Earlier this week, the BBC announced a handful of new appointments that have relevance for the wider digital audio industry, so let’s dig into who’s going where. Gwyneth Williams, controller of BBC Radio 4 since 2010, has stood down and been replaced by long-time R4 commissioning editor Mohit Bakaya. He now takes the role of supervising a big chunk of the corporation’s factual and current affairs radio programming, as well as its slightly beleaguered flagship morning news programme, Today. Bakaya was strongly tipped to succeed Williams and comes with plenty of inside experience, having been at Radio 4 since 2007.
The first ever controller of BBC Sounds has been appointed — Jonathan Wall moves over from BBC Radio 5 Live, where he has worked for 21 years and been controller for the past six. As the new overseer of the BBC’s audio app he has a big remit and a lot of challenges ahead, especially since the corporation has put Sounds at the core of its strategy to recapture younger demographics who are increasingly turning away from its output. The app has also been unpopular with some listeners — although the BBC is always anxious to point out that research shows others love it — and I’ve heard from some staff that there have been some internal blockages and confusion too.
As well as tackling the thorny problem of maintaining the balance between radio repackages and original podcast commissions, Wall will also lead the BBC’s plans to be “clear and transparent” with the rest of the audio industry about its plans for podcasts and radio as well as scoping out the possibility (mentioned in the broadest terms in this year’s annual report) that BBC Sounds could be opened up to non-BBC audio, ie serve podcasts from competitors and independents.
This last is one of the most eagerly-anticipated developments when I speak to others in the UK industry — the BBC is widely seen as having a large captive audience, and others are excited to get their content in front of it. I’ll be tracking that one carefully to see how the commercial and impartiality implications of it shake out. Wall starts the job in August, and I should imagine he’s going to have a pretty full inbox from the get go.
The final appointment of this trio is Lorna Clarke to the new role of controller of pop music (brilliant title), which gives her oversight of the major BBC music radio stations, ie Radio 1, Radio 1Xtra, Radio 2, Radio 6 Music, Asian Network, plus any other music output. She, like Bakaya and Wall, is a long-time BBC staffer and is therefore a safe, internal appointment who already knows and understands the corporation’s culture. I had been wondering if the desire for innovation and a fresh approach would lead to an external appointment to BBC Sounds — someone with experience of podcasting in the commercial market or even from the US — but it seems that a pre-existing BBC radio executive was preferred in the end.
However, I think the creation of Clarke’s overarching, cross-cutting position, as well as the new role at BBC Sounds, gives us a decent idea of how the BBC intends to counter what it sees as the threat from streaming giants like Netflix and Spotify. Rather than trying to attract listeners to the individual traditional station brands, or even new ones like Sounds, they’re looking to compete as an entire corporation. It no longer matters whether a listener heard a song on Radio 1 or Radio 6 Music — the important thing is that they heard it on a BBC station at all.