'It will be transformational': Bob Shennan on the BBC Sounds radio revolution

'It will be transformational': Bob Shennan on the BBC Sounds radio revolution

The BBC Sounds app is getting a major roll-out with exclusive content from artists such as Rita Ora. It follows a recent upgrade to the platform to include download functionality and schedules.

As revealed in the latest issue of Music Week, the ‘one-tap’ listening experience for live and on-demand radio, music and podcasts is getting a major push from the BBC. At Tate Modern tonight (October 30), an industry launch event will feature Radio 1’s Annie Mac, alongside performances from Mabel, Craig David, Nile Rodgers & Chic and Tom Grennan.

As anyone who’s tried the early version of the app this summer will know, BBC Sounds feels a lot like a streaming platform. With the BBC retiring its Radio iPlayer app, its replacement is all about driving music and radio discovery - much like the playlists on DSPs such as Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music and Amazon Music.

“We wanted it to be transformational for people's experience of the BBC, their radio consumption, music consumption, podcast consumption and listening habits,” Bob Shennan, director, BBC Radio and Music, told Music Week as he outlined his vision for BBC Sounds.

Shennan said the evolution towards greater on-demand music discovery alongside traditional linear radio had the support of the music industry. 

“They want a healthy BBC,” he said. “They recognise that to stay healthy the BBC needs to be able to diversify the way it connects with audiences.”

It’s been a running theme at youth network BBC Radio 1, which is increasingly focusing on social media platforms and visual content in order to reach its audience. Also key to BBC Radio’s diversification is offering a digital service that compares to the streaming platforms embraced by consumers. Here, Shennan opens up about how he believes BBC Sounds can fit into the music streaming environment…

Is BBC Sounds a sign that you’re learning from and directly competing with DSPs?

“It’s interesting. I saw a quote from the chief finance officer [Barry McCarthy] from Spotify, and he was saying that their mission was to kill linear radio. I personally think that it’s a much more subtle market environment and that, while obviously there's a huge amount of competition for the attention and the interest of audiences, there is also an opportunity for an organisation like the BBC to add something and bring audiences to that market that aren't currently in it. There's a role for the BBC as a world famous content provider to bring content into this space that is currently occupied by music streamers, who don’t really have a great deal of [original] content. They obviously want to get into the content business a lot more, which is why they take a lot of people from traditional broadcasters like the BBC and Radio 1. 

“It’s an interesting shift in dynamics. I don’t see it as a zero-sum game, I see it as an interesting change in our marketplace. We need to have a level of user-friendly functionality for audiences who don’t necessarily want to listen to linear radio, and streaming services need to have far greater levels of curation and content than just having a massive database of music. They’re moving into the traditional radio space and in a way radio is moving towards them. That’s a natural process of evolution and I want the BBC to be a really distinctive and effective player in what will clearly be a growing market.”

Radio has always been incredibly good and adaptable when it comes to embracing technological change

Bob Shennan

Are DSPs becoming a bit like Sky TV in the early days in their poaching of BBC broadcasters?

“Not just broadcasters, producers and content makers as well as broadcast curators. I don’t think there is any question that, just as when Sky came along, one of the first places they looked to recruit expertise on both sides of the microphone was traditional broadcasters. We have evidence of the music streaming services coming to our organisation and inevitably luring some of our people away. That is just the way the world works and we fully understand and acknowledge that. We have occasionally poached people from other organisations as well.  

“They turn to the BBC whether it’s for the likes of Zane [Lowe] at Beats 1 and Apple, or Spotify, who took George Ergatoudis, who has gone on to Apple, and there’s a whole raft of production expertise behind the scenes who have been tempted away from the BBC. I think that’s just the way the world works. We are cool with that because we’re the BBC and we can still attract the greatest talent to come and be here.”

Can AI and algorithms help radio endure?

“Radio has always been incredibly good and adaptable when it comes to embracing technological change - but you can’t be complacent. We feel this is an opportunity at this time to embrace technology for the benefit of radio. One of the first things we saw was when people started to engage with voice, radio was an incredibly important owner of what they wanted from their speaker, from their device. What we want to do is capitalise on that natural advantage in lots of sophisticated ways by exploiting the technology.” 

But you’re not looking to compete directly with DSPs by fully licensing music catalogues?

“No, this is an entirely different proposition from, say, Spotify or Apple Music. We could not remotely begin to try to compete. We’re basing our offer on our curation and great functionality rather than a database of 30 million or 50 million tracks - it’s going to be more like 30-50,000 [tracks] that we’ve played over the previous 30 days across our services. That will be the database that we use. What we’re doing is presenting that music to audiences in a way that we think will be really useful and valuable to them. Some of them love it when we have a curated radio show like Annie Mac, and that’s why someone like Annie is still such an important curator of music for the industry. But not everyone listens to the radio and we want to make sure that Annie Mac gets to them in any appropriate and suitable way we possibly can.”

To read Bob Shennan’s Music Week interview pick up the latest issue - or subscribers can click here. To subscribe and never miss a big industry story click here.

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