Radio and the Internet are not the most obvious of infotainment bedfellows. Despite the potential of RealAudio, the Net's graphical interface and hyperlinking abilities make the Virgin Radio site, for instance, pretty useless, unless you're missing a beatbox and copy of the Radio Times in the office. The BBC's Radio 4 then, with its flagship emphasis on culture, politics and comedy, should fare much better on the information superhighway.
According to Claire Nosworthy, project manager at Keystone, an independent marketing, media and events company that looks after Radio 4 promotions, the Radio 4 Web site "should form a framework for future editorial usage by our programmes, but should also have a marketing approach that gives a flavour of Radio 4 to Internet users". Webmedia won over the BBC to get the job, and its minimalist approach to Web design is in evidence in each of the content sections, but with two heavyweights like these, you would expect great things.
Eschewing the flashy "graphics and apps" approach, Radio 4 is a conservative effort, with emphasis on branding and text-based information. While it may not rock your world, it certainly arrives on your screen a lot quicker - most pages on the site take about 10 seconds to load. From the home page, you can check out Radio 4's take on comedy, science, drama, news and travel, or skip to the Internet-specific Fourtaste and Prize Draw links. The first is a so-so RealAudio section, while the latter is just a radio box-style questionnaire - though if there's a prize to be gained from filling it in, Radio 4 isn't telling.
The comedy section is written largely in witty and personable pass notes-style prose. While these are illuminating, sections on shows like News Quiz are pure brochureware, while much of the Loose Ends page is incomplete. The BBC comedy awards and comedy writing tips sections are interesting and fact-filled, with a format that will make Internet on Unix users of old go glassy-eyed and nostalgic. While the interactive Mornington Crescent looked interesting, the rules and point of the game were lost on me - a "game without rules" is a difficult one to explain, but they could at least have tried.
The news pages have laughably bad schedule listings made worse by the announcement that BBC News will launch a separate rolling news service sometime in 1997 - why couldn't they have added it here?
With the Press Association site doing so well, and even AOL adding the headline of the day to its network service, this is a bad show on the Beeb's part. In drama, a horrible actor spot question totally misses the opportunity that flash affords, when instead you have to leave the page to find the answer, and the Archers' Gossip has lots of background information, but no current storylines to bring the user back more than once.
With so many techies on the Web, the science section could have made a killing if some thought had been put into it. While Science Now has good information on the current week's topics of discussion, the well-presented episode guides for Eureka were out of date.
Given the potential of the Internet, opportunities to follow up discussions generated in the shows in an unmoderated chat area (because you can't really see Radio 4 listeners indulging in juvenile flame wars), or to present certain topics better in the Web's visual medium, are woefully missed.
Just as you sense deja vu in the travel section, something strange happens called A Man With Latitude. Focusing on Rough Guides, David Lodge's attempts to travel from North Europe to South Europe, it features a decent map, an excellent inventory in what David's taken (drugs gag ahoy), the opportunity to read his daily diary or even to suggest his next move via email. With his digital camera, there is also the chance to see some nice holiday snaps, especially as you can ask him to look up that sexy babe you met in Malaga last year.
Unusually, this section wasn't designed by Web-media, and it does seem incongruous with the rest of the site's design, but the extra time the pages take to download are definitely worth the effort. It's nicely informative, with a real feeling that you're involved in the journey and that something special is happening in the real and virtual worlds.
To be fair, Nosworthy does suggest that "Radio 4 has very ambitious plans for the site and we by no means see this as the end ... it's a good basis to build on in the future, which was always the plan" (including the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe), but it's clear there's a lot of work to be done.
A Man With Latitude shows the potential the site possesses for the two mediums of radio and the Internet to interact and reflect back on one another. Not a bad site, but currently a missed opportunity.
Launch: May 1997
Target Audience: General public, Radio 4 listeners
Setup: NT Server at the BBC
Development Cost: #15,000
Hits Per Day: Unknown
Size: Over 250 pages.
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