James Purnell outlines plans to help listeners discover content that will ‘enhance their lives’

The BBC is developing a “public service algorithm” for its Sounds audio platform, James Purnell has revealed.

The corporation’s director of radio and education said that a team in the BBC’s design and engineering division is working on tools and components that will “direct listeners’ attention to new information” and help them discover content that will “enhance their lives”.

Speaking at today’s (13 May) Radio Festival 2019, he called out the streaming platforms for embracing algorithms that “only entertain but do not inform or educate”.

Purnell said: “Ours 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.

“When designed with a public purpose, algorithms do not have to be biased and they do not have to create echo chambers – they can open them up.”

He added that an update to Sounds this month will mean users stop seeing programmes on the platform’s frontpage that have not been curated for them. “By autumn, Sounds will be highly personalised,” he said.

Purnell said the burgeoning podcast platform would keep targeting young audiences with its commissioning but, echoing remarks made recently by BBC director of content Charlotte Moore, he warned against patronising 16-34s.

“To consider young audiences less intelligent is both insulting and untrue,” he added. “Besides, if the tastes of the younger generation do not offend the sensibilities of their elders, something would seem pretty amiss to me.”

He also warned that the main players in the podcast space need to collaborate or risk “new entrants aggregating their content and walking off with the audience”.

Conversations with commercial radio stations and non-BBC podcasts to place them on Sounds are ongoing, Purnell said.

The BBC, however, recently blocked Google from distributing its podcasts amid a row over distribution.

Reflecting on his career, former Labour culture secretary Purnell revealed he had been on the verge of launching an indie with Ackley Bridge executive director Penny Woolcock before BBC director general Tony Hall offered him the director of radio role in 2016.