Russell Davies: Web users deserve to be given a dose of aural pleasure

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Russell Davies
Russell Davies

I'm typing this listening to the radio.

BBC Radio 5 live - the Fulham v Spurs game. Not two teams I really give a stuff about, but it's either that or a terrible play on Radio 4.

I can't really cope with music radio while I'm writing - it's too distracting. What I need is the comforting murmur of voices - the rhythm and tonal quality makes me feel connected to the world. And I love the fact that you just switch the radio on and the sounds start pouring out. There are no decisions to be made, no menus to be clicked on, no playlists to be constructed - you just switch it on and the voices on the radio start talking about roughly what you expected. You're listening passively. You're barely listening at all. Until something catches your ear and then you're hypnotised.

I find, increasingly, that's how I use the internet too. I find one of those clever video channels - TED or the RSA or something similar and hide it in the background while I listen to it and get on with something else. (Some of you might feel this explains why my stuff is so badly written.)

Video was the Holy Grail for the web - what everyone was heading towards. And in the race towards that, I sometimes feel that sound got left behind.

Web designers were always told to ignore audio - no-one has speakers on their computer - and it's only really games designers who get sound in "new media".

But, in a world of distraction, multitasking and multiple media streams, maybe it will be the channel that's good at being in the background that will win overall.

CNN famously started succeeding when it realised most people were listening, not watching, and changed its presentation style accordingly. I wonder if more of us should do the same - accept that we're in the background and try to get good at being there.

One of the hidden gems of the web, for instance, is a service called SoundCloud. Described (by an investor) as "YouTube for audio", SoundCloud has quietly been building a brilliant service and a lovely community around sound.

If you've been to SoundCloud, you'll have seen the central mechanic for stitching this audio and community together - a wave form showing the sound that's playing, to which you can attach tags and comments. It's a simple thing but it gives the site the visual hook that you need online.

Right now, most of the site is music, but there's no reason why it has to be, and with every smartphone and device morphing into a sophisticated recording instrument, maybe we'll soon see a renaissance in audio that eclipses the slightly false dawn of podcasts.

Listen to this space.


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