Audio

Apple Podcasts Charts

It appears that Apple’s podcast charts are somewhat broken. Or specifically, they had been broken for a period of time over the weekend while Apple perhaps tried a new algorithm to rank podcasts.

Behind the scenes we know that various bad actors have been attempting to game the system. In the same way that you can buy Twitter or Instagram followers, you can pay some dubious third party to push your podcast up the Apple chart. This might get your podcast, briefly, towards the top of the charts allowing you to boast that you are/were the number one podcast in whatever category. But those listeners aren’t real, and your podcast is likely to fall away pretty quickly again too.

In the last couple of days, a number of people have been asking big questions surrounding this.

Both are well worth reading, and here’s my take on the situation.

Let’s start with the hypothesis that charts are a good thing. They inform users about what podcasts other people are listening to, and they let everyone in the podcasting community see how their podcasts are doing against their peers.

Except that we know that Apple’s charts have never actually shown either of those things.

For the most part, a chart that simply displays who gets the most downloads/listens would be incredibly static. The same big podcasts would probably appear in roughly the same order week after week, month after month. Maybe one would drop down a little when it was between series, and occasionally a new hit would emerge. But basically the chart would be static. For a chart to be interesting, there has to be some dynamism.

From a consumer perspective, a mostly static chart is boring. The consumer is never going to find new podcasts to listen to, and so they’re unlikely to even have further looks at the chart once they’ve realised that there are few changes between editions.

Apple currently uses some kind of ‘new subscriber’ algorithm to determine its charts. Recency counts for more than long-term listeners or subscribers. (Other digital charts do similar things. The bestsellers on Amazon are collated on perhaps an hourly basis to keep things interesting there too.)

The other key part of this is that Apple is seeing its position in the podcast ecosystem decline over time. Spotify, for example, is opening up significantly to podcasts – no longer caching them and properly serving them. They’ve just opened their platform up to everyone and they’ve become a fast growing #2 platform. They’re still a long way behind Apple, but they have an upward trajectory.

And Google is ‘doing’ podcasts more seriously now. They’ve not quite got around to pre-installing a true standalone podcast app on every Android device as Apple does. But they are moving in the right direction, and with the emergence of ‘Voice,’ podcasts become ever more important.

Both of these should mean that we’ll see a broader platform of iOS and Android devices being used to listen, more closely reflecting the true device ownership model. (Incidentally, that might also mean a change in the kinds of podcasts that are being made. Think beyond someone who can happily spend $/£1000 on a smartphone.)

Apple currently accounts for perhaps 55%-60% of the podcast market today, but that’s already considerably down from where it once was. To be clear, it’s not because Apple users are not listening any more, but there’s more diversity in the podcast platforms available, and in the main because Android was – and still is – under-represented.

Is Apple Still Important?

If we assume that Apple’s market dominance of podcasts is diminishing – albeit from a lofty position – then we also need to consider that any chart created by Apple is not actually representative of the whole podcast ecosystem. It’s entirely likely that we’ll see their share fall to below 50% in many markets. 

In some countries, like India, the iPhone represents a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone user-base. So in fact, while Apple’s podcast chart for India might be indicative of podcast listening there, it might also be very unrepresentative, perhaps more describing what only the very wealthiest couple of percent of Indians are truly listening to.

If we’re going to have a chart, then it needs to be wider than simply Apple’s share of the ecosystem, otherwise it’s going to be biased towards the people who own iPhones. And newsflash – that’s really not the population at large.

And then we run into the problem of how charts are created anyway.

How should a podcast chart be measured?

There are two major ways to find out what’s happening in a population: census or survey.

Apple has effectively been providing a census of its users. In other words, it has data that shows how all Apple users are consuming podcasts. A census sets out to measure everyone within a specific population. The results should be very accurate, but it can be hard to collate all that data, particularly if it comes from multiple places. It’s not for nothing that the UK population census only takes place every ten years. It’s a big and expensive undertaking.

Under the census chart model, you need to get accurate data from everywhere. In the podcast world, this means either approaching every podcast creator and asking for their server data, or approaching every podcatcher (i.e. all the podcast apps), and getting data from them. Neither is likely to be achievable. Herding cats comes to mind.

In the US, Podtrac has attempted the census method, embedding code into feeds to route requests through its servers. But only podcasts who choose to be measured on this system have their data captured. That tends to mean big US groups. But even then, there are some missing, choosing not to take part. Non-US podcast creators that might have sizeable listener-ships within the US are often missing too. It is by no means a complete picture of the US podcast listening market.

For a chart like this to work and for it to be truly representative, you need everybody on board, agreeing to a methodology, and being able to adopt the technical requirements that lead to measurement. It only takes one major group to choose not to play, and the chart is wrong.

Meanwhile, other tracking ideas are being posited using pingbacks, but they can be defeated by podcatchers that don’t play ball, and again require many parties to get on board.

Don’t forget that different groups very different business models. So they might not need to agree to a central methodology.

The other key way to measure is the survey option. In this case you use a subset of the podcast listening population, and get them to agree to being essentially monitored to see what they listen to. Companies like ComScore do this in the digital realm, while broadcast ratings bodies commonly use this kind of measurement to deliver television and radio ratings. 

As long as your sample is big enough, then you can say with a high degree of certainty that your results are fairly accurate. 

This would seem to be the more achievable model. You don’t need the direct participation of either podcast creators or podcatcher apps. Indeed, anyone could do it.

But of course there are problems. There’s the cost for starters. You will need to employ a company or people to do this for you. Then you need to persuade members of the public to agree to let them be measured. They may well say yes, but they’re also quite likely to want some kind of incentive: cash or other benefits in kind.

Next there’s the size of the sample, and the level to which you want to measure it. If there were only two podcasts in the world, then perhaps a 1,000 people might be enough to say with a high degree of confidence, how much one podcast was being listened to versus another (In fact, the sample required would depend on how similar or different their listening was. If the podcasts are very closely matched, then you need a bigger sample). Political polling often works like this, and of course it’s easier to poll when there are only two parties than when there are three, four or more. If the polls are tight, then a bigger sample is needed to determine who is actually ahead.

