Apple Podcasts Charts

It appears that Apple’s podcast charts are somewhat broken. Or specifically, they had been broken for a period of time over the weekend while Apple perhaps tried a new algorithm to rank podcasts.

Behind the scenes we know that various bad actors have been attempting to game the system. In the same way that you can buy Twitter or Instagram followers, you can pay some dubious third party to push your podcast up the Apple chart. This might get your podcast, briefly, towards the top of the charts allowing you to boast that you are/were the number one podcast in whatever category. But those listeners aren’t real, and your podcast is likely to fall away pretty quickly again too.

In the last couple of days, a number of people have been asking big questions surrounding this.

Both are well worth reading, and here’s my take on the situation.

Let’s start with the hypothesis that charts are a good thing. They inform users about what podcasts other people are listening to, and they let everyone in the podcasting community see how their podcasts are doing against their peers.

Except that we know that Apple’s charts have never actually shown either of those things.

For the most part, a chart that simply displays who gets the most downloads/listens would be incredibly static. The same big podcasts would probably appear in roughly the same order week after week, month after month. Maybe one would drop down a little when it was between series, and occasionally a new hit would emerge. But basically the chart would be static. For a chart to be interesting, there has to be some dynamism.

From a consumer perspective, a mostly static chart is boring. The consumer is never going to find new podcasts to listen to, and so they’re unlikely to even have further looks at the chart once they’ve realised that there are few changes between editions.

Apple currently uses some kind of ‘new subscriber’ algorithm to determine its charts. Recency counts for more than long-term listeners or subscribers. (Other digital charts do similar things. The bestsellers on Amazon are collated on perhaps an hourly basis to keep things interesting there too.)

The other key part of this is that Apple is seeing its position in the podcast ecosystem decline over time. Spotify, for example, is opening up significantly to podcasts – no longer caching them and properly serving them. They’ve just opened their platform up to everyone and they’ve become a fast growing #2 platform. They’re still a long way behind Apple, but they have an upward trajectory.

And Google is ‘doing’ podcasts more seriously now. They’ve not quite got around to pre-installing a true standalone podcast app on every Android device as Apple does. But they are moving in the right direction, and with the emergence of ‘Voice,’ podcasts become ever more important.

Both of these should mean that we’ll see a broader platform of iOS and Android devices being used to listen, more closely reflecting the true device ownership model. (Incidentally, that might also mean a change in the kinds of podcasts that are being made. Think beyond someone who can happily spend $/£1000 on a smartphone.)

Apple currently accounts for perhaps 55%-60% of the podcast market today, but that’s already considerably down from where it once was. To be clear, it’s not because Apple users are not listening any more, but there’s more diversity in the podcast platforms available, and in the main because Android was – and still is – under-represented.

Is Apple Still Important?

If we assume that Apple’s market dominance of podcasts is diminishing – albeit from a lofty position – then we also need to consider that any chart created by Apple is not actually representative of the whole podcast ecosystem. It’s entirely likely that we’ll see their share fall to below 50% in many markets. 

In some countries, like India, the iPhone represents a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone user-base. So in fact, while Apple’s podcast chart for India might be indicative of podcast listening there, it might also be very unrepresentative, perhaps more describing what only the very wealthiest couple of percent of Indians are truly listening to.

If we’re going to have a chart, then it needs to be wider than simply Apple’s share of the ecosystem, otherwise it’s going to be biased towards the people who own iPhones. And newsflash – that’s really not the population at large.

And then we run into the problem of how charts are created anyway.

How should a podcast chart be measured?

There are two major ways to find out what’s happening in a population: census or survey.

Apple has effectively been providing a census of its users. In other words, it has data that shows how all Apple users are consuming podcasts. A census sets out to measure everyone within a specific population. The results should be very accurate, but it can be hard to collate all that data, particularly if it comes from multiple places. It’s not for nothing that the UK population census only takes place every ten years. It’s a big and expensive undertaking.

Under the census chart model, you need to get accurate data from everywhere. In the podcast world, this means either approaching every podcast creator and asking for their server data, or approaching every podcatcher (i.e. all the podcast apps), and getting data from them. Neither is likely to be achievable. Herding cats comes to mind.

In the US, Podtrac has attempted the census method, embedding code into feeds to route requests through its servers. But only podcasts who choose to be measured on this system have their data captured. That tends to mean big US groups. But even then, there are some missing, choosing not to take part. Non-US podcast creators that might have sizeable listener-ships within the US are often missing too. It is by no means a complete picture of the US podcast listening market.

For a chart like this to work and for it to be truly representative, you need everybody on board, agreeing to a methodology, and being able to adopt the technical requirements that lead to measurement. It only takes one major group to choose not to play, and the chart is wrong.

Meanwhile, other tracking ideas are being posited using pingbacks, but they can be defeated by podcatchers that don’t play ball, and again require many parties to get on board.

Don’t forget that different groups very different business models. So they might not need to agree to a central methodology.

The other key way to measure is the survey option. In this case you use a subset of the podcast listening population, and get them to agree to being essentially monitored to see what they listen to. Companies like ComScore do this in the digital realm, while broadcast ratings bodies commonly use this kind of measurement to deliver television and radio ratings. 

As long as your sample is big enough, then you can say with a high degree of certainty that your results are fairly accurate. 

This would seem to be the more achievable model. You don’t need the direct participation of either podcast creators or podcatcher apps. Indeed, anyone could do it.

But of course there are problems. There’s the cost for starters. You will need to employ a company or people to do this for you. Then you need to persuade members of the public to agree to let them be measured. They may well say yes, but they’re also quite likely to want some kind of incentive: cash or other benefits in kind.

Next there’s the size of the sample, and the level to which you want to measure it. If there were only two podcasts in the world, then perhaps a 1,000 people might be enough to say with a high degree of confidence, how much one podcast was being listened to versus another (In fact, the sample required would depend on how similar or different their listening was. If the podcasts are very closely matched, then you need a bigger sample). Political polling often works like this, and of course it’s easier to poll when there are only two parties than when there are three, four or more. If the polls are tight, then a bigger sample is needed to determine who is actually ahead.

