CBC Listen: A Response to Transitional Media Formats

Live radio was normalized during the first half of the 20th century and, for many, continues to be the preferred method of accessing the news. However, the rise of new formats has broadened the ways that older and newer generations consume media. Sruti Islam offers a look at the CBC Listen model.

As per the Infinite Dial 2019 Canada report, over one quarter of Canadian adults own a smart speaker, and 36 per cent of them listen to podcasts on a monthly basis. The following question arises in this context: How can we facilitate access to content for diverse audiences on various platforms?

In this context, the introduction of the CBC Listen app in October 2019 — that combines both traditional modes of consumption (live radio) and more contemporary ones (podcast streaming) — seems like an inevitable development. The CBC is not alone in this transition. Radio-Canada recently launched Ohdio, an app combining Radio-Canada’s live radio offering as well as its podcast content catalogue.

What You Need to Know About the CBC Listen App

The CBC Listen app is a clear response to emerging patterns of media consumption. It’s a response that seems eager to unite varying audiences across the board, including those who are used to older formats and those growing up with more contemporary options.

Kevin Siu, Senior Director, Digital Strategy responsible for the CBC Listen app, says: “We saw room in the market for an app that would allow you to listen to live radio, both CBC Radio One and CBC Music, binge on our award-winning podcasts or play one of 200 curated music playlists all in one place.” The app highlights CBC’s curation and offers a beneficial, all-in-one format for Canadian audio content.

In short, the CBC Listen app conglomerates the CBC’s entire audio offering in one place. Users have access to more than 200 free playlists, podcasts and live radio. Like other such services, the app can be personalized and offers the possibility to earmark an episode or song for later listening, a clear nod to new listening habits.

How Is Content Affected by This Change in Format?

Siu confirms that the app’s intent is to give users swift access to the content they love. The rise of podcasts and the continuing audiences of live radio suggest that users are adapting to new formats while remaining committed to older ones. The dilemma is then mostly based on access rather than content.

"CBC Podcasts is now Canada’s number 1 podcaster, averaging 11.4 million downloads per month."

Siu says that CBC Listen shows the CBC’s responsiveness and dedication to the wants of its users and listeners, but also that a shift in content is not predicated on a preference of format alone, but also on what audiences want to hear. “We’re always listening to our audiences — what they’re interested in, what they’re looking for, what moves them. We saw an audience for Canadian podcasts and started investing in them a few years ago. CBC Podcasts is now Canada’s number 1 podcaster, averaging 11.4 million downloads per month, including popular titles such as Uncover, Someone Knows Something, Hunting Warhead, Front Burner and Under the Influence. I don’t think the app will specifically or directly affect content, but it will help us better understand our listeners,” says Siu.

Following this, Siu confirms: “Our focus is on building our CBC Listen audiences and continuing to improve the experience for them so they can easily find their shows and playlists and listen [to them] wherever they are. We want to add features they’re asking for. There’s a lot to focus on. We have no plans for changing the content distribution.”

A Response to Market or to Audiences?

Many believe that market needs and audience needs are mutually exclusive, but as Siu points out, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, markets shift according to audiences’ needs. CBC Listen’s combination of experiences acknowledges that different audiences prefer different formats for different reasons. So why not make all formats as accessible as possible? “I’d say that live radio streaming and podcast listening aren’t mutually exclusive habits. It depends on the time of day and the day of the week. If listeners are interested in understanding Canada and the world, if they’re interested in Canadian stories, if they want to know what’s going on in St. John’s or Yellowknife or Victoria, they can open the app and get all of that in real time or on-demand,” says Siu.

"Live radio streaming and podcast listening aren’t mutually exclusive habits."

Refreshingly, Siu also acknowledges current streaming giants. He is not foreign to the rise of Spotify, for instance, and does not deny that CBC Listen is an acknowledgement of that. “Spotify and others have definitely established a market for streaming audio services,” he says, while also pointing out that the CBC’s own expanding audiences across platforms revealed an all-encompassing interest in the listening programs it had to offer. “We’ve also had separate apps for radio and music with dedicated audiences. Our podcasts have recorded exponential growth. We have a sizeable international audience on third-party platforms like TuneIn. There were a lot of hints that there was room for our overall digital listening audience to grow if we facilitated its growth.”

Moreover, instead of seeing a shift in audiences as a loss for one format over another, Siu points out that our current culture has really broadened modes of listening and, in turn, broadened audiences themselves. “Digital audio is in a really exciting place right now. The content is stronger than ever. It’s easier than ever for people to listen whenever they want, wherever they want. Mobile data plans are cheaper. You can choose how you want to listen —live, on-demand, offline. Unlike video or text, you can consume audio both actively and passively. If you’re a listener — and most of us are — it’s a cool time.”

"Digital audio is in a really exciting place right now."

We asked Siu where he saw the app in two years. “CBC Listen is something we don’t think of as solely an app or an app and a website. It’s the arc of a person’s listening day. Maybe they start the day by listening on a smart speaker, they listen to their local CBC morning show on the way to work, they have our playlists on their headphones while they work, maybe they sneak an episode of Somebody Knows Something at lunch, they listen to The World at Six on the way home, they play a Story Store episode for their kids before their bed time and maybe another playlist (Classical Serenity!) to fall asleep to. It’s about being a part of your day.”