Podcasts

Trends in Podcasting: Cults and Cult Leaders

This is a sort-of follow up to yesterday’s piece on daily news podcasts. It may become an occasional series.

In March this year, Netflix launched a documentary series called Wild Wild Country. It’s a six part series exploring an Indian guru and his followers in a county in deepest Oregon.

There’s no obvious way to see how successful the series was, but like Making A Murderer before it, it definitely caught the cultural zeitgeist. A popular documentary series exploring one story in great detail.

Now I’m sure it’s coincidence, but there have since been something of a string of podcasts based around cult leaders that have since come along. Of course, the cult subject matter is fascinating to any kind of documentary maker. Why would people follow a cult leader and their sometimes devastating belief systems?

Fairly soon after Wild Wild Country launched, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series launched a 5 part series on Bikram Choudhrey – he of Bikram yoga fame. Not quite the same thing as Wild Wild Country, but there are definitely similarities. Both were gurus originating in India. The series launched in May, and its production pre-dated Wild, Wild Country. Indeed in an episode on the making of the series they talked about the issues surrounding two similarly themed programmes coming out at the same time. It was simply a coincidence.

Last week, as the BBC launched its new Sounds app, they also launched a new podcast from the Five Live team that had previously made Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That previous podcast was about the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and told the story of Michael Peterson who was charged with her murder. This is the same story that had been told in a TV documentary series, The Staircase, a series recently continued by Netflix.

The same radio team has now made End of Days, an eight episode series about David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas and the tragic siege in 1993. Specifically, it looks at the 30 Britons who were part of his group.

The podcast is initially a BBC Sounds exclusive – so strictly speaking, it’s not actually a podcast just yet. The BBC says that it will be made available on all other podcasting platforms at the end of the month, after a period of exclusivity on BBC Sounds. All eight episodes are available to listen to now for UK audiences.

I suspect that, again, this podcast has been long in the making, and it’s just coincidence that it followed so swiftly on the heals of Wild Wild Country.

But then, another new podcast has just launched from Slate. Standoff is a podcast about the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. This wasn’t of the same scale as the Waco siege a year later, but it’s no doubt an interesting story. Slate is releasing this podcast on a weekly schedule.

As I say, it’s quite probably an accident that we’ve had a slew of podcasts on religious cult leaders all coming within a few months of one another. Given the popularity of true crime, it’s likely that podcast producers have been scouring the true crime bookshelves in search of interesting subjects, and there have been plenty of books and TV movies on all of these subjects.

It’s also notable that many of these stories happened in the early nineties or earlier, and therefore aren’t quite as well known but a millennial, podcast-consuming generation.

When Beyond Reasonable Doubt was first released, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn’t appeal to me since I’d already seen the extensive TV documentary series on BBC Four. I wondered why the same story had been chosen for the podcast. My colleague pointed out that for many of the audience for this podcast, this was a new story for them, and they probably weren’t BBC Four viewers. And it remains true that while some of these series are exploring things older listeners may already know about, for many more, these are new stories.

Trends in Podcasting: News Podcasts

In January last year, The New York Times launched a new podcast called The Daily. Spinning off to an extent from what the paper had been doing during the 2016 Presidential election, The Daily quickly developed a following. With a strong voice – both authorial and audible – in Michael Barbaro, it grew quickly. For a certain demographic, it became a must listen.

The Daily is excellent at digging into stories that The New York Times has covered in that day’s paper. A usual episode will deal with one or perhaps two stories, speaking with the Times’ journalists involved, and using clips and other archive material to give the story colour. The production quality is excellent. It’ll end with a summary of other things you need to know. The podcast is released early in the morning US time, so it’s available to listen on listeners’ commutes.

The Daily is by no means the first attempt at a daily news podcast. Lots of broadcasters have been doing lots of news things for an awfully long time. Many of them were spin-offs of radio programmes, but there were also standalone podcasts including ones from major newspapers like The Guardian. And there are certainly popular news podcasts. The Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service is the BBC’s single biggest podcast in terms of downloads, by a significant margin.

But somehow The Daily took off when others haven’t (or at least hadn’t).