In a world where there are hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of podcasts, then depending on how far down the list you want to accurately measure them, your sample gets bigger and bigger. In the UK, to measure broadcast television, a sample of around 5,500 homes are measured. That means that the top performing programmes are quite accurately measured. But I wouldn’t trust the ratings for a programme that airs on a smaller non-mainstream channel. Indeed those channels don’t use programme ratings themselves so much as overall channel shares. The sample size for a given programme might be based on just a couple of viewers and that’s just not statistically significant. In other words, the census model breaks down when you stray beyond the bigger podcast, unless your sample grows quite substantially.

It’s also worth saying that you can take a combination of census and survey to create a hybrid model for your chart. You collect data from those podcast creators who agree to it, and mix it with survey data for a wider picture of the overall market. UKOM, the UK digital’s audience measurement body uses a hybrid approach. 

Before we settle on a methodology for our post-Apple chart, we need to answer another question.

What are podcast charts for anyway?

Charts have historically been about both capturing a cultural moment, but are also an exercise in marketing. When we look at music, film, book or game charts, it tends to be a combination of them both.

We might use the charts to measure the taste of the nation. Lots of people are loving this song, or seeing that film. That’s really useful to know. And what’s more, if lots of people are loving that film, maybe I should see it? For a recent case in point, see The Greatest Showman, which spent a remarkable 18 weeks in the UK Box Office Top Ten. While a lot of that was delivered by repeat viewing, and both word of mouth and wider marketing helped, the fact that the film reached number one in its sixth week of release is unprecedented in recent times. The film’s position in the box office top ten became part of its story and drove people to the film.

These days the UK Top 40 isn’t as important as it once was, but when Ed Sheeran managed to get 16 songs into the top 20 at the same time, it became a story. 

Beyond that, they’re also essential barometers for the industry. While some players might attempt to juice the system – releasing films earlier in the week to create long opening weekends, or in times past, releasing multiple remixes of songs to keep fans buying and keeping a song at number one – they inform creators about what’s selling and what perhaps they should be making in future. 

And if everyone else is reading a book, seeing a film or watching a TV series, we can feel that we’re missing a part of the cultural zeitgeist if we’re not doing the same. 

In the podcast world, charts have been designed in part with both of these things in mind. How is my football podcast doing against my competitors? And what should a listener choose to listen to next?

In fact, Apple’s iteration of a chart was pretty bad at the former. A new podcast might get a blast of heat as it gains traction amongst listeners, but because the chart was skewed towards new subscribers, you couldn’t really tell how well your podcast was doing against a competitors. Even today, many podcast creators spend a lot of time listening out for snippets of information dropped at conferences or in published articles, because there’s no real information out there in the public domain. “Serial got how many downloads with it’s first episode?”

It’s also not clear that podcast charts have really helped listeners to discover new podcasts. Older podcasts with big listenerships might not sit high up the rankings, hiding their popularity, while newer podcasts might flame brightly in the charts. Mid-size podcasts might be hidden altogether. 

Almost certainly the most powerful points of discovery for podcasts are those editorially picked slots in apps like Apple Podcasts, and word of mouth. (The other key way to let listeners discover your new podcast is of course, to pop it into the feed of one of your already popular podcasts. But only the bigger players can do that.)

So what should a podcast chart look like?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to this. For many in the podcast creation community, an accurate set of metrics that lets one company compare its performance with other companies’ would be very useful. That’s the kind of information that might help advertisers. While undoubtedly advertisers are getting this information behind closed doors, there are still question marks about how one company measures its numbers compared with another’s.

You only have to look at the various different ways ‘video views’ have been measured by say Facebook and YouTube. Facebook has 3-second, 10-second and 100% metrics; YouTube prefers 30-second counts, but also provides metrics on 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% completed videos. How do you compare video performance on the two platforms?

A podcast chart would create a comparative measure between different companies; the measurement methodology would be consistent.

But this community probably just wants a straight count. How many downloads (or better yet, listens), did every podcast get in a particular week or month? Just rank them all, with rankings for sub-categories. The data might form the basis of a generally used currency by which podcasts are monetised.

From a listener’s perspective, a straight ranking like that would not be useful. I suspect that a methodology closer to Apple’s is more interesting. The UK music charts have had to fiddle with their methodology quite a lot since subscription streaming services like Spotify came along and were added into the mix. Because Spotify is both used to listen to new music (akin to buying new tracks), and as your music collection (akin to listening to your older music) then they face the ‘problem’ of older music regularly cropping up in the charts because it’s Christmas or whatever.

In truth, both an overall chart and a chart of ‘breaking podcasts’ would probably both be of interest to a wider community of listeners. If we posit that the purpose of the chart is in part to aid discovery of new podcasts, then we need to consider both bigger and newer podcasts.

There needs to be two charts.

So we’re really talking about two key issues within the podcast industry – measurement and discovery. Measurement is key for trading and selling advertising, while discovery is still one of the biggest issues that is limiting podcast growth.

While discussions are ongoing in many marketplaces, most territories do  not have a consistent agreement about how podcasts should be measured (Sweden is perhaps the exception).

In the meantime, podcast discovery is still akin to going to a bookshop that for some reason only has about half a dozen books out on display, with the remainder neatly lined up with only their spines showing from the shelves. Meanwhile a potential reader who doesn’t know much about books, but knows they want something to take on holiday, is being told: “Go on! We’ve got thousands of books in here. Just pick a couple!”

The bookshop’s top ten, meanwhile, is made up of The Bible, The Highway Code, a dictionary and The Da Vinci Code amongst others. All indubitably best-sellers, but…

Apple’s charts are flawed today, and they’re going to continue to be flawed. They’re neither fish nor fowl, and that’s not altogether their fault.

We probably need a couple of different types of charts, but precisely who does the measurement and what kind of measurement takes place is not a simple question to answer. But we probably do need to answer that question.

Overly Mannered Podcast Presentation

I wrote this as a podcast thread last week, but thought it was worth re-visiting a little more here.

If there is one thing I hate in many podcasts (or radio programmes), it’s a presentation style that I would describe as overly mannered.

What I’m talking about is a podcast that’s likely to be scripted, but where the delivery is over-emphasised, often in an attempt to sound empathetic.

