BBC Sounds: Error 404

Now, I know I’m not the target market so my opinions are irrelevant, but christ: have you heard the state of Forest 404 on the iPlayer? (Yes, you can get it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, so you don’t need to suffer the Sounds interface. Yet. But they’re coming for you.)

The BBC. Who the fuck is in charge these days? Clearly there’s a little bit of existential panic going on. The core audience is dying off and the replenishers aren’t arriving in sufficient numbers. There’s a proper demographic dip in the numbers of 18-24 year olds at the moment, I’m given to understand. Because if these people don’t start making use of the BBC, they’ll shrug their shoulders when the Murdochs and the Mails come for it. And how do you persuade a generation who have easy access to digitised versions of almost everything all of the time to listen to the radio?

Forest 404 is somebody’s idea of how to do that. And it’s worth unpacking to understand what a complete shitshow it is. But again: I’m not the target market, so emoji shrug or something.

Let’s start with the killer irony of how I heard about it. The only two BBC podcasts I listen to are In Our Time, hosted by the 108-year-old Melvyn Bragg; and Fortunately, co-hosted by Jane Garvey and Fi Glover, who are 108 years old collectively. So the BBC is promoting this patronising radio dreck at 108 year old listeners like myself. Which raises the question: are they really trying to attract a younger audience, or do they just want to be seen to be trying to do so? Is it, in other words, a box-ticking exercise? The answer to that question, reader, will probably not surprise you.

So what is Forest 404? Welp. It’s a “soundscape”, it’s a “drama”, it’s a “documentary”. It caters for the short attention span by having short episodes (the first is 25 minutes, the second 22, the third 19, so it goes); and it caters to the assumed/perceived ignorance of its listeners by interspersing episodes with exposition (designated with a T, which presumably stands for Thickoes), which patronisingly explain the background/premise and with “uninterrupted” sounds from the episodes (designated S for Seriously?). These mini-documentaries and soundscape excerpts are short (5-10 minutes) and remind me of the bits of filler at the end of David Attenborough documentaries, where they explain how they faked captured footage of snakes giving birth to polar bears or whatever.

I put scare quotes around “uninterrupted” above because, seriously? Because of course each chunk of audio gives the BBC a chance to put in some branding, “BBC Sounds…” and a patronising voice over explaining what it is you’re about to hear. 

Even more hilariously, the voice for “BBC Sounds” is different to the one you hear at the beginning of everything else from BBC Radio these days. It’s hard to explain how fucking stupid this is, but here goes. When you start an episode of, say, In Our Time, you hear an obviously young, female voice, which says, “BBC Sounds. Music, radio, podcasts.” Clearly the voice of a Bright Young Thing, probably someone younger than me would know who it is. Anyway, this is BBC Marketing at its best worst, because of course it’s just sonic wallpaper, and I literally just now had to start an episode of Fortunately so I could hear the exact words she says. Because although I’ve already heard it and been irritated by it 150 times, I couldn’t have told you the actual content of the message. Noise.

So that’s stupid level number one, the typical kind of thing you’d expect from the marketing monkeys. But. Forest 404 is meant to be “dark” and “edgy”, and so they use a different, young, female voice to say those exact same words. If the first voice sounds like a nice girl from the Home Counties who went to Oxford and that, the Forest voice sounds, ahem, more “urban”, and most definitely sounds actually fucking bored with the words she’s saying. So, um, like, yah, we know this is shit, yah, and completely cheese on toast, but, like, hey, we’ve got to do it, right, so we do it, but we’re really, like, yah, subversive about it, and make it obvious, yah, that we know it’s, like, complete shit.

Fuck.

So then you get into the actual, you know, content, and what is it? It’s another one of those, excuse me, *emoji yawn*, dark dystopian visions of, ya know, how horrible the world might be if the horrible world we live in got a little bit worse than it is now, as if that were even possible. So it’s an all-urban, high-rise, “fast times” future in which knowledge of the world as it used to be (“Slow times”) has been deliberately forgotten in order to keep the population anaesthetised and compliant.

Honestly, the doublethink going on here. (Talking of dystopias.) Because the marketing monkeys are all about “fast times” aren’t they? With their unironic rebranding of the slow times “Radio” as “Sounds”, and the insistence of repeating the anodyne, meaningless, marketing message at the beginning and end of every fucking programme. And then you’re trying to sell me on a terrifying future vision of dystopian Britain where people have their minds wiped if they display curiosity? All the while ignoring the real threat we face, which is that if there are no rain forests left, there are no people to left to live in an urban dystopia.

