podcast

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.

The Political Cycle

It’s my favourite time of year – The Tour de France is well underway. Mark Cavendish is back on form, picking up wins 27, 28 and 29, leaving him second on the all-time wins list, and the fireworks are about to kick off as the race enters the Pyrenees.

Recently I raised my hand to say that I’d help out the chaps at The Cycling Podcast. They produce a gargantuan amount of audio during the Tour, with a post-race episode each evening after the stage, and a daily feature episode — KM0 — each morning, that’s on top of the Friends of the Podcast specials (Only £10!).

A couple of promos aside, this is the first real fruit of my labours, seeing me edit this episode of KM0. Tight turnarounds are the order of the day here, so it’s not perfect, but this was a fun one looking back at the Tour de Trump amongst other things.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased about the way this sounds:

Google and Podcasts – More Thoughts

Google Play Terms of Service

This is a follow up to the post I wrote a few days ago when it was first announced that Google was getting into podcasts.

Go away and read that if you’ve not already done so!

A few things are worth noting that I hadn’t quite understood initially.

Google Serving Podcasts and Metrics

It’s very much worth noting that Google will host your podcast for you. They will take a single copy from the server you use to host your audio, and they’ll re-encode it to meet their needs (which may in itself be an issue for some podcasters), before serving files to Google Play Music users.

I imagine that there will actually be a range of differently encoded versions available, perhaps based on bandwidth of the user. But this will really only become clear when the service is live.

As mentioned previously, this does mean that Google will be the only source for downloads of podcasts from Google Play Music. I know that operators like LibSyn will be able to pull these metrics back into their own system to provide a better overview, but it’s worth noting that there will be differences. Will Google have a different view on what is and isn’t a “play” for example? We’ll have to wait and see.

Advertising

I foolishly suggested previously that Google might be somehow sharing revenues with podcasters either in terms of advertising or perhaps a share of subscriptions as a music artist would get for a curated listening experience via Google Play Music.

That really doesn’t seem to be the case.

Here’s the key passage from Google’s Terms of Service for the Google Play Music Podcast Portal:

7. Google Advertising/No Revenue Share. For the avoidance of doubt, Google has the right to present audio, video and/or display advertisements in connection with Google’s distribution of the Podcast Content on Google Play. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Google acknowledges and agrees that Google will not display any pre-roll or mid-roll advertisements in connection with the Podcast Content and will not sell or target advertisements directly against specific Podcast Content or any particular Podcast Creator. For the avoidance of doubt, Podcast Creator shall not be entitled to any royalties, revenue or any other any monetary compensation in connection with Google’s distribution of the Podcast Content in accordance with these Podcast Terms, including, without limitation, any monies Google may receive (including, without limitation, advertising and subscription revenues) in connection with Google’s display of advertising pursuant to these Podcast Terms. [Taken from the October 7, 2015 version.]

In other words, Google will run ads at the end of a podcast, and the podcast creator won’t see a penny of that. While it’s true that this doesn’t massively disrupt the models of those who are running their own advertising currently – mostly the bigger podcasting networks – this really doesn’t help the smaller guys who probably see no commercial revenue from their work.

Now I appreciate that not everyone in podcasting is there to make money, and are perhaps doing it for the fun of it. But it’s disappointing that Google isn’t offering a way to help make a business out of podcasting for those who’d like to be able to. (It’ll be interesting to see how this works with, say, the BBC who will not want advertising adjacent to its podcasts.)

While a direct comparison with YouTube doesn’t quite work because regardless of platform, unlike podcasts you have to use the YouTube website or app to watch videos, it’s notable that video creators do get options to monetise their videos with Google and share in the revenues earned.

Google is undoubtedly offering a massive distribution opportunity, with a chance for podcasters to grow their audiences enormously. And for many that will be enough. But as Google builds an audio advertising model, there’s no option here to share in that revenue which feels frankly quite mean.

There are other ways to earn revenue from advertising of course. Stitcher, for example, has a content provider programme that pays revenues based on listens via the Stitcher app according to a specific formula. Spotify is also carrying a selection of podcasts, but these seem to be invited onto the platform from the major providers. Although I can’t see it explicitly anywhere, you would expect that there’s some kind of revenue sharing model underlying these deals too.

Perhaps in time, as podcasting grows, Google will begin to offer pre-roll advertising that it can share with partners who choose to work with Google. I suspect that at the moment, Google is making cautionary steps into the marketplace and is trying not to rock the boat – the bigger guys all having worked out their commercialisation options. So maybe it’s a question of wait and see.

Top Tips for Podcasters

An upfront disclaimer: I’ve never made or distributed a podcast. However, I have been listening to them for many years – from a variety of providers.

Since podcasting is suddenly the hot new thing, some ten years after the name was first coined (and yes, I’m aware that they’re older than that), I thought I’d run through a little list of simple things that people could do to make their podcasts a little better. Not so much the audio – although there’s that too – but the process around it. And yes, I’ve come across all of these things since the start of 2015.

