Over the past year or so, a shift has taken place at the BBC, as Britain’s state-funded public broadcaster has started to think about podcasting strategically for the first time. We’ve seen the appointment of their first podcast commissioner, and the launch of a new app, BBC Sounds, intended to put all their live radio, catch up, and podcast content in the same place for the first time. (It’s still in a beta phase, and it isn’t yet clear what its final iteration will look like. But already, questions have been raised about the app.)
At the start of August, there was another development: the youth-focused BBC digital radio station, 1Xtra, launched their first podcast feed, XtraChat. It is a showcase effort, one that seeks to distribute episodes of both existing and newly-commissioned podcast series. It will also receive a radio broadcast. It’s a smart strategic move by the station, which has a target audience of young black people aged 16-24, to bring in independent podcasters from outside the BBC rather than trying to engineer its own podcast “voice” right out the gate. The first show on the feed, The Receipts, has a very distinctive style, and it would have been hard to generate that relaxed, conversational tone from a standing start.
“I’ve been commissioning podcasts across the two networks from the end of last year,” said Louise Kattenhorn, Commissioner Executive for Radio 1 and 1Xtra, when we spoke recently about the thinking behind the launch. “We started with Radio 1, so we were concentrating on more comedy, and I learned a lot from that, but we’ve always had in the back of our minds that we wanted to work towards a podcast feed or a few podcast feeds for 1Xtra specifically for that audience.”
One of the primary considerations in the planning phase, she said, was the desire to avoid making something that already existed as an independent show. “I don’t want the BBC to come in and artificially create something that’s already out there,” Kattenhorn said. The option was there to make an entirely new show or shows, but she decided against it and rather chose to work with existing podcasts.
As a personal fan of The Receipts in its independent form, she felt that hosts Tolani Shoneye, Audrey Indome and Milena Sanchez were the obvious choice to start XtraChat off, not least because of their substantial audience (their show attracts about 25,000 listens per episode). Her hunch seems to have been proved correct: the initial run of The Receipts on 1Xtra has been extended from six to eight episodes, and the feed hit the top of the UK iTunes chart after the first one dropped. Whether it can be sustained as different voices and shows take over the feed is unclear — a showcase initiative like this, I feel, will likely encounter consistency challenges.
The aim with XtraChat from the start, Kattenhorn said, was “to do something that brings in new audiences to the BBC, but also allows [the podcasters] to have a platform to a wider audience too.” It’s also part of a broader strategy for the two networks Kattenhorn works on to use podcasting as a way of moving into spoken word content.
“We’re a music station, really, and there aren’t many places on the schedule where we can explore exciting speech content,” she explained. BBC Radio 1Xtra focuses on hip hop, RnB and grime, particularly by British artists, and although the presenters do narrate and conduct interviews, there isn’t much non-music content on air. In theory, podcasting opens up that space for them, Kattenhorn said: “That scope to have really in depth conversations that aren’t restricted by time or broadcast slot is really exciting. That’s what I’m really excited about, that we can have this speech content for young audiences that is really resonating with them.”
This is something that could apply to other BBC stations, too. Radio 3, for instance, traditionally focuses on classical and world music interspersed with a few short documentaries (and has an average listener age of over 50), but accompanying conversational podcasts could help it attract new, younger people. Classic FM, a commercial classical music station operated by Global, has had a surprising amount of success with a music-orientated true crime podcast called Case Notes; it would be an unusually bold but welcome move if the BBC’s podcast-first commissions were to start playing with genre in this way as well.
It was clear from my conversation with Kattenhorn that while XtraChat might be a podcast-first product, radio still has a lot of pull over what the BBC does. (Which isn’t that surprising; although podcast take up has grown substantially recently, especially among younger people, live radio still has a 74 percent share of UK listening). She was open about her hope that the podcast feed would help to pull non-radio listeners in to experience the rest of the network’s output, rather than just existing on its own merits — it seems to be a marketing extension for them, in a way. “We know there are a lot of podcast listeners who don’t listen to 1Xtra,” she said. “We’d love to bring them into the network, we think we’ve got a lot to offer them.”
I think this gets to the heart of an ongoing dilemma for the BBC, actually: are podcasts just there to bring more listeners to their radio content, or do they stand alone on their own merits? I’m not sure they know the answer to that yet.