Since its launch, The Daily has also become a syndicated public radio series, with episodes airing on a number of public radio stations after 4pm the same day, allowing it to remain a podcast-first property. Meanwhile the FX channel has ordered 30 episodes of TV version called The Weekly, with episodes going onto Hulu the day after broadcast. The series is due to start later this year. All in all, The Daily has become a very multimedia property for The New York Times.

To nobody’s great surprise, lots of other people want to get into the mix.

Recently The Guardian announced that it was launching a new daily news podcast presented by Anushka Asthana. Today in Focus has just launched. As with The Daily, Today in Focus concentrates on a single big story, although it is also carrying a second supplemental story too. In the first week Today in Focus has concentrated on Brazil’s new far right president, and the upcoming mid-term elections. The podcast is available early each morning, in time to be listened to for the morning commute.

The Guardian’s podcast managed to launch the same week that the BBC launched it’s new daily news podcast – Beyond Today. This launched at the same time as BBC Sounds, the big new audio app was formally launched by the BBC (it has been available in a public beta for a few months now). 

Beyond Today also follows the well-trodden path of concentrating on a single story. And as with Today in Focus, the podcasts tend to be around 20 minutes in length (The Daily tends to run twenty-something minutes a day). 

In the first week Beyond Today had episodes about Britain’s finances, ahead (or in fact just after) the budget, a very sad story about an Iraqi Instagrammer, middle class drug use (Although I think that episode missed a trick concentrating largely on a dealer and a real addict. It should have looked more closely at general users.), WhatsApp and a piece about who makes the news with Amol Rajan. Incidentally, although Rajan sometimes feels a little over-exposed appearing everywhere from The One Show on BBC1 to The Media Show on Radio 4, this episode is worth a listen, since it examines a real class issue in the media which often gets overlooked in issues of representation and diversity.

The one thing I’m slightly curious about is the name. When I first heard the name, I thought that it was a Today programme spin-off. But it’s not really, in that it has its own presenters – Tina Daheley and Matthew Price – and that it doesn’t sound at all like it’d appear on the Today programme. That said, I believe excerpts have indeed aired on Today this week. But I’d actually say that in tone, it’s closer to Five Live rather than Radio 4.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Slate has been running What Next, a

Interestingly, both What Next and Slate’s other daily podcast, The Gist, get published later in the day rather than earlier.

Earlier this year, Vox launched its own competitor,Today, Explained which it very much pitches as a more fun version of The Daily. You won’t be surprised to learn that it runs around 20 minutes. So you can maybe listen to three of these daily news podcasts if your commute lasts an hour!

Today, Explained is definitely more casual than some of the others, although the stories are always interesting. In the last week it has run episodes on white hat hackers (i.e. hacking for good, often identifying vulnerabilities and reporting them before bad guys can use this), universal basic income and fracking in Colorado amongst others.

Elsewhere, HotPod alerts us to The Washington Post hiring producers for its own upcoming daily podcast. It already has a daily political podcast – The Daily 202’s Big Idea which has been running for a while now. 

These are by no means the only news podcasts of course. There are plenty of news podcasts out there. But many of these are more like traditional news programmes. 

The BBC, for example, makes available in podcast form several of its flagship news programmes including the World At One and The Six O’Clock News from Radio 4, and Newshour from the World Service. All of these are the same as the broadcast versions.

The BBC’s flagship news programme domestically, is the Today programme. But that has a rather odd podcast presence. The radio programme runs for three hours Monday to Friday, so is too big to simply put out as a podcast – at least, not if you want people to listen.

Instead, Today publishes 3-4 separate podcasts a day. The first is inevitably the business news of the day, while the remaining 2-3 are based on segments of the programme, or gather together different segments on the same news story. The issue here is that the offering feels very piecemeal, and there’s little urgency in publishing the podcasts. Given the importance of the 8.10am interview – usually with a leading politician – the podcast may not appear until late morning, if at all. (Also, I’d love the podcast to lose the phrase, “You can listen to more free content from Today…” for obvious reasons.)