In a world where there are hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of podcasts, then depending on how far down the list you want to accurately measure them, your sample gets bigger and bigger. In the UK, to measure broadcast television, a sample of around 5,500 homes are measured. That means that the top performing programmes are quite accurately measured. But I wouldn’t trust the ratings for a programme that airs on a smaller non-mainstream channel. Indeed those channels don’t use programme ratings themselves so much as overall channel shares. The sample size for a given programme might be based on just a couple of viewers and that’s just not statistically significant. In other words, the census model breaks down when you stray beyond the bigger podcast, unless your sample grows quite substantially.

It’s also worth saying that you can take a combination of census and survey to create a hybrid model for your chart. You collect data from those podcast creators who agree to it, and mix it with survey data for a wider picture of the overall market. UKOM, the UK digital’s audience measurement body uses a hybrid approach. 

Before we settle on a methodology for our post-Apple chart, we need to answer another question.

What are podcast charts for anyway?

Charts have historically been about both capturing a cultural moment, but are also an exercise in marketing. When we look at music, film, book or game charts, it tends to be a combination of them both.

We might use the charts to measure the taste of the nation. Lots of people are loving this song, or seeing that film. That’s really useful to know. And what’s more, if lots of people are loving that film, maybe I should see it? For a recent case in point, see The Greatest Showman, which spent a remarkable 18 weeks in the UK Box Office Top Ten. While a lot of that was delivered by repeat viewing, and both word of mouth and wider marketing helped, the fact that the film reached number one in its sixth week of release is unprecedented in recent times. The film’s position in the box office top ten became part of its story and drove people to the film.

These days the UK Top 40 isn’t as important as it once was, but when Ed Sheeran managed to get 16 songs into the top 20 at the same time, it became a story. 

Beyond that, they’re also essential barometers for the industry. While some players might attempt to juice the system – releasing films earlier in the week to create long opening weekends, or in times past, releasing multiple remixes of songs to keep fans buying and keeping a song at number one – they inform creators about what’s selling and what perhaps they should be making in future. 

And if everyone else is reading a book, seeing a film or watching a TV series, we can feel that we’re missing a part of the cultural zeitgeist if we’re not doing the same. 

In the podcast world, charts have been designed in part with both of these things in mind. How is my football podcast doing against my competitors? And what should a listener choose to listen to next?

In fact, Apple’s iteration of a chart was pretty bad at the former. A new podcast might get a blast of heat as it gains traction amongst listeners, but because the chart was skewed towards new subscribers, you couldn’t really tell how well your podcast was doing against a competitors. Even today, many podcast creators spend a lot of time listening out for snippets of information dropped at conferences or in published articles, because there’s no real information out there in the public domain. “Serial got how many downloads with it’s first episode?”

It’s also not clear that podcast charts have really helped listeners to discover new podcasts. Older podcasts with big listenerships might not sit high up the rankings, hiding their popularity, while newer podcasts might flame brightly in the charts. Mid-size podcasts might be hidden altogether. 

Almost certainly the most powerful points of discovery for podcasts are those editorially picked slots in apps like Apple Podcasts, and word of mouth. (The other key way to let listeners discover your new podcast is of course, to pop it into the feed of one of your already popular podcasts. But only the bigger players can do that.)

So what should a podcast chart look like?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to this. For many in the podcast creation community, an accurate set of metrics that lets one company compare its performance with other companies’ would be very useful. That’s the kind of information that might help advertisers. While undoubtedly advertisers are getting this information behind closed doors, there are still question marks about how one company measures its numbers compared with another’s.

You only have to look at the various different ways ‘video views’ have been measured by say Facebook and YouTube. Facebook has 3-second, 10-second and 100% metrics; YouTube prefers 30-second counts, but also provides metrics on 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% completed videos. How do you compare video performance on the two platforms?

A podcast chart would create a comparative measure between different companies; the measurement methodology would be consistent.

But this community probably just wants a straight count. How many downloads (or better yet, listens), did every podcast get in a particular week or month? Just rank them all, with rankings for sub-categories. The data might form the basis of a generally used currency by which podcasts are monetised.

From a listener’s perspective, a straight ranking like that would not be useful. I suspect that a methodology closer to Apple’s is more interesting. The UK music charts have had to fiddle with their methodology quite a lot since subscription streaming services like Spotify came along and were added into the mix. Because Spotify is both used to listen to new music (akin to buying new tracks), and as your music collection (akin to listening to your older music) then they face the ‘problem’ of older music regularly cropping up in the charts because it’s Christmas or whatever.

In truth, both an overall chart and a chart of ‘breaking podcasts’ would probably both be of interest to a wider community of listeners. If we posit that the purpose of the chart is in part to aid discovery of new podcasts, then we need to consider both bigger and newer podcasts.

There needs to be two charts.

So we’re really talking about two key issues within the podcast industry – measurement and discovery. Measurement is key for trading and selling advertising, while discovery is still one of the biggest issues that is limiting podcast growth.

While discussions are ongoing in many marketplaces, most territories do  not have a consistent agreement about how podcasts should be measured (Sweden is perhaps the exception).

In the meantime, podcast discovery is still akin to going to a bookshop that for some reason only has about half a dozen books out on display, with the remainder neatly lined up with only their spines showing from the shelves. Meanwhile a potential reader who doesn’t know much about books, but knows they want something to take on holiday, is being told: “Go on! We’ve got thousands of books in here. Just pick a couple!”

The bookshop’s top ten, meanwhile, is made up of The Bible, The Highway Code, a dictionary and The Da Vinci Code amongst others. All indubitably best-sellers, but…

Apple’s charts are flawed today, and they’re going to continue to be flawed. They’re neither fish nor fowl, and that’s not altogether their fault.

