The Problem with Platforms

Lots of audio platform-related news over the past week. The BBC announce that six of their radio shows will be BBC Sounds-firsts for on-demand listening, Bauer are pulling their UK stations from TuneIn and many third-parties and Spotify have been caught up in the appropriateness of funding a podcast with $100m that isn’t always very accurate or truthful.

Being a media company in 2022 is pretty hard. There’s a lot more to think about when you’re not just pumping stuff out on the broadcast airwaves.

I reached out to the BBC and Bauer to ask a few questions and they very generously hooked me up with relevant people and I had great chats. Sadly it wasn’t for quoting here, which I pointed out to both of them was a real shame. They directed me (and therefore you) to their public statements, linked-to, above.

Since I was a teenager I’ve always had an interest in the media and I think I’ve always been fascinated by organisations that speak to large numbers of people. Nowadays, with so many changes brought on by digital, I’m intrigued how they continue to do that, how new people pop up and how they’re all able to pay for it. For heritage organisations, it often means pivoting long-established business to keep up with the more fleet-of-foot newbies without the baggage, or accumulated consumption patterns, of the past.

The BBC’s announcement is that In Our Time, Desert Island Discs, Inside Science, Friday Night Comedy, Money Box, and 5 Live: All About Sport are going to be ‘windowed’ on BBC Sounds first. If you listen to them on, say, Apple Podcasts, the new episodes will only find their way to you after four weeks of BBC Sounds exclusivity.

A lot of these shows are the BBC’s biggest ones on third-party platforms, so people are very much going to notice. It’s unlikely to go down well with those happy with, and used to getting, Desert Islands Discs et al on their personal podcast app of choice. This sort of thing has been trialed in the past, with the BBC moving Fi and Jane’s Fortunately podcast off of RSS into Sounds. Hotpod wrote up that experiment here.

Exclusives aren’t new to BBC Sounds. There’s quite a bit of podcast material that’s only available in there like 6 Degrees of Separation with Jamie and Spencer and Scarlett Moffat’s I Want to Believe.

The challenge for the BBC (and other broadcasters) is that big tech was pretty fast moving and took what was made available – streams and RSS feeds – and jumped on creating products that became popular. This usage has continued and the idea of consuming audio content through aggregators like Apple Podcasts and TuneIn has been normalised. This ingrained behaviour and a somewhat revolving door of strategies at legacy media has meant the growth of their own products has been slower than they would hope.

It’s also, to be fair to the heritage companies, taken this long to get a truer handle on consumer behaviour with on-demand audio and what the commercial model is to support it. What I would say though is the lack of investment in product and lack of, at least, historic ambition in developing new platforms has left broadcasters playing catch-up.

Of course, when Matt Webb put In Our Time’s hand-typed RSS feed up online in November 2004, six months before Apple even added podcasting to iTunes, no-one would have expected, 17 years later, that those things would coalesce and it would be the main digital way people listened to that show.

Apple Podcasts has been fairly benign to creators, perhaps more out of luck, with their focus being on the things that made them a trillion dollar company. Their lack of interference has meant it’s been a pretty open marketplace of consumers and content creators. Consumers, especially, see Apple Podcasts as a utility more than a platform. This is likely to make them even more excised about losing a show than they would if their favourite sitcom swapped Netflix for Amazon.

TuneIn has had a number of strategy shifts over the years and its relationship with content creators (and the music industry) has been pretty fractious. For most providers their general ‘like it or lump it’ policy which has been “we’re putting ads at the beginning of your streams, either partner with us and share the cash, or don’t and we’ll keep it all” hasn’t necessarily been the most flexible. That combined with a lack of desire (and probably infrastructure) to share detailed consumption data has made many broadcasters around the world pull their content. In Sept 2019 the BBC mainly left TuneIn, and with Bauer leaving now it does potentially make that product less interesting for UK consumers.

For commercial operators, like Bauer, the digital audio evolution has reached a place where monetisation (though dynamic ads) is relatively mature, and can be quite lucrative. Logged-in listeners, generating first-party data (like demographics etc) give far more information to broadcasters. This makes the calculation a much easier sum to do. Is pulling content, even if it leaves a small, but still significant amount of audience behind, worth it after all?

Departing TuneIn as a mobile aggregator is one thing (especially where station apps can duplicate, and improve upon, much of the functionality) but Bauer’s also pulling streams from Internet Radios. Now these are devices that never massively took off and have been somewhat superseded by smart-speakers, but owners losing their favourites from expensive devices is going to hurt.

The radio industry is definitely more used to breaking people’s devices – moving stations from DAB to DAB+, changing streams so they stop working on internet radios, and now pulling services entirely from them – than they used to be. Yes, consumers are used to older devices being ‘bricked’ because of software updates, though it’s a shame it’s something the radio industry has joined in on.

On the BBC’s changes, the question comes down to whether the corporation shouldn’t really care how people get their stuff, just that they do vs trying to centralise as much listening on BBC Sounds as possible. The latter argument is that the BBC can give a better experience to BBC consumers, and also demonstrate to them, more directly, other things they can listen to. At a point where it’s essential that the BBC will need to demonstrate value to licence fee payers, I can see why this could be seen as a sensible decision. Having more and more consumers spend more and more time in BBC Sounds is a good way to show that they’re doing a good job.