Of course the success of The Daily is in part due to it being available in time for listeners’ commute, so simply re-purposing morning news radio programmes leaves podcast rebroadcasts of radio news programmes at a slight disadvantage. But then, you probably shouldn’t be using podcasts to get “breaking news.”

As long as producers realise that they’re not trying to compete with 24 hour news channels that are rushing to break news, then podcasting publishing timescales can work well.

Publications like The Financial Times and The Economist do publish regular news programmes, but they have more weekly than daily output. Perhaps the closest equivalent I know of in UK radio is the BBC World Service’s Business Daily which is a Monday to Friday radio show that is nicely re-edited into a daily podcast. It’s business in its very broadest, and like The Daily has a deep dive into a different subject each day.

Could LBC do something interesting with Eddie Mair? A sharply edited 15-20 minute version of his 2 hour radio show? For some reason, there doesn’t yet appear to be an Eddie Mair podcast at all. LBC has had good success with viral videos, but I’m not sure that’s true in the podcast world. Interestingly, LBC is now winding down its paid-for download operation in advance of a new app that will let people listen-again, no doubt with targeted audio ads.

There is certainly room for a UK-focused daily podcast, and I’m sure other outlets aside from The Guardian and the BBC are working on them. I shall be listening.

[Update: Brett blogs about news podcasts and highlights a CBC called Front Burner.]

Note that these are my personal views, and do not reflect those of my employer.

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.

The One Podcast to Rule Them All

Tom Webster of Edison Research wrote a very good piece on Medium recently to back up a presentation he recently gave at the Podcast Movement conference in the US. The main theme of his piece was about getting to 100 million weekly (i.e. regular) podcast listeners in the US. Currently they are at 48 million weekly listeners, so there are another 52 million to go.

Using Edison’s research, he shows that while 17% of Americans listen weekly, 64% have heard the term. And of that group, 37% of them have never tried to listen. His thesis is that to get to 100 million, we need to understand what is stopping people who have learnt about podcasting as a thing actually going further and listening to one. He has a great video of real people explaining why they’ve not bothered, and of course there are lots of good reasons for that.

Webster’s thesis is that if the right show comes along then people will work out how to get to a podcast. He uses the example of Netflix. They didn’t go around explaining how the Netflix app on people’s new smart TVs or Roku boxes work. Instead they made and marketed Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. People wanted to see those shows and they worked out for themselves how to get to them. Around 50% of US homes now have Netflix, so something is working there.


As an aside, it’s interesting to note that massively popular video game Fortnite has just been released for Android devices. Unlike most apps, the game’s creators Epic have sidestepped Google’s Play Store. They want you to download it direct from their site. In order to do this, users have to jump through some hoops  to allow “sideloading” of the app to their devices. Epic is doing this because they create a direct relationship with games players, and more significantly, they don’t have to pay a 30% commission to Google on every in-game transaction. Epic’s gamble is that players are so keen to get the game that they will educate themselves about how to get it for their device. This is almost certainly true, and backs up Webster’s thesis.


One really good point Webster makes is that the top performing content in the podcast landscape being different to, say, the TV landscape. He shows a screengrab of the iTunes top podcasts which are full of public media and highbrow programmes: The Daily, This American Life, Serial, Pod Save America.

Compare and contrast with the Nielsen top TV ratings which are full of mainstream, or even low-brow shows like The Big Bang Theory, America’s Got Talent, Celebrity Family Feud, Little Big Shots and The Bachelorette.

It’s not that TV doesn’t do lots of highbrow material, but that this isn’t the most viewed. OK, there are comedians in the iTunes charts, and 60 Minutes is in the Nielsen chart, but in general it’s a good point.

Now what I would say is that in recent weeks in the UK, the Love Island: The Morning After podcast did very well, and was fighting tooth and nail with World Cup podcasts when both events were happening. So low-brow can get an outing.

But it does feel, especially in the US, that there’s a certain type of audience that is being super-served, and a mainstream that isn’t.

The question in my mind is whether there could ever be any one “show” that would achieve what is being suggested?

