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Fighting Talk

On the BBC's "Annual Plan"

Hold the phone, James Purnell has done another blog. The BBC’s Director of Radio and Education (who is a former Labour Party minister) is this time publicising the launch of the corporation’s next Annual Plan as well as addressing the hot topic of the BBC’s relationships with third-party distributors, after the slightly baffling decision to pull BBC podcasts from Google services that I reported on earlier this week.

Purnell expands on some of the reasoning that we’ve already seen from another BBC exec about how this move is really about preserving “choice and plurality” for British radio and podcast consumers, because big platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify have such a big share of the audio market. With BBC Sounds, the BBC is offering “an alternative audio destination to the global platforms”, he argues.

The whole issue is here reframed somewhat as a “UK vs US” conflict too (sorry Spotify and Sweden), with the BBC’s app championing “British audiences and British creativity” against the “mainly US commercial tech companies now dominating the audio market”. This, I have to admit, made me raise my eyebrows, given that it’s largely due to the BBC’s dominance and relative disinterest in podcasting (until the last couple of years) that the commercial UK independent audio market is where it currently is (ie, small), and podcasters often have to look towards US networks, companies and advertisers to make their shows pay. I’m sure there are plenty here who would have loved to know even three years ago that the BBC was so interested in championing their interests.

The key nugget in this blog is a hint towards what this “championing” might look like, and it is indeed the idea that BBC Sounds will be opened up to display non-BBC podcasts and even commercial radio streams. This was being rumoured and discussed even before the BBC Sounds app launched, with reports that there were internal disagreements over whether Sounds should only display BBC audio or try and compete as a more general “podcatcher” style app. At launch an uneasy compromise seemed to have been reached with a very small number of independent podcasts (ie not ones from any BBC competitors) appearing. Clearly, the latter point of view has now won out, although there’s not much detail on how this might work yet. The Annual Plan just notes briefly that discussions are happening with “key stakeholders” about how it might work.

There are broadly two reasons why the BBC are now considering bringing more non-BBC audio into BBC Sounds. Firstly, it will help the BBC seem like more of a partner to the independent audio sector, and less like they’re here to steal everyone’s lunch. I’ve long been in favour of the BBC doing more to lift up smaller creators, which is why I like it when they work with existing podcasts rather than just commissioning new ones. Secondly, having third-party podcasts in BBC Sounds will, I think the BBC hopes, help send more users into BBC Sounds. One of the regular objections amongst those who haven’t yet fully adopted the app is that they can’t use it as their sole podcast app like you can with Apple Podcasts, say.

If the BBC truly wants BBC Sounds to compete with the big established podcast platforms — and I’m yet wholly convinced that’s a smart way to go, although that’s perhaps a discussion for another time — then indexing other shows will be a vital part of that. If this is really the battle they want to fight, it’s going to be a long and difficult one. Their competitors have years of start on them, and it’s not as if BBC Sounds has been universally popular with users so far, anyway. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Although maybe playing the long game is fine, if you’re a publicly-funded broadcaster that’s been on the airwaves since the 1920s. What’s a few more decades?