1. Make sure you have an RSS feed.

You might not really understand what one of these is, and despite them being very smart and versatile, it feels that many others have no idea either. But they’re essential if you plan to have anyone listen to more than a single episode of your podcast. So you need one, and you should make it visible. That allows people on mobile especially to add your podcast to their podcast apps.

2. If you’re using SoundCloud to host your podcast, then get on their, still beta, podcasting programme.

This is the same as #1 really. It gives you an RSS feed, which is essential for people subscribing to your podcast. Linking to your SoundCloud page is not good enough. That just lets me listen in a browser, which is not the most convenient way of listening.

3. A link to the iTunes store page of your podcast is not good enough.

Unless your podcast is aimed solely at Apple users, you need to have a page somewhere – probably a website – that points, yes to iTunes, but also to your RSS feed. Because although you and all your friends listen on iPhones, most of the world doesn’t have one, and you might like them to listen too. In any case…

4. You probably also want to have a stream available to listen via a PC somewhere on a website.

According to one recent piece I read, 40% of popular podcasts can still be delivered via direct streams. Aside from anything else, having a website gives you a place to link to when you’re directing people to back episodes, or to put detailed show notes and relevant links. There is no easy way to share podcasts across ecosystems at the moment, so directing other users via your site is perhaps the best way. So an individual page for each podcast you make is a good idea.

And vitally, this also makes your show properly searchable. You do want people to find you via Google don’t you? (If you really wanted to go to town, then including a transcript of your show would be awesome, but also enormously time-consuming until technology can make a decent fist of it anyway, or there was a script in the first place).

5. Include show notes in your podcast.

There’s a place for them, and ideally they should say more than the name of your podcast. Different podcast players use or don’t use them to greater or lesser extents. But since you’re putting together some text for a page on the website (see #4 above), then put this in the show notes too. This should include links to other things you were talking about on your show. If you have advertisers then they’ll like you for linking to them too!

6. Make some artwork – and put some words in it.

Create a show logo for your podcast. We live in a visual world, and people will judge you a bit by your logo, so if you’re not able to make one, find someone who can make one for you. You can actually also create episode images which may be worthwhile, although not all podcast apps will make use of them. But be sure to include the name of your podcast in the logo. When a user is browsing visually in a podcasting app, they’re often presented with a sea of tiles, so ensure that your podcast is identifiable in that sea. You may think your logo is instantly identifiable, but to be honest, you’re not Coca Cola are you? So it really isn’t. For bonus points, ensure that what you call it in your logo matches what you call it in the text. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised…

7. Unless there’s a very good reason, keep your podcasts alive in perpetuity.

To be honest, you’re probably going out of your way if you’re not making them permanently available. But it’s worth remembering that unless you’re already massive, there’s going to be a long-tail discovering your previous episodes, and depending on the timeliness of what your podcast is about, they may remain relevant for months or years.

Of course there may be rights arrangemnts that prevent this, or your may choose to monetise your back catalogue in some other way. But if you’re not doing those things, then why not make them permanently available?

8. Nobody is really happy with the name, and quite a few people aren’t happy with the technology, but don’t try to rebrand podcasts on your own.

You know who you are.

9. Can we all agree to ‘level’ our podcasts the same please?

This is getting better as production skills are improving, but nobody really wants to be dialling their volume up and down between different podcasts. There are lots of places online that will explain this.

10. Have you optimised the audio of your podcast?

Does your podcast need to be stereo? Does your mp3 need to be 320k? The answer to those questions will depend on what your podcast actually contains. But broadly speaking, if it’s simply two people speaking, then you probably don’t really need to be making a stereo podcast, so downmix it to mono, and save bandwidth for all concerned. On the other hand, if your podcast is all about music (and you have the appropriate rights to include it), then leave it as stereo and at a decent compression level.

Oh, and if you’re planning on dropping the occassional video into your podcast stream, think twice about including a 30 minute 1080p clip in your feed. It might look lovely on your tablet, but it’s going to fill a lot of your listeners’ smartphones, and they may not appreciate a 0.5GB video on their 16GB smartphone without warning.

Serial on the Radio

I’m pleased to see that Radio 4 Extra is going to be broadcasting podcasting sensation Serial.

Starting this Sunday (i.e. the day after tomorrow), they’ll be broadcasting the series nightly at 9pm, with the final episode airing the same night as the final podcast is released.

I imagine that there will need to be quite a few trails on Radio 4 over the next couple of days to promote this!

Sidenote: We still don’t definitively know how many episodes there will be of Serial do we? Episode 10 was released yesterday, with Episode 11 coming next Thursday. If there were 12 episodes, then we could look for a “conclusion” on Thursday 18th December, with the Radio 4 Extra broadcast syncing in nicely on that date.

A lot of people have felt that Serial isn’t something that could happen on the radio. The time lengths vary quite considerably between episodes making it hard to schedule. And the language can be a little rich for some tastes. But Radio 4 Extra should be able to cope fine – particularly in post 9pm slot.

And this will be something of a departure for the channel, which mainly consists of comedy and drama. But following last week’s Chris Morris special (You have three more weeks to listen), they’re on a roll!

