THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

06 October 2016

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

The British Library is working with the UK radio industry to develop a national radio archive and has invited experts from across the radio and music industry to consider what the future of radio might look like.

Nicky Birch
Nicky Birch

Nicky has been working in the radio and audio industry for 20 years, as a senior exec at UK indie Somethin’ Else, a director at Sound Women. In 2015 she founded radio and technology agency Rosina Sound, which has been leading a project for the British Library to explore the future of radio to help inform the launch of the National Radio Archive in 2017.

The future of UK podcasts

Much has been written about the rise and dominance of podcasts in the US. Meanwhile many producers and listeners in the UK believe our output is not up to the same standard – that American shows are better funded, better made and better distributed (although those who have discovered home-grown successes like Kermode and Mayo, the Football Ramble or My Dad Wrote a Porno might disagree).

There are several reasons why the UK podcasting industry hasn’t grown as fast as in places like America or India.

The main issue is the dominance of the BBC, which offers a high standard of speech content on its radio stations and simply converts this output to podcast format, thereby dominating the podcast charts with licence-payer-funded content.

There is also the fact that UK speech producers have traditionally not worked with advertisers so closely – they don’t have the same commercial background as US producers. In the US producers are more adept at working with brands creatively to sell a product and don’t feel uncomfortable doing so.

Finally, the strength of the BBC and commercial radio in the UK combined has meant many listeners haven’t needed or wanted to look elsewhere for their audio content.

But times are changing. During our research with the British Library we have spoken to many producers and business leaders from across the radio and audio sector, including content discovery platforms. The word is that in the UK, our podcast revolution is coming. We put this down to four reasons:

  • Commercialisation

In the US, podcasting is in a start-up frenzy – people are rushing to invest because the advertising spend is increasing quickly. There was a 48% increase in 2015, and Edison Research is estimating $150million will be spent in 2016. This isn’t a huge amount in advertising terms, but it’s the rapid growth that has excited people there and made producers and advertisers here look up.

The problem for UK podcasters has been the inability to sell their own advertising space or market their programmes successfully, being reliant on iTunes as their shop window where few shows are visible at any one time.

Companies like Acast are now offering a service that includes hosting and ad sales, and recently Audioboo pivoted its business to rebrand as Audioboom, a podcast advertising sales company, and the big US network Panopoly has just announced it is opening a UK arm.  Most podcasters using such services are still not making their fortune or indeed financing the time spent producing the content, but these are still early days. Ruth Fitzsimons from Audioboom believes podcasters need to invest now to grow their audiences in order to reap the rewards later, and she expects things to change significantly in around two years time when more advertisers realise the value of podcasting.

One of the big changes in the commercialisation of podcasts has been the introduction of dynamic advertising, where a chosen advert can be placed within the audio for a period of time and then replaced with an alternative advert at a later date. This means a large archive can have great value. Unlike linear radio, more like Netflix, podcast consumers tend to explore back catalogues so old shows can continue to make money for as long as new shows continue to be released within the same series.

  • Democratisation

The fantastic thing about podcasts is that anyone can make them, and a lot of people do. This has parallels with video where we’ve seen the rise of the YouTubers who have no fear about embracing brands and making money.

The young audiences who watch YouTube are prime for conversion into audiences for podcasts. They are used to searching for their content and used to their stars selling to them – it is totally normal. In the world of audio we’ve yet to see any mainstream celebrities grow out of podcasting, but the medium is waiting for a young presenter who isn’t constrained by old-fashioned broadcasting to tear the rulebook apart.

  • Mass niche

Podcasts are a success because they fulfil a need to hear more of what people love. Listeners make an active decision to search out and subscribe to a feed. You are unlikely to stumble upon a podcast (I’ll talk more about discoverability later) so they tend to be driven by user interests.

For example, I love cycling so I listen to the Cycling Weekly podcast, and it’s even better during the big tours, because they can put out extra editions of the show which radio can’t always fit into a limited schedule. They serve my needs when I most want it.

While a cycling show may never be mainstream, there are enough fans of most minority sports to make such podcasts viable. When you advertise on a cycling podcast, you are guaranteed to reach thousands of committed cycling fans – that’s pretty attractive to a Wiggle, Evans or Cycle Surgery – which makes the value of the sponsorship greater.

Some sales houses like DAX are starting to understand this power. It sells programmatic advertising space to agencies across all audio platforms, including podcasts, so on-demand audio can now be part of a wider campaign across radio and streaming services.

A mass niche programme that knows its audience well can provide lots of user analytics to help sell those spots. Programmatic adverts in podcasting are unlikely to cover the full costs of producing a quality podcast on their own just yet, but combined with host sponsorship readings, funding drives and branded events are turning mass niche brands into stable long term offerings with growing audiences and increasing potential.

  • Discoverability

Finding podcast content is the biggest hurdle. The user journey around most podcast players is pretty challenging. There simply isn’t enough room in the shop window for the many thousands of new programmes being created every week.

This means listeners are driven by what the platform tells them is popular and hence the top 100 chart becomes self fulfilling. This is a big design challenge, and technology is rising to overcome it.

If each programme provided a richer set of data – such as fully automated transcripts, key topics and mood – this could be linked between programmes to help users discover similar shows they might like and should lead to an explosion in discovery. This is akin to the successful Spotify Discover playlists that look at what users have listened to and create a new playlist each week accordingly.

Bigger platforms, like Amazon, Spotify and Pandora, have good experience of personalised algorithm driven content selection that they will use to their advantage as they move into the speech radio game.

Technology aside, the BBC understands one can’t rely on algorithms to serve up the hidden gems listeners never knew they wanted. The personalised service myBBC will rely on a mixture of serendipitous discovery, curated content and algorithm driven discovery.

If the BBC get this right – and listeners feel like they are taken on a journey being offered on-demand content to suit their mood that they didn’t realise they would like – they will have cracked the holy grail of on demand content. Many others will follow suit.

These are exciting times for audio producers in the UK. Brands, technology companies and the BBC are all looking to content creators to tell compelling stories to their audiences. Podcasts are just one of the many ways to deliver these messages but there is a great opportunity to play to the strengths of the audio medium being cheaper, simpler and quicker than video, film and emerging multimedia.

For creative British audio producers and presenters now is the time to experiment, to create better and bolder content ideas, to show that an idea that begins with a podcast could grow into something much bigger. Now is the time to invest in those ideas, build those audiences and the commercial support will follow.


The views and opinions in these blog posts are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Library.


Other blogs in this series:

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

The future of radio: no. 2 - Matt Deegan

The future of radio: no. 3 - Paul Bennun

Listen to a special British Library podcast discussion of The Future of Radio

 

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