Are Podcasts Reithian? (2022)

Meccsa radio studies conference delegates photo
The Radio Studies Network Conference in Luton 2022 (I’m at he back)
In November 2022 I was part of a team that assembled a small conference to mark 100 years of the BBC. Although my research is very much about new forms of audio media, I used to float out an idea that served as both a distraction and a slight nudge for the work I was doing writing a PhD narrative. The slides and notes are below. (They are designed as prompts for me, so they not read brilliantly and so don’t quote them directly!)

Slide 1

I want to do two things in this paper. Firstly to place current BBC podcasts in the history of podcasting but in doing so to answer a question. In thinking about the call for this conference I began to wonder what Reith would think of BBC Podcasts but in doing so it became clear that we can draw a line from the ideals of 100 yrs ago. To today

I will be Drawing from own research, building on concepts of MEDIUM theory and contemporary framings of public service broadcasting


1 – Podcasts represent a return to early notions of broadcasting where listeners actively choose what to listen and when, searching catalogues of content rather than listening a linear flow of programming – although apps may continue to play more of the same series. Here, the app replaces the Radio Times and content is created with mode of listening in mind. –

2 – Listeners hear their own choices, in their own way – shifting time and place. As Scannell notes ‘we must suppose that any particular meaningfully organized programme is embedded in a meaningfully organized programme schedule” – although the schedule is absent here, there is meaning.

Some wider context

We know that radio listening is on the decline.  Projections in DCMS – 53% by 2035 (due to STREAMING).

Podcasts are growing but it’s not like for like replacement –  THEY COMPLEMENT

Our students listen to less radio and more Podcasts –

So what does that mean for the BBC?

Slide 2

The BBC is untangling itself from notions of it being solely a linear broadcaster. Even 100 years on the ideals instilled upon by its first DG remain in play. If the audience are not using radios or TVs then universality means being online – and whilst the internet is not as pervasive as we might always think, in the 21st century it might be regarded as the best way to reach people. 

In a recent column in the New Statesman former BBC stalwart Andrew Marr noted how these values might look in 2022. 

The BBC was not, and has never been, simply about giving the people what the people want. Its modern managers might feel embarrassed by this, but it has always wanted to make people a little bit better. Once, that meant feeding them classical music and stories by respected authors. Now, it means promoting liberal, environmental and multicultural values. That parental voice has never been a neutral one.

As Sian Nicholas observes that there is surprise that the BBC as ‘the last public utility still standing,  has shown such resilience and british broadcasting culture still holds a place for Reithian values’ (328) adding later that the future may less depend on politics but on the actions of the under 20’s (331)

That voice is still there but appears in different ways.  Does delivery need to change too??

The trends would suggest it does and this is the BBC’s plan to be (as they describe) DIGITAL FIRST – the recent cuts channel £19m into online and multimedia production

This connects to contemporary ideas of public service media, where concepts of broadcasting are tweaked to include online content.

Academics in Podcast and Radio Studies have talked about the way podcasts benefit PSB’s – breaking the tight schedules, or creating new audiences.

Linear are audiences are in decline. The UK Government report into the future of audio makes this clear noting.
Notwithstanding the ongoing appeal of live radio, research indicates that on-demand audio services, both music and podcasts, have several defining characteristics which audiences find appealing, offering listeners control over what they consume 

As I will come back to. Podcasts are not a form of radio – although they are part of the same industry.

Joshua Meyrowitz suggests that medium theory invites us to ask whether the features of a medium “make it physically, psychologically, and socially different”

The history of podcasts give it this status – as does the way creators and listeners describe it –

Slide 3

This brings us back to intentionality

Listeners choose content but content better reflects the time. RACHEL CHARLES_HATT and THOMAS SAYER have described as INTERACTIVE AUDIO SPACE that reframes content as a PERSONAL PUBLIC SERVICE and perhaps rather than radio it’s AUDIO?

BBC Sounds is now FOREGROUNDED over live listening on the air and in trails – listeners are directed towards to it (which aids discovery and puts listeners in one place) THIS IS A STRATEGIC MOVE

Podcasts as new age. Podcasts are not radio. They do not replace radio. Medium Theorists might call this a NEW ENVIRONMENT – Movement from AMATEUR to PROFESSIONAL, where institutions are more influential.

Gabriele BALBI has mapped this suggesting new media goes through a series of steps

McLuhan said – our typical response to a disrupting new technology is to recreate the old environment instead of heeding the new opportunities

Content is made for the space In Our Time Vs Dead To Me – One was content using the space for delivery, new content is now more SPECIFIC and draws on the qualities of space, influenced by early amateurs.

Contemporary content reflects the space.



YOU’RE DEAD TO ME – takes a comedy format in making history accessible for audiences who are not experts


They respond to the BBC’s mission to explain – in podcasting this is about telling complex stories or adding clarity

They say in a brief

Podcasting allows for genre-bending and reinventions of the grammar of radio.

Podcasting is a great space to grow new voices and diversify voices across the

board. We want you to send us proposals for audio experiences that will excite and inspire

the next generation of listeners

Slide 4

But Podcasts also show the hallmarks of remediation, as they revive forms like drama, talks, debate – forms that demand attention

This might simply happen because listeners are more invested in their selection.

Ofcom data show that audiences want to hear information on podcast, not the radio. This suggests that this kind of content is desirable in the space – more so than radio which is backgrounded in our lives. It plays a different role, MOST OF THE TIME.

The same study shows that 27% of 15-34’s listened to a podcast each week, compared to 44% for live radio. The share of ear is growing. (vs 16% / 65% for whole population).

Listeners are more likely to foreground their listening, devoting time to it and listening to most, if not all of an episode. This is good news for creative documentary makers

Slide 5

The BBC issues guidance to new producers, unused to the new space

Note from earlier panel on BBC not playing well with outsiders!