In a recent HotPod, Nicholas Quah wrote a bit of a follow-up to Webster’s piece. He notes that there are at least three potential counter-arguments against the “show” notion: that it’s antithetical to the open publishing medium; that Netflix is a bad example because it controls it own platform centrally, while podcasting can’t; and that there already are shows like Serial, Pod Save America and so on that fill that gap.

Quah isn’t totally sold on any of these counter-arguments, and neither am I. However, I would note that it’s incredibly hard to make a single programme that will cut-through on such a scale that everyone flocks to it. US TV networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying, and mostly failing every year. Reality shows like America’s Got Talent, or sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory are the exception rather than the rule.

And since we don’t have figures from Netflix, we don’t actually know how successful House of Cards or Orange is the New Black actually are. We know that at one time or another they’ve been the single biggest shows on the platform, but as Netflix has grown it has developed a very wide roster of programming. Yes there are the big budget awards contenders like The Crown and House of Cards, but there are also reality shows like Queer Eye, and very mainstream comedies.

Recent research from UK regulator Ofcom found that the single most popular show in the UK on any of the streaming services is Friends which is available on Netflix in the UK (and is on the Comedy Central UK TV channel). It had twice the number of streams of the next biggest programme The Grand Tour from Amazon.

Top 20 SVoD programmes in the UK, Q1 2018

I realise that Friends has many more episodes than many of these other programmes, and the chart is sorted by the total number of streams. But it’s notable that a lot of sitcoms and more popular genre programming take up a number of places in the chart. Oh, and kids programmes sneak in at the bottom of the top 20 too.

I would love to know how many listeners to the Love Island podcast  discovered podcasts for the first time with this show. I suspect that a number of them did, since the TV show was such a big summer hit for ITV2. But there are plenty more fans of the show who did not download the podcast, and still haven’t discovered the medium.

Webster also highlights music as a problem. Podcasts really can’t do music. Yes, you get a few podcasts that include bits of music here and there. But they’re probably not licenced to include that music, even if the artist has actually given them permission. Certainly a podcast that promotes new music is unlikely to feel the long arm of the music industry law because everyone realises it’s better for all concerned to let it slide. But that doesn’t mean that it’s strictly legal.

Webster talks about  use of the word “Subscribe” which I know a lot of people find off-putting. Subscribe does normally entail payment of money. But he mentions YouTube who I think have possibly put that idea to bed a little. Many people happily “Subscribe” to YouTube channels and have come to realise that it doesn’t come with any commitment, financial or otherwise. So I think that’s probably the direction things need to go. I believe that for that reason alone, podcasts can continue to use the “subscribe” terminology.

I absolutely do agree that “Subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts” is awful, and there need to better ways to do it. 

For a lot of podcasts it’s actually more like “Subscribe to us on iTunes, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.” That’s even worse because you’re basically disenfranchising anyone without an iPhone, and spoiler alert, that’s most of the world.

So yes, yes, yes, build a website! There are enough website building platforms out there – often advertising on podcasts – that can help you out and get something simple up and running. If you can navigate making a piece of audio, finding a host, learning about RSS feeds, and making your podcast available in places like the iTunes store, then a basic website is well within your grasp!

I do agree that if you make the right show, people will come looking for it. However you can definitely make that journey easier – producing basic guides to how to get a podcast on your phone, or walking your audience through the steps. Having a web home for your podcast helps – those browser streams do count, and they provide you with search engine juice. Discovery is made a bit easier too. I admit that it’s a particular bugbear of mine when someone’s new podcast is promoted solely with an iTunes link.

Podcasting needs a more diverse range of populist, mainstream shows to become a bigger medium – sport and comedy go some way towards this, but  there is more to be done. I don’t believe it’s a single show, because that’s a nirvana that is closer to a moonshot than a commissioning strategy for a nascent medium.  And of course the journey to getting people to a podcast needs to be made easier.

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.

Google and Podcasts – Stuck in Draft #3

This is another of my Stuck in Drafts series – where I dig into things I had largely written months or even years ago – and get around to publishing them. This one is a little unusual in that it was penned back in April 2016, and I’ve left it alone. However, I’ve added some extra notes detailing where things have moved on a little, or where they haven’t.

