Music, Radio…Podcasts?

Were it BBC Smells, this would stink

BBC Sounds is the new platform for all audio content produced by the BBC. As it is said ad nauseam: music, radio, podcasts. Officially launched in November 2018, Sounds was devised to replace the existing iPlayer Radio service. Its launch comes with goals like implementing new features and refreshing their image to appeal more to younger listeners who may be more familiar with apps like Spotify. This is good.

As with iPlayer Radio before it, I am no fan of the BBC Sounds app itself. I shall leave that to one side for now. The matter in hand today is the use of the word podcast on the Corporation’s new platform and their aggressive push to get listeners using the Sounds app.

BBC Sounds is not a podcast player

For two reasons:

  1. Sounds only delivers audio provided by the BBC – you can’t subscribe to any podcast you’d like with it.

  2. More importantly, most of the audio programmes delivered through Sounds (specifically spoken word content) have no RSS feed and thus can’t be subscribed to from a true podcast app like Overcast, Castro or Apple Podcasts.

This has long been the case and I don’t really disagree with it. Not everything need be a podcast. What’s important is to remember that by using that word, podcast, users have certain expectations from the app. I understand that it’s being used as a shorthand way of referring to audio programming but I don’t like the meaning of the word being diluted by the BBC and others.

Why are the BBC so keen on Sounds?

I’m trying not to be too cynical, but the zeal and insistence to get people using Sounds makes me suspicious. Several weeks ago the BBC tried an experiment making what had been a traditional podcast (the wonderful ‘Fortunately…’) an exclusive Sounds audio programme. Many, myself included, were upset by this move. In an episode I heard (once the exclusivity ended) there was an interview with the BBC Sounds launch director, Charlotte Lock, explaining the reasoning for fencing it away. My ears perked up at her mention of wanting more data.

How much data do the BBC need from us? Certainly some is required to be able to power the personalisation features of the Sounds app, but as for anything more, I’m not sure. Radio 4, and the Home Service before it, have thrived since 1939 with only basic listening data (also see the twenty year trends). The data collected helps determine how much funding Radio 4 receives from the Corporation and helps inform programming decisions.

Being a public service in the United Kingdom, there are no advertisements which makes the primary, if only, source of funding the licence fee. This started to change recently when in May 2018 the BBC partnered with Acast, dynamically-inserted advert demons, to begin monetising podcasts internationally. Acast who:

…use advanced targeting abilities and analytics to monetise international content

‘Advanced targeting abilities’ which are mostly rubbish according to people in positions to know.

An Audio and Advertising Platform?

With my cynicism fully engaged, Sounds is starting to make more sense to me. The BBC appear to want more data to feed to the advertising golem. This is understandable given the continuing funding cuts to the BBC, but it’s no less disgusting as a listener.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting the BBC drop advertising entirely. They need to generate revenue like any content producer. Serving adverts which respect listeners’ privacy should be paramount on their list of requirements, however. Simply by observation, it’s clear that independent podcasts and podcast networks like Relay FM and 5by5 have thrived without resorting to exploiting their listeners.

The BBC Silo

Considering this, I can easily imagine a future where all BBC audio programmes are available exclusively through Sounds and it’s not exciting. Putting podcasts inside a walled garden is a tactic that’s yet unproven. What we have seen is that podcasts have thrived thus far without exclusive platforms – anyone can download them with any client. More people download, more people hear the programme, more people hear the adverts. If the BBC were to make all their programming available only through Sounds, it would be a mistake.

Sounds is a silo which forces me to split my attention. I can’t have the BBC programmes I listen to and regular podcasts in Sounds, and soon I may not be able to have everything in my podcast app of choice, either. I have tried before to maintain this split but it becomes too difficult on the BBC side – no notifications, poor user interface and only a third of my listening content. If forced to use Sounds or iPlayer Radio, in their current forms, I will simply replace the BBC programmes with other audio, an outcome that surely neither of us want.

10 March 2019