Warming up. That thawing of hostilities between the BBC and the UK government that I wrote about recently is continuing, and it’s shifting a major media narrative we’ve been tracking for a while. At the start of this year, the rhetoric from government ministers about the future of the BBC’s funding model and output was very stern, attempting to communicate that downsizing and the removal of the license fee was, if not inevitable, extremely likely.
A few weeks into a pandemic, though, Boris Johnson and his colleagues seem to have realised that the BBC is the best way of communicating public health and safety information to the nation. Turns out, it’s actually really useful in a crisis like this to have a media outlet with nationwide reach that is mandated to maintain the highest possible standards of accuracy, and can be held to account by a public ombudsman if it falls short.
To see the evidence of this renewed relationship, we need look no further than the recent announcement of the BBC’s new education provision for children now unable to go to school because of the outbreak closures. Beginning on 20 April, the BBC will provide daily videos, articles, quizzes and podcasts for families navigating learning at home — a programme of content that has been developed in partnership with the government Department for Education, a quickly formed and seemingly productive collaboration. The press release also included several glowing quotes from Conservative ministers who probably wouldn’t have been keen to line up to say things like this is “public service broadcasting at its best” even a month ago.
The public consultation on the future of the license fee is still going on (because once the UK civil service starts doing paperwork, it can’t be stopped). Submissions closed on Wednesday, and the BBC has made a suggestion that might just offer the government a face-saving way out. The wording is cautious, but the proposal is that the UK follow other European countries in linking contributions to public media to another household utility bill — such as internet provision.
“This would be a significant change for the UK and we are not, at this stage, advocating it,” the BBC’s document says. However, if adopted, this idea would allow the government to realise their goal of removing the existing criminal sanctions on non payment of the license fee but it would also mean that the BBC retains a similar funding model. If it ends up being implemented, all sides could claim a win.About last year. Acast has posted its financial results for 2019, including a 100 percent growth in revenue from $19 million in 2018 to $38 million in 2019. They now host over 10,000 shows around the world and claim 1.9 billion listens for the year across 195 countries. The company also upped its headcount from 92 to 179 employees and increased its operating expenses by 74 percent.
The results announcement also acknowledges that this data all pertains to a very different world to the one we now live in. Although Acast is claiming an 8.4 percent increase in listening globally across their shows “over the past two weekends”, there’s no getting away from the fact that the podcast business as a whole is going to be affected by the broader economic downturn. But as a snapshot of a previous era, the full figures make for interesting reading.Pivot and rebrand. The Evening Standard newspaper in London has rebranded its daily opinion podcast to “Coronavirus Daily” in light of the current circumstances — which is not in itself a terribly newsworthy update, as plenty of other publishers have done similar things with their daily shows. I think the Standard is worth paying attention to, though, because of how completely and quickly the lockdown has changed its business.
The Evening Standard has been publishing more or less in its current form since 1859, focused on serving Londoners with an evening paper on their way home from work. (If you’ve ever lived or worked in London for any period of time, you’ll be quite familiar with your evening walk to the train station being soundtracked by a man bellowing “Stan-DARD!” as he hands out papers to commuters.) In 2009, after being acquired by the billionaire Russian father and son duo of Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, it became a freesheet. As of February 2020, its distribution staff were handing out nearly 800,000 copies a day at public transport hubs in the city.
That, of course, is no longer a viable model while London is the UK’s coronavirus epicentre, and it’s not surprising therefore that it was among the first wave of major British publishers this week to announce cutbacks. Staff are being furloughed, and those remaining who earn more than £37,500 a year will take a 20 percent pay cut. Home deliveries are being attempted, but it’s tough to pivot to a entirely new system like that from a standing start. Production on the magazine supplement has also been suspended for the next two months. Reportedly, more than 80 percent of the paper’s revenue comes from print advertising, which the chief executive told staff this week had “slowed dramatically” since the outbreak.
In that context, the Standard’s fledgling podcast operation no doubt feels like it exists in the eye of a storm. Until Londoners can get back on public transport and advertisers feel comfortable spending money again, it’s the newspaper’s digital products like podcasts that are under pressure to keep at least some of the company afloat.Keep washing. Lastly, I just wanted to highlight this smart podcast project I’ve been making good use of: Listen, Rinse, Repeat. Each episode features a 20 second audio story to be listened to while washing your hands for the recommended amount of time — kind of like Gimlet’s Chompers, but for hand washing instead of tooth brushing.
It’s ostensibly aimed at children, but I really feel it could be a good resource for anyone fed up of singing Happy Birthday to themselves or whatever you’re doing right now to make sure you scrub for long enough. Plus, it’s showcasing work by independent podcasters, and a great way to discover new voices, especially if you don’t currently listen much beyond non fiction.