The following post is drawn from the slides and notes used in my presentation at ECREA Radio Research Conference in the beautiful city of Siena in September 2019. Many thanks to the School of Media and Communications at the University of Sunderland for supporting my attendance.
In this paper I’m going to pull together a few themes that have emerged from the development of the BBC Audio platform BBC SOUNDS
Launched with great fanfare in 2018 BBC Sounds presents itself as a digital presentation of soundwork produced for and by the BBC. It was described at the time by Director General Lord Hall “a standalone and standout destination, bringing the best of everything we do in audio into one place. It allows us all to experiment – to explore new music, stories and ideas – to play with form and content. And it’s going to support a whole new generation of talent.” (BBC, 2018). According to The Times it’s a project in which the BBC has invested £10 million.
Rather than being a revisioning of the previous iPlayer platform, BBC Sounds marked a shift in direction of the BBC; one that was seeking to engage new and younger audiences and produce work custom made for the space from their own teams as well as from the radio networks, local radio and independent producers.
This papers uses BBC Sounds as discursive tool in exploring the challenges of finding, consuming, and defining audio in the platform age.
Including the elusive search for the Netflix for Podcasts!
But more than that, this is also about the rise of the platform and the use of walled gardens that slowly pull us away from the one web principles that underpinned the development of podcasting
So, what is the Netlfix for podcasts and why is everyone looking for it?
Podcasting as a medium is built on the open web. It’s built on open source tools and whilst content passes through commercially owned servers and gatekeepers, the principle that anyone can make a podcast still remains a dominant feature.
It has managed to retain the ethos of an amateur medium. It is, thought, moving into an app-led ecosystem where the listening experience is augmented by tools to speed up audio, share it and find out what others are listening to. These are apps that Morris and Patterson have badged PEOPLE Catchers, which act as cultural intermediaries for audio consumers
The reference to Netflix reflects a challenge in podcasting as a disparate medium in which content is dispersed across multiple hosting services and listening apps. Whereas Netflix operates as a closed platform where the company manages access to the content via Single-point, podcasting operates as an open platform of digitally ‘dumb’ files, where rights owners often have limited information about consumption and where advertising has become the default funding method. Netflix, like streaming platforms has a focus on revenue rather than ratings.
As John Sullivan notes in his recent article, one might have thought that the proven technology of RSS would have meant these trends would have bypassed podcasting. But, the “winner takes all’ format of platforms have proved to be irresistible. There seems to be a fetishised idea around fixing the discovery problem.
In 2019 this space was joined by LUMINARY a US based commercial podcast producer and distributor who alongside a free index of podcasts, also offer fee paying listeners a roster of exclusive content. Previously independent work like Love and Radio, have now moved behind the paywall.
There is of course more to this than money. It’s also about discovery. Writing in the mid 90’s Nicholas Negroponte made several accurate predictions about our digital future, including the presence of more content than we can possibly cope with. When it comes to choice, podcast listeners have far more content than they can possibly consume, with somewhere in the region of 700,000 podcasts ON iTUNES it can be hard to keep up. There are of course more that aren’t listed here!
The solution is an agent, an app, to aggregate, filter and manage our content.
This creates a process where APPS BECOME DESTINATIONS IN THEMSELVES
BBC Sounds presents itself as the audio destination of the BBC, for radio, music and podcast content.
It offers users access to all the corporations radio stations as live feeds, with the ability to join a live programme in real time or to go back to the start. BBC Sounds also hosts a range of music playlists that showcase programmes, events and core artists from BBC Radio building on the BBC’s role as cultural tastemaker. These playlists sit as a halfway between Spotify playlists and live radio, inviting music acts and presenters to curate playlists and talk about their rationale for selecting tracks.
In this advert you can see that BBC Sounds is being positioned through its relationship with tastemaking programmes and star names. Content which when heard on mobile provides sonic wallpaper to our daily lives. The sense in which all forms of audio converges in this space is an embodiment of experiences that Michelle Hilmes has described as SOUNDWORKS, screen based audio work – where such work open up new opportunities for radio broadcasters to generate experiences beyond radio.
But BBC Sounds is more than an aggregator or a tastemaker. It is now a fully fledged division of the BBC with its own budgets, commissioning team and controller. It presents itself as a destination, a central point where listeners can find all their audio needs in one place. This articulates the BBC’s role in UK culture as a radio broadcaster, a podcast platform and a curator of music.
