June, 2014

Podcasting – What Next?

Tomorrow evening, there’s a Radio Academy event taking place in London looking at podcasting. As I’ve written previously, you always feel that podcasting is the perennial bridesmaid and never the bride in the digital media, and digital audio world.

I suppose I’ve been thinking a little more about it recently because one of my favourite podcasts has stopped production. The Guardian recently ceased its regular weekly Media Talk podcast, for reasons never quite specified. One can imagine that it was financial though, with the podcast taking some time, and perhaps more importantly some production money to make each week. And in return, they were probably seeing little direct financial benefit. Sadly it does sometimes feel that the only people who truly believe in podcast advertising over time have been Audbible, and latterly Squarespace. And those deals are almost certainly all direct response.

As my past piece said, there are some fundamental issues with making money from podcasting, and I can only think that these are partially the reason why the Guardian made its decision.

Media podcasts interlude

As for Media Talk? Well it’s reappeared in an entirely unrelated guise as The Media Podcast. But there’s a difference – Matt Hill who produces it, and previously produced the Guardian’s podcast, has decided that crowdfunding is the way forward. He’s duly launched a Kickstarter to make a year’s supply of programmes. That’s actually a pretty modest £9,000 that he’s trying to raise. Nobody is getting rich off the back of this, but it costs money to host audio and find studio space.

Anyway, at time of writing they’re at about a third of the money needed, with just sixteen days to go. So get over there and give it some love. While we all enjoy The Media Show on Radio 4, they’re much drier, and sometimes spend just a bit too much time on certain subjects (Yes – I’m talking about a replacement for the PCC. Honestly, thinking of news media as just the press is so outdated. Never mind what happens if The Sun prints something untrue, what about if Buzzfeed gets it wrong?). And obviously, the programme was certainly “inspired” by hearing the Guardian’s podcast.

Anyway, let’s have some choice. (And yes, I know there’s the Media Focus podcast too!)

What next?

Given the need for advertisers to have some kind of proof of delivery – regardless of whether or not those digital ads they are buying are actually delivered – and The Ad Contrarian is well worth a read on this – it does seem leave the idea of ad-supported podcasting in something of a flux, with its lack of proof-of-delivery. Indeed it’s sometimes a worry that a new release of iTunes might actually push podcasting down in their hieracrchy. For an example of this look how iTunes Radio has become “Radio”, while actual broadcast radio services became “Internet Radio”.

Assuming that it costs me to make a podcast, and ideally I’d like to at least cover my costs, employ talent and production people to make it properly, and invest in kit to deliver a decent audio quality, and pay for my hosting, even a modest means of making money would be great.

So what’s to be done?

Well I suspect that podcasting will never be completely mainstream, but it can be super-niche. And that doesn’t mean that those super-niche audiences shouldn’t be considered very valuable. They can be very valuable indeed. A year or two ago, I was producing a session for the Radio Festival and that session’s speaker was Google’s Matt Britten, VP for Northern and Central Europe. It turned out that he listened to Media Talk – a valuable listener indeed.

And it was interesting to hear Emily Bell in the final edition of the Guardian’s podcast suggest that there’s been something of a resurgence in the form in the US. Incidently, the much suggested Slate Money podcast with Felix Salmon is an excellent addition to my listening. Slate is obviously ad-funded, but they also have a listener subscription scheme to remove the ads and for some of their podcasts, add additional segments.

Slate’s subscriptions are voluntary, but another option is that taken by Velocast, a cycling podcast I’ve listened to in the past. They offer a selection of cycling podcasts based on a monthly fee. It seems to be a successful plan, although I must admit that I currently only hear the free daily news edition they put out.

Rumour has it that Apple is trying to help boost its podcast section of iTunes. They could provide some generic information about how much people actually listen to the podcasts, and other metrics that they almost certainly have from their iOS device usage stats. While that would only be part of the overall podcast audience – ignoring usage on other operating systems such as Android, and usage in apps outside of iTunes (e.g. Stitcher) – it would still be very indicative, and might help podcasters monetise their productions.

So is the future for podcasting bright or not?

I don’t know.

Looking beyond the regular ad-supported model does feel to be the way to go right now. And perhaps in a world where every part of the internet is trying to support itself with advertising, that’s right.

Overall, I’m modestly upbeat.

Future Thinking and Unthinking

A couple of big US tech firms made some big announcements today.

Amazon will get the lion’s share of attention for its new Amazon Fire Phone. Essentially it’s a mini version of their Kindle Fire, using their forked version of Android, but with a phone. The big excitement is that it’s 3D. Well all phones are, but this one has four front facing cameras to do all sorts of clever things with.

From a technical perspective it’s mildly interesting, although there are some fundamental problems.

– The kind of person most likely to be interested in this kind of future-thinking in phones, is likely to be the sort of person who understands the benefits of adopting a regular Android or iOS device. There are many more apps, and much more support.

– The Firefly feature – which uses Amazon’s cloud resources to identify objects that you scan with the phone – seems to be a way to turn the remaining shops on our high streets into showrooms. Jeff Bezos demoed the phone scanning a physical book. You can then buy the book on Amazon, either the physical product or a Kindle version. You can just imagine that those remaining shops on the high street, who already probably have enough customers checking their phones to see if the book they want is cheaper online, will be thrilled that this job is being made easier. And the same goes for other kinds of businesses.

