5 Things I Learned About Podcast Culture In The UK
When was the last time you listened to a podcast that was produced outside the United States? Although this may not be the norm, just about all of the audio content I listen is from the U.S. Which got me wondering: What’s happening in other countries?
The future of podcasting looks promising in the United States. But what does it look like overseas?
Not having all the time in the world, I decided to go small and focus on podcast culture in the United Kingdom. I spoke to Gillian Donovan, current BBC employee and former producer of the podcast How To Do Everything, Mike Russell, founder of New Media Europe and UK Podcasters, and Simon Usborne, a feature writer at The Independent. Here’s what I found out.
1. Podcast culture is bigger in the U.S. than the U.K.
“It’s taken more seriously here [in the U.S.],” said Gillian. She is originally from the U.K., but moved out to Chicago to produce the podcast How To Do Everything. She said she’s definitely noticed more enthusiasm for audio content here than in the U.K. “I don’t think the U.K. has quite worked out what podcasts are for.”
“If you speak to most people in the UK, and you ask them what a podcast is, a lot of people will still say, ‘what’s that?’” said Mike Russell. He and his wife began attending the New Media Expo in Las Vegas a few years ago, a convention that attracts podcasters from all over the world. “We’ve been a couple times and we just thought, why is nothing happening in the U.K.?”
Since then, Mike began U.K. Podcasters, an organization that connects podcast producers in England. “The idea behind our organization is getting independent podcasters who are not necessarily doing it for hobby, but who have a passion that they want to express and use podcasting to promote what they do.” Mike has been hosting several of these meetups for the past year and says that attendance is growing.
2. U.K. podcasts are often produced as additions to existing BBC programs, not as standalone content.
As Gillian said, “If you take a look at the BBC’s podcasts, none of them are really designed to be podcasts. It’s always a program that’s been repackaged. So I think at the moment in the U.K., the attitude of many podcasters is just catching up with a show rather than to listen to a specific podcast.”
For example, if you look at the download charts in the U.K. iTunes podcast store, you’ll notice that a fair amount are based off of pre-existing content. Friday Night Comedy integrates The News Quiz and The Now Show from Radio 4. Page 94: Private Eye is an addition to a news and current affairs magazine of the same name.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with repurposing pre-existing content. But the BBC has heavily utilized this model for the past 10 years. “Certainly the kind of spin off, slightly adapted radio content does dominate, that’s definitely true,” said Simon Usborne.
3. The BBC’s podcasts dominate the UK download charts.
Take a look at the U.S. iTunes podcast store and you’ll find public media well represented in the top-10. Do the same in the U.K. store and you’ll see a similar trend with the BBC. “The BBC got in very early when podcasting started 10 years ago,” says Simon. “And if you look at the top 10 in the iTunes U.K. store, most of them are from BBC Radio 4.” (Radio 4 is BBC’s spoken-word station). “But, because of the democratic nature of the medium, the BBC has no real advantage other than production and promotion because anyone can do it.”
Mike agreed. “There’s quite a lot of people doing independent podcasts. I guess that breaking through that barrier, it’s like a meritocracy: if you’re good, you’re going to rise to the top.” A few of these independent podcasts have made the U.K.’s iTunes charts: The Marketing Academy Podcast, a weekly show about content marketing strategies, and We See In Pixels, a discussion-based show centered around video games and tech culture.
4. Most popular shows in the U.K. are discussion-based, contrasting with the popularity of narrative-driven podcasts in the US.
Most shows in the U.K. are discussion-based, largely focused around pop culture, comedy and politics. The production process is low maintenance and it’s easy to see why most podcasts use that format.
Simon thinks there is room for narrative content like Serial, which did very well in the U.K. (The BBC picked it up and aired it on terrestrial radio.) But, according to Simon, “the other challenge is cost.”
Although Chicago Public Media hasn’t released development costs for Serial, the show spent over a year in pre-production. NPR’s Invisibilia also took a year to develop. “That level of production and journalism doesn’t come cheap,” said Simon. “When you’re not the BBC or Ira Glass, it’s very difficult [to produce a show like that.]”
Shows like This American Life and Serial are popular in the U.K. But a U.K. appetite for investing that kind of money into an intricately produced, narrative-driven show doesn’t seem to exist. It seems to be in the BBC’s best financial interest to rebroadcast popular American narrative podcasts without having to put in the work to produce something of their own on that scale. Why invest a large amount of time and effort when they can attract a similar audience number with an existing American podcast?
5. The UK’s equivalent of Serial will probably come from an established personality.
Just as Serial sprung from the well-established podcast This American Life, a breakout hit from the U.K. will also probably come from an established figure in the British podcasting world. I asked Mike where he thought this would come from. “I think it’ll take a really brave and a really well known personality in the U.K. on national levels. Now, the time is ripe. I know there are certain U.K. personalities that are looking into it or already doing it.”
The U.K. podcast market is in a state of change. It might not be undergoing as radical a shift as it is in the States, but there are certainly gears turning.
Mike seemed really optimistic. “Back in 2011, I started listening to podcasts and one of the first was about Internet business mastery. I was working in radio at the time and it really pushed me to think, maybe I don’t need to work in radio full time. And that’s what I do now. I run my own business from home. And that was as a result of listening to podcasts. How cool is that?”