There is one podcast – no names, no pack drill – that I’m getting close to stopping listening to at all, because although the subject matter is fascinating, and it explores subjects I’m really interested in, the presenter speaks in such a s-l-o-w deliberate and affected manner that it becomes painful to listen to.

Other examples are those voices that feel like they should instead be reading a story to a kindergarten class. While podcasts are said to always be about telling stories (except that sometimes that’s not true, but we’ll park that thought for another day), they don’t need to adopt the same vocal stylisations of a presenter of Jackanory or Story Time on CBeebies.

This certainly isn’t an attach on scripted podcasts. And nor is it an attack on high production values. I don’t think every podcast should adopt the soundscape that a series like Radiolab creates, but I would certainly not complain about beautiful layered audio.

I think the problem with stilted or unnatural delivery tones stems in part from a kind of ‘learned behaviour’ that almost certainly derives from US public radio. I’m not a historian of US public radio, but I suspect that this kind of delivery has become the standard for many years.

And of course, much of the talent in, especially, the US podcasting sector today, was honed and trained in a US public radio sphere. That’s no doubt changing, but I still feel that a certain tone of voice is what is expected, and so is what is delivered.

To give a related example, consider the Smashie and Nicey characters created by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. That trans-atlantic ‘pop-tastic’ style was a vicious take on a generation of pop DJs on British radio who honestly did speak like that. It became the norm until it became a parody of itself. Yes, radio presenters have always ‘turned it on’ to an extent when the mic goes live, but that was an era when presenters were practically making up new personas.

Note that these kinds of ‘learned behaviours aren’t unique to US public radio. In the past the same could be said to be true for many Radio 4 presentation and delivery styles. I think they’re less of a problem now, but I know that some, for example, struggle with the generic delivery of British radio drama.

I’m also absolutely not talking about so-called ‘Vocal Fry’ which some listeners seem to take exception to. You have the voice that you have. I’m talking about speech patterns as much as anything else.

I know that reading from a script can be a challenge. There are elements of annunciation, the forcefulness of delivery and tone of voice to get right. But just because others have a certain tone of voice, it doesn’t mean that those should be adopted by all.

With podcasts in particular, listeners have made a conscious choice to hear the output, and they’re often listening directly via headphones.

I just want podcast and radio presenters to be a little more original, and mostly natural.

Google Podcasts

Without an enormous amount of fanfare, Google yesterday launched Google Podcasts for Android yesterday, with the possibility of being game changing. I’ve long argued that for the Android/iOS podcasting gap to be closed, Google needed to get involved and create a generic app.

Apple Podcasts is a pre-installed app on every iPhone sold, and with strong backing of podcasts from the outset via the iTunes store, Apple users have consumed podcasts at a far greater rate than Android. Even today, with iOS share slipping slightly, the proportion of podcasts consumed by iOS devices is massively out of kilter with smartphone ownership. In most countries in the world, there is a higher Android user base than iOS.

All of this means that, unless we somehow infer that your choice of smartphone is a strong indicator for how you listen to audio, then there is a massive untapped Android market out there.

Previously Google has only played a little in the podcast arena. They added podcasts to Google Play Music. But only in the US. And podcasters themselves had to add their podcasts into Google Play Music themselves. A combination of those two things meant that that ex-US podcasters who wanted to list their podcast with Google had to go out of their way to employ VPNs to even get their podcast registered. Furthermore, Google Play Music cached audio meaning that podcasters couldn’t see a comprehensive picture of their podcasts’ performance across a range of platforms. Furthermore, newer technologies like dynamic advertising wasn’t possible. The advert baked into the podcast when it was captured by Google remained there in perpetuity.

Google just wasn’t taking podcasts seriously. But that was obviously changing and when Pacific Content published their series of articles on Google’s new podcasting drive earlier this year, things Google had been doing began to come to light. Although the scale of podcasting continues to grow, with more people and organisations releasing more podcasts, and more revenues being derived from them, it was perhaps the growing importance of audio to Google itself that has really pushed things along. Google’s Home and Home Mini devices have been massive sellers, with the company locked in a battle with Amazon’s Echo for grabbing market share in Voice (Despite Apple’s Siri being first to market, Apple is playing a massive catch-up game in this market).

Voice control has come to be an important way we interact with technology with both our phones and our devices in our smart homes. Machine learning has meant that voice comprehension and contextual analysis has rapidly improved. And from there music and speech are perhaps growing in importance. So podcasts fit in neatly.

All of this explains why Google’s new podcast app, isn’t actually an app at all. It’s really a view of Google Assistant. For quite a while now, you’ve been able to ask your Google Home device or your phone to play a podcast. This “app” therefore just makes this a little cleaner.

In fact the app is actually pretty basic. The average podcast app you can download on the Play store is likelier to be much better featured than Google Podcasts. Even something as basic as downloading podcasts for offline listening – the absolute bare minimum you need for any podcast app – requires you to change permissions in a truly bizarre way. Instead of getting a pop up permissions dialog box as you’d expect from recent Android iterations, you’re taken to a user-unfriendly App info page where you have to choose Permissions and then turn on Storage. It really isn’t very obvious, and I suspect many will fall at the first hurdle.

The rest of the app is very basic. The “Top Podcasts” are all very obvious and popular US ones: This American Life, Serial etc. And then all the usual suspects are in each of the category selections. The only two non-US podcasts I saw were the BBC’s World Cup Daily and The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. There was a Five Live section for me, which may have been because I subscribed to a Five Live podcast through the app in testing.

Now to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea to highlight the podcasting big hitters. If you’re just discovering podcasts, then you probably want to listen to all the favourites. And equally, I don’t really know of any app that is very smart at selecting podcasts for you. Indeed, for all it’s revered elsewhere, I find even Netflix misses much more than it hits with selections for me.

Obviously a key benefit that Google Podcasts does have is that if you start listening on, say, your Google Home Mini and then leave your house and listen via your phone, you can carry on where you left off. But in the time I’ve tried the app, I’m unlikely to leave PocketCasts as my podcasting app of choice, which also lets me move between phone and its desktop web app. For smart speakers, I tend to use Cast to keep things in sync and stay on top of which episodes of which podcasts I’ve listened to. It has other much deeper functionality that Google’s offering lacks. This is probably purposeful on Google’s part, and other app developers will probably be relieved.

