Tear Down This Wall, Mr. BBC!

When I opened my Overcast podcast app to listen to the latest episode of In Our Time, BBC Radio 4’s excellent show on the history of ideas, I was presented with this:

Screenshot of app showing "Looking for the latest episode? New episodes of In Our Time will now be available first on BBC Sounds for four weeks before other podcast apps."

Release dates matter. If they didn’t, the BBC would just release an entire season of In Our Time all at once, Netflix-style. Releasing them one-by-one on a schedule means you can concentrate attention and focus audience conversation. Delaying the release of key shows to third-party podcast players by four weeks attenuates audience’s attention, and therefore its influence and spread.

Of course, the BBC is hoping everyone will download its app and the audience won’t be divided. That way it can have its cake (more app engagement and captive eyeballs) and eat it. But even if BBC Sounds was as good as other third-party players, this is hard to believe. People aren’t keen on installing new apps willy-nilly, and since BBC Sounds can’t play non-BBC podcasts, you’re asking a lot of listeners to make them juggle two apps.

Sadly, BBC Sounds is not as good as other third-party players. It’s really quite bad. Here’s a list of where it falls down compared to Overcast:

  • No speed control (e.g. 1.2x, 1.5x playback)
  • No smart speed (stripping out silences)
  • No voice boost (enhancing the sound of voices in noisy audio)
  • No ability to save and share audio excerpts
  • No custom intro/outro skipping
  • List of episodes doesn’t show download status
  • Requires registration for use
  • Home screen doesn’t show recently played episodes (instead, it foregrounds stuff I have zero interest in, like music and sports)
  • Can’t select episode description text
  • Can’t download non-BBC podcasts

Spotify – perhaps a closer comparison to BBC Sounds – can’t do all these things, but it can do a lot of them (e.g. speed control, better home screen design, selectable description text, etc.).

The bottom line is that BBC Sounds is vastly inferior to other podcast players. It’s been inferior for years and does not show any sign of getting better quickly. In Our Time has been thrown on the pyre of the BBC’s digital empire-building ambitions in order to juice BBC Sounds’ engagement stats, and it’s yet another sign of how far the BBC’s digital strategy has fallen today.

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