This week, I am knee-deep in judging the BBC World Service’s first international podcast competition, which is looking to find and create the next great African podcast. So it seemed like the right time to bring back this interview with Kim Chakanetsa, the host of BBC Africa’s flagship podcast, “The Comb.”
This interview was first published on the 23rd of July 2020 at Pods 4 Africa
If you follow podcast launches on the continent, you won’t have missed the fact that BBC has released a new Africa-focused podcast called “The Comb.”
This is the first African “podcast-first” show from the BBC. Although “Africa Today” is their daily podcast, it is made up of repurposed content from the popular daily radio show, “Focus of Africa.” And because of the BBC’s importance on the continent, the company’s decision to invest in “The Comb” is a strong barometer for many looking at the growth of African pods.
“The Comb’s” setup allows for more longform, in-depth audio storytelling where the team will be “combing Africa for stories about the unseen forces that bind us together and tear us apart.”
I reached out to the podcast’s Zimbabwean host Kim Chakanetsa, who is also the host of BBC World Service’s “The Conversation,” to chat about the new podcast [Fun fact: we are also former classmates!]. Since its launch in early July, she has been recording “The Comb” from her makeshift studio in her home in London due to COVID-19. In this interview, we talked about the development of the show, some of the strategies BBC is undertaking, and the potential of podcasting in Africa.
[Full disclosure: I consulted briefly on the pod about Africa-wide podcasting trends and insights]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Q: For those who haven’t had a chance to listen, how did “The Comb” come about?
A: So the “Focus on Africa” radio program also produced “Africa Today,” which is basically its daily news podcast. But it was very much centered on the radio program with extracts and slightly longer interviews in there. But it’s very much built around that. So there was always this idea that we should make another podcast… but these things take time. And then, in November 2019, there was this idea that now we should go ahead now. So in conjunction with the World Service podcast team — there are two teams: a BBC Africa team and the World Service podcast team — sort of came together and started thinking about it. And we piloted a couple of things. We always knew that it was definitely going to be a newsroom podcast because I think our strength is that we’re in the newsroom. It wouldn’t make sense for us to do like a roundtable or pop culture…I love those! But I think you kind of want to kind of reflect your strengths.
So, we played around with formats and we played around with what it could possibly sound like. So November, December, January… we’re doing all that. And we were thinking it would launch maybe May and June. And then obviously, the pandemic got in the way. And that really pushed things back dramatically because there was a lot that we wanted to do. We really wanted to be traveling around a little bit. We wanted, ideally, to go to universities and talk to people and get direct feedback, and just be a little bit more interactive. Because otherwise you’re just kind of recording in a hole by yourself and hoping and just putting it out there.
But obviously we put a break on those plans. We still are hoping to do that and hopefully that will work even better because we’ll have a little bit of a catalogue. Eventually, we thought instead of letting [the pandemic] force us to push things back, let’s actually move things forward and address it.
Q: And so, it was considered an accompaniment to the other daily Africa podcast, but you wanted to go more in-depth, more long form?
A: There’s been some research that was done in terms of trying to understand our audience… And there were a couple of points that came out of that. I think sometimes when you’re covering a story often you assume everyone’s been following every step of that story. But someone can just dip in for the first time and are like, “Huh?” So I think people were saying they want things told [in an accessible way]. They want to go in-depth but they don’t want to be bogged down where they just like, “What is happening?” So it’s that tricky thing of trying to find that balance of giving people who’ve been following enough new information, and giving those who don’t know anything enough for them to follow. And so we wanted to do something that’s in depth. We wanted to focus on a single story because I think it’s actually really hard to do multiple stories and give them the kind of treatment they deserve. It ends up being a little bit quick. So if we could just focus on the one story that will give us room to have maybe multiple contributors. And just let the story breathe a little bit. So that was one of the things that we wanted to do.
Q: Who is this podcast for?
A: Who we would really like to reach…you know, Paula, our continent is so young. We have this massive really young population. And based on conversations I have with my cousins, the way they consume media is completely different to the older demographic — 40 plus, 50 plus… It’s like a pick-and-mix thing of [content options]. There’s no sort of appointment listening at 7 o’clock, you know?…And I think that demographic is one that, not just the BBC, but I think everyone is chasing. And I think that you have to be quite careful in how you chase things because I don’t think it should influence the way you do journalism. Does that make sense? Like I think the onus is on us to make it interesting, so that people come. But we’re not going to do something really kind of thirsty…I guess is the word…stuff that’s trying to pander in a way that feels unnatural to us. So just try make it interesting
Q: Do you feel like you are being allowed more experimentation and more room to try new things with this podcast?
A: You’re absolutely right. One of the joys of this is that…there’s this idea of like no one quite knows how to go about things. So the road is just open… which is great. And because there’s no blueprint, there’s obviously going to be mistakes made, but hopefully there’s going to be successes. And so this gives us a lot more freedom. Because obviously as a big organization, there has to be some structure. Because we’re not small and nimble; we’re kind of big. And there are loads of people that have to weigh in on things, but we’re very lucky in the sense that we’ve been given a lot more freedom than, I think if I’m honest, people would normally be given.
Q: Nairobi is the largest BBC bureau outside of London. Why is the first African podcast being recorded in London and not Nairobi? Or in Africa?
A: That’s an excellent question. Obviously, HQ is London and the podcast belongs to the “Focus On Africa” team. The team sits in London with its network of reporters all around the continent. For logistic purposes, it makes sense that it has to be a centralized place where it’s recorded and London makes sense because that is where the majority of the team is. As strange as this may sound, it’s just really [the producers] who are here. The bulk of it, in terms of our voices and everything else, are reported elsewhere. And truly, we’re hoping that we would be out [in the field] most of the time recording. And I do see that happening once travel and stuff [opens up]. I do think that when you listen to the podcast and listen to the voices, it’ll be very clear that London plays a tiny role in the grand scheme of things.
