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The BBC Sounds App: Initial Impressions

On Tuesday night, at a glitzy event on London’s South Bank, there was a launch party for the BBC’s biggest product launch in a decade. The app in question, BBC Sounds, is intended to be a single location for all audio output from the corporation — radio, podcasts, music, archive material. Execs have been doing the media rounds all week, talking up the significance of this moment.

On Tuesday night, at a glitzy event on London’s South Bank, there was a launch party for the BBC’s biggest product launch in a decade. The app in question, BBC Sounds, is intended to be a single location for all audio output from the corporation — radio, podcasts, music, archive material. Execs have been doing the media rounds all week, talking up the significance of this moment. “BBC Radio has always been brilliant at reinventing itself and BBC Sounds is the next chapter in that great tradition,” said Director of Radio and Music Bob Shennan in a press statement.

But for all the glamour — the event featured performances from 1990s RnB singer Craig David and the cast of a satirical radio show called Dead Ringers, which first aired in 2000, what could be more glittering than that — a serious problem lies behind this release. Young people aren’t consuming BBC content, according to all the available data and a recent ruling by media regulator Ofcom. Higher ups are well aware of this problem, and have correctly identified that the BBC needs to reach young people in the places where they like to consume entertainment and news (online, streamed, on podcast feeds, rather than via traditional radios or in cars) rather than trying to lure them back to the old formats. But is their proposed solution of an app that contains a lot of curated playlists by BBC DJs, all of the BBC’s radio and podcast content, and a select few independent shows that have been invited inside going to meet the case?

BBC Sounds first appeared in beta back in July, amid reports of internal confusion and conflict over what it was actually supposed to be. This full launch now comes alongside the announcement of 20 new BBC podcasts, including a daily news podcast specifically targeting a younger audience. It’s called Beyond Today, and is a spin off of BBC Radio 4’s long-running (and infamously grumpy) flagship morning current affairs show, Today. It plans to offer a 20 minute ‘intelligent briefing’ made by ‘a team of younger journalists on a daily mission to explore the right story’. There’s plenty more in this lineup which I’m sure I’ll get into in future insiders as well, including a companion show to the EastEnders soap and the BBC’s first scripted horror podcast.

The daily news podcast market in the UK has gone from zero to plenty very quickly, with new shows on the cards from the Guardian, the Economist and others. It’s a no brainer that the BBC would also want to work in this format, especially since they don’t currently have much of a smart speaker specific offering. And, as this weirdly friendly interview in The Guardian with BBC execs James Purnell and Jason Phipps (who, by the way, is the former head of podcasts at The Guardian… so not weirdly, I guess?), they know they’ve got some decent catching up to do in on-demand audio, since the younger audience they’re after are already consuming plenty of shows elsewhere.

Given all that, why spin their youth-focused daily news show out of a dinosaur of a programme that plenty of younger people have stopped listening to because it’s just so angry? Why not work up something fresh, with its own identity and mission? Hosts Tina Daheley and Matthew Price will now start facing inevitable comparisons to their ‘grown up’ counterparts on Today. (Also with Newsround, the kids’ news programme that has long acted as the kid sibling of the main BBC news output. Newsround is great, btw.) That’s an angle they could have done without, I’m sure. While it’s true that the onus is on the BBC as a state-funded broadcaster to enter new markets cautiously, rather than throwing money at wild and fruitless experimentation, I think daily news podcasts are now enough of an established form that they could afford to push the envelope just a tiny bit more here.

So I remain unconvinced about the attractiveness of BBC Sounds’ initial offering to young people. I also think its lack of complete podcast listings will prevent it becoming the primary audio platform for anyone who are already regular podcast listeners (I am not aware that any of these new podcasts will be exclusive to BBC Sounds, although some of the music playlists will be). However, where I do think the app can make inroads is with people who currently listen to BBC radio content elsewhere, but aren’t yet initiated into podcasts — although these are probably more likely to be older people, the more new podcast listeners the merrier.

The other area I’m excited about is the potential for archive content. Already, over 100 hours of archive comedy and drama has been dropped into the app, with another 1,000 hours due to arrive in the next year. The BBC has such a rich history, and it’s great they’re finding new ways to share all that audio with people, rather than letting it disappear or moulder on tapes in cupboards. Again, I’m not sure this will be a massive draw for the under-30s, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing.

And while we’re here… The Guardian has launched a “daily global news podcast,” called Today in Focus. Hosted by Anushka Asthana. Here’s the press release.