BBC not so sound

Google Home device on a table next to a book

The BBC has announced that it is pulling all of its radio services from TuneIn. This follows on from the BBC’s decision earlier this year to remove its audio from Google services.

According to James Cridland, another public service broadcaster is planning to follow suit, and remove their podcasts from Apple platforms as well. Their ambition is to “be in control of their distribution, through their own app”.

Radio has historically made all its content freely available, using the open and distributed nature of podcasting, and radio directories like TuneIn and others. Yet, the new people in charge of radio in many of the public service broadcasters have come from TV — where none of this has happened. Instead, television has always been locked away on broadcasters’ own apps, and tightly controlled. Mostly, this has been for rights reasons, but this is now seen as a strategy to follow.

Audio has been hugely successful in the past few years. The unstoppable rise of the podcast continues unabated. Meanwhile, it has been widely noted that the radio industry in the UK is in very rude health. This is highlighted by the number of new stations being created, strong ratings, and a vibrant market for radio presenters (especially for breakfast slots).

I would argue that all this is at least partly down to the very openness that broadcasters are now suspicious of.

Take podcasting. It’s actually quite an old technology now. But awareness of it has spread organically. This is helped massively by the fact that you don’t need any special subscriptions to access them. You can use Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, whatever mobile app you like, a smart home device, or just your computer. You can listen to a podcast your way. That’s what makes podcasts popular.

Smart home devices are also making it incredibly easy to switch radio stations just by talking. How that happens behind the scenes is largely invisible to the user. They don’t care if their Amazon Echo uses a TuneIn Alexa skill or some other way to access radio streams.

But people certainly don’t want to have to set up a special BBC-specific solution to listen to the BBC.

People are reaching subscription fatigue. They just about tolerate having Netflix on top of paying for their TV License and their cable subscription. Throw Spotify in as well for their music. But what if you need Now TV to watch this sport event? And Amazon Prime to watch that TV series? And now they want us to do something separate still — just to listen to the radio?

I am already less likely to listen to certain BBC programmes because of their insistence on funnelling everyone through the distinctly sub-par BBC Sounds. Some of their decisions have been actively hostile towards listeners.

To take one example, they made Jane Garvey and Fi Glover’s podcast Fortunately available through BBC Sounds only. This was completely antithetical to what podcasts are supposed to be about. It effectively meant that Fortunately was no longer a podcast.

(I still use the BBC iPlayer Radio app because it took BBC Sounds several months just to implement Chromecast functionality, an absolute minimum essential for me.)

This week, the BBC also announced that it is launching an “Alexa rival”, with the supposed unique selling point that it will understand British regional accents. Although anyone who has actually used one of the leading voice assistants will know, the existing ones have no trouble with British accents anyway. It is reminiscent of the BBC’s noughties attempt to rival Google Search, an idea that sounds absurd today, and was always doomed to fail.

The BBC’s explanation for their exit from TuneIn boils down to TuneIn’s unwillingness to share data about its users with the BBC.

Radio broadcasters now appear to be in a damaging race to create closed platforms in a misguided attempt to be the Netflix of radio. None of them seem to have asked themselves why any of their listeners would want that.

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