Skipping for joy

In The Cure for Love, the first tale in H G Wells’s A Story Of The Days To Come, Wells describes the morning ritual of a Mr Mwres, a man of the far future (his forebears had been called Morris).

He did not read The Times: indeed, he did not know there ever had been a Times — that institution had foundered somewhere in the intervening gulf of years; but the phonograph machine, that talked to him as he made his toilet of a morning, might have been the voice of a reincarnated Blowitz when it dealt with the world’s affairs. This phonographic machine was the size and shape of a Dutch clock, and down the front of it were electric barometric indicators, and an electric clock and calendar, and automatic engagement reminders, and where the clock would have been was the mouth of a trumpet. When it had news the trumpet gobbled like a turkey, “Galloop, galloop,” and then brayed out its message as, let us say, a trumpet might bray. It would tell Mwres in full, rich, throaty tones about the overnight accidents to the omnibus flying-machines that plied around the world, the latest arrivals at the fashionable resorts in Tibet, and of all the great monopolist company meetings of the day before, while he was dressing. If Mwres did not like hearing what it said, he had only to touch a stud, and it would choke a little and talk about something else.

When I read this story as a lad long ago in the Upper Palaeozoic, I smiled at the mixture of naivete and insight in the technological prophet. He could foresee the stream of information that would be brought to the radio listener one day but, as I saw it, hadn’t thought things through clearly enough to see that you couldn’t reconcile a live stream with the ability to skip. After all, to skip five minutes of a live broadcast would require the listener to travel five minutes into the future. Wells seemed to be thinking of the news as being played from some sort of newly delivered wax cylinder – this was a “phonographic machine” after all – rather than as data streaming through the ether. I thought Wells had got things only half right.

Today I spend more time listening to podcasts than I do to radio broadcasts. The podcasts are eminently skippable, of course. So they fulfil Wells’s vision.

Android’s BBC iPlayer Radio app hasn’t caught up with Wells’s vision yet in one respect: the podcast version of a news programme doesn’t become available until some time after the live show has finished. So it doesn’t give me what I would really like: almost-live listening plus the ability to skip.

The corresponding TV app, called simply BBC iPlayer, offers two hours of rewind facilities, and you can likewise rewind on the Windows version of iPlayer.

What I want when listening on my phone to the Today programme, which lasts three hours and caters to many sorts of taste very different from mine, is an equal degree of skippability. After all, there are two or three sports bulletins. And the main interviews of the programme, after the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. news bulletins, are usually with government ministers or opposition ministers, so they’re dead air to me. And there’s Thought For The Day. Yes, Radio 4’s major daily news magazine still includes a religious mini-sermon.

So I would appreciate a delay of as much as half an hour in hearing Today. By the time the programme reached its fun filler items at the end, the sorts of thing that I like hearing, I would have used up that quota.

In other news … I’m still infuriated by hearing the time signal pips on the BBC when I’m listening on digital channels (two seconds’ delay) or on online channels (one minute 20 seconds’ delay). I refuse to believe that it’s technologically impractical to confine them to AM channels, and put some sort of jingle onto all other channels that would make a less precise claim than the pips. The pips’ hard-achieved accuracy is completely ruined on the slowcoach channels.




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