We need a podcast chart. Don’t we?

James Purnell*, the BBC’s director of “radio and education”, has published a blog about podcast charts. In it, he calls for a standardised system of measuring podcast listenership in the UK:

“As these charts become more and more important, we need a conversation in our industry about how we get an equivalent for podcasts  — one which includes as many of the different ways that audiences are consuming podcasts, where we can all see all the data, and know how it’s been collected. That will help commercial podcasters and distributors speak about their value to advertisers and the BBC measure the value it’s getting from the licence fee for audio content and services.”

He makes a couple of comparisons in the piece that I think are instructive when trying to read into his thoughts about this (the blog is very short and quite oddly expressed, so I think a certain amount of interpretation is required to squeeze some sense out of it).

The first is to the official top 40 chart show on BBC Radio 1 — which, for those not familiar with the quirks of UK radio, is the weekly countdown of the biggest selling music singles. I’m not sure if Purnell is suggesting that an official podcast chart should become a piece of entertainment in its own right; that would be almost as strange as the knockoff version of Gimlet’s Sampler that they run on the radio sometimes.

The singles chart is also plagued with problems about what it should actually measure: it has incorporated data from streaming services like Spotify for a while (this is how Ed Sheeran once had 16 songs out of the top 40) but is only just about to start including plays on YouTube, a move that has been quite controversial.

Purnell’s second comparison is to the Amazon book sales charts, which as anyone even tangentially involved in publishing knows are at least as labyrinthine and opaque as the current Apple podcast chart, given that books shoot up and down them at lightning speed and are often given bestseller status after topping the mini chart in random made up genres like “assertiveness” and “horses” (these are real, I spent thirty seconds on Amazon checking).

Basically, these are not good models for any putative podcast chart.

While I agree with Purnell’s basic suggestion that a standardised, externally verified podcast ranking would be a good thing for the industry in the UK (and elsewhere, it’s not a uniquely British problem or requirement), I don’t think it’s the BBC’s place, as a state-funded broadcaster, to get involved in creating it.

I also think that it’s a mistake to think that this is a problem that could be solved with a single chart. As has already been pointed out, podcast listening happens seamlessly across borders. How do you measure just the stats for the UK? I just checked the Apple Podcasts chart as I was writing this, and one of the shows in the top ten was Australian in origin, and plenty more were American. British shows are widely listened to abroad. Surely the solution has to be global, if it is to have any meaning at all.

*James Purnell, if you’re not familiar with him, used to be a British Labour Party politician who is best known for resigning in 2007 to trigger a coup against sitting prime minister Gordon Brown, which then didn’t actually happen because nobody else followed him over the top. This is, of course, the ideal professional background for having opinions about podcast metrics.

PodMail service is going to be a little light over the next ten days or so because I’m going to be travelling. I’m finding the single episode reviews difficult and time-consuming to write; I might make them occasional so I only do them when I feel really properly inspired and instead do more pieces of analysis like this, which are easier to send on the fly. As ever, hit reply if you’d like to get in touch with me.