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BBC Podcasting in 2018

I think of the BBC as a huge, old-fashioned ocean liner. The analogy works a few ways. The ship is beautifully made and it makes going somewhere really worthwhile, but the journey itself can get a bit rough sometimes. Across the sprawling structure, there are so many different teams on different decks doing different things, and they don’t always necessarily know what everyone else above and below is doing. It’s big, and as such, it can be a violent force of momentum and inertia. Once the decision to change course has been taken, the ship will travel quite a lot further in the prior direction before it turns.

It’s this last aspect that I’ve been most conscious of in 2018. Until the spring of last year, the corporation’s involvement in podcasting was largely hands-off, with radio shows repackaged for download and a very small number of original podcast-first commissions that were tied closely to existing formats. Then a shift began, with some new shows appearing that attempted to do something different compared to its existing radio output, such as the drama box set zi and the pop culture deep dive series Unpopped.

Part of this shift came from an increasing recognition internally that younger UK listeners were choosing to go elsewhere for their audio content — to Apple Music and Spotify and to the feeds of independent podcasts like My Dad Wrote a Porno and The Receipts. The regulator Ofcom ruled this year in its annual report that the BBC must do “more and more quickly” to reach these audiences, if the corporation is to keep up its remit as a national public service broadcaster. The ship was turning, slowly.

Then, all of a sudden, everything seemed to speed up. In March, it was announced that the BBC had appointed its first commissioner for podcasts, Jason Phipps. He started work in May, and over the next few months we saw more evidence of this internal shift towards more original podcasting. I’ve written a lot about it in these emails since I started with Hot Pod in September: from the youth-focused Xtrachat showcase feed to this new political podcast from Scotland, there’s been a lot to say.

The biggest moment for the BBC in 2018 was the launch of the BBC Sounds app at the end of  October. It had been in beta since late June, with mixed reviews from those trying to use it and reports of internal confusion over its mission. Was it an attempt to make an alternative podcatcher, which indexed non-BBC podcasts as a way of luring listeners away from their current tech, or a walled garden of purely BBC content, trying to offer a premium content experience like Spotify or Audible? In a move that felt inevitable for those of use who have been observing the BBC for a while now, they did something that looks a bit like both options, sort of. BBC Sounds consists almost entirely of BBC podcasts, radio shows, playlists and archive material, with a very small number of independent shows in there too (I could find six, let me know if you can see more). I’m unclear of the long-term rationale behind this hybrid model, but execs seem bullish about the numbers so far (which of course they would).

In one sense, BBC Sounds has been a success already, because it’s given the BBC a way to properly talk about podcasting. A consistent message has been rolled out across all stations and programmes: presenters who never used to refer to online downloads are now routinely saying “if you want to hear more like this, try X podcast on BBC Sounds.” I remain unconvinced that it will be a silver bullet for the younger audience problem, but I do think it could help to convert some radio listeners who have never tried digital audio before into podcast listeners, which can only be a good thing.

The app itself still has a few glaring omissions to my eyes, chief among them a sharing functionality, although I’m sure that’ll be on the way at some point. I still find it difficult to find shows I know must be there, and the algorithmic recommendations are a bit. . . hit or miss. The same goes for the first slate of original programming. There are some really interesting and innovative ideas in there, such as the spin off audio dramas for the TV soap Eastenders, the podcast-spoofing scripted horror serial I wrote about last week, and music documentary series Live Lounge Uncovered, which takes a popular radio session slot and goes deeper on it. Then there’s also some other stuff that I’m less convinced is worth the BBC’s time, such as the supposedly youth-orientated daily news podcast Beyond Today (that I’m still skipping in favour of the old-fashioned news bulletins on the radio), the Duvet Days interview show (which sounds a lot like the many, many other interview shows that already exist), and The Disrupters (yet another interview show focused around entrepreneurship that has yet to wow me with either its guests or approach).

Although on the surface it looks as if it’s full steam ahead for the BBC and podcasts, I’m still picking up some internal confusions. There is now a full time podcast commissioner up at the top in Phipps, but new podcasts are also being made by existing radio stations as well as by journalists in the local and regional divisions. The messaging about where podcasts come from doesn’t always feel cohesive, and I sense the heat of internal politics and wrangling about who is getting the credit for which podcasts, rather than everyone pulling in the same direction under the same structure and focusing on the external competition instead. There are still unanswered questions about analytics, as well — I understand from various sources that producers don’t get very regular updates about how many people are actually listening to their episodes, and those they do get are on a long lag. There’s also no external verification or publication schedule for these numbers, so when an exec chooses to announce a “record month”, we have nothing to benchmark that against.

At the end of the year, it’s still no clearer to me than at the start what the BBC’s responsibilities are to the rest of the UK podcast market. Obviously, their entry into original programming puts them into direct competition with shows made by commercial and independent outlets, but it’s even less obvious if there should be any controls on what they can and can’t make in order to prevent their state-funded advantage cutting others out of the market. I also haven’t seen the BBC use its new podcast commissions to make much meaningful headway on the issue of diversity, which was another problem point in the Ofcom annual report. The vast majority of the new shows we’ve had so far are written and/or hosted by existing BBC talent or suppliers, with all of the existing structural problems around pay and inclusion that brings.

In conclusion: the BBC is fully on board with podcasting now, which is not a phrase I thought I’d be writing back in January. This new direction is likely going to have some really positive outcomes, and a few negative ones too if the corporation doesn’t actively guard against them. There’s a lot we still don’t know.