Issue 244,  published February 4, 2020

Big Shifts at the BBC

Things have really hotted up on the BBC beat since I wrote my overview of the public broadcaster’s predicament in last Tuesday’s newsletter. I laid out, in some detail, the ramifications of the different updates in Friday’s Hot Pod Insider, in brief: the BBC is cutting 450 jobs from its news division in order to hit its target of finding £80 million of savings by 2022. Meanwhile, in addition, two entire TV news programmes are also being shuttered: The Victoria Derbyshire show (which airs on BBC Two and the BBC website) and World Update from the World Service, although on the whole executives have tried to trim back teams without taking other shows off the air.

Alongside the announcement of the job cuts, Director of News Fran Unsworth signaled a pivot away from traditional broadcasting and towards digital products. “We need to reshape BBC News for the next decade in a way which saves substantial amounts of money. We are spending too much of our resources on traditional linear broadcasting and not enough on digital,” she said. Part of that involves an internal restructuring so that one team can cover an event for multiple shows, rather than having lots of BBC journalists on the same story.

Podcasting is key to this change, too, as part of the effort by the BBC to reach younger audiences with current affairs content. Brexitcast, the political conversation show which topped the BBC’s internal stats release for 2019 Q4, has been rebranded “Newscast” now that Britain has officially left the EU, and a new weekly show about the US election called “Americast” launching this week to time with the Iowa caucus. (The “cast” suffix as a branding choice for their political podcast stable intrigues me; pun or portmanteau-based podcast names have traditionally not faired so well with voice assistants on smart speakers, but then as the BBC is trying to push people towards using their own BBC Sounds app, perhaps this doesn’t matter so much to them.)

Another major development last week was the announcement by Sarah Sands, editor of BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning current affairs show Today, that she was resigning and would leave the corporation in September. The editorship of Today has been traditionally regarded as one of the big jobs in British radio, but I imagine that the application pool might not be as big as it once was, especially since the government has singled out that programme particularly for criticism and accusations of “bias”.

Lastly, it was announced yesterday that the BBC licence fee will go up by £3 on 1 April from £154.50 to £157.50 (just over $200). This is part of an annual with-inflation increase implemented by the government in 2017, but it provides yet another news hook on which those wishing to attack the BBC can hang their criticism. The BBC’s own write up includes a negative response from the Age UK charity and points to the fact that the corporation’s top paid presenter, Gary Lineker, has recently called for the license fee to become voluntary.

Related: The Times of London has announced that it is launching its own speech radio station later this year as a direct rival to BBC Radio 4. Times Radio is aiming to “target those disenfranchised by BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live”, and joins several other London-based audio outlets controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsUK (such as Virgin Radio and talkSport). I think I’ll unpack this news a little more in an Insider later this week, so stay tuned for that.