None of this is to say that Google Podcasts isn’t very important. Any podcast creators should build links to Google Podcasts as soon as possible, include their badges and generally make sure they’re listed correctly. Podnews has a decent FAQ about what you need to do. At the very least, when people share a podcast socially, they can now include a Google URL as well as an iTunes one (NB. They should still really share a link to a website where a range of options are available including the podcast’s unique RSS feed).

However, I’m not sure this is going to be quite the game changer it might have beene. I don’t see the app being pre-installed on phones, and I suspect that most of those who’ve installed already are those who are already very familiar with podcasts. Yes, it’s true that the podcast functionality will be pre-installed in that it forms part of Google Assistant. But it’s not clear that Google is pushing a page as a destination, in the way you might go to the YouTube homepage to see what new videos have been published, or you would open Spotify to purposefully listen to music.

That said, podcast usage is going up – there are some good global numbers in the most recent Reuters Digital News report (Interestingly, the UK is at the lower end of the range with 18% listening to podcasts a month. In South Korea for instance, it’s 58%!), and this initiative can’t but help drive that listening upwards.

One really interesting area Google is planning to tackle is the idea of creating subtitles (or captions) for podcasts using Google’s AI. Relatively few podcasts have transcripts of their programmes, and that makes searching the content within them very hard. If Google can auto-create these, as it does for many YouTube videos, then that makes the power of its search that much better even if the original podcast doesn’t have good meta-data. Users could jump straight to relevant section within a podcast. However this does raise questions of accuracy, and perhaps more so, intellectual property in ownership of those virtual transcripts (Cf All the arguments surrounding Google’s book-scanning initiatives). That all said, I’m unaware of anyone raising those issue with YouTube videos.

In summary then, a good first proper move by Google. They’re going to treat podcasts as essentially search assets, but using their Assistant to ensure that you keep track of what you have and haven’t listened to. However, I wouldn’t expect a significant overnight increase in the number of podcasts served. But podcasting overall continues to see steady growth, and this will undoubtedly help.

Podcasts and Paywalls

There seems to be something of a brouhaha* just now in podcasting land over the idea that some podcasts might live behind a paywall, and I thought it was worth thinking about that a little more.

It was reported at the end of last week, that Amy Schumer has signed a $1m deal with Spotify to make a podcast for them. Furthermore, this is likely to be first of many comedy podcasts that the audio streaming business is looking to create.

This created a certain amount of uproar. Nicholas Quah (of Hotpod) writing for Vulture asked “How Will Amy Schumer’s Huge Spotify Deal Change the Podcast Industry?

Meanwhile Kevin Goldberg at Discoverpod thinks it could be bad for future podcast distribution. While examining the logic behind such costs, Goldberg fears a little for the medium:

“Podcasts were created to be openly distributed through an RSS feed. Exclusivity ultimately threatens one of the basic tenets of podcasts. Though I think most listeners realized this free ride wouldn’t last forever — and with every “Netflix for podcasts” analogy I see online in my heart I knew it as well — it’s still a bit upsetting to see the stake in the ground (again, I’m assuming Schumer’s new podcast will only be available on Spotify).”

What I would say is that all that makes a piece of audio a “podcast” is its RSS delivery mechanism. Yes, there have been great leaps in the range and quality of audio production, driven in large part by the explosion of podcasts. But there has always been a wide range of audio available, and different delivery mechanisms for that audio. An open RSS feed is only one.

The earliest forms were cylinders, shellac discs (e.g. for 78 rpm records), and via radio stations. In time, a variety of improved delivery types became available until today’s landscape which includes broadcast (analogue and digital), physical media, streaming and downloads – some of it free, and some of it behind paywalls of varying types. Audiences have become more used to listening on demand, but the models remain varied.

We may listen for free, programming supported by advertising (or a licence fee or a donation). Or we pay a subscription to “rent” access to the audio. In yet other instances, we buy our own copies of the media – either physical or download.

Changing tastes, fashions and business models mean that that distribution methods ebb and flow.

Podcasts tend to fall into the category of downloads or streams that are often advertising supported. But by no means are they alone.

Comedy is a particularly interesting area to explore, because disseminating comedy – and comedy audio in particular – has a long a varied history. Once upon a time, you would have had to go and see a comedian to hear them. Until well into the last century, vaudeville and music halls reigned with their variety acts including comedians. Bigger names toured countries and built followings. They rose up the bill, and could demand bigger cuts from houses.

Beyond that, radio helped them build out their popularity. Radio shows helped make some comedians household names. Before the advent of television, they might have made a few films to cash in on their success, but you could expect radio and variety shows to provide the bulk of their income.

Yet the recording industry played a role from the outset. Even as Thomas Edison was introducing his cylinders to an eager public, he was recording perhaps the first “comedy albums” with Cal Stewart and his Uncle Josh recordings.

As recordings moved to disc, comedy records went with them, and during the post-war period as recorded music grew significantly in popularity, comedians worked in the medium. There were “party records” – with material too blue or risque to be broadcast anywhere that might be sold under the counter. But beyond them, popular comedians of the time recorded albums. Among them Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Bill Hicks and Eddie Murphy.

These albums sold in great numbers; these comedians effectively working “behind a paywall.”

We don’t know yet what Spotify will do with their Amy Schumer programme. It may well remain a Spotify exclusive – another reason for you to subscribe to Spotify. Perhaps it will be Spotify exclusive for a limited period of time before being made available on every platform – ‘windowing’ in the parlance. There may or may not be advertising. Time will tell.

But in effect, this is no different to a record label in years gone by signing a comedian up to release a comedy album. The form may be different; the material more contemporaneous. However, the similarities are there.

And this is hardly unique. In 2015, Russell Brand did an exclusive deal with Audioboom. He got payed a sum that may have been adjacent to the $1m Schumer is reportedly getting.