We probably need a couple of different types of charts, but precisely who does the measurement and what kind of measurement takes place is not a simple question to answer. But we probably do need to answer that question.

Fear by Bob Woodward and The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Like many political watchers, I’ve been equally appalled and yet addicted to watching what is going on currently in US politics.

Right now there’s the dismal spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh being elected onto the US Supreme Court despite a number of serious accusations being made against him, few of which are truly being taken seriously. In the meantime, there’s Trump mocking the accuser at a rally (and then denying it despite all evidence to the contrary).

These two books, in their own separate ways, describe in some detail the ineptness of the Trump administration, the lack of focus and the general 

Bob Woodward’s Fear is currently riding high in the bestseller lists and for good reason. Woodward has written about presidents all the way back to Nixon, but this feels more urgent than probably any of those other titles. He has a very measured tone, rarely inserting his own authorial voice into the narrative he’s telling. Instead, he relies on first hand testimony of many people, usually speaking anonymously.

Woodward’s narrative is direct and steady. He paints Trump in a similar light to others – notably Michael Woolf in Fire and Fury earlier this year – in that Trump is like a toddler in the way he can be distracted and then completely forget about something. The book opens with an official simply lifting a letter that would start a trade war with South Korea and jeopardise US military intelligence in the region. Once the letter has gone (and Trump does love signing things), the President forgets about it. At least until someone else brings it up – perhaps either on Fox News, to which he’s addicted and gets much of his information, or from someone like Peter Navarro, an economist for whom, almost uniquely, trade is considered bad. 

The book repeatedly explores the lack of a basic understanding of how modern businesses are driven, how having a trade deficit with a country isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and just really simple things like how modern supply chains work. Trump, as we know, is obsessed with things like steel production, and has started a trade war with China that has almost instantly required the government to bail out farmers who have been hit by tit-for-tat tariffs.

The tone all the way through the book is measured and never breathless. And that just makes it all the more vital. 

Meanwhile the always very readable Michael Lewis has The Fifth Risk, which examines the workings of the US government following the Trump victory. He zooms in on a handful of departments, digging into the background stories of some of the people who work there, and explaining what the departments do, and why their work is often vital but undervalued. 

On more that one occasion, he relates stories of people who were being loaned government money without realising that it the government that was lending the money, as the money is often distributed via local banks. 

There are horrifying stories of the Trump’s dreadful transition team, coming into the various departments weeks or months after the election, rather than the next day, not being interested in what those departments actually did, and generally being very unsuited to the roles. 

It seems that another failing of US government is the level to which so many jobs are political appointees. Trump has been singularly bad at filling these vacancies, and when he does, they’re often people who have no interest in the subject at hand. Sometimes this is because they genuinely don’t know what the department does! You would think a quick search of Wikipedia might be in order before you enter the building.

In the meantime, these apparatchiks wander around getting government employees to stop using the term climate change.

Perhaps worse are people who do know what the department does, but in whose outside interests, a level of dismantling works in their favour. A case in point is Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather, the private weather provider. Trump nominated him to oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who run the US National Weather Service. AccuWeather uses data paid for and provided by the National Weather Service to bolster its forecasts. Yet it has fought hard to prevent the US Government widely publishing that weather themselves. There is no National Weather Service app, and that is no coincidence. AccuWeather’s app is very popular and delivers significant advertising revenue. Myers has fought hard to prevent that data being made widely available despite the fact that he personally benefits.

The books is full of stories like this. Lewis finds people who are working in the government sector, often for less money than they could earn elsewhere, because they believe they have a civic duty. How much is all of this going to be undone by Trump? Time will only tell. 

This was another book that was clearly published in a rush, and as such, it perhaps doesn’t hang together as much as some of his other books. And yet, the subject matter is probably much more important than that of his other books. Lasting damage could be done to millions of Americans by the actions of a few.

What both books make really clear is that there are a lot of people with no experience, no knowledge, and no wish to actually learn anything new. Being informed is somehow not a good trait within this administration. 

Note: Any spammy off-topic comments will be deleted. Particularly those from people who’ve never previously commented on my website and those which talk in condescending terms about the victims of sexual attacks. My blog. My rules.

Love is Blind by William Boyd

A new William Boyd novel is always to be welcomed, and as with the superb Sweet Caress from 2015, Boyd has returned to a familiar “whole life” novel. (A recent Guardian piece by Boyd explores that challenges of this form, and notes how relatively few novels of this type there are).

Love is Blind tells the story of Brodie Moncur, the son of a fire and brimstone Scottish clergyman, who takes up the trade of piano tuner for a piano building business in Edinburgh. Soon enough Brodie moves on to a late 19th century Paris where the young, free and single man attempts to support the growth of the piano business by sponsoring performers to use their pianos.

In this way he runs into the ‘Irish Liszt’, John Kilbarron and his business partner brother Malachi. He also meets the Russian opera singer Lika. And so begins a tale that wanders across turn of the century Europe and further beyond. 

Whole life novels like this need to condense a lot into a few pages, meaning that the plot tends to move along apace. Yet, we still need to time to get a feeling for the place and the period that we’re in. Boyd does this comfortably – his siblings trapped in the family home with their overbearing father ruling the roost; Edinburgh, Paris and Nice as the horse seems to be slowly beginning to make way for the motor car; and the high society of ‘Piter’ – St Petersburg.

The narrative keeps moving forward, and the characters feel real enough – big and bold though they may be at times. While perhaps not quite as strong as Sweet Caress which was a remarkable novel presenting us with photographs ‘taken’ by its protagonist, I was nonetheless entranced by this and when the end was reached, could have stayed on for much more.