So finally, months after first announcing that they were coming, podcasts have landed at Google Play Music – the inelegantly named platform that Google uses to distribute audio.

As a matter of fact, podcasts have arrived in the US and Canada. For the rest of us, they’re a way off. Nobody quite knows how far off though. December 2017 update: They’re still now here.

So if you live in North America, or can fire up a VPN to make it look like you live in North America, you get a new look Google Play Music website. Actually, everyone gets a new look GPM (can I shorten it to that?) because they’ve adopted a new logo.

Regular readers will know that I use GPM for my general music playing. As well as offering a music store, and a Spotify-a-like £9.99 all-you-can-eat streaming service, they allow you to store your music collection of up to 50,000 tracks in the cloud.

GPM has also adopted Songza quite widely. In the US, you can listen to free “radio” services based on time of day, location and genre of music. Outside the US, these stations are only available to paid subscribers, but they’re smart and are well tailored to what you might be looking for – Party Music on a Friday night, or Soundtracks to get through the work day.

As well as gaining an extra tab on the left labelled Podcasts, North American users now also have a choice of podcast playlists/”radio stations. These might be labelled “Learning Something New” or “Getting Lost in a Story,” and pull together individual episodes of podcasts into a playlist of thematically related material.

You can also subscribe to podcasts as you do regularly with other providers. Discovery of podcasts remains a major issue, with often static iTunes charts being the key way to surface new material. But the range and breadth of podcasts being made is far wider than those charts often show users. So the opportunity for Google to point listeners in new podcasts directions is not to be under-estimated.

That all said, I was a little underwhelmed by the whole thing, and it felt a little like a soft-launch of a product. So while I might be sitting in the UK slightly miffed at not being able to shift to a Google platform just yet, I’m not sure I’d be ready to anyway.

As ever, the real issue with a potentially massive inventory is finding a way to reveal your wares to customers in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. It’s the same issue that iTunes and Netflix have, and Google hasn’t cracked this nut yet.

Initially you see just a handful of podcasts available. A drop-down reveals a selection of familiar categorisations, each of which reveals a further limited selections of offerings within those categories.

What you quickly notice is that the vast majority of podcasts visible are American.

This is perhaps unsurprising for a number of reasons:

– The majority of podcasts in English are probably American
– The new service is targeted at North Americans
– The portal for podcasters to list their podcasts is geo-blocked to North American IP addresses

Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t workarounds including keen non-American podcasters using VPNs to get their shows listed, but it certainly mitigates against the wider world.

Given that most podcasts find significant audiences in North America, that means that American users probably aren’t in a position to migrate to Google from their current suppliers unless they’re happy to have an incomplete experience.

But Google is perhaps looking at the bigger picture and not really trying to replace services that already exist. I couldn’t say with any certainty that I will be ditching PocketCasts as my preferred podcasting solution anytime soon, even if podcasts are made available in the UK, and the “catalogue” is as complete as iTunes’/PocketCasts one one is.

The bigger opportunity is for those who don’t currently listen to podcasts, and find the situation complicated and confusing. For those new users, this might be open up a new world of audio.

And putting podcasts into search could be massive. If a Google search reveals a relevant episode of a podcast, that could be a massive driver of discovery and growth. With speech to text improving all the time, Google might have the ability to index audio and deliver programmes in a smart way.

December 2017 addendum: Podcasts still haven’t found their way into Google Play Music, but there are rumours afoot that that GPM is due a major upgrade and perhaps podcasts will form part of that. There remains a massive opportunity for podcasts were Google to place a standard app on its phones as part of the Android ecosystem. But that’s obviously also a threat for third-party podcast providers.

What Google does now do is surface podcasts in search. If you ask something like a Google Home Mini to play a podcast, it can do so. The same on your phone. It’ll remember where you are and let you continue. It’s by no means a perfect experience, but Google is at least surfacing podcasts for its users, and that can only help even if they’re not really providing a very good overall experience.

This topic deserves a bigger return to it in 2018.

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.

