The BBC’s director of radio is worried. Younger audiences are listening to more audio then ever before. They understand the captive quality of spoken-word stories. They’re more likely to listen to challenging, interesting podcasts on their commute to work or while in the car. They want to hear new music, tailored to their interests. The problem is they don’t necessarily need to go to the BBC to get what they want.
“If we don’t do anything over the next 10 years you’ll have a two-speed BBC radio audience,” says James Purnell, the man tasked with turning this around. “People who’d grown up with it and people who didn’t.”
On the face of it, BBC Radio is in rude health. It has half the national market, with dozens of stations reaching more than 34 million people a week. Radio 2 alone reaches 15 million listeners a week and for all the criticism of the Today programme (“editorially I think it’s in brilliant shape,” says Purnell), one in nine Britons still tune in to hear John Humphrys and his co-presenters harangue politicians every week.
The problem is that ever since the BBC was founded almost a century ago it has been based around an era of broadcasting that was designed towards a comprehensive offering: a shared listening – and then viewing – experience. But just as Netflix upended TV viewing habits, the growth of podcasts and Spotify means listeners increasingly expect their audio content to be personalised to them. Put simply, they no longer need to listen to a playlist or a schedule that does not perfectly suit their needs.
“BBC Radio is still incredibly successful, but I don’t think it’s ever faced such competition,” says Bob Shennan, a lifelong BBC employee who oversees all its radio and music output, pointing towards the likes of Spotify and Apple’s podcast libraries. “People are listening to things the whole time but the competition for their ears is with a whole host of organisations beyond the commercial radio sector.”
Relying on pensioners to provide the audience is not sustainable for an organisation that relies on convincing the vast majority of the public to pay for its services. Although millions of young Britons continue to tune in to traditional BBC radio stations, Purnell says just 3% of under-35s use the iPlayer catch-up radio app, which will soon be axed.
With this in mind, the corporation is putting its hope in BBC Sounds, a new app and website that formally launches on Tuesday with a glitzy event at Tate Modern. It will bring radio livestreams, catchup services, music mixes and podcasts together under one roof.
Personalised recommendations will push listeners towards content they would not necessarily have listened to – a Radio 3 documentary or a specially commissioned podcast such as the Today programme spin-off, Beyond Today, for instance. BBC radio presenters will produce music mixes – although, unlike on Spotify, listeners will not be able to skip individual tracks.
Convincing people to break their existing habits and put their trust in a BBC-only app will not be easy. Spotify has started to include a large number of podcasts – including BBC material – directly in its app and a growing number of people listen to the radio via voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa. Although there is the prospect of commercial radio being added later, industry voices have raised concerns that the app is a solution in search of a non-existent problem.
“The BBC produces great audio and they’ve got the marketing muscle to use BBC Sounds to introduce podcast listening to the large numbers of people who haven’t done that yet,” says Matt Deegan, a consultant who writes about the radio industry.
He says the corporation faces a challenge to make a compelling app while “competing with a full catalogue of the world’s audio on Apple Podcasts and Spotify” and convince listeners to use it for more than just livestreaming their favourite radio stations.
The man tasked with making this work is Jason Phipps, a former Guardian employee who joined as the corporation’s first commissioning editor for podcasts earlier this year. He says there is a need to reconsider the entire tone of how the BBC tells stories, shifting away from rigid formality if it wants to attract the precious under-35 audience: “It has to be a warmer, more story-led journey. You need to report the very personal experience of it.
“The very best stories are fundamentally anchored around the personal experience. You’re trying to find the human in the machine. Journalists have a process but younger audiences can find that very cold and want to access the actual response of human beings. They really want to understand the heart of the story.”
“We need more brash, funny, intelligent podcasts,” he says, saying the format’s intimacy is the reason why podcasts about “sex, relationships and erotic imaginations” have done so well. “It’s a perfect place to have uncomfortable conversations.”
Until recently the BBC was banned from creating online-only podcasts for competition reasons, meaning it is now making up for lost time, Shennan says. To this end a “few million pounds” a year will be given to commission podcasts purely for an online audience.
Purnell, a former Labour cabinet minister, says the corporation is committing to putting challenging voices on its radio and podcast output. “You have to win the case for free speech over and over again,” he says. “For the last few generations people have taken it for granted. It’s absolutely core to us to present everyone with that wide range of views. That doesn’t mean you have to suspend your judgment.”
Shennan compares the leap into on-demand audio and podcasting to previous decisions to invest in television during the 1950s and the internet in the 1990s.
“The world in which we offer this amazing idea called the BBC has changed exponentially over nearly a century and particularly in the last decade,” he says. “And because the BBC is really important and valued by licence fee [payers] it’s got to continue to be relevant.
“Otherwise you leave the BBC set in aspic and increasingly irrelevant. If you believe in the BBC you have to let [it] flourish in spaces where it can have a greater public value than market impact. That’s what we seek to do: be relevant.”
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