Amazon’s Audible has been busy signing up dozens of exclusives to offer as part of its membership scheme. The most successful so far, has perhaps been Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect, which was kept exclusively on the Amazon platform for 6 months before becoming more widely available on podcast platforms. Other Audible exclusives (free to subscriber programming, as distinct from their regular audiobooks) have largely remained on the Audible platform alone.

Ricky Gervais, who did a lot to popularise podcasts back when The Guardian was a backer of his early podcast series, later moved the show behind a paywall by selling episodes in the ‘audiobooks’ section of the iTunes store. More recently he has been making series for US satellite radio broadcaster Sirius XM. These episodes are made available free to Sirius XM subscribers, but again are paid-for episodes for everyone else.

Many of Slate’s podcasts contain extra segments exclusive to paying Slate Plus subscribers. In the case of the popular Slow Burn podcast, entire additional episodes were exclusive to those subscribers.

Many podcasters who use donation funding as part of their model record exclusive episodes for those backers (including The Cycling Podcast, for which I am a producer). Often Patreon is used a way to facilitate this.

All of these are legitimate business models, and it’s not really clear to me why anyone would worry. Generally speaking the biggest audiences will only be available free to air as regular RSS feeds that will work across all podcatching software. Even going ‘app-exclusive’, will instantly see audiences fall. Recall that something like 55-60% of podcast listening still comes from Apple apps. It’s instructive to see that the music industry has tended to move away from significant platform exclusives.

Once you add paywalls, then potential audiences fall. On the other hand, the economics may make sense for the podcast’s producers or a specific platform.

On the most recent Recode Media with Peter Kafka podcast, 99 Per Cent Invisible’s Roman Mars said he doesn’t want to go down the subscription podcast route.

“Right now, I don’t think we have the overall mass to support that change,” Mars said. “We had 70 years of broadcast television to get to a point where we could hone it to people’s [needs]: They need it in their lives and pay a certain amount so they can have ‘The Sopranos.’ I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts.”

Except, I don’t think that’s true. We’ve been selling comedy since the dawn of recorded music, while also making it available free of charge, via radio broadcasts and latterly podcasts.

If paywalls are too confusing, then they will fail. But particularly with comedy, history suggests otherwise.

I do appreciate that, as with Netflix, a certain amount of this is just stealing a march on competitors and gaining market share at cost. Recall that Netflix is not yet in profit. They become profitable when they have enough subscribers to sustain their investment in programming. They’ve made a bet that they will reach this tipping point. Similarly, Spotify is not yet profitable. They too are chasing increased subscriber numbers in the hope of reducing costs overall. In the meantime, they are looking for a means to drive those subscribers.

In general, I would always want my podcast to reach the widest possible audience. Podcasting is still in a growth phase after all. Think of all those people who have yet to discover podcasts (particularly Android phone users). But if someone wants to go subscription only, then that’s for them. And I don’t think it damages podcasting overall.

I would argue that they’re probably not podcasts however.

*What an excellent word.

**Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but I think I’m on safe ground here, if you look within countries

What I’m Listening To… October 2017

It feels like it has been a long time since I wrote about what I’m listening to, and I thought it might be worth just recording my current listening patterns, for my own interest at a later date, if nobody else’s.

In any event, this week I was a panellist on this month’s Radio Today round-table podcast talking about a couple of these podcasts.

This piece is more about podcasts than radio stations per se, and I am an awful podcast downloader in that I download vastly more than I can actually listen to, later spending a lot of time sweeping off the unlistened programmes in big bouts.

Podcast discovery is still a big issue for the industry, as there’s no really good way to find out and discover new podcasts. Many of the lists you see in other places name all the “usual suspects” and however much Apple tweaks its charts, the same candidates are always riding high. And of course, if you big then you can spin-off another big podcast and so on. Hence This American Life begat Serial which begat S-Town. There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there with more launching all the time. Right now, finding the right podcasts for you can often be down to word of mouth. Hence this piece!

You’ll note that there’s basically no music programming here. That’s sort of deliberate, but also I fear, says something about the kind of radio I’ve been listening to of late.

Incidentally, I’ve inserted a link to each of these podcasts and programmes, but this is not an easy thing to do. While many have distinct websites, or pages on larger websites, complete with lots of links to enable the visitor to subscribe, for inexplicable reasons many don’t. In particular there are major providers who consider podcasts as other “content” on a wider site and don’t point people in a direction to subscribe. Or they just embed the audio into a random page and don’t do anything beyond that.

Worse than that are those who rely solely on third party sites – an iTunes “page” often being a ubiquitous link. That’s great if I’m using an iPhone, and next to useless otherwise. I’m not a massive fan on only using something like SoundCloud as your host page either. What happens if something happens to them? Do you have any other web presence? Your own website at least means that if you ever find it necessary to move podcast hosts, you’ve got some continuity.

Make life a little easier for yourself and your potential listeners – build either a no-frills site, or a single page with details of how to access your podcast.

That all said, here’s what I’m listening to right now in no particular order:

