Hearing that a new series of The Now Show had begun, I didn’t worry overmuch about tuning in at the requisite time: after all, that’s one of the joys of subscribing to a podcast, the reliability of their download. So it was quite a surprise to find that iTunes had only managed to grap a 36-second snippet of sound from the BBC.
This most recent podcast was in fact an announcement that… there would be no more podcasts of the show. Apparently BBC podcasts are still in a “trial period” and hence we should presumably expect more undermining of one of the basic tenets of a podcasting in future: never rely on your podcast software to actually be subscribing to a live feed.
According to Wikipedia, which normally gets at least this sort of thing right, podcasts have been around since perhaps 2001, when Dave Winer first experimented with combining online audio files and RSS subscription. They’ve been in mainstream use since 2004 and are so completely prevalent these days that they’re arguably quite old hat, technologically speaking: no more interesting on one level than the act of wireless transmission or the delivery of newsletters by email.
What precisely are the BBC hoping to accomplish with their trial that hasn’t already been quite adequately explored by millions online isn’t obvious, except presumably findings that would convince their internal monolith of organizational stupidity that there’s a viable business whatever or, oh God, I feel nauseous already. What is meant to happen at the end of the trial period, though, is now abundantly clear: the de facto web standard will be summarily discarded with no reason, explanation, support or planning; listeners will be left in the lurch wondering precisely why they bothered subscribing to a discontinued service; and all the good will that the BBC has managed to earn through finally grasping the nettle of six-year-old technology will be utterly, utterly squandered.
Of course, it’s easy enough to turn every last one of the BBC’s “Listen Again” offerings into permanent, offline formats, thus circumventing the seven-day embargo that they’ve attempted to enforce. All you need is a handful of freely available software and some technological nous, something like rmrip to tie them all together. The technophobes in the organisation must have been so proud of that seven-day delusion, coming as it did at the expense of technological compatibility or innovation and requiring them to bind themselves to the proprietary Real Audio format. These are presumably the same fools who wrap up their audiobooks with DRM so as to prevent anyone from listening to them on their iPod, or had no idea of the existence of Wikipedia pages speculating on their shows. The same people who even now might be taken to European court over their obsession with locking down distribution via their YouTube-two-years-late “iPlayer”.
Anyway, such has been the lesson of attempts at DRM these past five years: as you can never have the control that you seem to think is so important, then there’s no point in not casting your pod as widely as possible, and indeed many disadvantages in failing to do so. You’d think that the BBC, a public-service broadcaster, would by now have acted in the public interest and ceased pursuing this unattainable ideal of total control over what they produce. But then there are those who would rather have control than produce any content at all, and it is these whom God makes television executives.
While competitors like Sky and ITV are essentially morally, intellectually and artistically bankrupt in comparison, the BBC still manages to mess up the process of commissioning, creating, producing and distributing the far better content with which it is generally blessed. Who constitutes that shower behind the scenes, that draws up contracts for Osama bin Laden yet can’t manage to get audio into their podcasts, unlike hundreds of other such casts? Who is it that has control over millions of pounds of money to be spent on bringing the BBC into the digital age yet can’t grasp basic concepts of online computing?
As K. suggested, someone somewhere in the organisation is even now saying “we were using computers as a trial, but we’re now going to go back to typewriters and telephones as the trial has been successfully completed.” Or, as seems more likely, “we have come to the end of our trial period of having a fucking clue.”