The new hotness in the podcasting world is Serial, made by the people behind This American Life. After only a few weeks, it’s already attracting 850,000 downloads per episode. It’s a fantastic show, perfectly suited to a format that allows people to follow along week-by-week but listen at a time of their own choosing.
The US is very good at making and exporting popular podcasts; Serial is #1 in iTunes UK rankings. While the BBC is no slouch, its podcasts are almost entirely shows already broadcast on the radio (usually Radio 4). I listen to many myself, like In Our Time and Thinking Allowed, both shows that demonstrate a deep level of planning and research.
Still, the fact that the BBC’s audio content is primarily made for the radio means that it necessarily needs to appeal to a much wider audience in order to justify its existence. 850,000 downloads for Serial might seem impressive to us, but your average factual or news show on Radio 4 will easily blow past a million listeners, and that’s just in the UK. So topics for radio have to be broader and of course, to some extent aimed at the existing radio audience, lest they revolt and write letters to The Times.
I’m never going to find specialised science fiction shows on Radio 4 that broadcast every single week like The Incomparable or The X-Files Files; I’m never going to get technology shows like Accidental Tech Podcast and Core Intuition that focus on the minutiae of Mac development; and there are so many others for Liverpool FC supporters and Minecraft players and Dan Harmon fans and even Serial listeners (yes, Slate actually has a podcast purely about Serial). You might well say that’s perfectly fine – the BBC shouldn’t even attempt to make such specialised and targeted shows.
And you might say that BBC Radio has been with us for almost a century, and it would be foolish to bet against them. I’d agree with that. BBC Radio will have a long half-life; but it will not last forever. Smartphones, ubiquitous mobile data, and a limitless supply of podcasters willing to work for free make it practically inevitable that the BBC’s audience be whittled away one listener at a time, as they discover the one perfect podcast that speaks precisely to their interests – a podcast that the BBC could never justify producing – and then they discover another. And another. And another.
Incidentally, if you’re listening to Serial, you must listen to this parody.