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The BBC Shipping Forecast Soundscape

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

If you’ve ever had trouble getting to sleep at night, you may have turned to various soundscapes, ambient music, and other audio sources to jettison your distracted mind and settle in a state of sleepy, calm, serenity. I discovered the BBC Shipping Forecast to be an effective somnambulant. But the forecasts were short—generally between 6 and 14 minutes—too short to quiet my restless mind and induce sleep. So, I decided to string some of them together by editing audio from the BBC Radio 4 website. Then I decided to add some electronic treatments, multiple tracks, and original electronic music to create a uniformly numbing experience. The result was a work that was nearly three hours long.

I had not intended to distribute this soundscape publicly. I created the soundscape for my own enjoyment as a sleep aid. But the more I listened, the more I realized that others mind also find it of interest. So, I created a shortened version of about one hour and thirty-eight minutes, wrote to the BBC for permission to do this, and present it here for you, the podcast listener. I suggest that you put your headphones on and listen to this at bedtime. To create this soundscape, I have strung together a set of recent, shipping forecasts in entirety and provided some electronic sound accompaniment and treatments of the tracks. The music tracks run in parallel to the voice tracks. The music was created separately and was not intended to be synchronized in any precise way with the shipping forecasts, but the chance encounters of the electronic sounds with the voices of the BBC presenters made the presentation that much more engaging for me.

What is the Shipping Forecast, anyway?

The Shipping Forecast is a BBC Radio broadcast of weather reports and forecasts for the seas around the British Isles. It is produced by the Met Office (the UK's National Weather Service) and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The forecast dates back over 150 years. There are currently four broadcasts per day and all but one is delivered by the on-air announcer of the news shift except for the second, at 05:20 in the morning, which is delivered by the weather forecaster. The final shipping forecast of the day is followed by a kind of signing-off for Radio 4 with good wishes delivered by the presenter followed by the British National Anthem "God Save the King" and the closedown of the station for the day, at which point you will typically hear the six BBC chimes leading to the programming of the BBC World Service at 01:00 Greenwich Mean Time. Speaking of presenters, shipping forecasts are generally delivered by the on-air person as part of their broadcast segment. The so-called “duty announcer” may be a man or a woman. They may also be well-acquainted with the reading style or somewhat new to it and I imagine that giving a shipping forecast presents a tantalizing challenge for any new presenter. The language is mesmerizing and abbreviated to convey facts in the briefest of styles. For example, Visibility is given with descriptors “Good”, meaning that the visibility is greater than 5 nautical miles (9.3 km; 5.8 mi); “Moderate”, where visibility is between 2 and 5 nmi (3.7 and 9.3 km; 2.3 and 5.8 mi) nautical miles; “Poor”, where visibility is between 1,000 metres and two nautical miles and “Fog”, where visibility is less than 1,000 m (3,300 ft). Every measurable aspect of the Shipping Forecast is thus provided with succinct descriptions that are meaningful to people sailing the seas.

Every forecast is ordered as follows:

  • Gale warnings in force (if any)

  • General synopsis

  • Area forecasts: wind direction/speed, weather, visibility, ship icing if any

  • Coastal weather stations (00:48 and 05:20 only): wind direction/speed, precipitation if any, visibility, pressure

  • Inshore waters (00:48 and 05:20 only): wind direction/speed, weather, visibility

Rules are provided by the Met Office for writing the shipping forecast script so that it remains uniform and “highly structured to maximise the use of the available time.” For more details on the abbreviations and terms used to describe weather conditions in the script, check out the guide provided by the Met Office.

In the forecast, the waters around the British Isles are divided into 31 sea areas, also known as weather areas. The forecast begins by listing areas with gale warnings, followed by a general synopsis of pressure areas, then a forecast for each individual sea area covering wind speed and direction, precipitation, and visibility. Extended forecasts at 00:48 and 05:20 include information from coastal weather stations and inshore waters. The broadcast follows the same general order each time according to a prescribed list of geographic locations.

The unique and distinctive presentation style of these broadcasts has led to their attracting an audience much wider than that directly interested in maritime weather conditions. It is frequently referenced and parodied in British popular culture. Even the BBC itself takes a light-hearted view of this serious subject matter when it invites listeners to tune in by writing, “Take a moment to switch off with the hypnotic sounds of weather reports for the seas around the coasts of the British Isles. A strange but soothing sleep-aid and a firm favourite.”

Here are several links to the source material and other information of interest at the BBC to inform you about various aspects of the Forecast.

Episode 102

The BBC Shipping Forecast Soundscape


Thom Holmes, “The Shipping Forecast Soundscape” (2023 Thom Holmes). This single soundscape consists of random selections of BBC Shipping Forecasts from the past two years plus electronic sounds and audio treatments. BBC Shipping Forecasts are ©copyright BBC and located at the BBC Radio 4 Website. Electronic sounds, treatments, curating, editing, and mixing by Thom Holmes. 1:38:32

Presenters of the Shipping Forecasts heard in this podcast: Neil Nunes; Tina Ritchie; Lou Tottenham; Helen Willis.

Opening background music: Sounds of the sea from three vintage sound effects records, remixed by Thom Holmes: “At Sea in Foul Weather” from Sounds of the Sea and Ships (1965 Argo Transacord), a monophonic recording from England; “The Sea” (excerpt) from The Sounds of the Storm & the Sea (1974 Bainbridge), a stereophonic recording recorded and produced by Brad Miller; and “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore” from Environments (1969 SR Records), a stereophonic recording, the first in the Environments series.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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Jul 31, 2023

Met shipping forecasts peppered the month-long "Radio Boredcast" nine times.



Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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