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“A Pickle of Listener Malcontent”: BBC Sounds and Disturbances around Exclusivity

Fortunately… with Fi and Jane, a BBC podcast with a loyal and vocal listenership, has been dealing with some fallout lately due to a new windowing strategy that saw the show move into the BBC Sounds app exclusively for the start of 2019. New content is not being uploaded to the original open podcast feed, and seeking audiences are being directed to the app should they wish to hear the latest episodes.

It’s the first BBC show with a pre-existing following to switch to this limited distribution model — that I’m aware of, anyway — although there are some podcasts that are being debuted on the app before getting a wider release.

In case you need a refresher: the BBC Sounds app was the biggest product release in a decade for the corporation, and it is intended to unite BBC radio, podcast and music content in a centralized digital hub. The project has had a somewhat tricky gestation period, with insiders saying that, when the beta launched in July 2018, it had suffered from a confused and vague notion of what it was actually supposed to deliver. That hasn’t been made much clearer now that the full version has been out for three months. As it stands, the app mostly consists of BBC content — spread across a good deal of radio catch-up offerings, music mixes, and podcasts that are also available elsewhere — but it also features a small handful of non-BBC podcast content. In other words, it’s neither a universal podcatcher nor an entirely walled garden of exclusive shows.

I don’t have any concrete data on this (no numbers have been forthcoming, and all we’ve pretty much gotten is an “everything is going great!” post from an executive back in November) but based on this new windowing strategy, I suspect this lack of focus has translated into a lower-than-expected number of users in the app. A source told Buzzfeed last year that the main plan was to move everyone over to BBC Sounds from its predecessor app, iPlayerRadio, within the first six months, and then use it to start attracting younger listeners (who are currently quite disengaged from BBC radio stations) back to the Beeb. Making a popular podcast like Fortunately… only available via the app is apparently an attempt to speed up this process.

This podcast is a behind-the-scenes look at broadcasting and media, and has published around 80 episodes since launching in March 2017. Its hosts are both veteran BBC Radio 4 presenters; Jane Garvey presents the venerable Women’s Hour, while Fi Glover fronts the mass observation strand The Listening Project. Their podcast is informal and good-humoured, with a relaxed interview style that nicely contrasts more formal and traditional BBC slots.

The decision to start releasing new episodes only in the BBC Sounds app was announced to listeners on 11 January via a minute-long update dropped into the existing podcast feed. That update, titled “Fortunately returns! Find us exclusively on BBC Sounds,” seems to have since been deleted, but it was essentially a light-hearted riff from the hosts on the change. As listeners received this news, a few problems began to emerge judging by the feedback on social media. The BBC Sounds app is not available to download outside the UK, so international listeners thought they were cut off. Also: the app isn’t available on older operating systems, and has been getting mixed reviews on app stores. The BBC countered this in a recent statement, saying “the response to BBC Sounds has been overwhelmingly positive with over three quarters rating it as excellent or very good in independent research.” In general, there was just quite a bit of confusion surrounding the entire business.

Discontent to Fortunately’s exclusivity grew to such a level that it prompted a response on the show itself. On its first full episode of 2019, published on 18 January, the hosts tackled it upfront. “We have been in a pickle of listener malcontent,” they said. “Lots of people have found it difficult to use or completely inaccessible to them, and have got really annoyed.” The first guest on the episode was BBC Sounds Launch Director Charlotte Lock, and she spoke to listeners directly about the move.

Lock made a few points about the Sounds strategy that confirmed some hunches I’ve had about the situation. The podcast isn’t permanently exclusive, Lock noted. “We’re just seeing what will happen,” she said, by taking it off other podcast platforms. After a limited but as yet undefined period, it will go back into other podcatchers. Listeners outside the UK can’t get the BBC Sounds app, she explained, but they can still get the show through its internationally-available predecessor app, iPlayerRadio, or on the BBC website. Understandably, the BBC don’t want to heavily promote the fact that the old app is still working and arguably had better functionality and more content, but… it does. Also, even after the explanation, some non-UK listeners were expressing frustration that they now have to stream the show through a browser, making it harder to listen to while driving, for instance.

In addition, Lock made clear that this move was all about driving more people towards the BBC Sounds app and acquiring more data on what they choose to listen to once they’re there. The app is supposed to provide tailored recommendations based on listening habits, so they need more users to be able to improve it. I found the fact that she pushed this enhanced data capture reason as a public argument for why people should use the app interesting; corporations aren’t usually so transparent about why they want your eyeballs (or earballs, as it were). I should imagine for some users (particularly certain portions of the podcasting die-hards) the knowledge that the BBC is recording and using your preferences is a downside, not a benefit.

Anyway, Fortunately will eventually come out from behind the Sounds barrier, and its listeners will probably simmer down or find a new show. For now, there are two ways to look at this kerfuffle: the first for what the BBC can learn, and the second for what the wider industry can take from it.

For the BBC, I’d say the biggest takeaway should be about expectations and signposting. Podcast listeners can be very loyal and engaged, but they are also creators of habit, so any attempt to shift their usage patterns requires warning and help. Perhaps if the “limited” windowing period for Fortunately… had been stated, or if there had been better information available from the start (a more detailed FAQ has now been published, Lock said, although when you search for the show you pull up a few different BBC show pages that don’t link to it), or if international listeners had had more signposting to the places where they can still listen (there were no links in the description of the announcement, for instance), there wouldn’t have been such an outcry. Just a glib “we’re moving!” probably isn’t sufficient if you want to keep everyone’s goodwill.

The wider industry should take note, because I doubt the BBC will be the only organisation to experiment with windowing and paywalls and exclusivities in 2019. As more consolidation occurs and revenue streams other than sponsorship are sought, there will be lots of people grappling with the problem of moving an audience. I think it can be managed better than in this case, but to do this well, it’s vital to know what it is you’re actually trying to achieve and act with those specific goals in mind. A walled-garden app containing shows aimed at a small but highly-engaged segment of an audience has a good chance of success, but it will be more difficult to rack up big numbers when you put technological hurdles in people’s way. Experimenting in this area is high stakes, especially when done with an existing show. You might gain a partial insight into what listeners do and don’t want, but you risk shrinking your audience as you do so.