Business News Digital Marketing & PR Media The Great Escape 2015

BBC Playlister’s Andy Puleston on supporting radio by cannibalising it

By | Published on Friday 22 May 2015

Andy Puleston

Having heard how record companies are using playlists to engage listeners on the streaming platforms at last week’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape, we then turned the spotlight on how media are helping curate the streaming experience, as well as asking the crucial question, why would they even do that? Our focus was the BBC’s Playlister initiative, discussed by the Corporation’s Digital Editor For Music Andy Puleston.

“Projects like this are often a response to what’s going on outside and what our audiences are doing”, Puleston said of the origins of Playlister, which launched in 2013. “And also what we feel we can achieve technologically at the BBC. You have to remember the BBC is not a tech company, we’re a broadcaster that has a tech bit, but a tech bit which is growing in sophistication and ambition all the time”.

The Playlister idea grew out of an update that was made to the Radio 1 homepage in 2011, which added a ‘love’ button to the station’s realtime ‘now playing’ information, and which would then recommend to the user other content on the website based on the track they had just tagged.

“We had just launched a sign in service on the BBC site”, Puleston explained. “Prior to that we weren’t really able to give users a logged-in state, so we weren’t able to log any usage data and feed it back. But these things started to come on stream and we plugged them all together”.

The Playlister service basically allows users of BBC Radio websites to add tracks they hear on the Corporation’s radio stations to special playlists, which they can then export to Spotify, Deezer, iTunes and YouTube. On top of that, the BBC is now creating bespoke playlists itself based on its radio shows that people can access on their streaming platform of choice.

Given the evolving streaming platforms are arguably competition for traditional radio, the BBC engaging in this way may seem counterintuitive. “It does seem, oddly, like we’re cannibalising our own model”, Pulestone admitted, but he said there were a number of reasons why the BBC had created Playlister.

“One, there’s a creative opportunity. Also, there are quite a lot of restrictions on us as a traditional broadcaster in how we evolve with the new digital platforms. But we need to evolve in a way, to futureproof our brands, to help keep the BBC and BBC Radio relevant as our audiences change”.

And while traditional radio might ultimately compete with the new streaming services, everyone says the new platforms need better curation, and radio people are the traditional curators. “There is this tyranny of choice”, Pulestone continued. “And radio has always been fantastic at filtering the best music there is and playing you only the best of it; our shows represent their take on what’s coming out. And so, being able to put the BBC into these streaming services will give you a completely unbiased guide to what we think is great”.

As BBC Playlister has begun to publish more of its own playlists, said Puleston, the team have seen interesting trends in how people engage differently with different kinds of lists.

“We recently started publishing the Radio 1 playlist onto Spotify and Deezer”, he explained. “Which again might be a contradictory thing to do, but it was when the Official Charts Company changed how they organise the chart, and as soon as we realised that by putting the Radio 1 playlist in the streaming services we could materially affect or contribute to artists’ bigger ambitions around their music, we jumped right in with that. It’s there to support the artists that we feel are important on radio”.

“That particular playlist gets a lot of streams for under 30 seconds”, he continued. “So people go to the Radio 1 playlist, they scan through it – they snack on it – and they find the tracks they want, and then they harvest those tracks onto their own lists. So the listening minutes on the Radio 1 playlist are less that other playlists that we do. For example, we do another list called the ‘Annie Mac Musical Hot Water Bottle’, which came from her Sunday night show, and is kind of downtempo electronic music. The listening minutes on there are much higher, because it’s built to be a listening experience”.

As an example of a playlist that has come to complement a BBC radio show, and grow with it, Puleston brought up Fearne Cotton’s ‘Get Happy’ playlist, which was one of the earliest created on the Playlister service, after Cotton asked listeners to select tracks for it on Radio 1 show.

“About six months in, the data showed this was a playlist that people kept coming back to again and again and again”, he said. “So we went back to Fearne and said it’s worth you topping this up two or three times a year and really building it into something”.

“That Fearne Cotton example is a great way of using radio to talk to audiences about all this, to get them to build playlists with us”, he continued. “And that helps our social media activity. So we have a whole user generated element around some of our playlists too”.

Online playlists can also assure more longevity for radio features that quickly air and are then gone. Zane Lowe’s (now Annie Mac’s) ‘Hottest Record In The World Right Now’ being one such example.

“To be able to pull that song out and file it into a list every day is very helpful”, said Puleston. “Other than the Radio 1 playlist, that ‘Hottest Records’ list is the biggest one that we do now. Obviously Zane really helped to power that, but Annie has taken it over now. Being able to build lists around radio features is helpful to us because radio has a fixed amount of shelf space. We’ve only got so many hours and so many songs we can get in a two hour show. But the playlists allow us to create much longer and many more listening experiences”.

As for his ambitions for the future, Puleston said that he wants to grow Playlister’s work with BBC Introducing, providing a greater platform for new artists to grow their audiences before breaking into a more mainstream fanbase.