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Insider: October 25, 2019

-  The latest official quarterly audience figures for the UK have been released by RAJAR - If you’re based in the UK or have visited this month, you might have heard some government sponsored ad spots on commercial radio stations and Spotify on how to prepare for Brexit. - The BBC this week launched its first interactive voice news service... and more!

Sounds good? The latest official quarterly audience figures for the UK have been released by RAJAR (which stands for Radio Joint Audience Research). The data shows that several of the BBC’s flagship shows — such as the Radio 2 breakfast show and the Radio 4 morning news programme Today — losing hundreds of thousands of listeners compared with Q3 of 2018, while commercial stations like LBC and Global are growing their audience share. Podcast listening is up, though, at 8.4 million listeners compared to 6 million last year.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s regulator Ofcom has put out its annual review of the corporation, and the headline finding is that the corporation still isn’t doing enough to engage younger listeners who now prefer to get their news and entertainment from online sources and subscription streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify.

The warning is pretty dire: “Time spent with the BBC by younger audiences across TV, radio and the BBC’s main online sites has declined further in 2018/19,” the report says. “If the BBC can’t engage young audiences with its content, it risks losing a generation of viewers. If young people don’t consider the BBC as a core part of their viewing, then it may be hard to encourage them to pay the licence fee which will have significant implications for the BBC’s revenue and its ability to deliver its Mission and Public Purposes.”

This angle is particularly relevant to audio, because the BBC Sounds app (which since the switch off of the predecessor iPlayerRadio app last month is the sole BBC audio app) is central to how the BBC has laid out their plans to reverse its poor performance among younger people. The Ofcom report has no proper assessment of Sounds — the first write up will be in next year’s review — but does include a small amount of research about who is using the app.

ComScore data from March 2019 showed that 85 percent of the 622,000 adults who accessed the app were aged 35 or older, while Ofcom’s own research for the same research suggested that 44 percent of podcast listeners on BBC Sounds were under 35. I reckon this slightly overlapping pair of stats could be explained by the fact that older people are more using it for radio listen again services and music, while younger people are heading for the podcasts, but we’ll need a lot more data to be able to make that conclusion properly.

I’d love there to be more public data about BBC Sounds generally, actually — the app is supposed to be designed to collect listener behaviour, but so far there haven’t been any proper stats releases from the BBC about it (I don’t count James Purnell’s blogs, of course). Since it’s an audio product like no other, and its very existence has a big impact on the surrounding media environment, I feel like it would be a good public service for it to be a bit more transparent.

Are you ready? I’m not. If you’re based in the UK or have visited this month, you might have heard some government sponsored ad spots on commercial radio stations and Spotify on how to prepare for Brexit. This is part of a wider “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign, which was launched on billboards, TV, social media and market stalls as well as in audio form last month. It’s thought to be the most expensive government information campaign ever run in the UK, costing around £100 million.

This week, it was erroneously reported by the i newspaper that the ads had been pulled after the prime minister was forced by Parliament to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension on the 31 October deadline and in the wake of a National Audit Office report that said the campaign could likely only have “limited impact” because of the persistent uncertainty about what Brexit will even look like when it finally happens. The government insists that the ads continue, but I haven’t heard one for several days now. If you do, let me know?

Ask for more. The BBC this week launched its first interactive voice news service, which allows smart speaker users to navigate bulletins with voice alone. Developed by the corporation’s Artificial Intelligence lab, the new update allows users to skip past items they don’t want to hear about or ask for more information about stories that interest them.

Some of the write ups of the new feature suggested that it allows listeners to filter out subjects or types of stories they don’t want to hear — eg “Alexa, give me the news without Brexit” — but that’s not actually (yet) possible with this rollout. The skip function does allow some curation of what you hear, but that strikes me as no different to skimming the headlines in a print newspaper before deciding which articles to read in full.

However, the question of whether interactive news tools like this facilitate the creation of “filter bubbles” or echo chambers is one that the BBC is already engaging with. The corporation’s executive editor BBC Voice + AI Mukul Devichand said in the release that in fact this new tech is intended to show listeners a wider range of content. “This is a direct challenge to the political danger of echo chambers and filter bubbles. Users will get a complete, edited impartial BBC news stream with a full range of opinion. But they will have a new degree of control over how they use the experience.”

The “more from the BBC” command, which on certain stories triggers the playing of additional content not included in the master bulletin, is the part of this that interests me most. I think it has great potential both for using of what BBC reporters generate and for making the corporation’s local and regional coverage more accessible — the latter being a key tenet of the corporation’s licence fee funded status.

Everyone I’ve ever met who works in BBC radio has bemoaned how little of what they make actually makes it to air because of the extremely compressed speech radio news output. Even flagship spoken word station BBC Radio 4 doesn’t run news programming for hours at a time, broadcasting drama, comedy, science, religion and longer-term current affairs projects for a lot of each day. The “more” feature on smart speakers could provide a useful home for extended interviews and reportage that gets cut from the top of the hour updates.

Count them. How many impeachment podcasts are we up to now? Whatever the number is, add one more, because Buzzfeed News and iHeartRadio have just announced their collaboration on a daily impeachment podcast called Impeachment Today. Hosted by BuzzFeed News’ Senior Reporter Hayes Brown, it promises “a digestible, 10- to 15-minute news breakdown of the day’s impeachment process” hitting podcatchers each morning.