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The BBC’s Push for Podcast Audiences in Africa

The BBC World Service has recently launched the first of a series of new podcasts aimed at younger audiences in Africa, as part of a bigger push towards attracting more listeners on the continent.

The show, The Comb, is a weekly deep dive into one story from somewhere in the region — standout episodes for me so far include this one about the disputes over sand as a strategic resource in The Gambia and this one about two sisters, one raised in Germany and one in Ghana. It’s hosted by Kim Chakanetsa (who already fronts The Conversation for the World Service) and is made by the BBC Africa team that works on the Focus on Africa radio show.

The BBC World Service, launched in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, operates now as the BBC’s international broadcasting arm. It’s funded partly by revenue from commercial BBC properties and advertising, as well as via government funding. In 2015, £289 million in additional funding was announced, which was put towards expanding into 12 new languages and the aim of increasing the audience to 500 million people by the time of the BBC’s centenary in 2022. The World Service has long been seen as a source of “soft power” for the UK abroad, hence the direct funding from the government.

The push to reach more people in Africa isn’t just limited to podcasts. There are TV and digital projects too, and in 2018, the BBC opened its largest bureau outside the UK in Nairobi, Kenya. “It’s all about reaching new young audiences, and those audiences which are not served as well as they could be either by the BBC or by local media,” Jon Manel, Podcast Commissioning Editor for the BBC World Service, told me when I reached out a few weeks ago. In particular, that means young people and women.

It’s the core mission of the service’s podcasts, he added, “to reach new and underserved audiences around the world,” and that means spreading awareness of podcasting itself as well as making and releasing shows. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve got is not only making great podcasts, but spreading the word about the podcast. Often it involves trying to create podcasts in countries where the awareness of podcasting is still relatively low.”

Audience research showed that World Service radio listeners in Africa wanted more in-depth audio stories rather than brief updates, Chakanetsa said. “Sometimes I think when you’re in the newsroom, you’re covering a story over and over again and you tend to forget that someone might be coming to it for the first time,” she said. “That’s why it’s a weekly podcast, because that will give us time to get the voices that we want, because the voices were absolutely key to us.”

Episodes of The Comb are all around 20 minutes long — any longer could make the files too expensive to download in places where data charges are high — and often feature BBC Africa reporters bringing in stories or chasing down listener tips. “What’s really nice about The Comb is sometimes the stories that are coming to us don’t naturally fit into a radio programme,” Chakanetsa said. Focus on Africa is a daily radio show, so there’s plenty that doesn’t work for that which can now find a home on the podcast.

Making podcasts that will appeal to young people in lots of countries simultaneously is a big challenge, and Chakanetsa and the team behind The Comb are very aware that stories hit differently in different places. The BBC, too, has a different reputation across the generations. “Growing up in Zimbabwe, the BBC was the backdrop,” she said.

“My father listened to the BBC all the time, it was very much a voice of authority, someone you could trust. And that does continue, but there’s a slight disjuncture where the younger generation, you know, might dive into some of our digital stuff, but a lot of people may think ‘this might not be for me’ or ‘it seems like it might be for older people’.” Around 75 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 35, and you can’t just assume their loyalty to the broadcaster, Chakanetsa said. “They’re not going to just stick with the same people forever. You have to make it appealing to them and you have to keep on trying.”

The Comb will publish weekly for 18 weeks and then take a short break before returning for another 18 episodes. The intention is that it should feel like a continuously publishing show so that the audience can build the habit of tuning in every week. Also in the pipeline is a daily news podcast that will complement The Comb’s weekly deep dives with more evolving updates, and a reported series from the BBC Africa investigative unit Africa Eye. Pending delays caused by Covid-19 outbreaks, both of those are planned for late 2020 or early 2021.

For other World Service podcasts, like 30 Minutes to the Moon and Death in Ice Valley, the aim has been to maximise global reach, so finding an audience in places like the US and India has been really important, Manel said. However, with The Comb and the podcasts that follow, the ambition is all about staying targeted and reaching those young listeners in Africa — attracting listeners anywhere else is just a bonus, really.