Reading this also made me realise that I really do need to return to The New Confessions, Boyd’s 1987 novel that I first read around that time. My paperback edition is around somewhere…

Prior to reading Love is Blind, I finally caught up with Boyd’s recent collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. While some characters are shared between stories, these are a series of mostly unrelated contemporary tales. I especially enjoyed the epistolary story of letters from an increasingly exasperated producer attempting to get a film off the ground. The story of the title is more of a novella, and is easily the best of the bunch as we follow Bethany through her early life and loves, and a series of jobs largely organised by her mother. The final story has the best hook, yet is perhaps the weakest and seems to stop a little too abruptly. But the short story seems to be a neglected medium – fit only for 15 minute slots on Radio 4, and to pad out seasonal editions of broadsheet newspapers when popular crime writers are commissioned to pen a festive whodunit. You won’t spend long on these tales, but they’re fun while you’re there.

Sporting Disdain

There’s a major sporting occasion that has been getting underway this week and climaxes at the weekend. It’s in Europe this year, and it features teams of individuals who normally spend much of their time competing against one another in an individual capacity.

I’m very excited about it.

Yes, it’s the UCI Cycling Road Championships in Innsbruck. 

What? You didn’t think I was talking about the Ryder Cup did you? Because somehow, the Ryder Cup is the major sports competition that leaves me coldest of all sports competitions.

I can’t really easily rationalise my antipathy. It’s no use saying that it’s a competition played by millionaires, because so is top-flight football. Or tennis. And it’s not just because I’m not really interested in golf. The sport in itself is harmless even if I’m not a fan.

In many respects it should be a go-to competition for me. It’s Europe v the US, and that’s an interesting match-up. Unlike some people in this country, I do feel European. 

I suspect part of my problem is the corporatisation of the competition (I realise that I’ve just made up a word). The high end sponsors; the ludicrous clothing (that applies to all golf clothing incidentally); the sheer number of chefs v cooks (more anon); the interminable selection criteria discussions; and the bonhomie which I just find a bit false. (I agree that many of these are also applicable to every British and Irish Lions Tour).

Re the cooks v chefs points. Can we just all agree that it’s ridiculous that a team of twelve should require both a captain, and no fewer than five further vice-captains? These all for players each of who already have trusted lieutenants in their caddies. As far as I can see, it just means we can see pictures of the various captains swanning around on their golf carts.

I think my overall disdain comes from this being a sport that in the main is not a team game. These players compete week in and week out against one another regardless of nationality. Then the Ryder Cup comes around every couple of years and everyone gets excited.

But my disdain is also for golf in general. I can’t get excited for a sport that’s done its level best to remove itself from free-to-air television screens while at the same time, suffering a precipitous fall in participation. It has taken a money-at-all-cost approach to developing the sport, meaning that fewer people play. (See also cricket.) Only today, Sky announced an extension in the UK of its coverage of the European Tour including the Ryder Cup. In the meantime, there is precisely zero live golf on free-to-air television with the sole exception of the final two days of The Masters on the BBC.

It’s not just the Ryder Cup. I have similar issues with the Davis Cup in tennis. It’s hard to explain, but I find the attendant jingoism unsavoury – at the same time generally enjoying other international team sports like football or rugby.

It’s not as though I like every sport in the world. I’m indifferent to most fighting sports, and despite once enjoying it a bit, now find F1 tedious in the extreme. Many Olympic sports, I’ll only spend time with at the Olympics. But for many other sports, I can at least enjoy them if presented with them, despite not actively seeking them out. Yet somehow the Ryder Cup jars with me. I will actively avoid watching it.

In the meantime over on the BBC and Eurosport, I shall be eagerly watching to see who becomes the Cycling World Champion in the men’s and women’s races on a hilly Innsbruck course. That’s my weekend sorted!

A Single Speed Conversion

You know how sometimes you’re idly looking for something on eBay, and you don’t find it. So you create a saved search for it on the off-chance that it comes up the future. Then you sit back and forget about it. Until…

…One day an email drops into your inbox. The thing you were looking for is there. And it’s a reasonable price. You put a bid in, and wait.

That’s how I found myself, last December, heading out to St Neots in Cambridgeshire one Saturday morning. I was picking up a bicycle I’d bought cheaply. A Falcon Racing Cycle.

Falcon is an old British racing cycling brand, although I wouldn’t kid myself that this particular model is anything special. The reason I know this is because I used to own one of these bikes when they were new – back in the mid to late eighties. It was relatively cheap, and bought from a local bike shop after weeks of seeing it in the window. More about the bike another time, but you should know that I was crestfallen when it was stolen.

So now I had a replacement of the same bike. Exactly what I’d do with the bike I wasn’t sure. It’s in decent nick, but I couldn’t honestly say that I needed it.

Which leads me to the question I sort of posed at the top. Should I convert this to a single speed? 

I’ve only ever ridden a single speed at a velodrome, and it should be said immediately that I live on a hill. But of late, I’ve become more inclined to try a single speed.

What’s more, since I bought the bike 10 months ago, I’ve done nothing with it. I’ve not ridden it any further than when I was collecting it. So it would seem like a good candidate. I can remove a lot of the bits and pieces on the bike. Overhaul what remains, and create a town bike. That was vaguely the idea in the first place – a bike that I could run to the shops on. One I wouldn’t be crestfallen if it was stolen; although I wouldn’t be happy.

On the other hand, converting old bikes into fixed gear bikes is incredibly hackneyed. Everywhere you look in the city, there’s an old Peugeot now running as a single speed bike.

Should I do it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Will I do it? I actually might.

Chris Evans

Virgin Radio

At this point, everyone in the industry and beyond has written about the seismic UK radio events of yesterday, when Chris Evans, presenter of the biggest breakfast show in the country, on the biggest radio station in the country, decided to leave after 8 years on breakfast there. Instead, he will take up the mantle at Virgin Radio, a station so small that the smallest shows on the Radio 2 network outperform it.

I’d encourage you to go away and read Matt Deegan, Phil Riley and John Myers.

I’ll try not to duplicate what they’ve said here, although some of that will be unavoidable. 

Let’s take it in steps.

A Massive Gambit for News UK

This is unquestionably an enormous play from the UK’s (distant) 3rd biggest commercial radio group. News UK bought Wireless Group back in 2016. The group had just made bold expansion plans when it launched a number of services on the new second national digital multiplex earlier that year. They added TalkSport 2, TalkRadio and Virgin Radio.

