Issue 246,  published February 18, 2020

On the Airwaves

For pretty much as long as there have been podcasts, there have been people trying to put them on the radio. As far back as 2005 CBS Radio transformed KYCY into “K-You Radio” — which broadcast podcast episodes around the clock until it was shuttered in 2007 — and as recently as last year iHeartRadio launched one on WSAN to showcase their own podcasts. The CBC, the BBC, RNZ, RTE and other broadcasters all have radio shows that play a selection of podcasts, often interspersed with interviews with podcasters.

This month, another example arrived with the launch of Podcast Radio, a new digital station based in London. It can be picked up by DAB+ digital radios in London and Surrey, or via its website or apps. The station operates on a schedule (unlike PRX Remix, for instance, which prizes serendipity above appointment listening). From what I’ve seen of the selection so far, the shows being featured are mostly from the UK and almost universally small, independent productions without affiliation to professional audio outfits.

I spotted a few very active posts about this new venture popping up in podcaster communities throughout 2019, and wondered: now that a podcast can be recognised for a Pulitzer Prize — among many other honours — do we still need to keep up the idea that there is something qualitatively different between radio and podcasting?

I reached out to Gerry Edwards, founder and CEO of Podcast Radio, to find out more. His desire to do it, he said when we spoke on the phone late last week, came from his own frustrated podcasting experiences. He used to host a comedy show with a friend, and was shocked at how their access to professional radio facilities and background in broadcasting didn’t translate into podcasting success.

“We had all the ease of access, we had content coming out of our ears,” he told me. “And still we were like, wow, people have to spend so much to be seen amongst all the other podcasts. . . We were in the UK top comedy top ten for about four days then we disappeared and no one ever heard of our podcast again.”

Edwards had previously been involved in starting two other radio stations, and felt like a brand new station as a vehicle for podcast discovery was worth a shot. It took just over a year to research all of the background complexities of the venture, from the legal status of republishing podcast content to ensuring compliance with UK broadcast regulations (radio stations are subject to Ofcom’s code; podcasts aren’t).

“We had loads of difficult conversations in the first six months,” Edwards said. “Effectively we’re doing two things: we’re both creating a 24-hour speech radio station and we’re marketing people’s podcasts.”

I think the substance of one of those difficult conversations was revealed on the BBC’s Media Show last week, when Steve Ackerman, Managing Director at the large independent production house Somethin’ Else (which just announced a partnership with Sony), revealed that he had declined the opportunity to put his company’s podcasts on the station, since there was no money on offer for the rights.

And that is the perplexing thing about Podcast Radio. Edwards is not paying any podcasters for the right to rebroadcast their episodes, with the thinking that those being featured are accepting that they will receive “exposure” for their show and an as-yet unmeasurable boost in listenership. Baked in host read sponsorship spots are permitted to remain, but anything that was being dynamically inserted will obviously not be broadcast. Expletives must be bleeped out for Ofcom reasons, which means extra work for some podcasters, too.

Again, Edwards sees his station as a mechanism for podcast discovery, especially among radio-only listeners yet to try podcasts. He explained the lack of fees for podcasters by pointing out that at the moment, the whole thing operates at a loss. “We don’t charge them and we don’t pay them because it actually costs us money to be a radio station at this stage. We’ve got all the fees and all the carriage costs.”

To maintain the station’s status as a “sampler” for potential listeners, Edwards takes only a few episodes from each show. “That’s not our model. . . You own the rights. We just showcase them and invite people to go and find your full series.” There are links for each show featured on the station’s website as well as callouts by presenters, although it’s still unclear to me how many casual radio listeners will go searching for them or indeed how such conversions could be measured.

Edwards didn’t seem too sure when I spoke to him exactly how the station will ever make money. For now, he’s put his own cash on the line, and he also has an investor in the form of “one local guy who loves radio from the ‘60s and ‘70s who I talked to last February”. During our conversation, the prospect of the station running branded content came up, as did the idea of bigger publishers eventually paying for a broadcast slot, although both are hypothetical at the moment, and Edwards is keen to keep Podcast Radio focused on independent creators.

It’s really easy to be pessimistic about this venture — the financial model seems extremely vague, and the “content for exposure” transaction has always been one that raises my eyebrow. But I suppose, in a way, what Edwards is doing does at least feel somewhat respectful to podcasting’s low-barriers origins, while major broadcasters often still treat even highly-regarded podcasts as some kind of poor relation.

Edwards does seem to have founded Podcast Radio out of an affinity for the form as it is practised by hobbyists, obsessives, and friends shooting the shit around a mic. Even with all my reservations around audience capture, conversion measurement, a viable business model, and most importantly, creator payments, I’m curious to see how long this thing can run.