And behind all this, behind all this wank, is the true commitment of the BBC to this kind of youth marketing. It’s a box-ticker, sure enough. Because the edgy dystopian drama has a cast of precisely two. And all the other characters are merely referred to using reported speech. So you’ve got a little bit of sound mixing going on, and two voices telling a story. And then the whole lot gets padded out with explainers because – and you may have to back up here, possibly go up into orbit so you can see the size of it from space – the contempt for the target audience is so huge that they feel the need to offer a commentary after every episode because they don’t think we have the intelligence to understand what’s going on.

An absolute triumph. You can hear them, in the future, when the licence fee is being abolished: “Well, we tried.”

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Space. Forced.

BBC Sounds, yesterday

I’ve been struggling for podcasts lately, perhaps because my AirPods make it so convenient to listen at times when I might otherwise not be able to, and so they run out — especially towards the end of the week. For example, I find AirPods quite comfortable to wear in bed, and so I’ll often hear a podcast to the end instead of reading in bed (I can’t do both, obvs).

It’s a weird feeling, to choose sound over reading at night, which is a life-long habit. You feel oddly guilty, but at the same time, there have been times of late I’ve been too tired. And my love of the short story, the science fiction story in particular, has taken a dive of late. I’m currently reading a Le Carré, which is okay, but the chapters are really long, which is not conducive to bedtime reading when tired.

Anyway, lack of podcasts means turning to the BBC and seeing what they have, which can be pretty desperate stuff. Obviously, I’m avoiding the horrid Sounds app and I’m sticking to iPlayer Radio while I can*. In my grumpy middle age I’ve decided that most BBC comedy isn’t funny, so I tend to avoid panel shows unless I’m really desperate. I like Mark Steel’s stuff, and John Finnemore, but the News Quiz and the Now Show can do one, far as I’m concerned.

Most of what I go for is drama, but even then I’m very picky. I’ve never enjoyed “issue-based” radio drama, and I hate those ripped-from-the-headlines ones too. Perusing the current listing under the Drama category, and you’ll see something based on the playwright’s “real life experiences”, which is a turn-off. And then there’s an interminable series of plays “set in the Staffordshire potteries”. I listened to some Big Finish Doctor Whos, if only to remind myself what a shit Doctor Colin Baker was. And I’ve listened to some readings and some literary adaptations, though I often don’t get to the end. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, for example, I didn’t finish. Every single character was just so horrible, I wonder why anyone would read this nonsense. Where’s the pleasure in this? I don’t get it. Daphne Du Maurier’s The Years Between was good, though.

But this is a tale of two Sci-Fis. On the one hand, Stephen Baxter’s Voyage (first broadcast in 1999), a kind of alternative history in which instead of the Shuttle programme, NASA went to Mars. Being adapted from work by a proper science fiction writer, it ended up being quite good, notwithstanding some less than convincing American accents. (Often, I find that the least convincing Americans on the radio are the actual Americans.) On the other hand: Charles Chilton’s Space Force, from the mid-1980s, a kind of redux version of his earlier Journey into Space. Chilton was a radio all-rounder; being unkind, you’d call him a hack. And listening to this stuff is as close as you’re going to get to the kind of Hugh Walters juvenile science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, exemplified by Blast off at Woomera and Destination Mars.

Now, one might forgive Chilton’s 1950s Journey into Space, but this 1985-era reboot had no excuse to be as silly. Space Force is science fiction written by someone who likes the idea of it but appears never to have read any. The absolute worst sin committed by the writer was to include an audience proxy character who appeared to have left school at 14 and skipped all his science lessons while he was there. The character of Chipper, played by Nicky Henson, is supposed to be the communications officer, but doesn’t seem to understand how radio works. One plot point is that he hears voices in his head. The first time this happens, he’s surprised to discover that nobody else can hear them. The second and third and fourth and fifth times it happens, he’s also surprised to discover that nobody can hear them. In fact, he’s incapable of learning that he is the only person who hears these voices, and so we get his hysteria/surprise over and over again. In the final episode of six, he hears a voice in his head, and says aloud, “Who’s that?” Jesus Christ. Chipper has somehow qualified for the astronaut programme in spite of having no scientific knowledge and in spite of having no temperament for it: he panics at the slightest provocation (think Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army) and has to be sedated whenever things get hairy.

It’s not just that it’s stupid, but that it’s so stupid. It’s a hate listen is what it is.

*As to BBC Sounds, you just know there was a meeting at some point in which someone pointed out that the BBC’s audio broadcasting was no longer, strictly, what Marconi called radio. It’s not even radio, really, is it? You can hear them say. Why do we call it radio when it’s not even?

And so they reached for the 1970s slang term for “cool music” after which the absolute worst of the British music press was named: Sounds.

Shudder.

A more prosaically descriptive “BBC Streaming Audio” would have been better. BBC Stuff That You Listen To With What Are Called Ears. But “BBC Sounds” is the Orwellian future of listening to the world’s worst DJ wittering into your ears forever.