Xfm Buzz - A Radio Hack
At Global Towers we developers have 10% time to go away and hack at something that might, ultimately, bring value to the business. So that means Friday afternoons is hack time. One of my personal hack projects has come to an end and I wanted to record it for posterity before it disappears - how it behaves, what it does, the thought process behind it and why I thought it was a valuable exercise.
The hack, which I originally tagged with the decidedly un-glamourous title of "On Air Infostream" grew into a project code-named "Xfm Buzz". The plan was to get this on a public URL, entice real Xfm listeners to interact with it and see what worked and what didn't. That didn't happen, but a lot of the thinking, I hope, will influence future projects and surface in other forms.
The Initial Inspirations
The initial idea came from simultaneously listening to Xfm online and having a twitter client open. Each Xfm DJ tweets from the @xfm account, some are more engaging than others - around this time Marsha Shandur and Dan O'Connell were the heaviest users. One particular tweet that caught my attention was a typical radio-style device. A DJ told a little story, appealed to the listeners for similar stories and then retweeted some listener messages. This is EXACTLY like a traditional radio phone-in show. The listening online XP and following @xfm on twitter seemed to match up and compliment each other. What frustrated me though, was that I only got a few of the listener messages, I wanted to see them ALL. Given that twitter was the medium I figured that should be achievable.
The Human Touch
I was hoping that this kind of userXP was tapping into the qualities that make radio unique and a step ahead of PC-based listening services like Spotify, Last.FM, iTunes and Pandora. But what makes radio unique? There's an RAB Study from way back in 2006 that was conducted when the explosion in popularity of iPod was panicking radio executives and distracting people who had traditionally bought radio airtime. The study struck a chord with me. The argument, backed up with listener interviews, was that people listen to radio TO CONNECT whilst people listen to their own selection of music TO ESCAPE. This fits in with my experiences. Sometimes people I've met ask me what I do for a living and sometimes they're also fans of CapitalFM and/or Xfm. When that happens, boy do they want to talk. It's the raction of somebody who's found a kindred spirit - they want to talk about the music and they want to talk about the DJs. Being a listener of Capital and X is like being part of a secret gang, a gang of like-minded individuals. There's a definite overlap here with technology, and technology in the typical workplace too. When I started working in an office I used to chat to thre or four school friends throughout the day on a round-robin email. That habit died with the advent of IM. My IM habit was replaced, briefly, by Facebook and then by Twitter.
Take 1: The Simple Radio-Twitter Mash-Up
The initial hack was thus a mash-up of the onine player and twitter. On the left side your standard player stuff - the current DJ, current song - and on the right messages from the @xfm account and all messages that mention @xfm. To avoid latency problems, I avoided building this on top of the live stream. The initial hack focussed on archive shows, on demand. That way I could harvest existing data and request audio streams from our in-house Media Manager system, harvest tweets periodically and match them up later using the timestamps.
So as not to introduce twitter as a walled garden, I included a twitter-esque form so that messages could be submitted directly in the player.
The problem with this soon became apparent - it's that the current commercial radio model doesn't really suit this "chatterbox" appendage. It's fine when a DJ is being engaging and asking for specific kinds of response, but as soon as the music kicks in, listener submitted messages wander off topic. It would work fine for talk radio like LBC or TalkSport - at that point you're hosting a debate, your listeners are almost tagging the radio - sweet! But for low engagement radio like Xfm, CapitalFM or Heart FM the player is in danger of just becoming a chatroom. Cliques emerge, the conversation gets too personal and becomes more relevant for the specific listeners and less relevant to the radio brand.
Take 2: Xfm Buzz - Interactivity For Commercial Hit Radio
The currency of modern commercial radio is the tracks you hear. By re-focussing the user experience we encouraged users to submit a "micro-review" rather than a (more open-ended and vague) "message". By adding a track rating mechanic and highlighting the CURRENT TRACK over the current DJ and even the player controls, I think we achieved that.
This subtle shift made the proposition more powerful and more potent. Listeners are still encouraged to submit messages, like they might tweet, or like they might text the studio, with the messages focussed on the tunes.
This isn't something new. It's basically your common or garden commenting system. Usually though, you'd comment on some editorial piece, or a page on a website. Here, you're commenting on a song, and the commenting functionality is updating dynamically in a single HTML document as each new song is played. You could do this on Last.FM - every song has a 'shoutbox' - but it requires a lot of legwork on your part, plus the weak point here is that you are quite possibly the only person listening to that particular song. The Last.FM seems to me to be a disparate community too, I'd imagine we'd get a much tighter, more collaborative type of review from the Xfm audience. You can imaging that the feedback on 'first plays' would be great - with the DJ cherry picking the best submissions to read out on air. So maybe only 5% of listeners will submit reviews - but that's all you need to generate interest for the other 95%.
