Issue 276,  published September 29, 2020

BBC Sounds under scrutiny

Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, has announced that it will conduct a public review into BBC Sounds, the platform launched by the corporation in late 2018 to house all of its audio content. In the regulator’s letter notifying the BBC of this development, it says that “a number of incremental changes to BBC Sounds” as well as “concerns from the commercial radio sector” have prompted this move. The letter went on to say that the focus of the review is to consider the market position of BBC Sounds and assess whether there are any aspects of it that are impeding the activity of for-profit companies in the same space.

This is a pretty big deal, and it’s worth unpacking. In case you didn’t know, the BBC is mostly funded via the license fee, an £157.50 (~$200) annual charge paid by all households that watch, stream, or record television in the UK. Radio and podcasts are free to listen to, but crossfunded by this charge for TV. Because the money comes from the public and its collection is backed up by the state legal system — it’s a criminal offence to watch television without a license and every year over 100,000 people appear in court charged with this — the statutory independent regulator Ofcom has the responsibility of scrutinizing the BBC’s activity and output in an effort to make sure that it is in the public interest, serves the whole population, and offers value for money. A big part of that last point is assessing whether what the BBC is doing can instead be supported by the commercial market, and this seems to be the concept being tested with this review of BBC Sounds.

This issue bubbled up recently when the BBC announced it was launching a 24-hour streaming only music radio station called Radio 1 Dance, which will debut on BBC Sounds on 9 October. Radiocentre (the industry body for commercial radio) and a committee of Members of Parliament wrote to Ofcom earlier this month calling for an investigation into this initiative. Dance music, after all, is something that the commercial radio sector is already doing with adverts on stations like Kiss FM and Capital. Andy Carter, the Conservative MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Commercial Radio, argued that “new services like Radio 1 Dance do not appear to meet the important public value tests that the BBC must observe.”

In that specific instance, Ofcom said that it would not conduct a public interest test on this one dance music stream because its impact on the market as a whole is likely to be small. However, there will now be this larger review of BBC Sounds, and it’s hard not to see that there’s some connection between the two things. For what it’s worth, the BBC has indicated that it tries always to comply fully with the regulator, saying in a statement: “We’ve had relevant approvals from Ofcom for all key developments, including Radio 1 Dance, and we’ll continue to liaise with them and our colleagues in commercial radio.”

The issue of market crowding is a central tenet of right wing arguments for abolishing the license fee and downsizing the BBC, since those of that persuasion are generally more disposed to prioritise notions of the “free market.” The agreement between the government and the BBC that governs the license fee is renewed every ten years, with the next one due to start in 2027, and the process of negotiating that agreement begins in 2022. As such, the timing of the Ofcom review is pretty significant, since it provides an independent process and review that those keen to put the BBC under pressure can use to draw attention to this issue in the run up to those negotiations.

At the heart of this whole issue is, of course, BBC Sounds. The platform was launched as a single destination on the web, smartphones, and smart speakers for all BBC audio content, bringing together live radio, catch up services, podcasts and music streams in one place. It was initially plagued by complaints, with listeners reporting technical difficulties and experiments with making podcasts exclusive to the platform proving unpopular.

But it has thrived during the year’s lockdown, with lots of archive and homeschooling content added to the platform. It now sees 3.4 million weekly users. The app is now finally being rolled out to other markets, too; until now it was geolocked to the UK so that listeners elsewhere could only access Sounds content via the website.

It’s worth noting that BBC Sounds is a walled garden. There is currently no mechanism for other providers to submit their shows for inclusion, a facility that might have allayed concerns that the platform is a competitor to the commercial sector. A very small handful of independent podcasts were invited in at launch as a pilot scheme, including Cariad Lloyd’s Griefcast, but since no new episodes have been added for over a year, that seems to have fallen by the wayside. Presumably the required due diligence involved in hosting outside content, with all its potential legal issues, is just too onerous to contemplate.

The BBC’s annual plan in 2019 included the suggestion that BBC Sounds would be opened up in some way to third party providers and that discussions were ongoing about how that might work, but it hasn’t happened yet. Even before Sounds launched there had been rumours of internal disagreements about its core purpose: is it trying to become a listener’s number one destination for all audio, replacing Spotify/Apple Music and any other podcatcher, or is it where you go for BBC content specifically? So far, it has modelled the latter option, with the result that it is now being scrutinised for occupying too much space in the market.

This review isn’t yet a major headache for the BBC, but it has the potential to become one. The corporation is essentially fighting a war on two fronts. On the one hand, it has been strongly warned by Ofcom that it is not reaching enough young people, who are turning away from traditional radio and TV in favour of Netflix, Spotify and the rest of the streaming services. Thus, a lot of the rhetoric from BBC executives over the past 18 months has been about providing this “lost generation” with an alternative to the streaming giants.

BBC Sounds, with its music streams and its podcasts hosted by (among others) sports celebrities and reality TV stars, was a big part of the BBC’s solution to this problem. But then on the other hand, I suspect that is exactly the content that has made the commercial audio sector feel that the BBC is encroaching on its turf. Monetising podcasts hosted by footballers and Love Island contestants isn’t exactly difficult at the moment, after all.

The BBC can’t be hollowed out so that it just provides the “wholesome” content that isn’t profitable for the commercial sector (foreign news, investigative reporting, radio for underserved communities, and so on), because then it has no mechanism to draw people in the first place. Since its founding nearly 100 years ago, the BBC has always used entertainment as the gateway to everything else, and that’s the model that BBC Sounds is built on too.

There is a balance to be found between doing that and harming the commercial sector, though. The Ofcom review is due to report by the end of this year. The issues the regulator identifies and the nature of the resulting compromise over BBC Sounds’ purpose will have less to do with the actual podcasts and streams being produced, I suspect, and will instead be much more reflective of how hostile the political climate around the BBC has become by then.

Pair this with… The dude Josh Benton’s column over at Nieman Lab, from yesterday: “A new set of threats to the BBC — internal and external — challenges its role as anchor of U.K. media.”

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.