My problem with this strategy is whether it’s truly led by improving the consumer experience, or it’s skewed by a corporate need to juice the usage. If the BBC was loved by everyone and had no pressures, would they still choose to pull their stuff from third parties?

I also think walling off more of the BBC’s content from non-BBC platforms isn’t a brilliant way to drive new consumption from BBC-rejectors, those who haven’t seen any reason to download BBC Sounds. Seeing stuff in Apple Podcasts (or Spotify) surely on-boards new people to the Corporation’s shows?

The value of exclusives and managing them to the best of a platform’s ability is fraught with danger. People from pretty much every audio platform have remarked to me on the post I wrote about exclusives. They all find it difficult to decide a way forward.

The BBC, of course, are not entirely pulling podcasts from places like Apple Podcasts, they’re being windowed for 28 days. Friday Night Comedy will still be available to everyone, but like sending a letter to Bristol, some will get it much later than others. I’m undecided whether this will annoy listeners more. Would they be better off providing extended or fuller versions on Sounds rather than delaying gratification? Is a carrot better than a stick? Or does the BBC feel their fruit and veg shop full of produce already hasn’t been enough to pull people over?

As I alluded to, having product on open-platforms does provide the opportunity for people who didn’t know you exist, to sample your wares. For both BBC and Bauer, removing content does mean that their own marketing has to work much harder. I’ve said before that radio has underestimated the value of being on a radio set that people can easily discover. How do people know what to ask Alexa for?

I’m pleased that Bauer has left one aggregator supported, and mentioned in their releases, that of Radioplayer. This is a group of products, owned by the radio industry. I think it’s a smart move to support this. Firstly they have a stake in it and so can control its direction and secondly it’s a place they can push people dead set (or unable) to use Bauer’s devices. I think it would help the BBC sometimes if they too adopted this strategy for live and on-demand content.


On the other end of the spectrum, Spotify has been having platform trouble of its own. Particularly around realising that it is a media platform rather than just a dumb tech one.

Some musicians and content creators have pointed out to Spotify that they’re unhappy with how misinformation and dangerous suggestions are left in Joe Rogan’s podcast (among others) and as such are removing their own content from the platform in protest.

Spotify has generally tried to say “we don’t tell rappers what to put in their songs, why should we tell podcasters” etc plus we have strong rules etc.

Well, their rules aren’t great. Their failure, up to now, to acknowledge that paying someone $100m over three years does also mean that they have to share some responsibility over what he says, is disappointing.

One of the key episodes people are annoyed about is an interview with Dr Robert Malone. His involvement with the creation of mRNA makes him an expert in Rogan’s eyes, though it’s not difficult to find the reasons why he is seen as an often inaccurate outlier. If you listen to the interview the key problem is that the two of them have similar views on COVID, this means that all the evidence they produce, they agree on. A couple of examples. In the first 30mins they agree that in Uttar Pradesh, India there was some use of Ivermectin that meant people didn’t get COVID and this treatment has now ended and covered up by India and the US government. It’s entirely taken as fact. Obviously it’s unlikely to be true, but even if it was, there was no questioning of any aspect of it. It’s the same when they talk about an Israeli study into natural immunity. The study has issues, acknowledged by the authors, the sample size is small, but any negatives are ignored. If you listen to all of this, narrated by that host you like, who’s introduced an expert that he’s explained why you should believe, you end up with three hours (!) of content that would likely push you to vaccine hesitancy (or reenforce the idea there are conspiracies everywhere).

Is Rogan knowingly lying to his audience, or is he just unable to look at things objectively and lacks any production to help him think more about this stuff? I think what’s striking about this case is that it’s notable because it’s been rare that someone develops a platform that reaches 11m people without also developing a duty of care for their consumers.

Digital distribution, though, has accelerated the fringes to broader audiences. It’s hard to look at attendees at a Trump rally and not see cultish behaviour and it’s well-documented that bright, intelligent people at Fox News now create dangerous content that their audiences like, even though many of the participants don’t believe it themselves.

The furore has resulted in some better engagement by Spotify into content rules and also made Joe Rogan release a statement too. The ten minute video is worth a watch. I think the most pertinent points is that he will now have contrasting views to the non-mainstream ones after a segment in an episode and also that he will now do some research, before his show, into the topics he’s talking about.

I will give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s only just struck him, after 11 years, that these would be good things to do.

Just like legacy broadcasters have had much to learn from new entrants, Spotify (and Facebook et al) could learn a lot from 100 years of broadcasting and how to cope with content that they fund.

I’m hopeful that the Neil Young-led action will genuinely mean more focus on standards for both Rogan and Spotify and that this has been an early (even if not unexpected) wake-up call that allows them to get their house in order. It will certainly make their earnings call tomorrow an interesting listen.


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The latest changes on the audio platforms and why it’s happening (10min read)