The BBC and a question of competition

Last week, an email arrived in The Cycling Podcast’s inbox from a journalist at The Times. He wanted to ask whether we felt the BBC’s increased interest in producing podcasts was hampering the growth of thriving independent and commercial podcasts.

I said I’d be happy to talk on behalf of our podcast and he called me and asked what I thought of the BBC’s podcasting policy, and more specifically the fact it has its own cycling podcast, Bespoke.

The boom in podcasting is an interesting subject but I did think it was a slightly peculiar premise for an article – after all, BBC stands for British Broadcasting Corporation and what is podcasting if it is not broadcasting? It would surely be odd if the BBC was not embracing technology to deliver content in the most convenient way for its audience.

Before the conversation was done, I had begun to suspect that I was not saying what the journalist had anticipated I might and I had the impression that the angle The Times was looking to take was one knocking the BBC rather than expressing concern for the plight of independent podcasters.

A short article was published today and it confirms those suspicions, to a degree, especially as the blob paragraph below it is also criticising the BBC, this time for closing an online forum dedicated to the radio drama The Archers.

The article is behind the paywall but the headline is ‘BBC accused of dominating podcast market’. I’m not quoted, which is fine by me, but nor are any other concerned independent podcasters. The only person quoted is Matt Hill, director of Rethink Audio and co-founder of the British Podcast Awards, who said, ‘It’s about shopfronts like the Apple podcast store; there’s only limited space to discover new podcasts. If BBC original content is being promoted in that space, that does push out the small space that independent podcasts and networks have to promote their stuff.’

Matt Hill makes a great point, that space in the big podcast showcase spaces such as iTunes is limited, but the issue there is surely with Apple rather than the BBC. The problem, if there is one, is not the BBC producing a lot of varied content but the amount of space available in the show windows of the main podcast platforms like Apple’s Podcasts App and iTunes. To ensure diversity, Apple and others could easily restrict the number of podcasts from a single company appearing in those premium spaces. Problem solved.

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Anyway, my own thoughts are that it can only be a good thing for all of us if the BBC is taking podcasting increasingly seriously. There are still plenty of people who ask what a podcast is and who are not in the habit of downloading audio to listen to at their convenience. We regularly get emails from listeners who have only just discovered us, even though we’ll mark our fifth anniversary in June. The British Podcast Awards were held for the first time last year (we were a finalist in the sports category) and so it is still a relatively young, undeveloped medium, even if it’s more than a decade since Ricky Gervais popularised the term 'podcast'.

It cannot hurt if the country’s biggest broadcaster is regularly promoting podcasts (even if only their own) on television and radio, because the chances are that once someone has listened to a BBC podcast they might explore further to see what else is out there.

The same goes for the other big broadcasters such as Sky and TalkSport, or even the newspapers (including The Times) that have entered the arena. They lend credibility to the medium, raise the bar in terms of editorial and production values and will attract more people to podcasts.

Although we may compete or overlap with the BBC for listeners, they cannot sell advertising and so are not a competitor in a commercial sense. So we see only the positives of competition.

We started The Cycling Podcast in June 2013 with nothing more than Richard’s iPhone, our own experience and a very modest, but hugely welcome, sponsorship from Sharp. We paid our own expenses at the Tour de France, we paid our producer and we covered the gap between what we had raised through sponsorship and what it all cost out of our own pockets. I don’t dare look at the profit and loss breakdown for those early years but I’m not sure I made what would conventionally be termed as a profit from The Cycling Podcast until we introduced our Friends of the Podcast scheme in 2015. And I didn’t make what could be described as approaching a living from it until our major sponsors Rapha and Science In Sport came on board in quick succession in 2016. However, I believed in what we were doing and saw commiting time and money as an investment.

My competitive advantage, if you like, was that I had 20 years' experience in the media behind me, I could work for other magazines and newspapers if I had to and I had written books which were generating an income, so I could afford to help subsidise The Cycling Podcast’s growth that way.

When it comes to Tour de France time competition is now intense, with the BBC, ITV and plenty of others in the audio peloton. The BBC and ITV have the huge advantage of being able to promote their podcasts on radio and television and yet our audience also grows so we can only conclude that we are being sucked along in the slipstream.

The beauty of podcasting is that it is not a closed shop – anyone with an iPhone and ideas can get their work online, although I accept that it was probably easier for us to build an audience because we had all covered professional cycling since the late 1990s and early 2000s and we weren't fumbling around at the Tour bewildered by the sheer scale of it all, so we could put together a relatively coherent product from day one. (Although I urge you not to go back and listen to our early episodes to test this hypothesis).

On Monday, Richard and I headed to Birmingham to meet Daniel (who was over from Berlin) to record a few things for The Cycling Podcast – this week’s regular episode discussing the Belgian cobbled classics and looking ahead to the Tour of Flanders, plus a couple of special episodes for Friends of the Podcast that will be out later in the year.

It turned out to be a productive day even if I continued my campaign to alienate large chunks of the United Kingdom one bit at a time by doing a Birmingham accent in the first part of the episode. Never mind competition from the BBC, my accents and comments about places that are Not Watford are tantamount to self-sabotage.

The two Scottish dates of The Cycling Podcast's Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain have been rearranged. Edinburgh, on April 12, is more or less sold out (although check with the venue. We'll be at the Trades Hall in Glasgow on April 11 and tickets have just gone on sale, with priority being given to people who had purchased for the first event. For details go here.