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Can you build a podcast business in the UK independent of the BBC?

In some respects, the UK podcast industry has grown pretty fast in a relatively short span of time. Five years ago, you wouldn’t be wrong in characterizing the place as a mosaic of rehashed radio programmes, legacy media brand offerings, a handful of successful indie shows often (though not always) hosted by comedians, and the rare experimental project that breaks through to a broader audience. Almost everything seemed to be a variation on conversational or interview shows, and for advertisers, there was still substantial doubt that this medium was really worth investing serious money into.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. The runaway success — especially internationally — of My Dad Wrote A Porno did a lot to instill confidence in the format. The BBC’s subsequent move into original podcast development, along with the launch of the BBC Sounds app in late 2018, opened up new and potentially lucrative commissioning opportunities for upstart production companies. And then came Sony Music Entertainment’s investment in two British audio production studios, Broccoli Content and Somethin’ Else, which further signalled the impression that there is gold to be found in these hills.

That’s a lot of activity, but I’ve been getting the feeling for a while now that all these developments seem to cluster around the same kind of path. Plenty of new shows are being made, of course, but the purely professional end of the market seems either to be focused on securing commissions from the BBC (or to a lesser extent, from commercial audio providers like Bauer or Global) or on signing up a celebrity/influencer as a host so that their interview show can attract a big enough initial audience to satisfy wary advertisers. Looking around, there seems to be relatively little being launched at the moment that does not fall into one of these two categories.

Which is why I find Crowd Network, a new podcast outfit that launches in Manchester today, somewhat interesting. “What I didn’t want to be was another production company making content for the likes of the BBC and other big media companies,” said Mike Carr, the CEO of Crowd Network. “I’ve kind of seen that in operation from the BBC side, and those guys make amazing content, but I think the secret of building a big successful company is to make your own content, own your own content and monetise your own content. That’s a model that’s very much in place in America, less so over here.”

Carr might be trying to split with the BBC commission business model, but his company nonetheless has BBC lineage. He himself is a former BBC staffer, having once served as the editor of BBC Radio Sport, and he leads Crowd Network with three other BBC alums: Steve Jones, Tom Fordyce, and Louise Gwilliam. Here’s another way they’re trying to split — but nonetheless have to interface with — the old ways: during lockdown earlier this year, they secured £500,000 in seed funding from Enigma Holdings as well as investment from the comedian John Bishop, who will also soon launch his own podcast with them.

The company is coming out of the gate with an ambition to be “Europe’s largest audio-on-demand network,” and with hopes to address the gap between the US and the UK markets. It also has a founding commitment to developing talent in Manchester — a move that intrigued me when so much of the audio industry in the UK is based in London.

Crowd has an initial slate of seven shows launching before the end of the year, and they have initially partnered with Acast to monetise them. But that’s only the start, apparently. “I don’t think anyone has got the ambition to scale as quickly as we have with a range of titles. Monetising over a period of time, obviously, sponsorship and advertising, but also other revenue streams, live shows if that’s ever possible again, merchandise, potential TV formats, all that sort of thing,” Carr said. The founders had a choice of investors, despite the coincidence of their pitch with the pandemic, with five or six “keen in one way or another” to get involved.

They are, inevitably, going to make some celebrity fronted shows, as the initial partnership with John Bishop demonstrates. They can’t leave that money on the table, because beyond just audience size, there is value for advertisers, Carr explained, in having a well known personality do sponsor reads. “That’s why there are so many of these shows and everybody’s trying to work out different ways of doing interview shows with different celebrities because that’s what the sponsors like — for their products to be endorsed by a David Tennant or someone like that. But there’s only so much of that you can do.”

He feels that the commercial market ought to be able to support standalone narrative series as well, and Crowd’s long term goal is to make a success of something like the recent Missing Cryptoqueen documentary that has been a hit for the BBC. “I would love to be able to say that we’re going to make really high end investigative journalism podcasts, but we’re not in a position to do that yet.” There’s a lot of experimentation going on, it seems — some forthcoming shows have a Parcast-like anthology aspect to them, others a more personality driven approach.

Embedding the company in Manchester’s creative industry was a priority for Carr and his colleagues, who are all based in the city. Their launch announcement even includes a supportive quote from the Manchester City Region mayor Andy Burnham, welcoming the startup to the area’s “£5 billion digital economy.” Crowd is in the process of setting up partnerships with local universities, Carr said, and is committed to hiring people with “the right attitude” rather than prioritising existing skills or experience.

“I think it’s really important that we be judged on this and not just make it window dressing for the launch,” he said. “At the moment, our leadership team is three white blokes and one white girl. We know that we need to change that, and we want to make a difference in that area, both for the benefit of the people we bring in and also for the company. You know, if we just produce content that I like, it’ll all be the same, and that’s the worst thing we could do. You’ve got to get out of that mindset that ‘I don’t like that idea’ when it’s not for me. . . It’s got to be action rather than words, so we are very much recruiting now.”

One company launch doesn’t make for a seachange in a whole market; I don’t want to overstate this at all. Crowd Network will be judged on its successes over the next few months and years. But there are aspects to their plan that stands out as a fresh development, such as their intent to exist completely outside of the BBC’s ecosystem, to develop talent outside of London, and to keep hold of all their own intellectual property. This could well be a sign of how the UK podcast market is starting to move onto its next phase of growth, and close the gap with what’s been happening in the US.