For as long as I’ve been writing about audio — which is about four years now — the people that I speak to for stories have described the UK podcast industry as “new” or “nascent” or “in its infancy.” They were doing it in 2014, and they’re still doing it now. (Someone said a version of this to me last week, as it happens.) On the surface, this isn’t a surprising characterisation, given how much smaller the scene is here in virtually every way than in the US… which, from a British perspective, completely dominates the conversation about podcasting. In terms of the potential listenership, advertising revenue generated, and the total volume of shows produced, the UK is far, far behind.
To give you a sense of that difference in scale: according to RAJAR, the official body that measures radio audiences in the UK, 11 percent of UK adults — that’s 5.9 million people, by the way — listened to a podcast in the first quarter of 2018. Which is super small, even it’s up from 7 percent in the same period during 2017. Here in the UK, there is currently no dedicated podcast measuring benchmark study comparable to Edison Research and Triton Digital’s Infinite Dial reports, which puts monthly podcast listenership in America at around 73 million people. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers forecast estimates that advertising revenue from podcasts in the UK will grow from £7m in 2017 to £11m in 2018 (the same report anticipates global podcasting advertising revenue of £509m in 2018, around 60 percent of which will be generated in the US). Podcast revenue in the UK in 2018 is expected to be roughly 1 percent of the total advertising money made by the radio industry here.
However, podcasting in the UK is far from static, even if the growth is from a small base — if that forecast is proven correct, advertising revenue will have almost tripled since 2016. Given that, I think it’s worth interrogating this persistent viewpoint that there have been few developments to date. After all, four years is a pretty long infancy. Why do so many knowledgeable people still feel like the UK is right at the beginning of podcasting, when there are British shows racking up hundreds of millions of downloads, and media organisations of all sizes are putting more and more resources into on-demand audio?
The short answer is, predictably, just this: the BBC. The state-funded broadcaster’s influence over the audio culture in the UK is historic and pervasive. According to research from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, over 50 percent of all radio listening in Britain is done via a BBC station. The BBC claims to be the first UK broadcaster to have published a podcast (Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, in 2004, a radio show you can learn more about from this New Yorker write up from last year, which is a beautifully quaint read if you are British). In March of this year, they claimed to have seen 240 million podcast downloads in 2017, a high proportion of which will have been radio shows repackaged as podcasts.
The BBC has been fairly slow at moving into producing dedicated podcast content — appointing its first dedicated podcast commissioner only this year — but it cannot be underestimated the extent to which it has always dominated the space. Back in 2015, the Observer radio critic Miranda Sawyer asked “why are Americans so much better at making podcasts than the British?” and one of her explanations was that for UK audio professionals, it just wasn’t worth spending the time on work that wouldn’t fit into the BBC’s rigid and centralised radio commissioning process, since there was no on-demand structure into which a potential podcast could fit. Even now that the BBC has begun to pivot towards podcasting in earnest, there’s still a lingering sense that the organisation remains radio-oriented and something of a closed shop. A new set of commissioning guidelines, inviting people to pitch podcasts for the new BBC Sounds app, is squarely aimed at existing suppliers, who will be notified of opportunities via “the Radio Supplier Database.”
If there’s a sense that podcasting is a bit stuck in the UK, this is why: to date, there has not been sufficient will from the BBC to kickstart a new flowering of innovative content, but nor is there an established market of sufficient size beyond the corporation’s influence to support it happening independently or commercially. This is not to say that the UK hasn’t produced commercially successful podcasts — My Dad Wrote a Porno is a big exception to this rule, and there are others not far behind — but it’s not a long list, and some of the shows on it have had to look to the US for advertisers and backers. Slowly, it feels as if that is beginning to shift, both with the BBC’s recent changes and appointments, and with other major broadcasters like ITV and Channel 4 getting into on demand audio. Awareness of podcasting is rising fast, especially among younger demographics. Perhaps, finally, the UK’s teething troubles are almost over.