Why Xfm Buzz Rocked
Xfm Buzz Dovetails Into Existing Behaviour
The most common question people have when listening to the radio, and particularly radio stations that play new music like Xfm and Capital FM is this... "what's the song?". In the pre-internet age people would ring the station to ask this question. With online radio players users visit a radio station site, click 'listen' and then close the website. They blur the player window and go back to their spreadsheet/dissertation/invoicing software. The only time they look at the player is to ask "what's this song?". It's a really quick interaction - and the only other content they might consume in this process needs to be short, pithy and easy to consume. Previous attempts to drive traffic from the player have been to link to content in the main site, but that's a difficult conversion - a user is flicking back to the player for maybe two seconds, so a link to a 250 word article or a gallery of 20 images is a tough sell, especially when it involves a new browser window and a page choked with ads.
It's What DJs Do, Right?
Yep, the current commercial radio recipe allows a DJ three or four seconds (if that!) to back announce a track and squeeze something of value in their. David 'Kid' Jensen. Is the absolute master at this: "Can't Buy Me Love by The Beatles - the first single to simultaneously be number one on both sides of the Atlantic." DJs are charged with injecting some interest and some enthusiasm about the music they play into the airwaves. They're the DJ because they love this music, they live and breathe this music and they want you to love it too. If we were to push a mechanic like Xfm Buzz into the public I'd really want DJs to contribute micro-reviews and we'd probably surface those reviews before the listener's reviews. In that way we're ensuring quality content is exposed the most and we're marketing the DJs too - if a listener finds him or herself agreeing with a DJ then they're more likely to tune in to listen to that DJ. Added to that, Xfm DJs do tend to have distinctive tastes - Camfield is your man for RAWK, Eddy TM is the man for bleeps and bloops, John Kennedy is the champion of the obscure, Marsha loves a bit of twee indie. This might seem a lot of reviews for a DJ to write, but trust me when I tell you commercial radio *might* introduce 4 new tracks to the playlist in a week. Four. If DJs is too much of a stretch - having the stations' backroom staff contribute is equally as interesting - having the Head of Music explain why he's playlisted a track, that's pure fried gold to a listener.
I could have called this section 'Why Hack Time Rocks' - at the core of its essence Xfm Buzz is a REALLY, REALLY simple mechanic. Some people have been perplexed at how simple it is. It may be that the very essence of this hack is wrong and stupid and worthless. But there's a handful of technical wins and hoops that we had to jump through to make this hack work at all - those simple details that of themselves have a great deal of value.
Innovation #1 - On Demand Shows Are More Visible & Accessible
We're into some nice by-products of the hack now, but they're no less valuable than the end prize I've already described. Xfm Buzz marked the first time that we integrated links to listen to recently broadcast show within the schedule. It's never happened before. Traditionlly the website and player have been separate entities with very little overlap. That's never happened before. Why? I have no idea - maybe it's down to demand and that people don't want or need to listen to commercial radio shows that aren't happening RIGHT NOW. That may have been a perception within the business in the past but the UK Radio Player seems to be dispelling that myth.
Innovation #2 - 'Now Playing' Display for On Demand Audio
Yep, Global Radio have never had a player that displayed the track you were hearing if you were listening to a show that already happened. This may be one of the reasons that listening back to shows wasn't as popular as listening to the live stream.
Innovation #3 - Permanent URLs for: Broadcast Days & Shows
The current sites for CapitalFM, Xfm, Heart et.al. offer schedule information, but only a static 7-day schedule. This assumes that the schedule rarely changes, which may be true but when a show changes (let's assume it's a Tuesday afternoon slot) it's either out-of-date for next Tuesday or out-of-date for last Tuesday. This might be a minor inconvenience, but we're introducing permanent URLs for shows - these pages currently host a list of the tracks played on that show (with links to artist/track pages). This is great because there's a click path to recently broadcast shows, allowing listeners to really easily find the name of that track they heard yesterday at 12.30pm. Current functionality to do this on Xfm.co.uk is behind a stupid, clunky search mechanic with multiple drop-downs. If Jakob Nielsen was counting the clicks from homepage to a recent track, Xfm Buzz beats Xfm.co.uk three clicks to seven. Also, even the most junior SEO expert will tell you a clickpath is better than a search form, no-brainer.
