So, I write a lot about “the BBC,” but I never quite feel that just that one handle fully conveys the multitudes contained within the UK’s public broadcaster. There are lots of different stations and teams working under that vast umbrella, with varying objectives and approaches. Thanks to the relatively recent embrace of podcasting there, we’re now getting to see all of those differences play out in online audio.
One area that particularly interests me in this regard is the BBC World Service, which started out as a radio station in 1932. Although it’s headed up in London, it has an explicitly global remit and receives some government funding in recognition of its value as a soft power tool for the UK. It reaches over 200 million listeners around the world, and everything it commissions has to be considered for how well it will reach that vast, international audience.
How a radio station like this handles podcasting is worth a closer look, I think, since the usual principles of good show development — define an audience, inhabit a niche, deliver consistently on a subject — would seem to run counter to that requirement to put out stuff that will appeal equally to listeners on different continents. Yet the World Service has had some decent hits with original podcasts in the last year or so, with shows like the true crime series Death in Ice Valley (a co-production with the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK) and My Indian Life bringing in big downloads and good reviews.
They’re hoping to build on these successes with their next big launch, on 25 February. Parentland is a “global parenting podcast”, hosted by the science reporter Linda Geddes and the photographer Iko-Ojo Mercy Haruna. Although at first glance child rearing might seem to be one of those subjects that varies vastly from culture to culture, Senior Producer at the World Service Amelia Butterly told me when we spoke this week that they want to use the station’s international audience to their advantage on this one (not least because parenting is already a popular podcast topic).
“Podcasting is a big community and people are supportive, but you have to offer something different,” she said. “You can’t just come in here and make the same thing that someone else is already doing. You have to sell what makes you unique. And for us that certainly is this international focus.”
A big part of how they plan to do this is by making the show completely interactive. They’re inviting parents from all over the world to submit questions they want answered — really fundamental ones like ‘how to get my kid to go to sleep’ or ‘why won’t they behave’ or more specific or silly ones, anything goes — and the podcast will attempt to answer them via insight from experts and researchers. That last part feels very BBC, I must say.
“We’re not saying anything is right or wrong, we are not commenting on people’s parenting choices,” Butterly said. “What we’re doing is using science and peer-reviewed research and the best sources that we can find to answer parents’ questions.” The hope is to use the common themes that emerge to create a feeling of community among the listeners, no matter where they’re based or the superficial differences in their families. “From the audience feedback that we’ve been getting already, the same questions are coming up time and again, whether the person is based in Europe or based in India or in Kenya.” They’re also keen to emphasise that the podcast is for anyone involved in a child’s life, not just a parent: grandparents, uncles, aunts, teacher, friends are all included, she said.
The call for parenting questions was put out in other World Service podcasts and radio shows, and even before the series has launched the response has been “fantastic”, Butterly said. Another technique they’re deploying for this series is a closed Facebook group — this was a big hit for Death in Ice Valley. At the PodUK convention a few weeks ago, I saw a presentation by the team behind this cold case true crime series, and Digital Editor Anna Doble talked in detail about how that group had grown to 19,000 members who were investigating aspects of the case themselves and even holding their own real-life meet-ups around the world.
I was particularly struck by her description of the fervour with which group members looked into the origins of a spoon found by the body in the case; there were hopes it was an obscure Norwegian spoon that would lead to an identification, but it turned out it was just a really standard, mass-produced spoon. Which is a shame, the spoon-hunt could have been a spin off podcast all of its own.
“Part of the reason that [group] was a huge success is because it was focused, it had a really clear goal, and a very strong community,” said Butterly. They’ll be applying a lot of the same techniques to the Parentland group, partly to source questions and feedback to use in future episodes, but also just to create a community where listeners speak to each other and help to answer each others’ queries. It’ll be carefully moderated and monitored to keep the forum positive — a social media team that can do that is a big advantage not all podcasters have, of course — but the hope is that it becomes “something bigger than just the individual people within it” and brings people together who would otherwise never have been in contact.
This is only the second bespoke podcast Facebook group that the World Service has launched, but they already see these custom communities as an essential tool in building an audience for a podcast that needs to have a global reach. They are resource-intensive, for sure (Death in Ice Valley hasn’t published an episode since its first series ended in June 2018, and may not have a follow up series unless there is enough progress on its central case to report, but the group still requires some oversight). But for a publisher that can’t rely on an audience with common experiences or frames of reference, they’re proving to be a valuable asset as a home for the disparate people their podcasts bring together.