In the BBC briefing document these positions are outlined – Be respectful in their ears

But specifically PODCASTS ARE NOT RADIO – remember. Our students tend not to own radio’s or Tv’s. They live online.

Podcasts have created a new space for content. In Podcasting the medium does have a message. It’s one about access and control, but is also about how we use it.

How we select and the way we listen impacts the content that is created for the space. and whilst it has been argued that podcasting IS broadcasting, others are drawn to the term public service media to represent a broader sweep of content – this idea of a 3rd space for public service media. So perhaps AUDIO better defines this new space, especially where content blurs and moves between spaces

Slide 6

Source: BBC

Turning to Sounds – platform and process

It commissions work and distributes radio, playlists, podcasts and extracts.

SOUNDS IS A DESTINATION APP – This leads to tensions with the commercial sector about the dominance of the BBC. The BBC does share with 3rd parties, but this creates tensions too (around data) As Erik Martin notes problems with  balancing the traditional PSB principle of universality with the ethical considerations of reaching the public via commercial platforms which have different objectives and values”

He adds the BBC’s own platforms have become far more important to the BBC’s overall strategy, “enabling greater ability to engage online audiences on the BBC’s own terms and provide a more cohesive user experience, without commercial platform intermediation”

This is not without tension. In 2021 Ofcom carried out a review of BBC Sounds to address concerns of the commercial sector. It agreed with CR that digital listening was going to continue to grow, but not that a full review of the platform was required – in part due to success of similar platforms like GLOBAL PLAYER. This won’t go away!

A learned lesson is how to adapt for the space and not use the space merely as another pipeline

SOUNDS recognises this new configuration – We keep OUR SOUNDS – We bookmark things. We browse the page and look for the next binge listen.

Content can be curated by lists that might be topical, seasonal, or thematic – for example around Black History Month, the World Cup or what’s TRENDING
Listeners are drawn by IMAGE, TEXT or RECOMMENDATION

YES – some of the content is different. High culture is largely absent here. There are no suits and informality is key BUT there’s something here I THINK

Slide 7

If the early BBC that Reith defined drew listeners to new ideas through the mixed schedule and the radio Times, the modern media market is defined by screens where user experience design and visual components draw us into discovery.

Might we be drawn into new content because the app suggests it? Or because our eye is drawn to the artwork, the name, or the idea. If you consider the idea of the early mixed networks was lead the listener into programmes that had value, challenge, or variety then the same could be said of podcasting.

Look at this from ANCHOR -it shows how listeners are drawn a funnel that leads to hitting play


Listeners might be drawn by image or text – just like the Radio Times

Where their listening is again made active, because they choose to listen –  as Tiziano Bonini notes in his most recent chapter  ‘ a text designed for podcasting affords foreground listening’  – adding later that “Podcasting then is a complex hybrid cultural form constantly reproduced by an evolving network of different, and dynamic, clusters of human and non- human actors” It is, he says a hybrid media form.

It is one which has remediated both forms and qualities of the early BBC, but also one that draws from contemporary digital cultures.

Over time – AI and data is likely to play an ever bigger role in this – recognising that genre alone is no longer a great indicator. Podcasts can be mapped out by other qualities, such as intimacy, sound complexity, niche value and so on – and whilst there is liveness, this remains a strength for radio.

Slide 8

Radio Stations now can appeal to audiences beyond their usual reach

Music stations can focus on music on radio and develop serious, funny, or socially relevant content as podcasts

Podcasts play best to the niches IT IS A LONG TAIL MEDIUM (usually)

In a NESTA discussion paper – Tom Chivers and Stuart Allan – highlighted some potential purposes of public service media, all of which are exemplified by podcasts.

oethos as a national community (social value);

o viewers and listeners with individual interests, tastes and preferences (cultural value);

omarket affordances and constraints (economic value);

o investors in the creative industries (industrial value);

oas an embodiment of diverse identities and aspirations (representational value); and as citizens concerned with public affairs (civic value). 

THEY ADD Of the younger generation – This demographic group actively negotiates tensions arising from the evolving, uneven uses of digital media technologies, some of the implications of which complicate the normative ideals of public value currently driving UK PSB policy.

PSB’s add social and cultural value through podcasts that can focus on minority audiences or give voice to debate or discussion, they have aided the development of a sector, although this is declining (me 2021) – because the BBC pay less than Audible and others

but they also add civic value through helping to develop understanding of news stories, locally, nationally and globally

Slide 9

Podcasts have revived different formats, ones that often require close listening – this is shift to earlier habits and behaviours

They are not radio but are part of the radio ecosystem. Made alongside linear broadcasts with content rossover between media – changes what is a radio station?

They allow for content that deviates from the format (But not the brand) of a station – Ofcom calls this ‘off schedule content’ (Consultation Doc, 4.15) and are part of wider efforts to look ahead to complex futures of global competition and, changing audience demands

A recent reports says

In part, the BBC is responding to global changes in news and entertainment consumption habits. … On-demand services and curated content will only become more established, and audiences will come to expect such offerings. (PUBLIC MEDIA ALLIANCE)

There are- Dual pressure for the BBC to compete and not compete, but as David Hendy concludes public service broadcasting should distort the market, where the ‘ethos is precisely this: to transform mere technology into a social philosophy’

The BBC will need to ensure its content is on Spotify and compete there to maintain status, whilst at the same time it does not aggrivate the market

In closing

In the article on BBC Sounds as PSB the authors quote audience reaction – where one posted
‘I dislike the tendency to clutter up the screen with programmes I have not chosen to see, I thought this was about customisation and user choice, not about pushing content on us?’

BUT.  maybe this is the point?