This is not without tensions, as across the BBC – Radio networks also have their own digital teams creating podcast only content, alongside the content that’s now being produced by or for the BBC Sounds team. Whilst each has taken their own line on how podcasting forms part of their audience strategy some trends are emerging.
For BBC Sounds, though, innovation is key.
Noting that they “want podcasts that engage existing podcast listeners who don’t consume BBC output and podcasts that convert new people to the joys of podcasts” and no doubt, in turn the BBC. This represents a significant shift on the part of the BBC, who whilst being an early adopter of the medium have only recently started to produce content specifically for the space. This transformation represents movement away from the idea of a radio station as something exclusively focussed on linear broadcasting, to a more holistic view of radio as a set of brand values or a physical location from which a plethora of content emerges across multiple platforms.
In their commissioning document the BBC outline how they see the role of podcasts.
PODCASTS are not radio programmes, even if it might have equivalency. And whilst the process and the medium demand innovation, this one rule should never be broken.
There is recognition here that for some younger listeners podcasts ARE their radio, although better words here might be soundwork, stories or shows.
They are made for headphones, are more cinematic and natively digital. They aim to offer a safe space in a complex world in ways that recognise the nature of podcasting as a highly intimate medium.
The BBC have told producers that “The target audience for podcasts commissioned by the BBC Sounds commissioning team is people in the UK aged 18-34.” Although the radio networks are still working for their own target audiences (R4, WS etc)
All this goes someway to explain some of the design features of the app where content and brand is foreground, and where the default mode of listening is streaming and bingeing.
This graphic indicates how this years commissioning round was broken down into 4 key themes.
The BBC recognises here that there is a section of population who never listen to news on Radio 4, but are listening to podcasts on news or politics. They are a new audio generation to whom they have a responsibility, Often this work would not fit within a network format, or work within their usual commissioning rounds. For the BBC, Sounds represents a site for innovation. A space that recognises the inherent differences in podcasting, as a more intimate, detailed and cinematic form of soundwork.
We can see the ways in which the commissioning team have tried to frame the work they are currently commissioning from independent producers. They are interested in the odd and the quirky, podcasts that explain big ideas in small ways, that offer innovation in drama or reflect cultures in music, celebrity or sport. In this sense, BBC Sounds represents not only a move towards platformisation but one which does so through the production of content made for the space, alongside other audio features aligned to the radio experience or the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster
Underneath this sits a plan to bring in NEW VOICES andIdentify NEW AUDIENCES, that aren’t been adequately served.
But also to commission and new and INNOVATIVE Work for audiences under 35
They are commissioning into the gaps, offering small commissions that sit in between the radio networks (1,1X, 2, 3, 4, 5L, 6M, WS & AN)
What is notable in the movement from iPlayer to be BBC Sounds is the blurring of content. Whilst PODCASTS are a section in their own right, one needs to explore further to see whether this is bespoke content, or has already been on the radio.
I have tried to map this here by looking at content described by the platform as PODCASTS using 6 broad headings.
Radio programmes. – where the podcast is remediated version of a broadcast piece. This aspect is shrinking, as it becomes clear that only certain forms have cut through in the podcast space. The obvious example here is Desert Island Discs
Curated – this strand features of range of content fronted by a presenter. And example here would be the SERIOUSLY strand by Radio 4, where a single documentary is identified and distributed under this banner. Each week
Clips – either short podcasts or a collection of clips from radio shows (Scott Mills etc)
Then we get into the more bespoke content
In one strand we see content made by or for radio AND TV networks. This might include podcasts such 5 Live’s Paradise, the World Services 13 Minutes to the Moon, or Radio 4’S Forest 404, as well podcasts like Blue Planet 2 for BBC 1 TV.
There is then the growing strand of podcasts under the BBC Sounds banner, that fits into the strands identified on the last slide. Examples include SWITCH OFF, where guests are encourage to divest themselves of social media for a week, NB a podcast about living as a Non Binary Person, or FIRST a youth series about first time experiences made by the branded content house MISSILE . The range is pretty diverse.
This is by no means a detailed study, but gives a sense of the content currently on BBC Sounds.
