The BBC Sounds dilemma

The BBC have recently released a new app called BBC Sounds, and it’s launched a moderately-sized tidal wave of speculation about a shift in strategy at the corporation around podcasting. The reason for this sudden outburst of chatter is simple: whereas the current BBC smartphone app for audio, iPlayer Radio, is orientated around radio content — both for live listening and later catch up — the new offering appears to prioritise on demand programming, with both podcasts and radio programmes side by side.

(A brief diversion: I firmly believe that there is a meaningful difference between a radio show that is made available after broadcast for download and a podcast that was made to be distributed solely or primarily via the internet — even if they are made by the same organisation for their existing audience. There are myriad different considerations behind the scenes that separate the processes for each, including but not limited to budgetary concerns, scheduling, staffing, and the established norms of each form. Various people have tried before to convince me otherwise, and I think I’ve heard the main arguments in favour of blurring the lines, but I am unmoved. What we call things matters.)

First, let’s get the basics out the way. I have been using BBC Sounds for the last week or so, and it is not very good. There is currently no reason why you would switch to it from iPlayer Radio, or indeed any third party podcast app through which you can listen to all of the BBC’s podcast content (although obviously not their listen again radio stuff). Even once I had clicked around enough to populate the recommendation features, it felt empty, and like the only real way to discover new shows was to search for them by name — which means the app is largely useless as a tool for stumbling across new content the user isn’t already familiar with. The curated music playlists aren’t bad, but they’re far less user friendly than Spotify’s, for instance.

Given how basic the app is, I was unsurprised, therefore, to read that it isn’t really finished. “This is very much a first release — we wanted to get it out as early as possible to start getting feedback to help develop the app,” the head of BBC Sounds, Dan Taylor-Watt, wrote in his introduction. Mark Di Stefano at Buzzfeed has chronicled some of the internal dissatisfaction at the BBC with the new app, which can best be summed up by this phrase: “Staff are far from sure as to what the end product is.”

To me, this seems like the heart of the matter: the BBC doesn’t know what it wants to do with podcasting, let alone what it should do. They’re in a sticky situation, because all the research shows that young people increasingly don’t listen to the radio, but rather consume their audio (whether music or spoken) via apps from Spotify or Apple. In that context, it makes sense that the BBC would try and compete with their own app aimed at younger users — they have a charter-derived remit to reach the widest possible audience for their content — but at the same time the act of doing so puts them in difficulty with regards to competition.

As I’ve written before, the BBC has substantial power to shape the development of the UK podcast industry, and not necessarily for the better. Executives there may believe that “a rising tide floats all boats”, as one of them put it to me a few months back (ie that increasing the awareness of podcasting by pushing BBC podcasts at people could be good for everyone making audio in the UK), but I see little evidence to back this up.

The BBC has resources and reach that far outstrips anything else in this country, and they can cross promote their shows on channels and stations accessed by millions. The average person can only listen to so many podcasts in their week. Even if the BBC Sounds app eventually introduces more people to podcasting over all, if BBC-produced shows are their point of entry to the medium, where does that leave the rest of us? (It leaves us swamped by that tide, that’s where.)

The BBC is state-funded via the licence fee, and its remit is to deliver broadcast services to people in the UK and around the world with an emphasis on content that commercial outlets would find hard to finance or justify to investors. At the moment, BBC Sounds only contains BBC-produced audio, but I’ve heard from several people that there are ongoing discussions about whether the app should host or showcase work by other podcast outlets, thereby becoming a general distribution platform. This could help square the circle of that competition problem: the BBC could claim that it is trying to use its reach to introduce users to other podcasters’ work, rather than just pushing its own shows, while also upping its own podcast distribution game.

But as Nick Quah has pointed out, this could very well lead to a situation where the BBC would be “structurally widening the gap between winners and losers among non-BBC podcast programming in the UK”. Basically, we’d be headed for a future where if you don’t have the connections to get your show featured in the BBC Sounds app, your show is at a substantial disadvantage before you’ve even started publishing episodes — and that could be particularly meaningful for shows that have to earn their keep with adverts and sponsors that care about how many people it reaches. If you can’t guarantee the BBC boost, your show might not generate enough revenue to continue. The playing field isn’t level in the UK audio scene at the moment, but this would make it much less so.

Then there’s the issue that making the app a general audio distribution platform rather than a publishing outlet for only BBC content (as iPlayer Radio is at the moment) could put it in competition with the likes of Spotify and Apple — something that the BBC as a public entity is very much not supposed to do.

I don’t envy those at the BBC trying to navigate through all of these competing and overlapping issues. I only hope that when they do come to a decision about what they want this app, and the corporation’s audio strategy more broadly, to look like, it has been guided by a desire to deliver public service journalism and diverse, brilliant entertainment to as wide an audience as possible, not just save face for the BBC as executives belatedly realise that podcasting matters. I wrote a piece for the New Statesman this week about how good the BBC’s Grenfell Inquiry podcast is and what an excellent use of the podcast form it represents; if we can expect more like that once BBC Sounds is fully rolled out, I’ll be all ears.