James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education, published an assessment this week on how the corporation is doing, podcast-wise. “Overall, pretty well,” is his take on how things have been going since the BBC decided to start making more original podcast content a little over a year ago.
He also quotes some recent download figures, which I suspect are partly the reason why he’s doing the announcement. “In September, in the UK, there were nearly 26.5 million downloads of BBC podcasts,” Purnell wrote, going on to explain that this is the highest figure since the current download measurement methodology was introduced in August 2015, beating the previous record of 23.4 million. There were 63 million downloads worldwide (less than half of the numbers reported by NPR, for comparison).
For those who aren’t familiar with James Purnell, he’s a British Labour politician turned BBC executive who has caused some ripples in UK media waters in the last few years for saying things like “the BBC faces an existential threat from streaming services.” Outside the confines of media commentators, he’s probably best known to the public as the MP who resigned from the Cabinet in 2009, apparently without warning, to try and force the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to stand aside before the general election the following year.
Needless to say, Brown did not resign, which left Purnell’s attempted coup a bit of a busted flush. (The PM stood down the following year after the election resulted in a hung parliament. Politics!) After leaving politics, Purnell worked at a left-leaning think tank for a few years before joining the BBC in 2013. He had to resign his Labour Party membership in accordance with rules about impartiality, but of course his previous and very recent career in top level politics has caused some (mostly right wing) eyebrows to raise since.
So, what do these figures tell us about how the BBC is doing with podcasts? A few caveats: we have no means of verifying the numbers, because the BBC collects its own podcast data and isn’t part of any externally verified or audited ranking. There’s also a lot we still don’t know about who consumes BBC podcasts and how, despite this apparent burst of transparency, as Purnell also hasn’t shared any specifics about what proportion of these figures are streamed, for instance, and how the numbers break down by platform.
Although he hasn’t shared the exact numbers, I would bet that the majority of what Purnell is referring to as a “podcast download” comes in fact from post-broadcast downloads of programmes made for radio rather than digital-first originals. Several of the shows he cites as big hitters fall into this category, like Desert Island Discs and Friday Night Comedy. What we do know from this outline is a bit about how these downloads divide between the different BBC radio stations. Radio 4, the spoken word station that mostly does news, comedy, drama, history and science, has the lion’s share of downloads, which is unsurprising given the style of its programming (scripted, current affairs focused) and its general reputation (older, middle class).
I was more surprised to see that Radio 1, the youth and music orientated station, hasn’t even broken a million podcast downloads, despite having a much larger radio audience than that. The fact that they aren’t reaching young people enough is a big concern for the BBC — Purnell has written about it himself in another blog from July this year. There is also no mention of Radio 2 in these latest podcast figures, which is Britain’s most popular radio station, but which hasn’t made much of an effort to convert that 15 million weekly audience into podcasting yet due partly, no doubt, to the fact that it plays a lot of music. As a sidenote, noted DJ Simon Mayo just announced that he’s quitting Radio 2 — he’s one of the broadcasting veterans I wrote about last month who has started his own podcast independently.
This all fits in neatly with Ofcom’s new annual report on the BBC’s performance, released this week and the first since that body became the BBC’s independent and external regulator (this function used to be performed by the BBC Trust and was changed by government ministers in 2016). Ofcom found that “The BBC is not reaching enough young people, who are turning away from BBC TV and radio services,” and included reaching out to younger audiences as one of the four core issues the BBC must address to continue fulfilling its public service remit. The report summed up the challenge involved in this very well: “As well as providing content that appeals, [the BBC] needs to find new ways of reaching younger people that suit and reflect their viewing and listening habits.” So: more podcasts and digital video, less traditional radio and TV?
The trouble is, of course, that the BBC is pretty late to the party, both when it comes to original podcasts, and audio content aimed at today’s young people. Next week will see the official launch of BBC Sounds, the new catch-all app the corporation has been testing for all its audio content, whether spoken word, music, radio or podcast. When the beta dropped in July, there were widespread concerns expressed that nobody really knew exactly what BBC Sounds was supposed to be: is it a walled garden of BBC content, or a Spotify competitor with curated charts of non-BBC productions included too? My hunch is that they will try for the latter — I’ve heard of approaches to other purveyors of podcasts about getting their shows in the app — but whether it’ll make any difference to whether young people actually download it and tune in remains to be seen.