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The Curious Problem of the BBC Sounds App

An uncertain rollout leads to bigger questions about the role of the public broadcaster in an on-demand audio world.

I linked the Engadget write-up of this back in the Bites section of this week’s newsletter on Tuesday, but that afternoon saw the publication of a more substantive report that sheds additional insight into the context of the development — and it’s curious insight indeed. To put a name on it: the development saw the BBC rolling out an app that’s meant to “counter” Spotify and Apple Music for the attention of younger audiences in the digital distribution space. Attention was called to the nature of the app’s rollout, which apparently struck some as haphazard and incomplete. Overall, the situation raises the question of what the BBC’s place in the UK digital audio landscape is supposed to be.

Here in Hot Pod, we are, of course, specifically interested in the podcast and on-demand radio aspect of the story, but just keep in mind that the BBC is an expansive and multi-tentacled creature.

From BuzzFeed News:

When the BBC released its shiny new smartphone app called BBC Sounds last week, executives were keen to inform the public that there was more to come – which is to say the app is unfinished.

“This is very much a first release,” wrote the head of BBC Sounds, Dan Taylor-Watt, on the BBC’s blog — a post that was picked up widely within UK media circles. “We wanted to get it out as early as possible to start getting feedback to help develop the app.”

BBC Sounds is the British broadcaster’s ambitious attempt to replace its radio iPlayer with an all-encompassing smartphone app that’ll have BBC podcasts alongside livestreams of BBC radio for the first time.

But despite the fact the app’s not even finished, BuzzFeed News has learned the process of rushing it out has drained resources within the BBC radio and music departments, and staff are far from sure as to what the end product is.

One key expression of this issue, discussed later in the piece, is a familiar nut: should the Sounds app exclusively focus on distributing BBC content, or should it also serve non-BBC programming in its responsibilities serving the education and information needs of the public?

Essentially, the problem is an expression of a lack of clarity on how the app relates to the BBC’s role as a public broadcaster. It is further situated within the ever-perplexing question about how the role of a public broadcaster becomes challenged and structurally re-positioned as the technological context surrounding it evolves. After all, the nature of the BBC’s mission is one thing when top-down broadcast airwaves were the dominant mode of cultivating a commons of public media — and where you could adequately control the power of your distribution points within a relatively predictable competitive environment — but perhaps a whole other thing altogether when the environment has radically become volatile one of internet-powered competition from all directions, all the time. In a world where the competitive horizon has essentially become infinite, how does the BBC understand its place and power within the region it serves, express its power, and fulfill its duties?

In theory, I can see the BBC Sounds app argument from either side:

  • On the one hand, you could say that it is within the BBC’s public purposes — which includes, but is not limited to, a duty to “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them,” to “support learning for people of all ages,” and to “show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services” — to have its Sounds app function as an active curator of the wider podcast ecosystem; that is, to reduce the public audience’s burden of having to forage through the open podcast ecosystem and deliver programming to listeners that is consistent with the BBC’s mission values.
  • But on the other hand, you could also argue that by engaging in that work of curation, the BBC would be putting itself in a position where it would be structurally widening the gap between winners and losers among non-BBC podcast programming in the UK; that it could potentially trigger a counterproductive effect of stifling the UK podcast industry.

You could, if you wanted to, try to hold this situation up against the NPR One app, which does indeed carry non-public radio podcast programming. But you’d immediately bump into the fact that the competitive contexts between the US and the UK are markedly different. In the US, public radio is a dominant source of podcast programming, but by no means is it the overwhelming, principal, or default choice: podcasts from NPR, WNYC, and their brethren are amply challenged and complemented by a wide and growing range of private market options, from Vox Media to the Loud Speakers Network to a vibrant ecosystem of independent creators. In the competitive (and saturated) American context, the role of the public broadcaster is one of providing public- and societally-minded alternatives — that is, to make the things that the private market has not been able to do, or generally will not do. In contrast, from what little reporting I’ve done on the UK, my understanding is that competition from private publisher is somewhat less robust in the region. Therefore, the BBC’s actions can be somewhat interpreted to generally have more weight in the UK podcast market than that of the American public radio system within the context of the US podcast market. Which is to say, the role of the BBC, then, should be to strike a remarkably tricky balance between serving UK audiences value through the podcast channel and not competing in such a way that would immediately snuff out the budding ecosystem of non-BBC UK podcasters hoping to do the same.

That’s a complicated enough cookie as a publisher; it’s exponentially so as a technology platform, which is essentially what the Sounds app should be if it ends up being a widely used listening option.

One idea floated in the BuzzFeed News piece, by Rethink Audio’s Matt Hill, is for the BBC to carry itself through the Sounds app based on the way that Apple historically has held itself in the podcast ecosystem: a powerful and (relatively) open platform functioning as a (relatively) impartial middle-man whose role is primarily to cultivate a healthy ecosystem. At first glance, it’s an intriguing proposition. But does the BBC would still have to square that responsibilities as a publisher and commissioner of work in the public interest. And further: does the BBC, as a long-time broadcaster, have the kind of expertise that can make decisions that way? A public broadcaster… as a platform custodian?

I am vaguely reminded here of the Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu’s recent suggestion in the New York Times that perhaps the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should look into a funding a public alternative to Facebook. And it also makes me wonder: is Apple Podcasts actually the best model for how a public broadcaster should approach being a tech platform?

All of this is truly fascinating to think through, and I don’t envy the BBC. I also think there’s another aspect to the issue that isn’t quite fully appreciated: when it comes to podcasts, the BBC, in its role as a public broadcaster, isn’t simply confined to itself and the UK. In its mission to serve its public, the BBC also happens to be competing with every publisher in the more robust American podcast industry — including the American public radio system — by virtue of being on the internet.

To re-frame the problem: what is the role of the UK’s public broadcaster in a podcast market whose competitive landscape is defined by every publisher on the planet?

I don’t have a definitive way into cracking this puzzle; at least, not one that I feel confident about. But I will say that my mind keeps coming back to what the BBC is currently doing in India — its English-language podcast project featuring the actress Kalki Koechlin specifically aimed at 18- to 24-year-old English speakers in the country. (I first wrote about the project in this column, and here’s the actual press release for the series.) Here, the BBC is performing a function with unambiguous effect: it’s commissioning and producing a project-type that otherwise may not have found its way into fruition in the private market.

A public broadcaster’s role as a technology platform is far from clear, but its role as a publisher has always been straightforward. It may be a little late now, but perhaps the reality is simply that… well, some fights are just ones you shouldn’t be having.