[It bears repeating that although this whole story is being painted as a return to Virgin Radio, the Virgin Radio that launched in 2016 is a different beast to the one that I knew so well and launched in 1993. Virgin properties that aren’t wholly owned by Virgin Group (i.e. most of them) are really licencing deals. When new owners came in to buy what was then Virgin Radio in 2008, they decided not to continue the licencing arrangement and the station was renamed Absolute Radio. There are still members of staff in what is now Bauer’s London HQ that worked with Chris back in his previous Virgin Radio stint.]

Since those new stations launched, I think it’s fair to say that they’ve struggled to achieve a real impact. Launching speech stations isn’t easy or cheap – and you need listeners to complete the circle.  The new Virgin Radio struggled to cut through, given that it didn’t have the coverage or the marketing budgets of competitor stations. The growth of digital services has meant more competition in every market segment. Furthermore, these new services were exclusively digital, and a nice FM backbone to a station’s output is still very important if you want to achieve big numbers early on.

Virgin Radio did try to do a few things differently though. They put women in key timeslots which somehow still isn’t as common as it should be. And they hired some interesting and otherwise overlooked presenters, often dovetailing their output with stints on TalkRadio.

Plus News UK’s ownership allowed for promotional crossover. Virgin Radio and TalkSport were regularly advertised and promoted in papers like The Times and The Sun. That said, I’ve said before, I found the creative tired and repetitive, so I’m not sure it has worked as well as the media value might indicate.

The question then is whether that 2016 investment in new services was paying off. So, from press reports, this seems to be Rebekah Brooks’ big play. The News UK exec is definitely swinging big here.

Phil Riley has run the numbers and reckons that Evans may be being paid as much as £3m a year (he was on around £1.6m at the BBC). But you have to add to that other programming costs, and importantly, a significant marketing campaign. Plus you’re going to need other big talent to back Evans up.

The commercial part of this is actually the trickiest bit. Between them, Global and Bauer dominate UK radio. And that means that they manage to take more than their “fair share” of commercial revenues. Wireless Group has its own commercial team, and they can obviously play to their speech radio strengths, but they are at a natural disadvantage. (Smaller commercial groups are at an even worse disadvantage, which is partly why it made sense for Bauer to buy the independently owned Jazz FM recently.)

Now it’s fair to say that prior to being bought by Bauer, Virgin and then Absolute Radio both had the same issue. And when Chris Evans was on breakfast on Virgin, the station was absolutely able to charge, and achieve, a premium. Brands flocked to be part of his show, and breakfast promotions were incredibly expensive and therefore profitable with an audience across the station of around 3m.

But since then, there has been more consolidation in the industry, and getting from 400,000 to 3m seems a colossal ask.

Make no doubt, this is a major play. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens.

Chris Evans

A big question is why is Evans making this move. It’s undoubtedly bold. He is currently enormously comfortable with the biggest show on UK radio. But perhaps he’s too comfortable?

The whole Top Gear presenting thing didn’t work out, and with the publication of BBC pay levels getting enormous scrutiny, perhaps he just didn’t want the hassle. (It’s perfectly arguable that Eddie Mair made the same decision when he recently decided to leave Radio 4 for LBC.) What you can be certain of is that it’s unimaginable that Terry Wogan would have done such a thing.

But a result of this is that Evans gets a massive pay bump, and less public scrutiny. He will certainly be the best paid person in UK radio.

And never underestimate his need for a challenge. I suspect that his time at Radio 2, at least after the initial period, has been like water off a duck’s back for him. However, this is going to be harder and there’s going to be pressure on him to bring results. But Evans has made a career of doing big and bold things.

He shook up Radio 1, then left when the BBC wouldn’t give him Friday’s off for his Channel 4 show TFI Friday.

When he moved to Virgin Radio, he put together a bid to buy the station, grabbing it from under the noses of another bid from Capital. Then, having sold his equity in it for a massive profit, he was fired from Virgin and lost a massive court case (and a significant amount more money).

While this is not as wild and reckless as some of those other moves, it remains a big move.

Radio 2

How will all of this affect Radio 2? In some respects, nothing will happen. Radio 2 will get a new breakfast presenter and they’ll probably continue to do well. That’s kind of how Radio 2 works.

Who exactly that will be remains to be seen, but Sara Cox is clearly the safest bet, and is the bookies’ favourite. Another option might be to bring forward to breakfast the new Simon Mayo and Jo Wiley show, but I can’t see the field being any wider than that.

Whatever the result, this is a rare opportunity for the station to put more women into daytime – something it has been rightly criticised for lacking.

Digital

One thing that makes this move seem especially interesting is the fact that Virgin Radio is digital only.  The single biggest digital-only radio station is 6 Music with 2.4m listeners, and that’s still a growing station, having taken years to reach that level.

Even with a big name joining them, I think that’s a tall ask, and the growth of the station might take longer than News UK might hope. 

One of the biggest challenges with breakfast is listening during the commute. DAB’s biggest weakness remains the in-car market. While new cars tend to come with DAB, older ones mostly don’t have it, and so in the car your choice tends to be more limited. Listening to Evans isn’t always going to be easy.

The D2 multiplex which Virgin Radio sits on also has less coverage nationally that the first multiplex, and less too than the BBC. Arqiva recently announced that they were extending it, but Radio 2 is much easier to hear digitally in more remote locations than Virgin Radio is.

Ofcom recently closed a consultation about Localness on local radio. That has some really interesting potential ramifications. It could lead to stations like Capital and Heart being able to network most of their output nationally, including their breakfast shows. Currently, there are much tighter rules that limit the number of hours that can be networked and when those hours can be.

Would Wireless Group rebrand its local FM stations as “Virgin Radio” and put Evans across them? Even if they didn’t rebrand every service, they could still run a networked Chris Evans Breakfast Show across those services. That would give the show an FM presence and a bigger breakfast show to sell to advertisers. It’s a thought.

