23 January 2006

By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent


Radio presenter Chris Moyles

Radio 1’s Chris Moyles is the BBC’s most popular podcast

Suddenly, it seems, podcasting has broken through to a new level.

The BBC’s first published podcast chart reveals that the Radio Four Today programme’s main interview was downloaded more than 400,000 times last month, second only, among BBC programmes, to Radio One’s Chris Moyles Show.

But the real change is in the way other media groups are now using podcasts to challenge broadcasters such as the BBC.

Last week, The Guardian newspaper announced that the Ricky Gervais Show had been downloaded over two million times, having already topped the Apple iTunes download charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Now other media owners are racing to get into the audio business.

After the Gervais podcast on Guardian Unlimited, the Conservative leader David Cameron popped up in the new Daily Telegraph podcast. Two days later, it was Tony Blair, podcast by The Sun, which said it was as significant a breakthrough as the first radio broadcast by a prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald in 1924.

Then last Friday, Jon Snow appeared in Channel 4’s first podcast, a documentary about cannabis and the young.

Print radio

The first sign of the potential for other media to get podcasting emerged two months ago.

We have a role in helping our audience find the best of what’s out there and we also have an opportunity to identify the rising talent emerging through podcasts

Simon Nelson, BBC Radio and Music

“What actually happened is that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant approached us to say they wanted to explore the idea of doing a show through our website” said Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited.

“I think they wanted to work in a format where they were in complete control of what they put out, but also to put it out to a wider audience.”

The Daily Telegraph has gone further, appointing its own podcast editor, Guy Ruddle. He arrived from the BBC earlier this month and says you can now listen to the Telegraph’s business news and sports reports, as an alternative to Today’s.

“We are the only newspaper that is doing anything vaguely resembling a daily news bulletin, with news and comment and analysis,” he said.

“That to me is the future – the ability to give people an audio version of the newspaper and, eventually, for them to be able to scroll through items and pick out bits they want to listen to or not.”

The Telegraph also features its own columnists, some reading out their own words, which can sound a bit stilted at the moment, something Guy Ruddle, as a professional broadcaster, will no doubt sort out.

But on Friday, it had something more exciting, the first broadcast interview with one of its columnists, the Olympic and trans-Atlantic rower James Cracknell. It caught the moment as he reached land with broadcaster Ben Fogle, who had nearly drowned when their boat capsized.

Radio role

Is the move into podcasts by rival media a threat to radio broadcasters? Simon Nelson, head of new media for BBC Radio and Music, believes not.

A new video iPod

Digital music players such as the iPod are used to listen to podcasts

He says the huge demand for podcasts, including BBC programmes such as From Our Own Correspondent and In Our Time, shows the enduring relevance of radio in the digital world, wherever it comes from.

“I think we see our role as trying to stimulate that, trying to help people find the ways to do it simply,” he said.

“We have a role in helping our audience find the best of what’s out there and we also have an opportunity to identify the rising talent emerging through podcasts.”

The Ricky Gervais Show has demonstrated the potential, and the threat, for broadcasters. Gervais and Merchant were previously on the commercial radio station XFM and have also broadcast for Radio 2.

Since they started the online show for The Guardian, has proved a runaway hit for the newspaper.

“The scale of it has certainly surprised us,” said Ms Bell, “and opens up lots of possibilities for non-traditional broadcasters to get into an area that perhaps they wouldn’t have thought about.”

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