Issue 251,  published March 24, 2020

What the Virus means for BBC Sounds

A really long time ago — by which I mean, January — one of the biggest UK media stories concerned the future of the BBC. Back then, I laid out all the competing arguments, and looked at how Boris Johnson’s victory in the December 2019 general election could alter the manner in which public service broadcasting would be funded in the future. In brief: the Prime Minister wanted the BBC, which his side of politics traditionally perceives as biased and wasteful, cut down to size. The process was already underway: an inquiry had been launched, and new competitors like Rupert Murdoch’s Times Radio were already shifting the narrative around the BBC’s irreplaceability.

The world in which all that happened is unrecognisable today, of course. Johnson, along with just about everybody else, has other priorities right now — last night the country was placed in effective lockdown. It’s always been a peculiarity of British broadcasting that in times of crisis or great tumult lots of people still instinctively turn to the BBC. Other channels struggle to compete on election night, for instance, and when the Queen dies it’s assumed the BBC will be where most people will watch or hear events unfold. When I worked in a newsroom, we would regularly switch the TV over to the BBC as a quick initial sense check of something that was trending on social media. With coronavirus misinformation spreading all over WhatsApp and social media, accurate coverage from the BBC and other trusted news outlets matters more than ever.

In the spirit of total transparency, I must admit that I fully expected podcasting to fall by the wayside as the BBC scrambled to cover the outbreak while also keeping its thousands of staff safe. I thought the corporation would retreat to the “traditional” forms of broadcast (i.e. radio and a limited TV service) and pick BBC Sounds back up again as a priority if and when this is all over. But I was wrong: podcasting has already emerged as an essential way that the BBC is trying to serve its audience in these times. Further, where BBC Sounds has so far been considered mostly as part of the strategy to keep young people engaged with the BBC, in these times its offering is being tweaked to serve a much broader audience.

Partly, podcasting is a key part of the BBC’s coronavirus strategy because — as everyone is finding right now — it’s a form of media that’s relatively safe to put together while people are in isolation. Partly, though, I think the focus now on on-demand audio demonstrates how far the BBC has travelled in a short space of time when it comes to embracing the medium as a core component of its product.

The official announcement from the BBC about how it was changing its service in these new times deliberately echoed John Reith’s mission statement from the corporation’s beginnings in the 1920s: “Inform, educate and entertain.” Those three principles now govern the virus plan: news coverage is being prioritised, with some current affairs interview programmes suspended so that personnel can be redeployed to main bulletins; archive TV and radio is being reuploaded to apps to help keep people entertained; and new products are being launched to help parents now schooling children at home.

Podcasting is present in all aspects of this. The BBC’s most popular podcast, Newscast (formerly known as Electioncast and even more formerly known as Brexitcast), is now “The Coronavirus Newscast.” All other daily news podcasts have been suspended so that staff can focus on this one show. Match of the Day, the BBC’s flagship football TV programme, is now a podcast recorded in presenter Gary Linekar’s kitchen. Primary and secondary education at home is to be supported by two new forthcoming feeds in BBC Sounds.

Although almost all BBC news and current affairs podcasts are not making new episodes at the moment — US election show Americast, current affairs podcast Beyond Today and internet analysis show The Next Episode are all affected — commissioning is continuing in other areas, both on the subject of coronavirus and on ideas that will help people take a break from it. Though the audio sector in the UK will be greatly affected by this crisis, having the BBC still taking pitches, buying new series, and essentially acting as an active economic engine will be really important.

With production suspensions in other parts of the BBC’s output, such as TV drama and soap operas, audio drama is pushing forward as much as possible. Venerable radio serial The Archers is reducing from six episodes a week to five, but continuing for now. Several BBC Radio 4 radio programmes that have big on demand followings like In Our Time and The Reunion will not be making new episodes and so will air repeats, as will some comedy favourites.

Live radio broadcasts are still challenging, but podcasts are cheap, safe to make, and offer an opportunity for the BBC to reach people where they are right now — on their phones, looking for some help or relief. And via the focus on making archive content available (like old sports commentaries and decades-old radio dramas), the BBC hopes to broaden the appeal of Sounds to a bigger demographic. I wouldn’t be surprised if the BBC has seen record traffic on many of its outlets in recent days, and as more people use Sounds for the first time, it could well become a bigger part of listening for a wider variety of people.

I’ve long since realised that there will be no official “ending” to all of this. There won’t be a day when everything suddenly goes back to how it was. But when we do eventually ease back into greater contact with others and other news stories begin to surface again, I think how the BBC is perceived to have handled this crisis will matter, greatly. Before, critics of the government’s position on the BBC would warn that “you’ll miss it when it’s gone.” Now, we might be better able to visualise how much worse a major crisis would be without it.