Tour de France 2017 Podcasts

Valverde and Quintana ahead of the Sky train including Peter Kennaugh, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at the 2015 Tour de France
At the 2015 Tour

Le Tour is back underway, and while I’m sadly not planning to go and visit this year, I am of course closely watching TV, listening to the radio and podcasts and following all the action on Twitter.

And of course, I’m helping out with The Cycling Podcast, the finest podcast covering cycling! Listen in your favourite podcast app!

I’ve been making a few of the KM0 feature podcasts (KM0 indicates the point at which the race actually starts each day, following a warm-up of a few kilometres out of the start town).

Here’s on on the environment and the Tour, with its rolling circus of 2,000 vehicles:

Here’s one on the breakaway kings of this year’s Tour, Wanty-Groupe Gobert, who have been putting their riders in most of the breaks, however much they may be doomed to failure:

And here’s my favourite so far, on Australian Phil Anderson, and in particular his yellow jersey win in the Pyrenees in 1981.

Fortunately…

The first ladies of radio, Fi Glover and Jane Garvey have a new podcast out that’s really quite essential listening: Fortunately…

Glover and Garvey are fantastic radio people, and to a large extent, the joy of this podcast is just to hear them in fairly casual conversation with one another. Episodes are recorded in various non-studio places around the BBC in London.

In fact, the purpose of the podcast is to guide the interested listener to other things they might like across BBC Radio 4 and its sister station Radio 4 Extra (more on this anon). Each presenter takes it in turns to recommend something that they’ve listened to over the last seven days. Often these are current programmes, but sometimes they delve deeper into the archive. The key thing is that they have collated links to all these programmes and you can go back and listen to them in full at your convenience.

Since the primary medium of this programme is as a podcast (it’s not being broadcast on the radio), it’s very easy to either add a new podcast or find something on iPlayer Radio while you’re actually listening to their recommendations.

Now you might think that there’s already a Radio 4 programme that does this – it’s run for years and is called Pick of the Week. And you’d be right. Sort of.

Glover and Garvey are careful not to use the words “pick of the week” in any context where they’re too close together. But I suppose their point of difference is that as people many of us have come to “know” after hearing them so much on the radio, we’ll know the kind of things they’re likely to choose. You do need to know a reviewer to help determine whether what they’re saying will chime with you. Conversely, if I know that your tastes are markedly different from my own, then I will treat your recommendations with caution.

While I’m sure that every presenter of Pick of the Week assiduously listens to vast amounts of BBC Radio output, you do get the feeling that some editions are a little scripted, and that the presenter may not always be quite as diligent as they present themselves.

Fortunately… exists in a podcast-only format, and I suppose it’s a slight shame that three episodes in, they seem to be restricted to national BBC radio output – more specifically the Radio 4 network. Such is the wealth of good radio, guiding listeners to otherwise unknown gems around the various networks is a worthy service, but adding in some third party podcasts might be interesting too.

At one point in an episode, Helen Zaltzman’s name came up, initially described as someone who does a lot of crafting. This was quickly elaborated upon as not being the only thing we’d know her for (she’s a regular guest on programmes like Woman’s Hour, where she has indeed talked about crafting). But it felt like they were avoiding the obvious – she’s actually rather famous for making popular podcasts like Answer Me This and The Allusionist, to the extent that she’s been doing a two-hander live show with Roman Mars of 99% Invisible fame.

I’d hope that perhaps in due course Fortunately… expands its remit to include other radio stations and particularly podcasts. One of the main issues facing both podcast creators and listeners, is discovery. How do you find out about new shows? Some of the broadsheets make a good effort to alert readers, but for the most part, it feels that successful podcasts breed successful podcasts: This American life begat Serial. Serial begat S-Town. And so on.

While the cream is said to rise to the top, I’m not sure that’s always the case if the cup is incredibly deep, and the cream goes rancid before it gets a chance to reach the surface – to enormously overstretch a metaphor.

Incidentally, was I the only person left a little disappointed by the discussion about podcasts on The Media Show a couple of weeks ago? There was a pre-recorded interview with Brian Reed, presenter and producer of the excellent S-Town, before a short state-of-the-nation discussion about UK podcasts with Caroline Crampton of The New Statesman’s SRSLY and Ellie Gibson of Scummy Mummies.

