Apps Reviews

BBC Sounds app review: what does the BBC need to improve?

BBC Sounds app in use

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Anyone who listens to BBC Radio will have already grown weary of the corporation’s persistent pleas to make people download BBC Sounds. But this pressure shouldn’t be a surprise: BBC Sounds is a hugely important “play” for the Beeb as it attempts to lure new, younger listeners.

So what’s good, what’s awful and what must be improved? Let’s give it a spin.

BBC Sounds app: the good

This app is quick. Press on your chosen program and it will probably start playing even before you lift your finger from the screen. It actually reminds me of, you know, radios.

There’s also a huge collection of audio to choose from. Obviously, you can listen live to any of the BBC’s stations – from regional offerings and the World Service to Radio 1 through 6 – but there’s a magnificent on-demand offering too.

For example, I listen to a lot of radio comedy programmes. So if I search for “John Finnemore” or “The Pin”, then I know that any show that was broadcast in the past 30 days will be revealed. And many shows stick around for even longer.

BBC Sounds app navigation
Navigation with the app is excellent, from search to the layout of daily schedules

I also love that you can join a live programme and jump to the start if you wish. Perfect if you’ve missed the first five minutes of The Unbelievable Truth.

Another huge strength is that you can download episodes of almost every programme – fantastic for long journeys where you’ll be offline.

Finally, there’s the navigation within the app. The search is excellent, while it’s easy to use the carousel at the top to flip between stations. Likewise, the daily schedules are sensibly laid out. All told, it’s much easier to use the BBC Sounds app than the iPlayer Radio app it replaces.

BBC Sounds app: something different

Before I move on to what’s awful, let’s just take a longer view. BBC radio needs to prove that it’s still relevant in the world of podcasts and Spotify, and the BBC Sounds app is its weapon.

That’s why it’s complementing broadcast shows with a range of podcasts and music mixes, and why it’s pushing them heavily in the app.

Podcasts and mixes available on BBC Sounds app
The selection of content goes well beyond the standard BBC radio programming

So, Line of Duty fans can enjoy the informal Obsessed with Line of Duty, where comedian Lolly Adefope reflects on the latest episode. (Obviously, this has now drawn to a close.) Or there’s That Peter Crouch Podcast, Beyond Today (covering one big story from that day’s news in depth) or Football Daily.

It also compiles mini-playlists around themes, such as Suspense. This brings together a selection of available shows that you can listen to with a single press of the button. A shame, though, that you can’t download them – they’re for streaming only.

BBC Sounds app: the awful

When BBC Sounds gets it wrong
BBC Sounds’ recommendations are often off-kilter – sorry Vanessa, but I have no interest in listening to your three-hour show

In its attempts to make it easier to stumble across new shows, the app offers up some weird programming if you keep “Autoplay” set to on. For example, earlier I was listening to More or Less on demand; the BBC Sounds app decided to follow this up with a Vanessa Feltz show. Vanessa. Feltz.

In the past, I’ve listened in bewilderment to a Welsh-language programme. I’m all for serendipity, but that is so far left of my knowledge and interests it should start a communist party.

Then we come to the My Sounds section. This allows you to subscribe to programmes, but so far as I can see that only means it will create a shortcut for you. So you can head there to check if new programmes have appeared but it won’t download them.

My Sounds in BBC Sounds
The My Sounds area feels like a work-in-progress

My Sounds also includes “Bookmarks” but it’s not clear what these offer over subscribing or downloading. Overall, My Sounds feels like a quasi-idea that may at some point find a purpose. But right now it’s confusing, especially for anyone who’s just loaded the app for the first time.

BBC Sounds app: what needs to improve

The good definitely outweighs the bad, but the BBC still needs to make a heap of improvements for this to be a must-have app.

First, it needs to reshape My Sounds to make it more useful. Bookmarks are, in my view, just confusing matters when you also have options to subscribe and download. Sometimes, less is more.

In tandem with this, make it more obvious what subscribing actually means. Surely if I subscribe I want to have the option to automatically download the programmes as they appear? Shouldn’t that be the default?

Which brings me to the lack of settings in the app. The carousel of stations is great, but I’m never going to listen to Radio nan Gáidheal. Heck, I can’t even get the accent on the “a” to go the right way.

Finally, it needs to work on an algorithm that better understands what I listen to. I realise the Beeb doesn’t have the resources of Amazon or Netflix, but I bring you back to its decision to play a three-hour phone-in show hosted by Vanessa Feltz after I’d been listening to More or Less.

Download BBC Sounds from Google Play and Apple App Store.

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Name: BBC Sounds

Description: The BBC's all-singing, all-dancing radio app

  • Usability
  • Features
  • Speed

Summary

A great way to listen to both live BBC radio and on-demand shows, but still needs work

Overall
4.2

Pros

  • So fast
  • Lots of great BBC shows on-demand
  • Surprisingly easy to use

Cons

  • No personalisation
  • Weird Autoplay options 
  • My Sounds is confusing

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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  • This was way too generous. Needs playlists and the ability to play your downloads in an order of your choosing (as well as the random autoplay if you want). Without this I still argue, this app is a danger as drivers get randomly forwarded to some program they hate on the motorway and try to change it

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