Over time this picture will shift in favour of more diverse content made exclusively for the Sounds Platform – and not for radio – even if some of those producing them are drawn from the BBC’s list of approved suppliers!!
By way of example of their aim, is the news podcast The Next Episode. It’s made within the same podcast team at BBC News, who also work on Beyond Today and Brexitcast. But this has a different feel. Their story agenda is different and as we see here the team is different.
The podcast looks at a range of challenging and often un-discussed stories from buying drugs on the dark web, to young farmers, sexual assault, racism and recently they broke a story about the management of the constituency office Sheffield MP Jared O’Meara.
The podcast is accessible, youthful and is underscored by music from the BBC Introducing website, a further way in which the platform seeks to engage a different kind of listener. These are podcasts that the BBC say
These podcasts provide thinking tools and context for our younger audiences who navigate a fire hose of information daily. They are podcasts that are the long-form audio answer to the video explainer and in recent times have given rise to a new generation of daily narrative- focused news podcasts
These podcast represent a move away traditional notions of radio journalism and form a backbone of content across the site that relates more to podcasting than it does radio.
In the clip you can hear a more relaxed style that makes a more conversational approach and a willingness to take deeper dives into stories.
Here we see an example of how the platform creates sound works that cut across BBC networks, genres, and audiences and allow producers greater freedom in telling stories and using different approaches to production and editorial control to help them seek out the younger audiences that the BBC desperately needs.
Despite a brief attempt to migrate the Fortunately podcast into the app as an exclusive, podcasts within the platform are also available globally via RSS. So, whist many of the additional audio features within the app remain exclusive to UK residents the core podcast offering continues to maintain the BBC’s role as a global storyteller.
BBC Sounds is emblematic of the move towards apps and platforms, where user data is collected and used to deepen the experience. Through its use of bookmarks for episodes and subscriptions for series, listeners can curate their own listening libraries from both content that is distributed as podcasts, as well as listen-again content from the BBC’s radio networks and local services.
This represent a continuation of the what Gazi and Bonini have called “commodification of haptically mediated radio listening.” A process by which broadcasters capture engagement rather than arbitrary data of how many are listening at any given moment. Whilst most apps do not foreground listeners in a social way, their presence is recognised through their data in charts and the ability of platforms to recommend. But in this way there is a step change going in the way in which audiences encounter sound work
Taneja et al (2012) noted in their work on media platforms that: “users do not divide their time consuming all available media. They instead create subsets of all available options and consume content from this smaller set” By pulling listeners into custom apps, developers are creating those subsets,
There are benefits for this move towards the app though. Not only does it cater for the mobile nature of audio consumption, but evidence from the branded content producer Pacfiic Content app listeners are more engaged. They cite a model from New York based digital agency campfire who talk about dippers, skimmers, and divers. The skimmers visit the website and sample content, whereas the divers are app listeners. The ones who listen to entire episodes and binge a series. This reflects wider assumptions about the deeper engagement of many podcast listeners. This profile of consumption is recognised by platforms like BBC Sounds through the use of clips and the ability to bookmark content to return to later.
We can see in the design of the app that listeners are encouraged to explore and to dive into podcast series and music playlists, whilst the social media (see xx) and websites are used to offer snapshots to drive attention towards the platform
But there are problems here of course. Putting aside the User Experience deficiencies of the app itself, highlighted last weekend by Miranda Sawyer in the Guardian, describing it as “huge mistake.”
You can also see of the social media reaction to the project
The movement into BBC Sounds represents a wider shift of podcasts away from RSS towards the walled garden model. The BBC like Luminary, Spotify and others have third party content on their app and whilst this might help avoid listeners from skipping for app to app to find content it creates a pools of content that pull from radio, music and podcasting.
This is an evolution of podcasting into a medium that is increasingly professionalized and oriented towards a group of rising walled-garden services.
What’s happening here in the BBC reflects not only the risks of and benefits of platformisation but also an indication that the way in which public service broadcasters might now view contemporary listening. Content will blur as broadcasters draw listeners into apps where their preferences can be tracked and utilised to inform future content decisions and where their attention is migrated into a managed walled garden. This raises interesting questions about what we mean by the words “RADIO’ and “BROADCASTER’ as both explore how they define their positions in an age where the younger audience is increasingly rejecting ideas about linear listening on legacy devices like a radio, but also about how we define podcasting in this new and developing space.