Q: Yeah, these first few episodes have had different people from all over the continent
A:And that’s gonna be a big challenge as well, just in terms of like, trying to reflect not only Kenya, not only Nigeria…Because the temptation is to go to certain places, and we do get criticized for that, and I understand it. And this is why we do need this network of journalists and because we want to be everywhere truly. It’s actually harder than you think because one of the challenges is getting things in quality. There will definitely be episodes we will have to have a scratchy line because we need that person so badly and there’s nothing else that you could do. Because we spend a lot of time just logistically to get people to record themselves. But that mission of trying to reflect as many voices on the continent as possible, and have it truly be an African voices podcast. Our mission really is to make sure that we have those voices in the podcast.
Q: What is considered success for you as a team?
A: I think for me there’s sort of two rungs of success. So for example, after the first episode [about how COVID-19 is disrupting university life], a girl from Zimbabwe contacted me on Instagram saying, “I really felt that episode because we’re going through the same thing, but it’s much harder because the economy is really bad already in Zim.” And so then I got in contact with her and she actually features at the end of the second episode. And it sounds very basic, but the fact that someone would sit down to compose an email because it’s just easy to go about your day…But for me, that felt like this is great. And then also on social media, we put out some of the clips and there were a lot of people saying, “I’m in the same situation. I’m here in x country. This happened to me. I haven’t been able to graduate as well, Stay strong.” And it felt like a genuine conversation of people who have been through similar things. So for me, I really was happy with that. Because you don’t always get that.
In terms of numbers, I’ve always been skeptical of podcast numbers as it is because I don’t think there’s any good way of measuring. I’m trying to not be tethered to the numbers. But I guess for me, it will be more of a word of mouth thing where people organically recommend episodes. And I don’t know how to measure that, Paula. Like there’s no way to measure that. And like I said, because I’m skeptical of podcast numbers, I don’t really know how we’ll know the success. But I think you’ll get a sense that people are engaging with the work… But we will look at numbers. We definitely will look at them because you have to.
And I know the diaspora always comes [through]…And so there’s that. But I guess for us, the test is the audience in Africa specifically. Plus it’s all fractured. There’s not just one gatekeeper. It’s not just iTunes so you can’t just get iTunes figures…
Q: On that note, how are you considering distribution?
A: So we are very fortunate to have a business development team that can take on that headache for us. And we have partner stations that we work with. And letting them know and seeing if they’re interested in trying to carry it somehow…
Q: …Like syndication?
A: That’s one way. And then, the main thing also is you have your [Africa-strong audio streaming platforms like] Boom Play, and Iono.fm and trying to make sure that we are available on these platforms as well just to make ourselves as visible as possible. I think as we go along, other places will come up and we’ll try to make sure that we’re seen on those.That’s really it. There’s no kind of magic strategy apart from just trying to be everywhere where people might be able to access us.
Q: On the pod, I heard you talking about Whatsapp outreach. I like to hear what people can do with the platform. What are you doing with WhatsApp as it pertains to audience development?
A: I would love it if we could somehow be able to distribute on WhatsApp, but it’s not a distribution platform like that. Because I know everyone uses WhatsApp. We obviously will be keeping an eye on the stories, and what people are discussing. But the true mission is to get people to tell us what they want to hear. So someone from Sierra Leone is able to get in contact, and say, “Oh, there’s this story in my neck of the woods.” Or maybe it’s a completely underreported story. And then we can weave them into the program…it just depends on what the story is or how we can use them.
We’ve always said that we want to be listener-led. And that’s actually quite a difficult mission. Because you’re relying on people to get in touch with you. But in order to do that, you have to show people that when they write to you, it’s not for naught. That’s what we really want to do: to build an excellent community of people who can come to us and say oh this story and that story. And I think that’s going to take a long time to fully build in. I’m very keen for people to get in touch with us and and email us.
Q: Kim, what has surprised you about the process of creating and putting out the pod?
A: I guess I’m surprised that…I kind of understand why it might be…but I’m surprised that there aren’t more Africa news podcasts out there. Does that make sense? And maybe we’ll find out the reason why not when we fall flat on our faces (laughs)! We’ll say, “Oh this why!”
Q: You have a few episodes out now. So what are your hopes for the podcast?
A: So, what I would really love, Paula, is to look back in about six to twelve months, and look back and see that we’ve done a real rich range of stories that reflects a real range of issues. That we haven’t fallen into certain narrative traps. Ideally, flights will be available because for me as a journalist, I want to be out there. I want to go record a couple of episodes elsewhere. But obviously there are all kinds of constraints. So I’d love to be able to take us out of the studio or out from under the duvet (laughs) and go places.
Also, I’m really trying to get female voices in there as well. Genuinely, we are trying to do that. Because again, that takes time . That takes a little bit more time, more outreach. But I’d like to look back [and see] that we’ve got a lot of good female voices because I think that’s very useful not only for us but for the BBC as a whole. It’s something that should have been done a long time ago and I know it’s a mission that a lot more people are trying to get on.
Q: Why “The Comb”?
A: The verb is to comb, to tease out, to unpick, to untangle, to rake through… it’s a very kind of vivid verb. Everyone knows when you see a comb, you know what it does and what it is. We wanted something striking visually, a name that’s evocative, but also simple. It works on a number of levels. And Fred Martins, our artist, makes some beautiful combs [laughs].
Q: I think Africans all recognize that particular comb, right? That image.
A: It’s so funny because I went around with options. I was showing all my colleagues [and they picked this one]. They’d say, it reminds me of pain before school with my mum [laughs].
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