But why put Serial on the radio anyway? Well I think there are a couple of good reasons:

1. It’ll reach a wider audience. Listening to a radio station is easy. Listening to a podcast is… less easy. Sure, I can subscribe easily enough. And so can you, dear reader, probably. But many can’t. DAB sets are in many homes, and this genuinely gives some people an opportunity to hear something they’d have otherwise missed.

2. It’ll be on iPlayer. I suspect that there are a number of people who will get something via iPlayer that they don’t feel able to get via a podcast. (I still wish Radio was available on TV versions of iPlayer though.)

Measuring the broadcast’s success will be nigh on impossible. A programme stripped over less than two weeks in RAJAR? Not a hope. But it’ll be interesting to see what kind of feedback the station gets.

Now I’ll be honest and say that I still really don’t like the practice of “stripping” programmes across multiple days. As I’ve said repeatedly before, it makes massive demands on the audience. And that’s especially true for a series that you need to listen to day after day. It’ll also be going out at 9pm, which means that there’ll be prime time TV to go up against.

But it’s also about making a statement. On New Year’s Day, Radio 4 is giving over practically its entire schedule to a new version of War and Peace. In reality, very few people will stay with it all the way from 9am to 9.30pm. There are those New Year’s Eve hangovers to combat for starters. But the series will also get a more regular weekly run afterwards. But it does make a statement. The broadcaster is saying that this is important.

I think it’s a bold move by Radio 4 Extra to broadcast it, and to be applauded. Whether it’ll sound the same without, “Actually, I use Mail Chimp…” I don’t know!

Podcasts – A Rebirth?

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

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

And it certainly seems that there has been a rebirth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serial

Back in 2005 there was a terrific series on BBC Four called Death on the Staircase (known elsewhere as The Staircase). Here’s what I wrote about it at the time, and what I wrote about the follow-up in 2013.

Essentially a French film-maker spent many months following the real-life prosecution of Michael Peterson, a crime writer, who was arrested for murdering his wife. The film-maker got wide access to talk to parties on both sides of the case, and it unfolded in a remarkable manner. Last year BBC Four aired a follow-up, because there are always appeal processes.

All in all, it was a fascinating project covering a case that wasn’t black and white, but full of shades of grey.

Now we have the new podcast Serial. If you listen to podcasts, you’ve probably already heard of it. It comes from the This American Life stable, with the difference being that over multiple weeks we follow a single story. In this instance, it’s the 1999 murder of a young girl, Hae Min Lee, who attended a Baltimore High School, and the conviction of Adnan Syed, an ex-boyfriend, of her murder.

Although the jury at the time took very little time to convict Syed, it’s again clear that not everything in the case makes sense. So slowly, over a number of weeks (How many? On the website it simply says, “We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.”), we’re learning more of what happened or what might have happened.

Sarah Koenig presents the programme, and she’s spent many months working on it. As well as unravelling who the cast of characters are, we get audio recordings of interviews with the suspects and witnesses from the time, as well as interviews with many of the people now. Not least, we hear repeatedly from Syed who is currently incarcerated in a Maryland prison.

In some respects, this reminds me of some of David Simon’s work. Not so much The Wire, as the book he wrote prior to Homicide: Life on the Street being made. Obviously there’s the Baltimore setting, but there’s also the fact that not every case was solved, unlike the average detective TV show. And the system can be flawed.

On the website, it says the following:

“We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”

If that’s actually the case, then it’s an unusual format to not know where you’re ending up when you start. While that is often the case with documentary makers, they wouldn’t ordinarily start airing their programme before they’ve reached a conclusive point from which they can start structuring their production.

I would imagine that the success of This American Life must leave some radio/audio producers insanely jealous. You just have to listen to the credits at the end of an episode to hear how many staff they have on the programme. And the liberty and ability to devote many hours on a single story is also very unusual. I can’t think of a similar series in this country that works in this way.

We did have Rough Justice on TV for many years, and a lot of work would go into those. But even then, a single case usually only merited a single episode. Commissioners would be nervous of stretching a single story like that over many episodes. We also get documentaries set in single locales with “characters” we follow over multiple episodes, but they tend to have narrative strands attached to each week’s episode: the Christmas party; the new launch.

Of course This American Life has had the ability to do things like this. They embedded two reporters into a Chicago High School for five months to make a two-part episode about life there. That’s a lot of commitment and resource that few would get. They famously throw away programmes (or at least early drafts) if they’re not hanging together. Again, that’s a privilege that I suspect few really get. While a documentary maker working in, say, a hospital might have to shoot stories that won’t make it to air for lots of reasons, they’re know that their hospital series overall will air, even if all the stories within it don’t. And that’s not quite the same thing.

Anyway, back to Serial. It’s a terrific radio series, and it’s well worth spending several hours of your time listening to it. As I type, episode 6 has downloaded to my phone, so I know what I’ll be listening to later. And of course the beauty of podcasts is that you can easily catch up and listen to the whole story chronologically.

Thoroughly recommended.