Curation, meta-curation, and live Net radio

I’ve long been dissatisfied with how we discover and tune into Net radio. This iTunes screenshot illustrates the problem:

Start with a genre, pick a station in that genre, then listen to that station. This just doesn’t work for me. I like to listen to a lot of different things. And I especially value serendipitous recommendations from curators whose knowledge and preferences diverge radically from my own.

Yes there’s Pandora, but what I’ve been wanting all along is a way to enable and then subscribe to curators who guide me to what’s playing now on the live streams coming from radio stations around the world. It’s Wednesday morning, 11AM Eastern Daylight Time, and I know there are all kinds of shows playing right now. But how do I materialize a view for this moment in time — or for tonight at 9PM, or for Sunday morning at 10AM — across that breadth and wealth of live streams?

I started thinking about schedules of radio programs, and about calendars, and about BBC Backstage — because I’ll be interviewing Ian Forrester for an upcoming episode of my podcast — and I landed on this blog post which shows how to form an URL that retrieves upcoming episodes of a BBC show as an iCalendar feed.

Meanwhile, I’ve just created a new mode for the elmcity calendar aggregator. Now instead of creating a geographical hub, which combines events from Eventful and Upcoming and events from a list of iCalendar feeds — all for one location — you can create a topical hub whose events are governed only by time, not by location.

Can these ingredients combine to solve my Net radio problem? Could a curator for an elmcity topical aggregator cherrypick favorite shows from around the Net, and create a calendar that shows me what’s playing right now?

It seems plausible, so I spun up a new topical hub in the elmcity aggregator and started experimenting.

I began with the BBC’s iCalendar feeds. But evidently they don’t include VTIMEZONE components, which means calendar clients (or aggregators) can’t translate UK times to other times.

I ran into a few other issues, which perhaps can be sorted out when I chat with Ian Forrester. But meanwhile, since the universe of Net radio is much vaster than the BBC, and since most of it won’t be accessible in the form of data feeds, I stepped back for a broader view.

Really, anyone can publish an event that gives the time for a live show, plus a link to its player. And when a show happens on a regular recurring schedule, the little bit of effort it takes to publish that event pays recurring dividends.

Consider, for example, Nic Harcourt’s Sounds Eclectic. It’s on at these (Pacific) times: SUN 6:00A-8:00A, SAT 2:00P-4:00P, SAT 10:00P-12:00A. You can plug these into any calendar program as recurring events. And if you publish a feed, it’s not only available to you from any calendar client, it’s also available to any other calendar client — or to any aggregator.

Here’s a calendar with three recurring events for Sounds Eclectic, plus one recurring event for WICN’s Sunday jazz show, plus a single non-recurring event — the BBC’s Folkscene — which will be on the BBC iPlayer on Thursday at 4:05PM my time and 9:05PM UK time. If you load the calendar feed into a client — Outlook, Apple iCal, Google Calendar, Lotus Notes — you’ll see these events translated into your local timezone.

Note that Live Calendar is especially handy for publishing events from many different timezones. That’s because like Outlook, but unlike Google Calendar, it enables you to specify timezones on a per-event basis. So instead of having to enter the Sunday morning recurrence of Sounds Eclectic as 9AM Eastern Daylight, I can enter it as 6AM Pacific Daylight Time. Likewise Folkscene: I can enter 9:05 British Summer Time. Since these are the times that appear on the shows’ websites, it’s natural to use them.

This sort of calendar is great for personal use. But I’m looking for the Webjay of Net radio. And I think maybe elmcity topical hubs can help enable that.

There’s a way of using these topical hubs I hadn’t thought of until Tony Karrer created one. Tony runs TechEmpower, a software, web, and eLearning development firm. He wants to track and publish online eLearning events, so he’s managing them in Google Calendar and syndicating them through an elmcity topical hub to his website.

A topical hub, like a geographic hub, is controlled by a Delicious account whose owner maintains a list of feeds. I’d been thinking of the account owner as the curator, and of the feeds as homogeneous sources of events: school board meetings, soccer games, and so on.