Conclusion

This is by no means a slam dunk from News UK’s perspective. They’re giving their whole radio business a massive shot in the arm. I suspect that being a distant third in the radio market is not somewhere that Rupert Murdoch likes to be. But while the station will achieve significant growth off the back of this, whether the numbers will work in the medium or long term remains very much to be seen.

Note: I’ve been spending a few days away this week with some friends. The place we’re in has a pool and so we were hunting around for inflatables. Wouldn’t you know that one of my friends has been hanging onto Virgin Radio branded beach balls for more than ten years!

Cycle to Work

This is a quick video I shot the other day of my ride to work. Shot with a cheap GoPro Hero 4 Session, I’ve run it through Microsoft’s Hyperlapse application.

I’m not sure that app gets an awful lot of love, despite being really useful for making this kind of video. The stabilisation is immense, even if it can require a reasonable amount of computing power to do a good job.

The ride is about an hour condensed down to two and a half minutes. You’ll note that the first third and the last third are actually pretty good cycling paths and back roads. Only the middle section, from Wood Green to Finsbury Park, is on a main road.

The music is some free music from YouTube.

The One Podcast to Rule Them All

Tom Webster of Edison Research wrote a very good piece on Medium recently to back up a presentation he recently gave at the Podcast Movement conference in the US. The main theme of his piece was about getting to 100 million weekly (i.e. regular) podcast listeners in the US. Currently they are at 48 million weekly listeners, so there are another 52 million to go.

Using Edison’s research, he shows that while 17% of Americans listen weekly, 64% have heard the term. And of that group, 37% of them have never tried to listen. His thesis is that to get to 100 million, we need to understand what is stopping people who have learnt about podcasting as a thing actually going further and listening to one. He has a great video of real people explaining why they’ve not bothered, and of course there are lots of good reasons for that.

Webster’s thesis is that if the right show comes along then people will work out how to get to a podcast. He uses the example of Netflix. They didn’t go around explaining how the Netflix app on people’s new smart TVs or Roku boxes work. Instead they made and marketed Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. People wanted to see those shows and they worked out for themselves how to get to them. Around 50% of US homes now have Netflix, so something is working there.


As an aside, it’s interesting to note that massively popular video game Fortnite has just been released for Android devices. Unlike most apps, the game’s creators Epic have sidestepped Google’s Play Store. They want you to download it direct from their site. In order to do this, users have to jump through some hoops  to allow “sideloading” of the app to their devices. Epic is doing this because they create a direct relationship with games players, and more significantly, they don’t have to pay a 30% commission to Google on every in-game transaction. Epic’s gamble is that players are so keen to get the game that they will educate themselves about how to get it for their device. This is almost certainly true, and backs up Webster’s thesis.


One really good point Webster makes is that the top performing content in the podcast landscape being different to, say, the TV landscape. He shows a screengrab of the iTunes top podcasts which are full of public media and highbrow programmes: The Daily, This American Life, Serial, Pod Save America.

Compare and contrast with the Nielsen top TV ratings which are full of mainstream, or even low-brow shows like The Big Bang Theory, America’s Got Talent, Celebrity Family Feud, Little Big Shots and The Bachelorette.

It’s not that TV doesn’t do lots of highbrow material, but that this isn’t the most viewed. OK, there are comedians in the iTunes charts, and 60 Minutes is in the Nielsen chart, but in general it’s a good point.

Now what I would say is that in recent weeks in the UK, the Love Island: The Morning After podcast did very well, and was fighting tooth and nail with World Cup podcasts when both events were happening. So low-brow can get an outing.

But it does feel, especially in the US, that there’s a certain type of audience that is being super-served, and a mainstream that isn’t.

The question in my mind is whether there could ever be any one “show” that would achieve what is being suggested?

In a recent HotPod, Nicholas Quah wrote a bit of a follow-up to Webster’s piece. He notes that there are at least three potential counter-arguments against the “show” notion: that it’s antithetical to the open publishing medium; that Netflix is a bad example because it controls it own platform centrally, while podcasting can’t; and that there already are shows like Serial, Pod Save America and so on that fill that gap.

Quah isn’t totally sold on any of these counter-arguments, and neither am I. However, I would note that it’s incredibly hard to make a single programme that will cut-through on such a scale that everyone flocks to it. US TV networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying, and mostly failing every year. Reality shows like America’s Got Talent, or sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory are the exception rather than the rule.

And since we don’t have figures from Netflix, we don’t actually know how successful House of Cards or Orange is the New Black actually are. We know that at one time or another they’ve been the single biggest shows on the platform, but as Netflix has grown it has developed a very wide roster of programming. Yes there are the big budget awards contenders like The Crown and House of Cards, but there are also reality shows like Queer Eye, and very mainstream comedies.

Recent research from UK regulator Ofcom found that the single most popular show in the UK on any of the streaming services is Friends which is available on Netflix in the UK (and is on the Comedy Central UK TV channel). It had twice the number of streams of the next biggest programme The Grand Tour from Amazon.

Top 20 SVoD programmes in the UK, Q1 2018

I realise that Friends has many more episodes than many of these other programmes, and the chart is sorted by the total number of streams. But it’s notable that a lot of sitcoms and more popular genre programming take up a number of places in the chart. Oh, and kids programmes sneak in at the bottom of the top 20 too.

I would love to know how many listeners to the Love Island podcast  discovered podcasts for the first time with this show. I suspect that a number of them did, since the TV show was such a big summer hit for ITV2. But there are plenty more fans of the show who did not download the podcast, and still haven’t discovered the medium.

Webster also highlights music as a problem. Podcasts really can’t do music. Yes, you get a few podcasts that include bits of music here and there. But they’re probably not licenced to include that music, even if the artist has actually given them permission. Certainly a podcast that promotes new music is unlikely to feel the long arm of the music industry law because everyone realises it’s better for all concerned to let it slide. But that doesn’t mean that it’s strictly legal.

