teams of producers, commissioners and content-creators from across the BBC have started with a blank sheet of paper and begun to re-imagine drama, news, music, children's and other key genres from scratch. Perhaps the most important single team is the Beyond Broadcast group. They're exploring where and how BBC content can add the most value in the on-demand, pan-media universe we're hurtling towards. Their insights are informing every part of Creative Future." [Mark Thompson, Edinburgh International Television Festival 2005]
I'm pleased with the work we did on that project, and genuinely hope it continues to inform thinking. I also hope that we can bring some of it out in public too - you know I'll try to publish anything here if possible. While I'm on the subject, I thought Mark Thompson gave many excellent speeches last year, one of which I mentioned already. Another had this fascinating quote:
"I also believe that these digital rights solutions will exist in a world which is increasingly open and interoperable ... I'm sure some proprietary products and services will continue to flourish ... But the biggest momentum at present seems to be behind open solutions where choice is wider, where the consumer is fully in control and where awesome network effects can get to work"So, 2006 is already upon us. As a manager, I'm sitting down with my team and beginning to figure out better ways of doing what we do, as we grow again, and move on to truly delivering on some things we've been thinking and talking about for a while. Now a return to your usual programming.