Having permanent URLs for shows is also a convenient peg to hang content on when that show features something exceptional. Beady Eye in the studio? And we're filming it? Well this URL becomes a natural home for archiving that video and any related Beady Eye info/links.
Innovation #4 - Shows, Artists & Songs
The beauty of the permanent URLs for artist and tracks is that these URLs are created by the station's Head Of Music, via the playout system. When a radio station plays an artist for the first time then we automatically create an URL for that artist and that track (with a clickpath to those URLs, remember?). This is great for Xfm who are constantly breaking new artists and getting early plays of new artists and new tracks by established artists. It's often the case though, that content editors don't create content for the newer artists - why would they when few people are interested in these acts (yet?) and they've got traffic targets to meet. By the time there IS demand for content about that new artist other music brands with more resource than Xfm will be piling onto them and stealing the top Google SERPs. It's worth repeating that AS SOON AS XFM PLAYS A BAND FOR THE FIRST TIME XFM BUZZ MAKES AN URL FOR THAT BAND. It maybe a dull, placeholder URL with little content, but Google will find it, and give Xfm credit for being there early. Dressing that URL with info from some service like iTunes, MusicBrainz or Wikipedia could make it even more juicy.
Artist pages is where you might present a brief bio, pics, videos, sessions and links to news about that artist. Xfm.co.uk already has that stuff, but a lot of it is fairly static. The beauty of Xfm Buzz is that it keeps the most prescient artist URLs fresh by updating whenever the artist is played on air. So yeah, maybe The Mull Historical Society pages are pretty stale - but The Two Door Cinema Club pages are lovely and fresh.
Having the micro-reviews on the permanent URLs relating to tracks is also valuable google juice. Comments are great because they keep pages fresh, they feature mis-spellings of band names, cite lyrics, mention names of band members and reference similar bands. All this is juicy stuff - CapitalFM gets google referrals from all manner of spellings of Rihanna, Rhianna, Rhiana, Rehanna, Rhyannna... the list goes on. We added links attached to each micro-reviews which allow users to either 'agree' or 'disagree' with a review. This means we have a qualitative way of ordering the reviews - pushing those reviews that Xfm listeners generally agree on being the shared opinion to the top of the pile. This also gieves us something to build on in terms to rating/rewarding reviewers. User can only be motivated by being the most revered reviewer with the most 'agrees'. Knowing the Xfm audience I'd imagine there's a certain breed of psycho who would battle to be the most reviled reviewer with the most amount of 'disagrees'!
Rolling Charts - The Battle Never Ends
Listeners love a chart. They love a war. They love to see their darlings emerge from a bloody fisticuffs with a handful of hair, a new scar and bragging rights. The amount of popular, cheap telly that's built on this premise proves this point. And the playlist pages on the site are among the most popular, so listeners love lists too. We did consider making this rating tool more attuned to influencing the music that the radio station plays but it was just getting complicated to the point of distraction. The idea, briefly, was to allow users to rate a track, and then, once they'd rated it vote to either "play it less" or "play it more". This would be a handy tool for any music scheduler - programming the music for a radio station is a delicate art of knowing when to push a song and the exact moment that public appetite for that song is on the wane. An Xfm Buzz type mechanic could be a valuable tool to inform that decision. Making listeners feel that they have some kind of power is never a bad thing either - and the biggest criticism you can level at a commercial station is that it kills a song with over-exposure.
That's it for now I think. I've waxed lyrical enough. It's a shame I couldn't get his on a public URL, but it's really, really difficult to get people to engage in, and commit time to a Friday afternoon project. Maintaining momentum behind a project like this means staying late in the office and squeezing work in during a lunch hour - it's tiring and unsustainable. It took 6 months to get to a usable product and it would take more effort to get it to a point where it's suitable for public consumption. At this point in a hack project's lifespan it's up to the business to embrace it and invest time in it if they see any value. I've presented the demo to the interactive team at Global and I can see elements of the thought process surfacing in concepts for upcoming projects so it's not all been a waste.
More importantly, it's also taught me to be less ambitious with projects like this ;)
Credits, References & Disclaimers
Xfm Buzz wouldn't have been possible without the reactions, suggestions and hard work of m'collegaues: Sam Rayment, Nagaraj Hubli, Steve Johnson, Jo Conlon, Martin O'Gorman and Tim Acheson. Props to them guys (and gal).
None of these ideas are completely original. We've borrowed ideas/interfaces from Last.FM's Shoutbox, The Daily Mail's voting/commenting hybrid and SongPeople.com's core application (altho not their god-awful interface). And, of course, from Twitter and any number of Twitter clients you choose to point at shouting "that one!"
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