Webster talks about  use of the word “Subscribe” which I know a lot of people find off-putting. Subscribe does normally entail payment of money. But he mentions YouTube who I think have possibly put that idea to bed a little. Many people happily “Subscribe” to YouTube channels and have come to realise that it doesn’t come with any commitment, financial or otherwise. So I think that’s probably the direction things need to go. I believe that for that reason alone, podcasts can continue to use the “subscribe” terminology.

I absolutely do agree that “Subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts” is awful, and there need to better ways to do it. 

For a lot of podcasts it’s actually more like “Subscribe to us on iTunes, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.” That’s even worse because you’re basically disenfranchising anyone without an iPhone, and spoiler alert, that’s most of the world.

So yes, yes, yes, build a website! There are enough website building platforms out there – often advertising on podcasts – that can help you out and get something simple up and running. If you can navigate making a piece of audio, finding a host, learning about RSS feeds, and making your podcast available in places like the iTunes store, then a basic website is well within your grasp!

I do agree that if you make the right show, people will come looking for it. However you can definitely make that journey easier – producing basic guides to how to get a podcast on your phone, or walking your audience through the steps. Having a web home for your podcast helps – those browser streams do count, and they provide you with search engine juice. Discovery is made a bit easier too. I admit that it’s a particular bugbear of mine when someone’s new podcast is promoted solely with an iTunes link.

Podcasting needs a more diverse range of populist, mainstream shows to become a bigger medium – sport and comedy go some way towards this, but  there is more to be done. I don’t believe it’s a single show, because that’s a nirvana that is closer to a moonshot than a commissioning strategy for a nascent medium.  And of course the journey to getting people to a podcast needs to be made easier.

Eddie Mair on LBC

So now we know. Eddie Mair will be taking over drivetime from Iain Dale on LBC, broadcasting 4-6pm Monday to Friday. He settles into his new desk next Monday, while previous incumbent, Iain Dale, shuffles into the evening 7-10pm slot.

Interestingly, this also means that Mair has the “pleasure” of handing over to Nigel Farage at 6pm which is where Farage’s show lands in the new schedule. I feel certain that there won’t be any droll back-handedness to any of those links. (LBC’s late night presenter Nick Abbot was perhaps the master of these. Years ago, at Virgin Radio, when he had the afternoon slot, his handovers were something to behold.)

I think like many others, I had been perhaps anticipating that Mair might move into breakfast, since Nick Ferrari has been doing breakfast shows for an awfully long time now. But Ferrari’s obviously not ready to stop yet, although this safely lines up Mair for such a time as Ferrari is ready to stop. Drive presenters are regularly first in line for the breakfast throne.

A lot will be made of the fact that Mair is up against his old programme, however it doesn’t necessarily follow that thousands of Radio 4 listeners will follow him over the parapets. 

The chart above shows the overall station overlap between Radio 4 and LBC. It shows that around half a million people listen to both stations in any given week. But, perhaps more relevantly, it means that while 24% of LBC’s audience listen to Radio 4, only 5% of Radio 4’s audience listen to LBC, at least in the course of a week.

There will be a myriad of reasons for that disparity, not least that the stations offer very different things. But in part this can also be explained by the loyalty of listeners to both stations.

That loyalty can be measured in a couple of ways. First of all, there are average hours per listener. According to the latest RAJAR and based on 6 month weighting:

  • Radio 4 listeners spend an average of 11.2 hours per week with the station
  • LBC listeners spend an average of 9.6 hours per week with the station

Both of these are high figures. In other words, listeners to those stations love them and spend many hours with them. Every hour they spend with their preferred station, is an hour they’re not spending with another station.

And then there are station repertoires – the number of different stations a listener hears over the course of a week. The lower the number, the more loyal the listener.

  • Radio 4 – 3.4
  • LBC – 4.1

Radio 4 listeners are slightly more loyal than LBC listeners.

If your station has a high listeners per hour figure and a low repertoire figure, you’re in heaven. Your listeners are going nowhere else, and they’re listening to hours of your station a week!

Finally, to examine the overlap between the stations, you can also do something called a Switching Analysis. RAJAR measures when listeners switch from one station to another, or indeed where they turn on and turn off their radios. 

Looking at the data, there’s nothing very conclusive about Radio 4 and LBC listeners. The biggest gain by Radio 4 from LBC comes at 1pm Monday-Friday, when 4,000 LBC listeners switch over to The World at One, and 3,000 come over from LBC for The Archers instead of staying for, er, Nigel Farage.

On the other hand LBC gains 8,000 listeners from Radio 4 at 9.00am when Start the Week, In Our Time etc begin, tuning for the final hour of Nick Ferrari. A further 4,000 head off to James O’Brien instead of staying on for Woman’s Hour.

But these are all trifling numbers in the scheme of things, when you consider the overall respective stations’ sizes.

And Eddie Mair’s new programme on LBC, and PM on Radio 4 are likely to be very different beasts. The LBC show is twice the duration, although it will have to accommodate 10-12 minutes an hour of advertising. LBC doesn’t anything like the resource the BBC’s news operation has, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be hearing very carefully constructed packages from teams of producers and reporters. On the other hand, Mair will have more time for his interviews, and to engage with listeners.

None of this is to say that there aren’t some enormous fans of Mair, so his personality alone is likely to see some giving him at least a trial. LBC would love to gain a few more Radio 4 listeners, even if only for a couple of hours a day. It will be interesting to see how much marketing Global gives LBC to promote their new signing.

And while that awkward 6pm junction when he’ll have to hand over to Nigel Farage is not perhaps a natural one for Mair, the rest of LBC’s daytime output of James O’Brien in the mornings and Shelagh Fogarty in the afternoons, probably makes Mair a natural fit for the early evenings.

In any event, Mair’s show comes at the start of RAJAR Q4, so don’t expect any reports on the relative audience changes until the end of January next year.


