This past weekend marked the anniversary of the first episode of the globally viral podcast Serial that effectively created the podcasting ‘big bang’. Podcasting is now considered a legitimate form of media that is followed like television is watched, with Serial being its patient zero. The one common denominator in the subsequent podcasts that have carried the podcasting craze is that the nationality of the creators, producers, and presenters is nearly 100 per cent American.
When British radio is so good and when the audience is so obviously there, why has there not been a breakout British podcast?
This is not to say that British podcasts that do exist now aren’t worth listening to. BBC Radio releases many of their shows as podcasts, providing a convenient service for those who love Greg James or Radio 4 but don’t have the time to listen live. Podcasts also work for those who want to try something new but can’t commit to sitting down at a set time and listening without the ability to pause, rewind, or fast forward. Unlike in the United States, British radio has variety, contrasting the pure nerd-bait programs that NPR offers (no shame to these programs, they get plugged in this section often). There’s a culture of listening that the BBC has managed to create in Britain, something that just doesn’t exist in American homes. Britain has great audio production and equally great programming with diverse programs that manage to draw a wide listenership.
This is what makes the non-BBC hole in podcasting so apparent and, more than anything, so confusing. The resources exist and there’s already an audience thanks to the BBC and Serial. Potential podcasters don’t even need to convince anyone that podcasts are worth listening to. Yet, the metaphorical tumbleweed continues to roll across the British independent podcasting plane.
Even as I begin to write about some exceptions to this rule, I realise that many of these pods aren’t really exceptions. No Such Thing As A Fish, one of the most downloaded British podcasts, appears to be its own independent program. But, after looking closer, NSTAAF is run by the QI Elves, run by QI, run by, oh wait: the BBC. Others such as The Gary Neville Podcast and Football Weekly, both in the top 35 podcasts on iTunes’ chart, are run by Sky and The Guardian, respectively. They host wide ranges of podcasts, and therefore are not their own independent productions. The only truly popular independent podcast in Britain is The Bugle, a satirical news pod created by comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver. Unfortunately they only post as and when they have content, which can sometimes be twice in one week, and sometimes only monthly. They only just crack into the iTunes’ top 50 in Britain. By this analysis, there really are no exceptions; simply just the rule.
Some may get to this point and say Serial only launched a year ago. Have we given podcasters enough time for this to be a fair criticism?’ Sure. Many of the American podcasts that road Serial’s coattails merely surged rather than got off the ground in listenership. But several podcasts that launched around the same time as and even months after Serial are ranked much higher than The Bugle and even higher than some of the BBC’s shows.
Despite having little time and small production teams, these American podcasts have managed to become full time careers for those who work on them. Many continue to grow in listener numbers, even as the Serial craze has cooled. It is fair to say that, yes, it may be harsh to demand a monstrous onslaught of original British audio content, but it is indeed fair to ask: why has no one capitalised on this?
It’s time for British producers and radio programmers to start filling that gaping hole in the market. The UK is prepared to download and listen, but it’s still missing its British big bang that it’s audience is clearly ready for.