Adam Zmith, co-creator and co-host of award-winning LGBTQ+ history podcast The Log Books, says that the BBC needs to be more open and innovative when it comes to commissioning podcast pitches from independents.
Following the successful launch of The Log Books in 2019, Zmith co-founded independent podcast production company Aunt Nell in 2021 with his co-host Tash Walker and producer Shivani Dave. In the latest episode of PodPod, Zmith and Walker spoke about the struggles that independents face in the podcasting industry when it comes to funding and pitching.
“Commissioners and controllers decide what content they want to have and then they make a shopping list and put out a call for that content essentially,” said Zmith. “If you're working on something that's like that then great you can chuck it in but you'll have to probably create a pitch for the thing that they're shopping for, which I think is not the most creative, innovative use of our national public broadcasting and commissioning process.”
Walker also told PodPod that the pair have attempted to pitch podcasts to the BBC in the past as part of their commissioning rounds but have not found success yet and that there are a lot of restrictions that are placed against independents when it comes to pitching.
“That’s a really hard door to break down as an independent because you have to have podcasts out there already as part of your production company in order to be accepted into becoming someone who can pitch to the BBC,” said Walker.
Zmith also has personal experience with the BBC, having been a cohort member of its inaugural podcast incubator programme Audio Lab in 2022 which helped him launch his 1930 archival history podcast The Film We Can’t See. Zmith told PodPod that there were many advantages to the program including providing him with a job, funding, and mentorship to create the podcast but there were also some disadvantages when it came to legal risks and marketing.
“Working with the BBC was not at all straightforward, their legal risk level is different to the legal risk level of something like Aunt Nell which is an indie but it did come with all those benefits,” said Zmith. “It also wasn't the best at marketing my eventual podcast because the people that work in marketing and publicity at the BBC have to do that for 10 podcasts a day whereas if it's my podcast and it's an Aunt Nell production, I know that we're going to put everything that we have behind it.”
“We’re privileged to work with talented indies across the UK, collaborating with over 160 in the past year, and our commissioners are open to hearing the best ideas," a BBC sopkesperson said. “Our ongoing commitment to back creatives and support the sector is something we are really proud of, from talent schemes like Audio Lab to our Indie Development Fund, both of which focus on broadening the talent pool outside of London and increasing diversity.
“We always welcome feedback about our continued relationships with indies, and it’s great to see Adam succeed in the industry after being one of our first Audio Lab cohorts."
Walker and Zmith have both found alternative means to fund their podcasts in the same way that they did with The Log Books, as it kept getting rejected by podcast platforms and advertisers when they would pitch it in the past. Instead, the podcast was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, direct donations from Switchboard - this country’s second-largest LGBTQ+ helpline which the podcast is based on - and a small pot of money from Acast supporters.
Zmith said that the rest of the projects under Aunt Nell have been funded through partnerships with organisations such as LGBTQ+ choir group The Pink Singers, LGBTQ+ history museum Queer Britain, The National Archive, and others instead of brands and platforms while some are going to be made “off their own back”. He added that this is likely a result of podcast companies and brands pulling back from podcast investments which affects independent companies because they’re unable to deliver a high number of downloads in a short period of time.
“Just as we were starting, the podcast industry by that point was starting to include the absolute mammoths like Spotify and Amazon and more and more investment, AKA free money, was being pushed into that and into content,” said Zmith. “Now all this investment is going down, and brands are seeing that their advertising or their branded podcasts have not delivered on what they wanted it to.”
“As a very tiny independent production company with a focus which doesn't have a massive audience, we cannot promise to deliver you 10,000 listeners per episode or something yet… It's our own investment of time and money into it. I'm not a victim. I'm not saying no brand wants to play with us but I think that there are shifting sands in this industry, and if you're an indie like us, then you have to recognize that and build that into your planning.”