  • The Daily. From The New York Times. I probably only listen to one of these per week (they currently published every weekday, with the output due to increase soon), but the range of subjects and the way they cover it is fascinating. Obviously it’s very US-centric, and it’s a shame that Radio 4, for example, doesn’t do something quite the same.
  • Slate Money. This might well really be called Slate Business, because what it’s not about is personal finance. The podcast addresses three stories a week, with the three presenters lead by Felix Salmon being highly opinionated on a range of things. While they can be US focused, it still makes for a great listen, and I eagerly download each Saturday morning.
  • Tweet of the Day. This is less than 90 seconds, and could therefore probably do without the double “This is the BBC” stings at beginning and end. But something that started as essentially an audio guide to the birds of Britain, is now a brief thought from a writer or commentator on a bird. It’s so short, there’s no excuse for not listening.
  • The Media Podcast, The Media Show and Broadcast: Talking TV. All my UK media in three different podcasts (although two share a producer). Between them and the Radio Today Podcast, I’ve got all my media bases covered.
  • The Adam Buxton Podcast. This is an obvious one, but worth stating nonetheless. It’s basically Adam Buxton having extended conversations with people he’s interested in. The subject matter may not always be the obvious ones, and the interviewees tend not to have something to promote. In any case, he often records the interviews some months before they’re edited and broadcast. A good example was the recent episode with Louis Theroux, where they started talking about S-Town and then got into traits of US NPR-style podcasts. Buxton and Theroux referenced an episode of This American Life, which I too had heard, where they took on the sexism of some people who don’t like the “vocal fry” of many female presenters of This American Life. As Buxton and Theroux pointed out, this isn’t necessarily sexism (although it may be in some instances), but partly as a consequence of the stylistics that many podcasts have taken on – often mimicking those of This American Life itself.
  • The Coode Street Podcast. I discovered this when I randomly attended a recording at WorldCon in London a couple of years ago. Essentially its a serious science fiction literary podcast, with the two presenters, each living on different continents, talking about recent books. To say that they’re both voracious readers would be an understatement, but if you’re interested in the genre then they will point you in worthwhile directions.
  • 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This has been a big hit and rightly so. Therefore, if you’ve not listened then you really should. The series is nearly over with an online poll currently being used to decide which of six items should be the “51st thing.” Each episode is only nine minutes, with presenter Tim Harford giving a little background on why Concrete, Barbed Wire or Double Entry Bookkeeping have been so important. Great audio snacks!
  • More or Less. If you’re going to listen to Fifty Things, then of course you’ll be listening to this. More or Less, also presented by Tim Harford is simply essential listening, taking apart the numbers in the news, often quite strongly. For example, when Boris Johnson recently raised the £350m a week nonsense again, More or Less explained very simply why it is very very wrong.
  • Fortunately. This is the Fi Glover and Jane Garvey podcast, two of our preeminent radio broadcasters. Fortunately is one of the BBC’s podcast-only programmes, and we’re now into the second series. The first series was mostly a rambling recommendation programme, highlighting things on BBC radio that you might have missed or not even heard. The second series is more interview led, and is as much as anything an excuse for the pair to natter on about anything that really comes to mind, perhaps with an element of how radio works. I did previously complain that the BBC-only focus was a bit of a missed opportunity, and although Fortunately is leaps and bounds better, it would seem to have replicated the service already provided by Pick of the Week. I guess the reality is that unless you’re some kind of audio-butterfly, there are only so many things you can recommend on a regular basis. So while there’s still an opportunity for someone to do a decent podcast/radio-recommendation programme, this is just great fun.
  • Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. But of course.
  • Seriously. This is really a catch-all bucket to place many of Radio 4’s one-off documentaries. As such it can be a little hit and miss, with the emphasis on the hits. That does mean I pick and choose what I listen to on the feed. The good thing is that when you find yourself reading the review section of Sunday paper the following Thursday and see that they’ve recommended a particular Radio 4 programme, the chances are that it’s already in the Seriously podcast feed. I’m going to duck a little now and just say that the only thing I don’t like about it are the podcast-only wraparounds from Rhianna Dhillon. It’s not Dhillon herself, so much as the tone of the scripts that try hard to personalise everything. It can sometimes feel as though I’m having my hand held too much to get into something. When the programmes are broadcast, the continuity announced it likely to only have time for a couple of lines to set-up the premise of the programme. I don’t feel that I need a great deal more. Now if there’s extra material, or perhaps a chat with the producer, that’s one thing. It’s just the cosiness of it. Sometimes people think there’s a particular “way” to do podcasts, and I simply don’t agree, any more than there’s a single “way” to do any kind of artistic endeavour.
  • Strong and Stable. This political comedy podcast launched during the election, and then disappeared, only to recently start up again. David Schneider and Ayesha Hazarika have different guests each week to take apart what’s happening right now. Even if you’ve “had it up to here” with Brexit, you should still listen.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask. One of a stable of podcasts that includes the Recode Media podcast with Peter Kafka. The latter can be great when he has someone really good, but occasionally there’s an interviewee who seems more intent on pushing their business model, no matter how untried or untested it really is. So I think I prefer the former podcast which gets its hands a little dirtier with the nuts and bolts of technology. The only other technology podcast I’m listening to right now is an occasional episode of The Vergecast.
  • Slate’s Political Gabfest, Slate’s Trumpcast and the Five Thirty Eight Politics podcast. This is my triumvirate of US political podcasts (with a mention for the NPR Political Podcast which handily timestamps to the minute when it was recorded such is the fast moving nature of today’s politics). Between them, I get as much news about US politics as I need or want. They’re all slightly different in tone, with the Gabfest having a wider ranging take on the political issues of the week. Trumpcast is there to cover Trump, and publishes on a “more than once a week” basis. The Five Thirty Eight Politics podcast has expanded beyond the psephology of analysing polls, and moved into more of a “what this means” turn of its existence. All told, they offer a comprehensive look at the car crash that is US politics, and which I can’t take my eyes off.
  • The PC Pro Podcast. I feel I must be missing a UK technology podcast. I used to listen to The Guardian’s one, but it morphed into something that I became less interested in. There’s Babbage below, and the BBC World Service has its Tech Tent, but most technology podcasts seem to be American. This is an exception, and I’ve been a listener for a long time now. I do wish they’d record it in a room, altogether, but I suspect that the finances of the magazine industry being what they are, that’s a bit too much to hope for.
  • Reply All. Gimlet makes a lot of great podcasts, but Reply All is one of their best. Somehow PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman manage to maintain quality at such a high level for so much of the year. There are so many good episodes including the most recent on a video game that had disappeared, and solving the case of someone’s 800-number being filled with recorded randomness. Over the summer, when they were on a break, Reply All “rebroadcast” some of their most popular episodes. So you’ll find hits all the way in their podcast feed right now.
  • The Two Shot Podcast. This is an interview podcast from the bloke from Line of Duty. That’s rather unfair since this is a terrific listen. In each episode, actor Craig Parkinson has an extended interview with someone, usually from the entertainment and drama world. He tends to really dig into their background and how they got into the business, but does it in a really engaging manner. The episode with Neil Morrissey is absolutely fantastic. I didn’t know his background at all, but I couldn’t stop listening to this particular edition.
  • The Economist: Babbage. This is essentially The Economist’s Tech podcast. While it takes its lead from the technology section of the magazine, it digs into the issues and stories a little further.
  • Twenty Thousand Hertz. If you’re interested in sound, then you may well be interested in this. It addresses all aspects of the medium in short and punchy episodes. 20,000 Hz incidentally, is the frequency above which the human ear can no longer hear audio.
  • Reasons to be Cheerful. We’ve only had one episode of this so far, and I should point out that I’m a friend of one of the presenters. This is podcast with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, in which they talk about big ideas. So in the first episode they examined Universal Basic Income. This might seem to be a dry subject, but it’s addressed seriously but with a lightness of touch that makes it very accessible. Geoff Lloyd seems to be leading a one-man mission to dominate podcasting since he and Annabel Port have also recently launched their Adrift podcast, following their departure from Absolute Radio earlier in the year. Both are very much worth subscribing to.
  • The Life Scientific. I confess I pick and choose which episodes to listen to based on how interested I think I’ll be in the subject. That’s a shame, but there’s so much science that I could be listening to, along with The Guardian’s Science Podcast and the BBC’s Inside Science.
  • Between the Ears. This could be just about anything on any given week, but all the better for it. Because it goes out on-air on a Saturday night, it again lends itself well to the podcast form.
  • The Danny Baker Show. If you don’t listen on 5 Live on a Saturday morning, then this is always an entertaining listen a bit later. Baker is a natural for radio, and this is my weekly hit. He has another volume of his autobiography due soon.
  • A Twin Peaks Podcast. When David Lynch and Mark Frost brought back Twin Peaks, there was instantly a whole batch of podcasts that swung into operation, dissecting each episode of the series as it aired. For complicated reasons that I’ll get into another time, I ended up binging the first seven episodes, and so it was only after then that I looked for something to listen to. This podcast comes from Entertainment Weekly and frankly I largely picked it at random from the crowd. But it has been an intelligent discussion from the two presenters after each episode, and post- the series, we’ve also had a few interviews with stars and people involved in the series’ production.
  • A Stab in the Dark. This is funded by UKTV and is essentially there to promote the TV channels Alibi and Drama. But as much as anything. it’s actually mostly a crime book podcast with presenter (and crime writer) Mark Billingham interviewing writers of crime fiction. Sometimes there are interviews with actors too, but mostly it’s with writers. And it feels like as the podcast has progressed; the level of interviewees has really gone up a notch. Billingham is such an amiable presenter that makes you think it’s all quite effortless. It really isn’t, and this is an excellent listen.
  • The Business. A KCRW radio programme on the entertainment industry. While it’s not always perfect, and can sometimes be a little ingratiating in the way it deals with subjects, it has a robust structure, opening with a brief chat (they use the hideous term “banter”) about the big entertainment news of the week, followed by a longer-form interviews with writers/directors/talent.
  • The Bike Show. These days it is relatively occasional in its appearances, but presenter Jack Thurston is charming and it addresses elements of cycling beyond the obvious. Indeed it doesn’t really get into the kinds of racing that most media coverage of cycling seems to be.
  • Page 94: The Private Eye Podcast. This isn’t currently “on-air” as it seems to only be commissioned one series at a time. But it’s worth adding to your podcatching software if you want to know the stories behind the stories. Indeed, it has really become quite a news-focused podcast rather than addressing the comic elements of Private Eye.
  • >Wireless Nights with Jarvis Cocker. Another Radio 4 programme, but it suits the medium superbly, especially as the radio programme airs quite late at night, and can be easy to miss.
  • The Butterfly Effect with Jon Ronson. This isn’t strictly a podcast because it’s currently only available to Audible subscribers. But it’s a podcast in tone, in that it follows a story over six episodes, exploring the consequences of something. In this instance, it’s the availability of free pornography online. Indeed my only real issue with the series is that it sometimes feels that pornography gets far more coverage from documentarians than many other subjects. To be completely fair, since this is presented in audio form, there’s not the same titillation that so many TV documentaries can run the risk of (either deliberately or inadvertently), and there are certain areas this series gets into that I never knew about. Clearly there was some significant money put into this project.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are plenty more I subscribe to, but they’re either really obvious podcasts that “everyone” listens to, or I really only dip in and out. Some are “off-air” right now, and therefore aren’t front of mind. Then there are the podcasts that are so occassional, it’s not worth even mentioning them.