But then Tony partnered with another organization that tracks webinars, invited that group to publish its own feed, added it to the eLearning hub, and wrote a blog post entitled Second Calendar Curator Joins to Help with List of Free Webinars:

The initial list of calendar entries, we added ourselves. But I’m pleased to announce that we’ve just signed up our second calendar curator – Coaching Ourselves. Their events are now appearing in the listings. … It is exactly because we can distribute the load of keeping this list current that makes me think this will work really well in the long run.

This probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I’d been thinking in terms of curators, feeds, and events. What Tony showed me is that you can also (optionally) think in terms of meta-curators, curators, feeds, and events. In this example, Tony is himself a curator, but he is also a meta-curator — that is, a collector of curators.

I’d love to see this model evolve in the realm of Net radio. If you want to join the experiment, just use any calendar program to keep track of some of your favorite recurring shows. (Again, it’s very helpful to use one that supports per-event timezones.) Then publish the shows as an iCalendar feed, and send me the URL. As the meta-curator of, as well as the curator of, I’ll have two options. If I like most or all of the shows you like, I can add your feed to the hub. If I only like some of the shows you like, I can cherrypick them for my feed. Either way, the aggregated results will be available as XML, as JSON, and as an iCalendar feed that can flow into calendar clients or aggregators.

Naturally there can also be other meta-curators. To become one, designate a Delicious account for the purpose, spin up your own topical hub, and tell me about it.


  1. Hey Jon,

    Have you seen It seems to be doing a lot of what you’re trying to do here. The interface is a bit crude, but you can sort and limit display by time, program, format, etc. They’ve got US public radio stations, BBC, CBC, and ABC (Australia) covered. No idea if they have any feeds, but there might be something in there you could use….

    This is a recurring problem for me also – bringing it all together would be handy.

    See you –

  2. > Have you seen It
    > seems to be doing a lot of what you’re
    > trying to do here.

    No, I hadn’t. Fabulous resource, thanks!

    > The interface is a bit crude

    Does the job perfectly well, though. Set your timezone, see what’s playing now, listen. Sweet!

    > bringing it all together would be handy

    Yeah, it would be nice to have a lot else besides public radio included in this kind of “what’s playing now” view. College radio, for example, at least what I’ve sampled of it in the US, can be fruitful.

    Thought experiment: Imagine you had virtually the entire universe of live Net-streaming radio available on this basis. Perhaps many thousands of shows playing right now, each the result of a particular flavor of curation. How interesting/valuable might it be to have a layer of meta-curation on top of that? I.e., from a variety of perspectives, here are the shows that this or that meta-curator thinks are special.

  3. Last year I wrote a simple website that aggregates user tag radio stations, with a very similar motivation: finding good curators of tag radio stations (I called them “mediators”.)

    While tag radio is not strictly web radio as you describe it, it has the advantage that its stations are easy to discover and aggregate in an automated fashion. (I’m using a combination of manual curation of users/stations, and a simple crawler that scans selected community pages where people meet to talk about tags and tag radio.)

    1. Outstanding! Thanks!

      I have a couple of questions.

      1. Can the source format — TV-Anytime — express recurrence?

      2. If so, do regularly scheduled BBC shows use that capability?

      1. I don’t know if there are other ways of doing it, but the BBC data has GroupInformation with a related Result which refers to one or more ProgrammeInformation elements, each of which will have a ScheduleEvent (more than one ScheduleEvent if the transmission is repeated).

        So a daily soap opera like Eastenders is not a repeating event as such, but each episode is marked as part of one series, and you can determine the 10 pm transmission on BBC3 is the exact same episode as the 7 pm transmission on BBC1.

  4. Hello Jon, I’m currently carrying out a study on BBC Backstage. I wondered whether you’d be interested in being interviewed about your experiences with backstage’s APIs, data feeds, and other activities? We operate very strict confidentiality research ethics policy. Please email me if you’re interested. Cheers.

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