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BBC developing ‘public service algorithm’ – James Purnell

James Purnell

The BBC is developing a “public service algorithm” that is “built to surprise you,” Director of Radio and Education James Purnell has announced.

The algorithm will be designed to help audiences “stumble onto something new” instead of reinforcing their views. Algorithms “do not have to create echo chambers, they can open them up,” Purnell said.

“Algorithms can be positive. They learn from what you don’t like and stop recommending you the wrong things. And they can surface things similar to what you are listening to that you would not otherwise have found.

“But there is reason to be nervous about embracing algorithms in the way that streaming platforms do. The BBC rests on three foundations: to entertain, yes, but also to inform and educate. Most algorithms do the former, but not the latter. That’s why we are developing our own: a public service algorithm.

“This is not an algorithm that just gives you more of the same, but an algorithm built to surprise you, to direct your attention to new information, to different points of view, to pop your bubble.

“Algorithms are made in the image of their designers and can be biased against people who are different. But when they are designed with a public service purpose, they do not have to be biased and they do not have to create echo chambers – they can open them up.

“By the autumn, Sounds will be highly personalised.”

Speaking at the Radio Festival in London, he also revealed that the BBC had asked rival broadcasters to join the Sounds app.

“Audiences deserve a choice, so we want to open BBC Sounds up to podcasts made outside of the BBC,” he said. “And we are in discussions about opening the app to commercial radio too.”

He did not give a timeframe for adding other stations to the line-up, but said increased personalisation would be available “by the autumn”.

BBC Sounds launched in November as a replacement for the iPlayer Radio app, offering live and catch-up radio alongside podcasts, playlists and bespoke music mixes.

The app had already attracted 1.3m weekly users, 84% of whom would recommend Sounds to a friend, according to Purnell.

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