Is BBC Sounds really the best radio app out there?

BBC Sounds is the corporation's new all-in-one app
BBC Sounds is the corporation's new all-in-one app
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The BBC’s radio version of the iPlayer is less than a year old in its latest incarnation, but it’s already obsolete.

In a change to the advertised programme, the corporation has “retired” the app that let you download programmes to your phone for later listening offline, but rolled its functionality into a new one with a somewhat wider remit.

BBC Sounds is what it is calling the new service – the word “radio” no longer consistent, apparently, with the wide choice of listening now on offer.

The director general, Lord Hall, said the new app, whose launch was marked with a party at the Tate Modern, would “change the way we can all consume radio” and make it easier to access what he called “the great British content we make”.

Given the scale of ambition here, and the radically different look and feel of the new app, one might have expected it to contain a good deal more than it does. In the event, the great British content is the stuff we already knew about – the national radio networks and the local stations, plus added podcasts and what the BBC says is the ability to learn from your listening habits.

It’s the podcasts that distinguish the new app from the old one. The corporation produces these programmes as spin-offs from its main output, and in the past you had to use a separate, third-party app to access them. Their inclusion in BBC Sounds is both a blessing and a curse, because the joy of podcasts is their range and diversity, and the BBC’s contribution to the genre represents only a small fraction of what is out there. Without a full-blown podcast app, you’re cutting yourself off from the rest.

The distinction between podcasts and regular radio programmes has become somewhat blurred but the essential differences are that podcasts can be produced by anyone, not just broadcasters, and are sent automatically to your phone or PC when you subscribe to them. Radio shows still rely on you to know when they are on – although BBC Sounds does let you maintain lists of those you don’t want to miss.

Yet the app feels very much like a work in progress. The BBC’s online audio library also includes lists of music played by disc jockeys and in the background of documentaries, which you can then identify and listen to on Spotify or other services to which you may subscribe – and all of that functionality was supposed to be rolled into the new app. But finding it, if it’s there at all, is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack of The Archers, the shipping forecast and everything else.

It’s also no longer possible to browse the details of upcoming radio shows, which is something of a downgrade to the old iPlayer Radio app.

All of which means that, for the moment at least, BBC Sounds is not the single point on the radio dial that the corporation would like it to be, and for many listeners the alternative Radioplayer app, available for Android, iPhone and Amazon Fire, may be a better bet. This is independently-made but counts the BBC as partners, along with the commercial radio sector. Some 500 stations and several thousands podcasts are in its library, although there is no facility to download programmes for offline listening.

Either app will turn your phone into a credible radio – certainly more so than the FM receiver that comes built-in – but there is no escaping the feeling that online as well as off, radio remains something of a Cinderella medium.