– I’m very surprised that the phone is only being made available, at least initially, with a single mobile supplier. At this point, only a US release has been announced, and Amazon can be quite slow rolling our products internationally (no sign yet of the Amazon Fire TV). But if this is to be a mass market product, then making it available on a single network on contract only, really isn’t the way to go. It’s old school thinking. Other Amazon devices have really attempted to fight on price. But as Rory Cellan Jones points out in his piece, the price that Amazon is selling their phone at is the same as the high end iPhone 5S or Samsung Galaxy 5. One school of thought is that it needs retailers to demo the 3D nature of the device as it’s just not easy to see on the web, hence the deal with AT&T. But surely it should be sold SIM free and unlocked? Sure – do deals with networks too. By going with a single network, you’re automatically excluding a large number of potential customers. For lots of reasons, many don’t want to change networks.

Elsewhere, Adobe was announcing a major update of its Creative Cloud applications. That’s essentially everything that Adobe makes.

– A major part of the revamp is mobile. Indeed the Adobe presenters were careful to say the generic “mobile devices” rather than any specific manufacturer’s devices. But that’s a bit strange because every mobile app they demonstrated was iOS only. And while I completely understand that the design community is heavily Apple focused, I’m not sure that’s still true in the mobile space. Indeed their key desktop applications are ALL made available for both Windows and Mac. So why Android is missing is beyond me. Yes – at some point – there’ll be an Android version of Lightroom. But there’s been no mention, so far, of any other apps for Android.

Still, I will point out that if you’re into photography, their $9.99 a month (+VAT) is really good value for Photoshop and Lightroom. They’ve now made that a fulltime offering.

Capital

Somehow this seems a little ironic.

I saw this copy of the economics book du jour in WH Smith of all places. Somehow the sticker and the book’s subject matter seemed incongruous.

That said – don’t knock the half-price offer. I note that Amazon isn’t discounting it at all which is significant since the cover price is £29.95.

Happy Valley

I’m not certain why it is that I started watching Happy Valley. I knew that it was written by Sally Wrainwright, who most recently had written two series of Last Tango in Halifax. Except that I’ve not watched that series (something I may be correcting fairly soon).

It starred Sarah Lancashire, an actress who I’ve come across, but not been especially excited about ever. Indeed, I thought, mistakenly, that she’d won her fame in Coronation Street. But that’s not true.

But a brief sitdown with Bill and company on the BBC Breakfast sofa persuaded me that I should watch and from the first scene in which Lancashire’s police sergeant Catherine Cawood has to deal with someone threatening to set fire to themselves in a kids’ playground, I was hooked.

Happy Valley is easily the best thing on television at the moment, and it airs its final episode tonight.

Saying that I “enjoy” the series is a bit misleading, because it’s grim up north. The West Yorkshire town it’s set in seems to have a pretty nasty drugs problem, and in general a lot of ne’er do wells. Cawood deals with them in her stride. But, initially at least, we also follow a few other characters and their stories.

There’s Kevin Wetherill (Steve Pemberton), an accountant in a local firm who believes his boss, Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) is being unfair in not giving him a rise so that he can afford to send his kids to a nicer school than the local comprehensive. So, in a fit of pique as much as anything, he dreams up a plot to kidnap his boss’s daughter.

Then there’s Ashley Cowgill (Joe Armstrong), a local caravan park owner who’s really dealing in drugs. He employs some dodgy characters – notably Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), who’s just been released from prison. Cawood blames him for causing her daughter to commit suicide following what she suspects was a rape that left her daughter pregnant with the son she now brings up.

The broader cast are all really good. I believe a certain number have graduated from soaps, but there’s the right amount of experience and freshness that means everyone’s on the top of their game.

At first the plot was a little disparate, but as the episodes passed, the strands tied together, and you ended up with a very nasty little thriller that is just beautifully written, directed and performed.

It’s hard to say exactly why I think it’s worked so well. But I think the characterisation is simply superb. Everyone feels real, and have real conversations with one another. It’s not just about pushing the plot forward, but giving the characters time to breathe.

And despite lots of events happening, the obvious tropes aren’t followed through. Any character who has an affair with another character in most dramas tends to get found out. Here we have Cawood sleeping with her ex, even though he now has a new partner, and in the end they just both put it down to a mistake.

Cawood’s sister is an ex addict, and in far too many dramas, that would lead to some kind of scene in which she falls back into the old ways. Something would “push her over the edge.”

There is the much quoted Chekov:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

But too much television follows that rule religiously. We’ve seen too many productions. We know how it works now. Yet real life doesn’t work like that, and if you’re trying to produce true characterisations, we’re going to be given information that really is surplus to requirement and doesn’t drive the narrative forward.

And it’s that characterisation that I like about this programme. Another example. Cawood drives her car around a fair bit, and since she’s mostly on her own in the car, she has conversations over the police radio about the usual kind of office tittle tattle. It’s meaningless, but it’s an accurate reflection of what most workplaces are like. And the petty bureaucracy is revealed too.

Stories unfold rather than in big exposition dumps. You slowly learn about backstories. That said, that initial scene I mentioned above, does cleverly incorporate a great deal of exposition hidden inside a little speech from the forthright Cawood.

The other thing about the programme is that you’re never entirely sure what direction it’s headed in. Will the criminals’ plans work, or go awry?

Even the credit sequences and Jake Bugg sung theme add to it all.

Is it all believable? Probably not. When a certain event happens, it’s rare enough that I believe the whole of West Yorkshire would be knee deep in police dragged in from miles around. And I suspect that if a dangerous criminal is on the loose, the police would be forced to pair up at the very least.

But these are niggles really.

The obvious comparison would be Broadchurch, a series that got much more broadsheet coverage than this. Another small community; another ghastly crime. We know who the criminals are here, but we don’t know how it’ll be resolved. And because just about anything could happen, I’ll be glued to my sofa tonight to see…