Issue 220,  published August 1, 2019

Across the Pond (and Distribution Channel)

The Peabody award winning podcast In The Dark is partnering with the BBC World Service to turn their second season into a ten-part radio series for broadcast on the global network. The first episode hit airwaves on 27 July, and continues weekly unfolding the story of Curtis Flowers and his many trials (including the recent events in the US Supreme Court). The latest audience figures for the World Service, by the way, reportedly give the network a reach in the hundreds of millions.

While I’m aware of plenty of podcast-first series that have then been broadly repackaged for broadcast radio distribution, I think it’s less common for a podcast to be adapted into a fresh series for its radio version. But that’s what the team at APM Reports are doing in this instance: they’re taking their fifteen-episode second season (plus several update episodes) and turning it into ten 17:30-minute episodes for BBC radio broadcast. (Something fun I came across while working on this piece is this graphic of the BBC World Service programme clock, enjoy.)

I checked in with Rehman Tungekar, an associate producer on the show, over Skype recently  to find out a bit more about the process of turning a podcast with a dozen and more episodes of over 50 minutes into this new radio format. It’s not just a case of editing down the more lengthy material, he said.

“There’s been a considerable amount of rewriting. I guess like the main difficulty is condensing like a year’s worth of reporting into really short digestible episodes. That was already a challenge with season two, and with this we’re cutting it down even further.” The radio series will also contain new reporting on Flowers’ recent Supreme Court battle, he explained.

They’ve also had to drop entire reporting threads to be able to get the episodes down to the required length — the lengthy exploration of the role of Flowers’s uncle Doyle Simpson in the case has had to go, for instance — and the team has also been “very mindful” of the fact that the World Service audience might not be fully familiar with the story’s context in the US justice system. Those latest audience figures show that India and Nigeria are the biggest countries for the network, with Kenya and Afghanistan also big audiences. “I feel like with this whole experience we’ve had to really think about our audience in a different, maybe even deeper way,” Tungekar said.

In addition, the series has been restructured somewhat for the radio, since the reporters can no longer assume that listeners will be able to hear all the episodes sequentially — they may catch the series part way through broadcast. “We’ve kind of had to approach each episode with the idea of ‘how much do you need to know to actually make this make sense’. And so there’s been a lot of that going on,” he said.

The biggest consideration throughout this reformatting process, though, has been time. “With the podcast, we have the ability to just let the story kind of develop slowly, whereas with the broadcast version we have to be very aware of pacing and the fact that people don’t necessarily control their own listening experience. They might be driving, we could be competing with other things. And so we just have to be mindful that the story has to be really well told and gripping.”

The team is delighted to work with the BBC World Service, Tungekar said. “We’re incredibly honoured and grateful that they approached us and are giving us this platform to share our reporting with our global audience.”

It’s a pretty good match up, from what I can see — the BBC has a strong interest in campaigning, public service journalism, of course, and In The Dark represents those qualities in spades. The decision to create a new, radio-specific version of the podcast I think is a positive one too, since it recognises that the two formats are different and their audiences require different styles and paces. I hope this might serve as a template for other podcasts to come to traditional broadcasters in a similar fashion.