Note #1: I do hope Global does something interesting with Mair and a podcast. Although they publish a number, I’m not sure that they’ve fully adapted to podcasting, still earning a few quid selling complete shows behind a paywall. It’s notable that Mair is going to continue to present the BBC’s Grenfell Inquiry podcast until the end of November.

Note #2: Global’s press site is incredibly hard to navigate. It looks like some junior web designer was allowed to run away with themselves building without any thought as to visitors. It’s user unfriendly. I’m pretty sure it’s not accessible. And criminally, it’s not responsive. Seriously – try looking at it on your phone!

Read more on the challenges faced by LBC on this move over at Earshot, where Steve Martin has written more about the issues.

Sporting Value

The new Premier League season is well under way, and it’s at this time of year that the big sports TV players tend to gather up their marketing spends and splash the cash around, trying to persuade those of us who don’t subscribe that we really should be.

BT Sport has an entertaining video of a small girl taking on heroes, promoting BT Sport’s coverage of the Premier League, Champions’ League, Europa, Moto GP and Rugby Union amongst others. Everyone wants to see Gareth Bale “act” after all.

Meanwhile Sky’s ad features an army of literal “armchair fans” as they settle down for the new season of football. It includes their presenting talent in the ad, including Jeff Stelling who was seemingly contractually obliged to appear in every advert on television during the World Cup.

But there’s a new player on the block. No, I’m not talking about Premier Sports who scooped up the rights to the pre-season ‘tournament’ that literally nobody cares about, the International Champions Cup (Seriously, do you even know who won?).

No, I’m talking about Eleven Sports which has just launched in the UK.

Incidentally, I did look to see if they’d made a TV ad. But if they have, I couldn’t find it, and their YouTube page has a grand total of 13 videos, the newest of which is over a month old, and all of which seem to be about the World Cup.

Eleven Sports is a London based company that was started by the Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani. Hitherto they’ve mostly been active in other territories like Belgium and Poland. But under the management of former BT exec Marc Watson, they’ve been running around snapping up sports rights from under the noses of Sky and BT.

Sky has lost La Liga rights after many years, while BT has lost Serie A games which it has had pretty much since it launched its sports channel. They also grabbed the rights, at least this year, to the PGA Championship which had been floating around for the last year or so after Sky lost them.

These losses come at a time when Sky is about to lose its ATP tennis to Amazon, who have just begun showing this year’s US Open. And the FT reports that BT is going to be losing its NBA and UFC contracts shortly.

The only really good news for the incumbents, BT and Sky, is that as they enter the final year of their current Premier League agreement, their next three year contract starting with the 2019/20 season will be flat in terms of costs. 

But consumers probably need to ask whether they’re getting good value. BT has just put up its fees for BT Sport, while Sky’s went up in April.

Over at Eleven Sports, they’ve done a deal with Facebook to stream some of their output there (Incidentally, when I searched on Facebook for ‘Eleven Sports’ it was the second link I had to click. The first was a Burmese newspaper).

Eleven Sports’ pricing model is either £5.99 a month or £49.99 for the year, and you can get a 7-day trial. But it does all feel a bit rushed. While there is an app, the Android one doesn’t yet have Chromecast (although it’s said to be coming). That’s led to some scathing early reviews. So good luck watching golf balls on a 5″ screen. Watching on mobile is an essential bonus, but that 46″ block of glass in the corner of the living room is much better in overall terms for watching sport on.

In other territories, Eleven Sports has sub-licenced games to other sports providers. Maybe that will happen here, but I can’t see that it’s in either Sky or BT’s interests to give a leg up to a new competitor. So we’ll have to wait and see. Another FT piece says  that neither has bitten yet.

I confess that I’m slightly dubious about how many people will subscribe for La Liga or Serie A. Yes, those leagues have Messi and, now, Ronaldo, but for me they were a nice-to-have bonus. Ex-pat Spaniards and Italians will perhaps seek them out (or use vicarious VPN systems to log into local language feeds). And of course both leagues do have their hardcore fanbases. But is it all sustainable in the longer term?

There must be questions about whether they have overpaid for rights. They claim not to have, and it’s true that Premier League rights increases have left both Sky and BT with less money for other sports. BT is said to be likely to lose both NBA and UFC coverage fairly soon.

On Radio 4’s Media Show last week, Marc Watson talked about how much football Eleven Sports had put out – more than any of the other sports channels. But what is the quality like, and is there an audience for all of it? 

More worryingly a streaming-only option can be a challenging option is significant parts of the UK. I might be able to happily stream 4K* but I know I’m in the relative minority. Streaming is much easier to do when it’s not live. Netflix and the iPlayer team are able to encode very carefully to ensure that the right amount of bandwidth is used on an almost scene-by-scene basis. Fast action requires more data; a slow conversation requires much less. When you move to a live environment, particularly when there is lots of action (so sport by definition), you have the twin problems of needing high bandwidth to capture the action, and the need to encode on the fly in a sub-optimal manner because you’re broadcasting live. Netflix has a whole programme to work with local ISPs around the globe to minimise network traffic, and ensure the best experience for the end user with as little lag as possible. The BBC Research and Development also published a really detailed summary of their 4K trials with Wimbledon and the World Cup over the summer that gets into some of the challenges with live versus pre-recorded. While HD might be easier to do live, the same issues exist.

From an overall consumer’s perspective then, to watch the same sport this season as last season, both BT and Sky have increased their prices well ahead of inflation. Meanwhile they have less sport each, and to get back to the status quo of last season, the consumer needs to spend another £5.99 a month on top of those increases for some sport that they can no longer [easily] watch on their television.

In any event, I’m surprised by how little I’ve heard from Eleven Sports on a consumer basis. While soft-launches are sensible when you’re launching a new streaming platform, the football season is underway now, and they’ve not really started a major consumer marketing proposition that I’ve noticed. Compare and contrast with Amazon’s current marketing blitz for their US Open coverage.

Time will tell.


* I don’t actually, for the good reason that I don’t have a 4K TV.