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Insider: January 17, 2020

Sounds to Salford. BBC Director General Tony Hall made a wide ranging speech at BBC Wales in Cardiff this week, and has kicked off the new year by announcing a number of changes to how the corporation operates. The plan is to move to a position where two thirds of the BBC’s staff are based outside London by 2027, he said (at the moment about half of the BBC’s approximately 19,000 staff work in the capital). He argued that having more jobs based elsewhere in the UK would help to “promote inclusion” and “diversity of thinking”.

The major shift from an audio perspective concerns BBC Sounds, with Hall announcing that the BBC campus at Salford, near Manchester, will now be “the heart” of the corporation’s flagship audio project. In practical terms, that means more Sounds staff will move up north, away from their current base at New Broadcasting House in central London.

Some of this will happen very rapidly, he said, with the Sounds curation team relocating “within weeks”. Newly appointed BBC Sounds Controller Jonathan Wall is already primarily based in Salford, having joined Sounds in August after two decades at BBC Radio 5 Live, a station that has long been located there. Interestingly, Hall also confirmed that the plan to add non BBC podcasts to the BBC Sounds app is going ahead.

Hall also announced that the BBC is opening a new technology hub in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the north east of England, staffed by newly hired developers and engineers working on both Sounds and the BBC’s on demand TV platform, iPlayer. There are also jobs in this field already being advertised for Salford.

As with most things the BBC does, there is — of course — a political dimension to all of this. The general election campaign at the end of 2019 saw a highly acrimonious situation develop between segments of the electorate, right wing politicians, and the BBC. Accusations of bias were widespread from both sides of the political spectrum, including an incident in which Boris Johnson refused to take part in a major setpiece BBC interview.

After the election resulted in a landslide victory for Johnson’s Conservative Party, there have been suggestions that he will use his government’s strengthened position to curtail the BBC’s funding and perhaps even abolish the licence fee. Non payment of the licence fee could also be decriminalised (ie, downgraded from a criminal offence to a civil one, similar to the non payment of an electricity bill), which would radically reduce the BBC’s ability to collect the fee.

One of Johnson’s big pitches for unity to the country after the election has concerned regional devolution, with promises to give greater power to the north of England and create more jobs here. It’s hard not to read Hall’s announcements in this light, especially given that the BBC has to renegotiate the licence fee with the government in 2022. If the BBC can show that it is contributing to this decentralising shift of jobs out of London, it presumably hopes to stave off any cuts or further antagonism.

Dragons and Peacocks. NBC’s new streaming service Peacock has announced that it has a slate of six original scripted shows in development, and one of them is a podcast adaptation. The Adventure Zone, the McElroy brothers’ popular Dungeons & Dragons podcast, is listed as an animated comedy series, with Orphan Black writer Adam Higgs at the helm. Alongside this, Peacock also has an Amy Poehler comedy about women’s football and a documentary adaptation of investigative reporter Nick Bilton’s book Hatching Twitter.

The Canine Podsphere. Spotify announced this week that it was debuting a new original podcast series aimed at dogs titled My Dog’s Favourite Podcast. Produced in conjunction with the UK animal welfare charity the RSPCA, the show features two five-hour long episodes that are intended to provide dogs with a “relaxing aural comfort blanket” while owners are out.

An animal psychologist from the University of York, Alex Benjamin, advised on the show, and told the Guardian that “A lot of dogs are not getting enough rest. . . Dogs should be spending a lot of their day relaxing and sleeping.” (I can confirm that my dog is definitely getting enough rest, without the assistance of podcasts. He is asleep more than he is awake.)

Spotify is also launching a (possibly tongue in cheek) playlist generator for several different kinds of animal. The Pet Playlist tool asks you, your animal’s human, a few basic questions about their personality and then delivers a supposedly personalised selection of music for them. Apparently my dog should like Mitzki and The Lumineers. Who knew.

I probably don’t need to tell you about any of this, though, because I expect you saw it already, covered in lots and lots of outlets that very much enjoyed talking about dogs rather than anything else this week. NPR, the BBC, CNN… They all did it. Which makes me think that this was all a very smart marketing ploy, since the last few days have seen the word “podcast” appear in close proximity to “Spotify” a fair few times on the websites of major media publications, as the platform got a ton of coverage for the stunt.