BBC Sounds in the BBC Annual Report: the numbers

The BBC Annual Report for 2021/22 is out. It’s always an interesting read.

The corporation’s audio app, BBC Sounds, now has 3.8m people using it on average every week (page 174) - up by 300,000 year-on-year (an increase in weekly users of 8.5%).

According to the ONS, there are roughly 52,160,000 adults aged 16+; which makes the weekly reach of BBC Sounds about 7.3%. By way of comparison, BBC Radio in total reaches 61% - a figure that will include BBC Sounds as well as other platforms.

Average streaming time in BBC Sounds was 13.2m per week; making that 3.47 hours per listener (up from 3.11 hours last year). BBC Radio as a whole is 14.7 hours per listener overall (498m per week).

But, something’s not going right: in spite of an 8% growth in total audience, the number of 16-34 year-olds using it per week has actually dropped year-on-year: from 572,000 to 570,000. Is there a content problem? Or a brand problem? Or is it the app?

And what’s the 3.8m weekly number made from? It’s specifically not caveated as being a UK-only number (unlike most other numbers in the Annual Report). The BBC Sounds app only became available internationally from mid September 2020. The Annual Report runs from 1 Apr to 31 Mar - so the previous year won’t have had a full year of international use. Is the growth from UK users, or from international audiences? (Update: I’m told it’s UK numbers only, even if it doesn’t say so!)

BBC Sounds includes “radio, music, podcasts”, as any listener will know. It’s seen a 23% increase in total UK plays to 1.54bn - impressive on a user growth of just 8.5%. Yet, live radio accounts for 55% of plays in the app; on-demand (both “podcasts” and catch-up radio) account for 45%. On-demand speech accounts for 37% of total plays, and the on-demand music streams, and catch-up music programmes, account for just 7%. A Spotify replacement this isn’t.

Even if we assume that BBC Sounds total time-spent-listening is all radio, it means that BBC Sounds is just 2.6% of all BBC Radio listening. BBC Sounds gets breathless promotion across the BBC, including top-of-hourly promotion that displaced mention of digital radio; yet the no-longer promoted DAB is sixteen times larger. (BBC iPlayer, by comparison, is responsible for 16% of all BBC TV viewing; and a whopping 43% of all 16-34s).

Unlike the Global Player, BBC Sounds has no third-party content within it: a change of mind about something prominently promoted in 2019 the week after the BBC pulled its podcasts from Google Podcasts in an attempt to encourage audiences to use its app instead. (Update: I’m told they have some third-party content, but not that much).

And the BBC has recently pulled some of its podcasts from the whole open RSS ecosystem, making them exclusive for the first month within the BBC Sounds app. One such show is the BBC’s Friday Night Comedy feed, so, for listeners on open RSS, the topical news shows “The News Quiz” and “The Now Show” have yet to hear about Boris Johnson’s resignation. Baffling: but even this hasn’t benefited the app, it seems.

Audio is hot. BBC Sounds is a competent audio app: and once people download it, BBC Sounds appears to be doing a good job at cross-promoting programmes to increase consumption.

However, the BBC’s tactics of restricting content elsewhere, though, don’t appear to be working - and in spite of the millions of pounds of free promotion, 16-34 year-olds are using it less. That should be a concern.

Michael Mignano, the co-founder of Anchor (and a former Spotify employee) posted a long piece about The Standards Innovation Paradox, which essentially says that standards are good to get companies up and running, but there comes a time when you have to just break out and do proprietary stuff, because you can’t enhance standards or get them changed fast enough.

Mignano mistakenly gives podcasting’s RSS as an example of standards which can’t be extended or changed, linking through to documentation on tags that Apple devised as an extension to the RSS standard, quoted on Google Podcasts’s website which also uses Apple’s extensions. Hmm.

I wrote a piece about this - highlighting how extensible RSS is, and highlighting that the real benefit comes when you’re have a sizeable market share, since you can essentially set the standards. Anchor is the largest podcast hosting company in the world; Spotify, the second largest podcast playback app.

I interviewed Michael for the Podland podcast, and he was generous with his time, but I do wonder whether I got through. Other examples he gave were the apparently unchanging standards of HTML and CSS…

  • An update from last week - 4BC’s new breakfast show is much like 4KQ’s old breakfast show. It’s directly led to my future mother-in-law asking me to retune her car radio to 4BC (I gave her 4BH and the ABC as well). It’s a very different listen from the previous breakfast show - rather more positive and happy, rather less serious and informative. And yes, all of 4BC is playing a few songs an hour in its local output, something I find bewildering but then, I’m neither a programmer nor someone who’s grown up in Australia, so my thoughts don’t really matter.

  • Paige Nienaber (crazy name, crazy guy) tells me that Namibia’s Radio wave 95.7 sold 40,000 laces for US$5 each in aid of a cancer charity, and designated one day as Lace Up Day when you proudly wore yours. A great promotion, good for charity, and a nice idea.

  • In Australia, the ABC tells the story of the day a power outage made the whole of the ABC website revert back to 2011. I’ve no idea how that could have happened, but it was finally the time when the corporation seemed to take the internet seriously, and, just over two years later, have almost completed the upgrade to a more capable system. (When I moved here in 2015, the ABC’s website was not great: but it’s an impressive and performant thing these days.)

  • As if print media didn’t have enough to worry about, the price of paper has doubled this year.

  • Global advertising revenue is dropping, says WARC.

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Thanks also to Rolf Lovstrom for your contribution last week!

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