Thoughts on the BBC’s music podcasts

A couple of months ago the BBC announced that it had reached an agreement that allowed them to use commercial music on their podcasts. This meant that, at last, the BBC could produce music podcasts. The only problem was that music could only be included in the form of clips a maximum of 30 seconds long.

I don’t know what most people think, but that sets off sirens in my head — music podcasts where the music is cut short. Of course, it is much better than having no music at all, so we should be thankful for this.

The original blog post about it was on the BBC’s interesting Radio Labs blog — take a look at it if you’re interested in the future of radio. There, Chris Kimber made a valiant attempt at explaining how and why the new music podcasts would work.

The interesting thing for me is going to be working out what works well as a podcast as opposed to a linear radio broadcast. Our approach generally is to offer “short form audio snacks”, rather than try to replicate the whole programme experience but with short music clips instead of full tracks. All the research we have done into podcasting suggests that people generally want something special and different from normal broadcast radio programmes, and that short is better than long. Most of our speech podcasts are a maximum of 30 mins long, but with these new music podcasts we are aiming for really short form – about ten minutes is what I’m recommending.

This is just a personal preference (and I know I am in a minority), but I have always preferred long things to short things. I prefer 70 minute long albums, and can just about tolerate a 45 minute long album. But I feel offended and ripped off if an album lasts 35 minutes or shorter.

It’s interesting that most of the BBC’s speech podcasts are 30 minutes long maximum. Two of the four BBC speech podcasts I subscribe to typically last 50 minutes. A ten minute long podcast is not normally my cup of tea — I prefer them to be half an hour to an hour long.

So initially I was sceptical about these new music podcasts. But I went ahead and subscribed to the music podcast that appealed to me most — Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone. My fears came true the first time I listened to it. I found it an unsatisfying listen.

I think a lot of this may be to do with the style of the programme. Sadly, I am no longer a tweenager, so I don’t know if the format works better for, for instance, the Radio 1 indie podcast. But I imagine it would. An indie tune doesn’t typically evolve much from beginning to end, and a short thirty second burst is probably enough to get a full flavour of the song.

But the Freak Zone is too analytical and beard-strokey to treat music like this (interestingly, the podcast tends to last half an hour rather than the recommended 10 minutes). The show prides itself on playing the weird and wonderful obscurities that you wouldn’t hear elsewhere. As such, the pieces of music are more deserving of a full hearing, as it were.

In the first episode of the podcast I downloaded, a short clip of ‘Autopsy’ by Fairport Convention was played. After that, Stuart Maconie began talking about the song’s time signatures, wonderful arrangement and lyrics. I just thought to myself, “Yeah, not that I heard much of it.”

Nevertheless, I am now a regular listener of the Freak Zone podcast. Even though the music clips aren’t long enough, the speech content is interesting enough.

The podcast is definitely doing its job, at least as far as the BBC’s hopes go.

There’s a buzz of excitement in interactive teams, and the radio stations too, about how this can get our audio content to people who don’t normally listen, or who would much prefer to listen in their own time, on their own portable media device.

That certainly describes me. Prior to downloading the podcast, I had only ever listened to the programme once or twice (back in the days when it was presented by Bruce Dickinson). The timeslot doesn’t suit me well, and it is true that I probably wouldn’t even listen to the full show even if I could download it (and I’ve never listened to it on Listen Again).

Despite my reservations, the digest podcast suits me very well indeed. Just a shame about the short length of the music clips.

1 comment

  1. I haven’t listened to any of the music podcasts, but it can be quite annoying in a “normal” one when they start talking about a song that they have played but we aren’t allowed to hear!

    Understandable though I suppose from a licensing point of view as companies won’t want to give away their music for free.

    I too prefer the longer podcasts to the short ones, but both have their places – it’s a lot easier to find the time to listen to a 10 minute podcast from Scott Mills for example rather than the 1 hour podcast from Russell Brand. But I know which one I prefer listening to!

    Personally I think I would prefer no music at all to a 30 second clip – especially if the podcast is actually about the songs themselves rather than the music being incidental to the talking…