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Insider: November 8, 2019

- The BBC’s flagship political podcast, Brexitcast, has ended up at the centre of a big debate in the British media over what “shitposting” is - As promised, I am now going to talk about James Purnell’s latest blog - Stitcher and Wondery's Podfront UK announces a new head of sales... and more!

Race to the bottom. This is a story that makes me want to scream with laughter and despair in equal measure. The BBC’s flagship political podcast, Brexitcast, has ended up at the centre of a big debate in the British media over what “shitposting” is. The origin of this row is this tweet from the BBC Sounds account, which embeds a video of BBC political editor and Brexitcast regular Laura Kuenssberg offering a definition of the term in the context of the UK Conservative Party’s digital election strategy.

The party has been posting bad or obviously half-hearted images and videos, she said, with the aim of getting sceptical or disapproving people to share them, thus giving their message a wider distribution than a decently-made post would have received. (There’s a more detailed explanation of how this strategy was successfully used in the recent Australian election here.)

Lots of people online disagreed with Kuenssberg’s definition of shitposting, and said so, vociferously. This has led to the BBC being accused of the very thing that she was describing, namely, putting out something half-baked in order to attract more attention for their own product — in this case, the Brexitcast podcast.

Since the video has been viewed on Twitter 350,000 times and counting (completely out of the ordinary for the Sounds account, which normally sees views for its videos in the low thousands), it’s certainly true that the row has spread the podcast clip much further than it would otherwise have travelled. Whether that was done deliberately to increase podcast listenership, of course, is impossible to say. What is clear, though, is that we are well and truly in election mode now, and that podcasts are not exempt from being caught up in the toxic cycles that this moment produces.

Show us the numbers. As I promised yesterday, I am now going to talk about James Purnell’s latest blog. For those who aren’t familiar with why I am so fascinated by this little corner of the internet, it’s because Purnell’s blog is pretty much the only place where we can occasionally get a glimpse into how the BBC’s podcasts are performing — despite being a public broadcaster, the BBC isn’t at all transparent about its podcast listenership. Of course, Purnell, as a BBC executive, is only sharing the numbers that he believes show the BBC in a good light. It’s far from a complete picture, but it’s still a useful snapshot of the internal thinking there, at least.

So, from this latest update, we learn that BBC Sounds now has “over 2.7m weekly users, which has been growing at about 100,000 a week, and above the average iPlayer Radio audiences before we launched Sounds”. I’m not completely sure this is comparing like with like, since “BBC Sounds” could also include figures for the audio section of the BBC website, which is also branded as part of Sounds, as well as the standalone app of the same name (whereas the predecessor and now discontinued app, iPlayerRadio, wasn’t so closely integrated with the web) and Purnell isn’t precise in his language. But still, a useful benchmark for how adoption of Sounds is going.

Purnell also shared some numbers for a couple of popular recent shows: the limited series The Missing Cryptoqueen has been “busting more than 1m streams & downloads on Sounds and other platforms” and the history show You’re Dead To Me “now has more than 2 million streams and downloads”. The former is intriguing to me, because that series has been getting a lot of critical buzz. Given that there are 7 episodes out, if Purnell means that it just hit a million downloads over all, that seems relatively low to me. Even in the UK, there’s a not insignificant number of independent podcasts that easily hit six figures on each episode, and this one had all the might of the BBC behind it.

If you’ll allow me a brief tangent on The Missing Cryptoqueen series itself: it is certainly a great story, and everyone who worked on it is to be congratulated. (I was pleased to hear the Canadian producer Chris Berube credited as “story consultant”, it’s good to see the BBC are hiring in talent for roles they don’t have an existing track record in filling.) But every time I finished an episode, I couldn’t help thinking that for something the BBC is pushing as a premium, high quality podcast, the list of credits was really short — five people, total, and I suspect most of them weren’t on it full time for very long.

It’s a really light operation: the host Jamie Bartlett and producer Georgia Catt investigated, researched and wrote the whole thing, and they then had the help of Berube, a sound designer, and an editor. Pairing up outside talent (Bartlett is a freelance journalist and author) with an internal producer to make a podcast is a model I’ve seen the BBC try a few times now.

As such, I couldn’t help imagining what the show might have sounded like if it had had a full time team of 6+ people and a year’s runway. The BBC is making a big noise about its podcasts, certainly, but there is a sense that they’re still holding back on investing in them to the extent that a big publisher in the US might. Freed from the commercial pressures that the rest of the market faces, the onus is on the BBC to be ambitious.

Headcount rising. Podfront UK, the joint venture between Wondery and Stitcher initially setting up in London to better monetise UK listens for their US shows, has recruited a head of sales. Oli Walters joins from Audioboom’s UK sales operation, and has previously worked for big commercial radio players Bauer and Global.

Big closures. Major news out of Ireland, where the public broadcaster RTÉ has announced that it is closing its DAB radio stations as part of a major strategy change to address a funding gap. Over 200 job losses are expected in 2020, and there will be a 15 percent pay cut for “top contracted on air presenters”. A whole studio in Limerick will also close next year. More podcasts and more investment “in live and on-demand RTÉ Player services” are on the cards instead.

The broadcaster’s Director General Dee Forbes told RadioToday Ireland: “We need to reduce staff costs—we will consult with staff and unions on a number of initiatives, to include pay freeze, tiered pay reductions, review of benefits, work practice reforms. The Executive Board will take a 10% reduction in pay; the Board of RTÉ will waive its fees.”

She also called for the government to reform the Irish TV licence fee system, saying that change was vital if there was to be a future for a public broadcaster in the country.

Cops chasing pods. The NYPD is getting its own podcast called “Break in the Case”, which will take the form of a true crime show that gives behind the scenes details about the work of real life detectives.

Musical interlude. Atypical Artists, the production company founded by Lauren Shippen, Jordan Adika and Briggon Snow, is supporting a new scripted musical project called In Strange Woods described as “Serial’-Meets-Glee”. More details from Deadline.