James Cridland

The BBC Sounds app by 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: the total 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 Mar to 31 Apr — so the previous year won’t have had a full year of international use. Is the growth from UK users, or from international audiences?

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.

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.

This is an excerpt from my regular radio trends newsletter, to which you can also subscribe.