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Do I need to buy a new internet radio to listen to BBC Radio?

Where we live we have very poor medium wave and FM radio reception, and the DAB signal is hopeless, so we bought a DTech internet radio to listen via online streaming. Sadly, the BBC has dropped support for the formats our device uses (WMA and AAC), and other internet radios seem to be in a similar situation. Help! Which internet radios still receive BBC radio under the new arrangements? Steve

I live in the Philippines and rely on BBC Radio to keep in touch, but my favourite stations are no longer available as they have changed some stuff. I still get Radio Scotland on my Samsung GT-S5360 phone. What do I need to do to receive the new BBC Radio? John

Last month, the BBC introduced Audio Factory, a new system for streaming its radio stations over the internet. The change silenced a lot of internet radios and hi-fi streamers. Worse, a lot of internet radio manufacturers were caught out as well. These included big names such as Sonos, Linn, Naim, Cambridge, Roberts and Logitech, including Squeezebox.

The debacle prompted angry complaints and a grovelling apology from Jim Simmons, the BBC senior product manager who had posted the Audio Factory update. This didn’t solve anybody’s problems, however.

The gist of the story is that the BBC junked its patchwork WMA/AAC infrastructure and moved to a new system based on “HLS and HDS using the AAC codec”. Further, Simmonds said that “by the summer we hope to have these streams available in the non-proprietary DASH format”.

The BBC also provided MP3 streams via Shoutcast as a fallback for devices that can’t handle the new formats. This is a temporary measure.

Many Radio 3 listeners complained when their 320kbps AAC audio stream was replaced by a lower-quality 128kbps MP3 stream. In response, the BBC seems to have backtracked and restored its high quality Radio 3 streaming in AAC. The rest have gone.

The BBC chose MP3 because almost every device supports it. It should work with most of the internet radios that used the discontinued WMA and AAC streams. But if you can’t get them from your usual source, you will have to figure out how to change the settings to get them from Shoutcast, if possible. That includes Steve’s DMTech Starry7 internet radio – which does support MP3 – and whatever John is using in the Philippines. For Android users, the XiiaLive internet radio app may help.

Although MP3 isn’t very good for online streaming, the UK’s antique DAB digital radio is still using MP2, with which it started in the mid-90s. Indeed, some users are particularly angry because they bought internet radios and hi-fi streamers to get higher quality sound than they could get from DAB.

If you still can’t stream BBC stations, visit the manufacturer’s website and the forums dedicated to your particular devices to look for solutions. Manufacturers are trying to develop fixes such as firmware updates, while users are looking for workarounds, perhaps using radiofeeds.co.uk’s resources and a list of BBC stations (hat tip Digital Spy).

While MP3 streams offer a temporary solution, they do have a problem. To save money, the Shoutcast streams are international, which means they will not carry material that the BBC does not have the rights to broadcast internationally. So, for example, UK residents will not get football and cricket commentaries if the BBC can’t stream them to the Philippines and other places. They’ll need to use HILS instead.


Jim Simmons said the BBC was using HLS and HDS while migrating to “the non-proprietary DASH format”. It’s absurd that most BBC radio listeners had never heard of these before they appeared on a BBC technical blog or, worse.

HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) is a problem because it’s a proprietary Apple system aimed at Apple products. Apple has disenfranchised its iPhone users by leaving out FM radios – which are battery-friendly and found even in cheap feature-phones – but apparently the BBC feels it must serve this audience.

HDS (HTTP Dynamic Streaming) is a more advanced format developed by Adobe, and first appeared in Flash. It’s based on part 12 of the MPEG-4 standard, “fragmented MP4” (fMP4), which should replace the older MPEG-2 Transport Stream (M2TS) used by Apple’s HLS.

In the long run, however, the target is the MPEG’s DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP), which became a ratified international standard in 2011. DASH is very close to Microsoft Smooth Streaming, which was the first system to adopt fMP4. As Wikipedia notes, “Live Smooth Streaming H.264/AAC videos [can] be dynamically repackaged into the Apple HTTP Adaptive Streaming format and delivered to iOS devices.”

Using HTTP, like web pages, means broadcasters should not need special servers and streams should not have problems with content delivery networks, firewalls and so on. However, you will note that all these are essentially video formats. They’re not what radios were designed to handle. As Linn noted, ffmpeg’s dynamic use of memory is fine for computers but “unsuitable for an embedded system with relatively constrained memory that is expected to run for long periods”.

As I understand it, the BBC contacted leading internet radio manufacturers about a year ago, and most thought they’d be OK with AAC audio streams. They didn’t realise they might arrive inside, say, a Flash wrapper.

What to do?

If you can’t get the BBC’s radio streams on your radio, you should be able to play them via almost any PC, tablet or smartphone. You should also be able to use your device with a loudspeaker dock or feed the audio to a hi-fi, though you will lose the kitchen radio-style convenience.

You should also be able to play the HLS streams, as well as MP3s, though you may need to download ffmpeg. The free Media Player Classic-HC works well on Windows, while VLC works on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. There are other options. However, your device may insist on the screen being on, because it thinks it’s playing video.

If you really want an internet radio, check the specs carefully. The bare minimum is the ability to play MP3 streams from Shoutcast, but support for an HTTP format – HLS but preferably DASH – is recommended. The Pure One Flow, Pure F4 and Pure Sensia 200D Connect reportedly support HLS now, but I expect it will take radio suppliers a while to get things together. Personally, I’d wait for the smoke to clear.

If you can get a decent signal, Freeview and Freesat are good sources of digital radio. Also, FM radios start cheap (£10-£20) and can work well, especially with aerial assistance. Of course, they are threatened by a digital switchover, but given the outcry created by small numbers of 6Music and internet radio listeners, the attempt to switch off many millions of FM users – including most road users – would be political suicide.