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Locally Sourced: The BBC’s “Multi Story” Feed

Repackaged radio content still makes up a considerable chunk of podcasts. Here in the UK, the BBC in particular does a lot of this — the majority of shows that you can see on their Apple page, for instance, went out as radio broadcasts first. Most of the time, they just get sandwiched with a new intro and outro bits. Occasionally, they slap on some extra material, but typically what you hear on the podcast is what you would have heard on the radio. Until the BBC’s recent shakeup to its podcast commissioning efforts (which I’ve written about in more detail here), this is how the corporation initially projected its influence through podcasting.

That was on my mind when I saw the announcement that BBC English Regions was planning to launch its own showcase podcast feed, called Multi Story. For the uninitiated, English Regions is the segment of the corporation that produces local and regional television, radio, and web content for England, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own operations going on.) I assumed that the feed would be yet another basic radio repackage effort designed to broadly bump up the potential reach of the division’s 43 local radio stations. The project sounded like a budget-friendly way of getting local radio stories out through podcast feeds when individual stations, typically cash-strapped, might not have the time, bandwidth, or resources to produce original podcast content. And you know, I figured that was totally cool.

But when I listened to the opening of “Swallows,” the first episode dropped into the Multi Story feed last Wednesday, I realized that this was something far more than a simple repackage.

Veteran local radio journalist Becca Bryers, who serves as host and producer, had woven hand-picked excerpts of personal stories from various local radio documentaries into a contemplative, act by act structure. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the way a typical episode of This American Life is constructed. The show’s atmosphere feels purely suited to on-demand audio, from the scoring to Bryers interjecting dashes of her personal life experiences. Even more notably, the episode was largely stripped of any local radio promotional effort in favour of a clean, immersive, podcast-first listening experience.

“Local radio gets stories that perhaps some of the networks don’t, almost because they’re not able to, because at a local station you’re coming into contact with people on a really small level all the time,” Bryers told me. The idea of a digital audio project weaving these more lasting, timeless, personal stories together seemed the natural next step to her.

Development for Multi Story began around 18 months ago, when Bryers took that idea of weaving together timeless and personal locally-sourced stories to the then English Regions Commissioner, David Holdsworth. After getting her to make a pilot, he commissioned a ten-episode first series of Multi Story, an out-of-the-box move for a BBC executive heading up a division that had no real track record with podcasting. It’s a stretch play that Bryers said she’s really grateful for. “I really appreciate that he took that chance on me,” she said.

Bryers sees Multi Story first and foremost as a chance to make a really great podcast rather than necessarily as a direct promotional tool for radio or the local stations that it draws on. “I don’t know if completely the aim is to increase the listenership for the radio stations,” she said. “Obviously you’d hope that it raises awareness of local radio in general. . . We think of it a bit like the Facebook pages that each of the local stations have. Originally the thinking with those was as a branding strategy for the station, whereas often now we see them as a separate entity, just another service that the local stations offer. Just because you use the Facebook page doesn’t mean you listen to the radio and vice versa.”

She used her contacts in local radio to find “producers who really get podcasting” at each station, who would then populate a farm system feeding her suitable stories. She also did a substantial amount of original reporting, gathering tape for “stories I’ve been working on for a while but haven’t found a place on the station”. With the pieces that had already been broadcast, she worked extensively to “reversion” them in a “podcasty way”, to avoid the sound being that of replayed radio. “That’s not to take away from the original broadcast,” she said. “I think that if you’ve got something that’s two people talking in a studio, there’s ways that you can lift that into a podcast style and put music under it, or give it more pauses, and breathing space.”

The result, I think, is something quite rare — a genuinely fresh piece of audio made partly from cuts of previous broadcasts. Bryers’ personal immersion in podcasting (she counts herself a massive fan of Ira Glass and Radiolab) and determination to do something different have allowed her to break out of the customary “BBC sound”, and hers is a template that others trying to squeeze more out of the BBC’s existing resources could do well to follow. “I’m genuinely passionate about doing this,” Bryers said. “I really hope that it comes across that it’s not just a ‘local radio thinks they should jump on the podcast bandwagon’ thing.”