Missing from here are plenty of news and current affairs podcasts I subscribe to, mostly actually listening to based on what the subject matter is. The same goes for some arts podcasts or things like Radio 3’s Essays.

I am looking for a good TV related podcast that deals with the industry from a viewer’s perspective (rather than the media industry side of things). I used to listen to KCRW’s The Spin-Off and Vulture’s TV Podcast, but sadly, both ceased production within a few weeks of each other earlier this year. The former did say that it was transitioning into something new, but unless I’ve missed it, that’s not happened yet. Both of those were obviously US-focused, and I wouldn’t mind something more UK-US or international in flavour, but I’ve not really found anything.

Finally, I should also mention The Cycling Podcast, but since I do a certain amount of production work for them, I am enormously biased when I say that it’s the world’s best professional cycling podcast.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2016

It has been a while since I’ve properly looked at RAJAR’s MIDAS survey, and it really does bear some close attention because it gives the most accurate picture of audio consumption in the UK right now.

As a reminder, MIDAS is a separate survey to the main RAJAR measurement, in which over 2,000 respondents are asked in detail about their audio listening habits by platforms, location, device and who they’re with.

It’s there to provide additional listening information and generally add ‘colour’ to the main RAJAR survey. Over time it allows some tracking in behavioural changes.

The full dataset is only made available to RAJAR subscribers, but RAJAR publishes a very good summary, and this provides plenty to get stuck into.

The key measure is Audio Share – the percentage of time spent listening to various types of audio. This is also known as “Share of Ear”, although I believe this is trademarked by Edison Research who carry out similar research in this area in the US.

Of course, simply saying “audio” is too simplistic because, for example, watching YouTube music videos is undoubtably a competitor to traditional audio sources for some audiences. So MIDAS does measure video as well as audio, although in most of the charts below, visual media has been excluded.

