“A couple of pods up there’s Scott Mills with Radio 1, and Mary Anne Hobbs, who’s fearful of heights.” Director of BBC radio and music Bob Shennan sat a-burble in one of the viewing capsules at the London Eye last Thursday – redubbed the “London Ear” – to launch “the biggest thing to happen to the BBC for a decade”: BBC Sounds.
This new app, replacing iPlayer Radio, rolls out suggestions and feeds, primarily to do with podcasts. By now it’s clear that podcasting is BBC Radio’s main focus. Updates on the exponential rise in listening figures swoon into my mail daily. Here are some: six million of us listen to podcasts every week, a figure that’s near-doubled in the last five years. There were nearly 63 million downloads for BBC content worldwide in September. Shennan talked about “future-proofing the BBC to remain relevant” and all the PR stuff you’d expect, but what didn’t get mentioned is what podcasts do.
To be clear, those figures show people catching up with their favourite programmes (some of which have a little podcast extra tagged at the end) as well as those downloading separate BBC podcasts. The demand for “traditional” content is still high. Too many podcasts over-ramble, but still they offer a real aural variousness. They can surprise the listener with different locutions, and it’s this that will keep people listening to radio: messing even just a little with standard ideas of formatting and finding looseness within structure. So, interviews might simply be longer and feel less conventionally scheduled. And for a sometime presenter such as myself there are new considerations. A producer recently spoke to me about what “voice” to use when broadcasting. Given that most people now listen through headphones – a quite intimate thing – might that change the way presenters “present”?
One of the most interesting things about the launch day was hearing how presenters sounded in a less familiar acoustic. “My view is rich in murk,” admitted Jane Garvey in the Woman’s Hour pod, gazing with an eyebrow raised through reinforced plastic. Her script was quintessentially Garvey-cynical, but her tone was fantastically light and musical. The human voice – and ear – are infinitely, minutely responsive.
This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state