Be better and try harder

There was some significant news in British podcasting this week: the BBC has appointed its first commissioning editor for podcasts. Jason Phipps, formerly head of the Guardian’s audio operation in London, will oversee strategy and commission original shows across the BBC’s networks. It was a slightly surprising appointment to some, given that there had been speculation that the BBC would bring over an American with a track record in non-commercial podcast development (perhaps someone from a US public radio background). But from my point of view, the person who fills the job is actually less important than the creation of the role itself.

In one sense, it’s brilliant that the BBC — the UK’s largest creator of audio content, which receives state funding from the licence fee — is recognising podcasts as a medium and an industry in their own right. What started as an online distribution system mostly used by amateurs a decade or so ago is now such an established fact in broadcasting that one of the world’s best-known institutions feels that it has to take part.

There’s another way, though, in which I find the creation of this new role quite alarming. As Hussein Kesvani has pointed out in this excellent article for the i newspaper, if the BBC is going to start investing in original podcasts in a serious way, it could be really bad for health and diversity of the British podcasting scene (he calls it “balkanisation in the podcasting space”, which is a very good phrase).

Up until very recently, the BBC’s podcast output was limited to two things that arguably aren’t podcasting at all: repackaging their radio shows for worldwide download via Apple Podcasts and other apps, and producing slightly different or longer “online only” versions of broadcast content for distribution in podcast channels.

Despite the fact that “podcast-first” content is something they’ve only been doing in the last year or so, they’ve been very successful in dominating the on demand audio market in the UK. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe this strategy is largely responsible for the fact that lots of people still think “podcast” is just the word for a reheated BBC radio show you can download, as opposed to the name for a different kind of internet-native audio. If you scroll through the featured sections on the UK iTunes podcast store, your cursor will trip over dozens of BBC shows. They use the podcast channels, but they’ve done very little innovation or experimentation with the form.

If the BBC is about to start investing seriously in the production of original podcasts, they risk crowding smaller, independent producers out of the market. Advertising revenues in the UK lag a long way behind the US, and there are few podcasters in Britain making a full time living just from their shows. We don’t have any major podcast networks yet (there is no “British Gimlet”). Such is the size and reputation of the BBC that anything they make will automatically receive more attention, whether that’s in the form of promotion in podcast apps or via their own radio or TV networks. What independent producer can compete with that? They already have to work longer and harder to match the BBC’s resources and reach, and it could be about to get even more difficult.

Another facet to this problem comes via the BBC’s poor track record of harnessing the talent and innovation in the independent UK podcasting scene. I’ve written before about how baffling I find it that they haven’t so far really been using podcasts as a training ground from which to snap up young, talented and diverse writers, producers and presenters to work on BBC shows. There are, apparently, lots of such projects with podcasters attached “in development”, but few have appeared yet (with a couple of honourable exceptions like the excellent GrownUpLand, created in association with The Guilty Feminist podcast). The BBC moves slowly, which is not really compatible with the agility that makes podcasts such a popular medium.

Up until now, their podcast strategy has seemed to be a self-serving one: how can we, the BBC, use this technology to find more listeners for our existing programming? But it isn’t good enough for a state-funded broadcaster to behave like a commercial station trying to maximise their revenue. A big part of the BBC’s remit is to be better and try harder, to deploy their resources to make the programmes that advertisers would be wary of and use their platform to amplify the talent of creators who would struggle to get a hearing elsewhere. I hope that the appointment of a commissioning editor for podcasts signals a change in mindset, and that the goal of the BBC’s shift into original podcasts will be to identify and amplify the talent that already exists, rather than drowning it out with more of the same.