Issue 242,  published January 21, 2020

Turn on the Big Light

The scarcity of podcast networks is something that I hear lamented quite a bit in the UK. With these discussions, I think what’s being meant tends to be in the Radiotopia vein — a collection of disparate shows with some commonalities, gathered together under one recognisable brand name for reasons of collaboration on both the creative and monetisation fronts.

There’s not really much that equates to that here right now, which I would attribute to both the presence of the BBC and a much slower-growing market overall. While Acast and Audioboom both have plenty of podcasts on their books for monetisation, and production companies like Somethin Else are increasingly getting into podcasting, I think it’s still true that something with the brand recognition and thematic connections that might earn the status of “major network” has yet to emerge. And what candidates there are for this kind of label are all in London.

Given this, I was intrigued to learn late last year that there was a new podcast network in the works in Scotland. It’s called The Big Light, and it already has two shows in operation, with the official launch slated for mid February. Co-founder Janice Forsyth — a longstanding arts broadcaster who has her own afternoon show on BBC Radio Scotland — spoke to me over the phone before the weekend to explain a bit more about the venture.

The network’s tagline is “The world with a Scottish accent.” “We want to be bold and ambitious,” Forsyth explained. “There’s just such an untapped wealth of stories and talent in Scotland. If what we make is high quality enough — and I mean the content but also the audio quality — folk who are just interested in podcasts might listen to us once they know we’re out there. But the USP is, we think, that we can tap into a big Scottish market.”

The Big Light will kick off with Acast selling their shows while they focus on production, but they also hope to attract their own sponsorships from Scottish brands. (I wouldn’t be surprised if they take their sales in house ultimately.) “Clearly, the business model is that we need sponsorship, we need investment, we need advertising,” Forsyth said. “We are approaching and actively talking to a number of different Scottish companies that we think might be a good match for individual shows.” Making podcasts on contract for other organisations is also a possible revenue stream they’re exploring.

When Forsyth and her business partner, TV producer Fiona White, first started working together on this project in 2015, it wasn’t a podcast network they thought they were building. Their idea was for a subscription video on demand platform (SVoD) called Stream Scotland, aimed at a Scottish audience. “That was going to be a lovely curated offering of gems from the archive — because at that point broadcasters were just letting stuff sit with dust gathering — and new content too.”

A changing media landscape shifted their thinking. “The broadcasters woke up to what they were sitting on,” Forsyth said, and licencing programmes for their new platform proved to be much more expensive than expected. On top of that, in early 2019, the BBC launched a new TV channel for Scotland, with an evening lineup of fully original Scottish programming (as opposed to being a simulcast from London), edging into the space Stream Scotland had planned to occupy. An improving on demand offering from both the BBC and STV also prompted a rethink.

Fosyth’s project had backing, from the Scottish Enterprise funding agency as well as private investors. “So long story short, we did a pivot into the podcasting arena, which made sense especially with me having had years of making radio (and television), plus we had all the research we’d done for the SVoD.”

They worked with a top Scottish marketing agency on audience research, and found that there is an appetite both within Scotland and elsewhere in the UK for original content from north of the border. (For context, the population of Scotland is about 5.5 million people.) Plus, they hope that the global Scottish diaspora will find something to enjoy in their shows, in addition to general podcast fans.

The Big Light now has their own studio in Glasgow and Forsyth said they’ve been piloting potential shows for most of the past year. As well as the mental health interview series and the true crime show they already have out in front of listeners, there are plans for a series covering crime fiction and a media commentary show, as well as something on “Great Scots” that already has interviews taped with Scottish celebrities like Billy Connolly and Alan Cumming. They’re also very open to bringing existing shows into the network and giving them more resources to improve production quality, and some talks are ongoing about that.

The big issue for the media in Scotland at the moment is the debate around the likelihood of the country gaining its independence from the rest of the UK. Just last week the Scottish First Minister’s request for another referendum on the subject was rejected by Boris Johnson, but it will continue to be a live issue there for years to come. While The Big Light doesn’t have an overt political position, Forsyth said they are keen to host strong opinions from all sides, which gives them a competitive edge over the more highly regulated BBC.

Even without a pro political independence manifesto underpinning this project, there was still a sense in how Forsyth spoke of it that there was a desire to make something distinctly Scottish for Scottish people, and cut out the requirement for media or culture to be filtered through a London-based lens. “We just want to get on with it,” Forsyth said. “The BBC is great and these organisations are great. But it’s just refreshing to be able to do your own thing.”

As Forsyth freely acknowledges, the success of this venture is going to hinge on their ability to find an audience for their podcasts, fast. This is partly why they’ve spent a long time in pre-production before launching the network, so as to have a lot of shows ready to go.

But I also think The Big Light has aspects in common with the Sony-backed Broccoli Content show that I wrote about last week. Both have realised, after an election campaign last year that was very damaging to the BBC’s reputation, that the big opportunity for podcasting in the UK is to make high quality shows that can be more nimble, more responsive and more outspoken than anything the public broadcaster can put out. At this point, it’s really just a case of seeing who can capitalise on that fast enough.