Thursday, July 02, 2009

BBC switches to the Flash player as its basic audio platform…one step forward, two steps backward?

Back in the dark ages of streaming audio in the mid-1990's, the predominant media format was Real Audio; Windows Media was clearly in the minority, and MP3 had not yet become the de facto encoding standard for compact discs ripped for PC audio platforms.

Over the years, Windows Media and MP3 appear to have captured a significant chunk of the streaming audio market, based on my casual, unscientific observations. A recent arrival for streaming audio has been embedded Flash audio, developed by Macromedia and now owned by Adobe, the folks who developed the PDF format.

The BBC has kept with RealMedia for its default audio format, even as these other audio formats gained traction. However, since early June, the new default embedded audio player on the BBC website is Flash-based. This upgrade was implemented at the same time that the BBC increased the audio bandwidth for most of its programming; the result is high-quality audio across the BBC's universe of programming, and across the Mac OS, Windows, and Linux operating systems, all of which appear to handle Flash media with no issues. Thankfully, RealMedia and Windows Media streams are also available, at least for the World Service.

So far, so good, right? Yes, as long as you use your PC - whether desktop, laptop, or netbook - as your listening platform. Those of us who capture audio to our PCs and then transfer it to portable devices (MP3 players) have been inconvenienced by the switch - as most streaming audio capture software packages don't handle Flash streams well. Replay Media Catcher appears to capture the BBC's Flash audio fine. What it doesn't do, though, is transform the audio into the MP3 format that is common across portable audio players, whether you're talking the Apple iTunes or a budget MP3 player. The built-in audio converter in Replay Media Catcher can't handle the BBC flash audio; you need another Applian software product, Replay Converter, to convert the Flash (.flv) audio into MP3. Further, you need the current version of Replay Converter (v3.37), not the prior version (v2.80). I've updated both software packages to their current versions, and I can now capture Newshour - which is not directly podcast - and save to my MP3 player.

The use of the Flash streaming format is also problematic for Internet radios - none that I know of directly handle Flash-formatted content. Thankfully, the RealMedia and Windows Media formats appear to remain available, and the URLs for these haven't changed. No word as to whether these secondary formats will remain available for the foreseeable future. However, when I tried to listen to either the RealMedia or Windows Media versions of a recent on-demand edition of Newshour, I received error messages stating that the content wasn't available. I notified the World Service website team of the problem, but as of June 24th the problem had not been corrected.

Don't throw away your Internet radios due to the increased usage of Flash Audio / Video just yet; I know of very few web radio stations that don't offer alternatives to Flash streaming audio, and some that do have worked with the Internet radio database vendors (specifically Reciva) to provide URL information for non-Flash streams that Internet radios can handle.


guy said...

I prefer listening in RealPlayer rather than iPlayer - more control over programme listening to, easy to archive, quicker to open and launch programme,
Not certain if this means lower audio bandwith (I don't notice any difference) but opening a programme in real player from iPlayer now gives more problems.
You have to switch iPlayer to lower bandwith to find 'play in RealPlayer' link and storing links seems to have changed. For programmes with several broadcasts a week, such as Front Row Mon-Fri, I could save a link for the day of the week and it would open the latest broadcast for that day. Now it plays the archived programme from whatever the day the link was made.

Richard said...

You are right...the old RealPlayer default version was much easier to navigate, in part because the URL link didn't change from week to week or day to day.

The new Flash version is a higher bandwidth -- 64k -- but even the RealMedia version has been upgraded to 32k; it had been 20k for years.