Share of Audio % (excluding visual)

The topline results show that live radio accounts for 76% of all audio consumption. The next closest category is digital music (downloads) at 9%. To put this in context, here is how radio’s share has performed over the most recent MIDAS surveys:

Careful examination of this data would seem to suggest a few things:

  • Radio remains vastly important in the audio world. While the last couple of MIDAS releases showed it declining a touch, it seems to have bounced back this time around. I’d be surprised if it didn’t fall some more over time since there are such strong radio competitors. But there’s still only one gorilla in this room.
  • Online Music Streaming (OMS in the above chart – e.g. Spotify, Apple Music) is growing. They seem to be growing as digital music tracks and CD listening is declining. Do you pay 99p at iTunes for a track or £9.99 a month for as much as you like? Consumers are shifting towards the latter.
  • Listen again is growing a bit, while podcasts remain static. The latter in particular definitely suggests something different in the UK, from say, the US.
  • Vinyl and cassette is basically static (although the graph doesn’t really show that it was at less than 1% at the start of the period displayed). You can safely treat all those news stories about vinyl’s resurgence as the hyperbole they truly are. Yes, a few albums are being sold as nice to have items, but in the scheme of things, they don’t amount to much in behavioural changes.

Now this chart doesn’t show the whole story. As I say, only RAJAR subscribers get the full dataset of MIDAS, but RAJAR publishes different aspects of the data in each release. And this time around they’ve published the demographic breakdown of listening. Indeed I think some of this has been presented at the Salon de la Radio in Paris over the last couple of days.

This shows some really clear differences by age group.

  • 15-24s spend 51% of their time listening to the radio (the green bar above) compared with 88% of 55+’s time. Radio is still the clear leader, but in time spent listening there is a competitor on the block.
  • Online Music Streaming is vastly more popular amongst 15-24s than other demographic groups. 15-24s spend 21% of their audio time on these services. This drops to just 9% for 25-34s and right down to 1% for 55+. This is as clear a behavioural change by age as you’re likely to see.
  • If you’d asked me to predict which age group spends the biggest proportion of their time listening to CDs, I have definitely said it was an older group. But in fact, the actual biggest group is 15-24s! Are they borrowing others music, or perhaps they can’t yet afford a Spotify subscription?
  • Podcasts are most popular amongst 24-34s, spending significantly more time than other age groups.

One thing to be careful of is that these are percentages within each age group. It’s important to note that overall volume of time spent listening will be different by different groups. So amongst CD listening, 5% off 55+ listening might be significantly more hours than 6% of 15-24s (the data doesn’t let us see).

What will be interesting to see is future growth of streaming. While there are free/bundeled streaming options – notably Spotify, or Amazon’s free offering for Prime members – there is surely a top limit to those prepared to pay £9.99 a month for music? There are ways to reduce the cost including family plans and logins shared with others; and some will happily bounce around different services taking advantage of free three month trials, creating new disposable email accounts as necessary. But continued growth within the UK market still isn’t clear.

Hours isn’t the whole story of course, and it’s worth looking at reach too. That shows that usage is much closer for most of the platforms. So while 90% of 55+ listen to the radio accounting for 88% of their listening, 82% of 15-24s listen to the radio but it accounts for just 51% of their listening.

Audio Reach % By Age Group

A couple of other charts. Ever wonder what people are doing when they listen to the radio?

Live Radio by Activity

Most radio presenters will recall being told to broadcast as though they were speaking to a single listener. There’s a good reason for that. A slight majority of radio listening is done alone, although this changes for younger listeners who listen more socially.

Live Radio by Who Listened With

Other things of note:

  • While most services are split evenly by sex, podcasts are notable for being significantly more male than female – 61% v 39%.
  • While laptops and tablets are used a lot for live radio, on smartphones the majority of use is for digital tracks and on demand audio.

There’s more in the original presentation which you can download on the RAJAR website.

Source RAJAR/IpsosMori. Sample 2,191. Conducted November 2016.

The Cycling Podcast Review of the Year 2016

I seem to have been a little backwards in coming forwards with details of this edition of The Cycling Podcast put together by yours truly and published over the Christmas period.

Obviously it won’t be of enormous interest if you don’t follow professional cycling, and you’ll miss all the running jokes if you haven’t listened to previous episodes of the programme. And if you do follow cycling, and already listen to The Cycling Podcast, then you should have already heard it.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of effort went into making this, since we all know that searching for audio clips is relatively slow going. You can’t easily “scrub” it as you would video.

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Diversity in Radio

portrait

Yesterday, two things happened.

I got an email from Sound Women telling me that the organisation will be closing down at the end of next year.

And I went to a radio and audio conference in London.

I’ll explain the link in a minute. But let’s just say for the moment, that I learnt a new word yesterday too: manel.

It’s sad news that Sound Women is closing, because I think it’s fair to say that it has achieved a lot in the five years of its existence. As their blog explains, it’s a consequence of time (of their volunteers) and resources that has led to the decision.

What’s clear is that while the issues raised by Sound Women have been tackled to some extent, that does not mean that sexism in the radio and audio industry is over.

The medium still has a lack of diversity, and when I say this, I include sex, race and social background. I trust that their legacy will live on.

I received the email as I sat in a London radio and audio conference – the RAIN Summit Europe – in The British Museum. Overall I like this event, and there are a good range of speakers including some really excellent ones.

Notably Megan Lazovick of Edison Research gave a really good talk about in-car radio listening. It included some frighteningly dangerous footage of drivers explaining how they used their mobile phones to stream audio while in the car (coming in the week that a truck driver was imprisoned for ten years after killing a family while using his phone). But there was some really good insight into usage in the car.

Then in the afternoon we got entertaining presentations from David Cooper of Spotify and Sam Crowther of A Million Ads.

But there was also this.

Yes – that’s a NINE person panel for a session. And all nine, plus the moderator, are white men from around Europe. I’d tell you what it was about, but I practically fell asleep as it was as interesting as watching a supertanker conduct a turning procedure.

This size panel does not work. Panels are generally not great at conferences unless they’re incredibly well focused. You can’t have a meaningful discussion with this many people in the room.

And if you are going to have a massive panel, or even a small one, couldn’t you have at least found ONE woman?

My Twitter feed taught me a new word at this point: Manel.

I don’t think Sound Women’s job is quite yet done…