The tenor seemed to be that the UK couldn’t do big podcasts like S-Town because it’s expensive and there’s the BBC here which cripples the opportunity. But I’m not entirely sure that we were comparing apples with apples here. As Reed had pointed out in his interview, much podcasting in the US is still a few people sitting around a microphone plugged into a laptop. A massively successful podcast like Marc Maron’s WTF, for example, is still recorded relatively simply in his garage.

It’s only the very top layer of podcasts that is are at the heavily produced and expensively made level of This American Life, Gimlet, Panoply or Radiotopia. And yes, US scale, and a less well funded public radio system means that there’s more space for podcasts to breathe. But neither of the podcasters in the studio was really in the same market as those big beasts. Indeed, I’m not sure that even the BBC could have put through the resources that went into something like S-Town, where the story germinated for a number of years before finally being made as a standalone series.

But, the aforementioned Allusionist is part of the successful Radiotopia family and is made by a Brit, and the podcasting output of organisations like The Economist, The Guardian and The FT is first rate by any measure, utilising sophisticated sound design and first rate production. However, it’s clear that the UK podcast advertising marketplace has not yet developed to as significant an extent, which means that nobody is getting rich (or even moderately wealthy) just yet. Spin-off live events, books and other merchandising are still a requirement.

There are high quality podcasts being made in the UK. Many of them will be celebrated this weekend at the first British Podcast Awards, and I’m just not sure that was entirely reflected in the piece.

Disclaimer: I am one of several producers on The Cycling Podcast, which is nominated in the sport category at the awards.

How Podcasts are Being Listened

Podcast listening metrics have long been seen as something as a bone of contention. In the digital advertising world, they’re seen as inferior to metrics delivered by other parts of the industry, because while you can be pretty sure a podcast advert has been delivered, you can’t be sure that it has been heard.

As a consequence, the emerging podcast sector, especially in the US, has had to battle the advertising industry to gain full acceptance. This has meant that a large majority of current podcast advertising is led by direct response advertisers i.e. coupon or offer codes when you sign up to buy a product or use a service.

Advertisers are happy to go along this route because they can easily track how successful a particular campaign has been on the basis of sales made using the various coupon codes.

That’s great as far as it goes, but it leaves a large chunk of the advertising market on the table. If you watch a TV break or listen to a commercial break on the radio, you won’t normally get quite as much direct response activity, particularly from national advertisers. Ford knows that you’re not going to buy a new car right now, and in any case, the price will be a negotiation between the customer and the dealer, and probably not subject to a 20% off coupon code! They just want you to consider a Ford the next time you buy a new car.

FMCG products (Fast Moving Consumer Goods such as washing powder or chocolate bars, and often referred to as CPG products in the US) make up a significant chunk of consumer advertising, but largely go unheard on podcasts because there’s no easy way for marketers to track whether an ad for a detergent placed on a podcast has been successful and shifted product.

That’s not to say that the success of traditional television advertising is easy to track either, and advertisers continue to happily spend billions on that medium. It’s not for nothing that the most famous quote in advertising is, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Of course, ironically, while digital is supposed to be the ultimate targeting device, it turns out that P&G, one of the biggest FMCG advertisers on the planet, has decided that it has been attempting to target far too much on platforms like Facebook. That’s perhaps not surprising because, well, everyone needs to buy washing powder and toothpaste, so advertising widely would seem to make the best sense (see the Ad Contrarian for lots more on this).

And it’s not as though there aren’t other problems with advertising in the digital space including fraud and ad-blocking amongst others.

Anyway, the US podcast community is trying to gain more acceptance among the advertising community by working to ensure that everyone measures podcasts the same way, which is very sensible. While this might seem straightforward, in reality, counting podcast downloads is actually a case of interpreting server log files.

This week the IAB has released its Podcast Ad Metrics Guidelines, to both explain the challenges and to ensure that everyone counts podcasts the same way.

