Podcasts – A Rebirth?

Earlier this year, I was sad when The Guardian shut-down a number of podcasts including the Media Talk Podcast (Phoenix style, an entirely independent-of-the-Guardian podcast, The Media Podcast, rose from the ashes through a Kickstarter – I’m a backer).

But with a certain amount of irony, the final episode of the Guardian’s iteration included contributions from Emily Bell and Matt Wells, Media Talk alumni, who both noted that podcasting was enjoying something of a resurgence on the other side of the pond.

And it certainly seems that there has been a rebirth.

There is some astonishingly good material showing up as podcasts. The other day I sang the praises of Serial (as has the whole world now); and we’re into the last few days of Radiotopia’s Kickstarter fundraising activity that will see not just 99% Invisible funded, but a total of 10 different podcasts funded for the next year. And that includes a podcast from Helen Zaltzman amongst them! They’re at over $540,000 at time of writing, and are just a handful short of 20,000 backers (Getting to 20,000 unlocks another $25,000 so put a $1 in why don’t you? As I hit publish they’re about 200 people off their target).

A week or so ago, New York magazine had a piece about podcasting’s renaissance and the growth in popular and high quality podcasting.

The key suggestion in the magazine article is the growth of the connected car. At its simplest, the fact that pretty much any car built in the last five years has the ability for you to connect your phone to your car’s audio system via either Bluetooth or an auxiliary socket.

Now it should be said that there are some fundamental differences between the UK and the US. We don’t spend as much time in our cars for starters. As I’ve written before, only 20% of our radio listening (a reasonable, but no way perfect, proxy for the ability to listen to podcasts). Direct comparisons with the US are difficult, but a 2008 survey suggested that 35.5% of US listening was in car. Although at the time, 38.9% of listening was at home and today it’s just 28%. So with 72% of listening out of home, it’s likely that US in-car listening has grown substantially since 2008.

Americans also buy a lot of new cars. 15.6m cars were sold in the US in 2013, which means about 4.9% of the population bought a car last year. In the UK, 2.3m cars were sold – about 3.5% of the population. This isn’t surprising. But the conclusion, assuming that cars filter through the population in similar manners, is that of the cars on the road, more will be connected faster in the US than the UK.

And of course, this all means that Americans drive a lot – just over twice as much as the British (13,476 miles a year compared with 6,691 miles miles a year).

The other key difference is willingness to pay. Matt Deegan talked about this in a recent blog post, and it came up in a Radio Academy session on podcasting earlier this year. Put bluntly, if you’re the sort of person who listens to fully-produced speech radio, of the non-right-wing hatemonger variety, then you’re probably listening to NPR. And if you listen to NPR, you know that it’s heavily funded by its listeners. Furthermore, you expect that at certain times through the year, you are going to heavily pressured into supporting the station.

Compare and contrast with the UK where everyone who listens to Radio 4 knows that they’ve already paid for it via their licence fee. The idea of even taking on the BBC with high quality speech radio – or audio – is something of an anathma.

There are attempts of course. There’s a burgeoning talking book market, with Amazon subsidy Audible selling a good number of subscription packages, and then there are genre specific companies like Big Finish, producing SF audio dramas.

But for the most part, in the UK we do expect our audio to come free of charge. I’ve written before about the difficulties there are commercialising podcasts when you have next to no information about how they were consumed beyond the fact that you have some download stats. And then there still seems to be a lack of engagement beyond companies like Square Space, for people to support podcasts.

I can’t stress enough that anyone who’s gone to the effort of searching out a podcast, setting up a subscription on their computer or mobile device, and then listening to said podcast, has made far more of an effort than 95% of media consumption. These have to be some of the most engaged people you can reach. And of course, you have a high level of targeting reaching precisely the kind of consumers that most media can’t dream of reaching. There’s even a tacit understanding that by getting their podcasts free, consumers accept advertising – particularly when it can be easily embedded into programming to an extent Ofcom would never allow on the radio.

The sale of Stitcher to Deezer a few weeks ago is also an important point. While I’m not certain about the longterm viability of the music streaming market (I think subscriptions are going to have to go up, or the flat-rate pricing model adjusted, because artists aren’t making enough in return), I think the acknowledgement that simply offering music – even vaguely curated music – isn’t enough. While I disagree with some of what Felix Salmon wrote on Medium last week about streaming services, the fact that anyone can do the same deal with the majors and offer a streaming service priced at the same level as the current players in the market probably doesn’t help anybody. Stitcher will offer a point of difference. We don’t all want to hear music all the time, and of course podcasts don’t incur pricey copyright fees (although putting your adverts in front of someone else’s podcast is a whole different question).

The UK does need some more help to sustain a vibrant podcasting sector though. As I’ve argued, partly the success that America has is down to an acceptance that you have to put your hand directly in your pocket to pay for what you want. But let’s not forget about the size of the country. Although podcasts are global in reach, cultural differences still count. A non-league football podcast is probably going to have limited appeal beyond these waters.

And then there’s the breadth of radio the UK already offers. Far be it for me to cast aspersions on US radio. But if it’s speech radio that you want, then there’s NPR, sports radio, and rapid hard right wingnuts. And if you compare NPR and Radio 4, you can see that they’re constructed in different ways (e.g. Radio 4 v NPR): NPR has more two hour and one hour programmes. Outside of the Today programme, Radio 4’s programmes are mostly less than one hour – indeed thirty minutes or less. That does mean more variety (for better or worse). Yes, I realise that there are lots of interesting features within some of those larger two hour NPR blocks, but the point still stands.

I notice that the Radiotopia gang have felt the need to include a London party along with major US cities (and Dublin) in one of their stretch goals. That means that a significant number of UK listeners have contributed.

It’d be great to think that this will mean in future more UK podcasts will be funded either through crowdfunding, advertising, live events (e.g. Richard Herring’s podcast), and a plethora of other models that will stretch podcasting beyond being a hobby, and into becoming a career in audio.

But I’ve got to say that it is quite an exciting time to be podcasting.

Now where did I put my copy of The Guardian’s Do Something supplement from the weekend where Helen Zaltzman explains how to make a podcast?