The document itself is fairly readable and it’s has a few interesting facts that are worth examining in more detail. It’s probably a first iteration of a living document, with a working group sitting behind it.

One interesting piece of information is the detail of how podcasts are consumed. Five groups on the working party submitted data about podcast platforms, and a table was published as a result, which I’ve reproduced below. Note that the data was based on April 2016.

Platform requesting podcast fileRange of market share %
iOS - Apple Podcast App45-52%
iTunes8-13%
Browsers6-14%
Stitcher2-7%
Everything else12-30%

NB. It’s not explicitly clear if these are US-only figures, or global numbers based on a number of firms based in the US. The partners are Podtrac, Blubrry/RawVoice, WideOrbit, Libsyn and PodcastOne, all of whom I believe are available globally to podcasters.

What I found especially interesting is that Apple isn’t quite as dominant as I’d previously thought. At least in terms of apps used to listen, with a cumulative 53-65% share of podcasts which is lower than the ~80% I had previously thought it might be.

That’s not to say that Apple isn’t vitally important in the transmission of podcasts. Many non-Apple apps use the iTunes Search API to populate their apps with a current list of podcasts. If you’re launching a new podcast, there are a lot places you want to list it. But first and foremost, it’s still the iTunes store if you’re trying to maximise audience reach.

The other interesting question is about downloads versus streams. The report goes into some detail about this, and of course different companies can do this differently. While “traditionally” an app has downloaded podcasts in the background for later playback, today apps allow you to “stream” directly as the podcast downloads.

Beyond that, there is in-browser listening where often a podcast player appears on a webpage and is played back from there. The chart above shows that as much as 16% of podcast plays are listened to this way. Depending on the technology being employed, an in-browser podcast player might be a proper streaming solution, or it might in fact be simply pulling an mp3 to a wraparound player. The user will not notice the difference.

What’s interesting is how this compares with other research on podcast listening and the emergence of the “click and listen” model. A recent Edison Research/Triton Digital report showed 59% of podcast users saying they click and listen immediately, as opposed to just 15% saying they subscribe in the traditional manner.

download

These numbers seem to suggest that although people are actually mostly listening through traditional podcast platforms like podcast apps, they’re actually choosing to download and listen at the point of consumption. It’s for that reason that so many podcasts implore listeners to subscribe, because if you’re relying on click to listen, then it’s entirely likely that listeners will miss episodes of podcasts.

But I’d also love to dig deeper into the numbers in the chart above, because the opacity to the regular podcast listener of how podcasts actually work means they may not actually know what they’re doing or how the audio is getting to them.

I say this because the chart above suggests that 38% of people either subscribe or manually download to listen later 42% of people say they listen to podcast two days or later after the podcast has downloaded. Add in a proportion of the large percentage of people who listen with 24 hours of a download, and you have a larger number of people listening via a download-and-listen-later method than say that’s what they do.

download (1)

Separately, the podcast hosting company Blubrry has crunched the numbers of how its own podcasts are delivered as best it can.

Blubrry defines four different categories of distribution:

Mobile apps – which can both download and “stream” (i.e. download to listen instantly)
Desktop apps – mostly for downloads, and most likely iTunes (accounting for 80% of listening in this category)
Desktop browsers – where you can either “stream” from the page (in this instance an HTML wrapper around a hosted mp3 file, as opposed to a properly streamed file as the BBC often provides)
Mobile browsers and TV apps

Blubrry estimate that within the 71.6% of mobile apps consumption, 39% is accounted for by the iOS Podcast app. And half of that is streaming rather downloading. Whereas of the desktop browsers, two thirds is streaming, while a third is downloaded.

All in all, bespoke podcast applications, whether on mobile or desktop platforms, account for 85% of podcast listening.

Returning to the data in the IAB paper, what it also makes clear is that bespoke podcast apps – e.g. apps created for a particular podcast or podcasting company – are not very popular. The advantage to the podcasting companies is clear – they can properly track listenership and advertising consumption. But to the listener the benefits are less clear. It means one more app on your phone, and the app probably won’t let you listen to other podcasts.

All interesting detail about how people actually listen to podcasts.