A Platinum Age of Radio
In 2007, I started listening to a podcast purely for its utility. I’m terrible at falling asleep so Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report on ESPN was the perfect combination of Simmons’ nasal voice and vaguely interesting sports subjects to lull me to sleep. Seven years later, podcasts are a daily education and entertainment during my waking hours, competing with music when I’m on the move and when I’m not. So are podcasts back? No. Marco is right, podcasts have been around for a decade, their popularity growing very slowly. But they are having a pivotal moment. Progressing from fringe entertainment to established media class, the podcast continues to mature into the modern tech manifestation of radio.
See: Serial, The Radiotopia collective, ESPN’s network esp. Grantland, This American Life, RadioLab, Gimlet, Earwolf, Welcome To Nightvale and the 6-11% growth since 2006 in percentage of adults in the U.S. who are monthly listeners depending on who you ask.
Aside from popular titles, radio’s straight evolutionary line into podcast can be traced along a path laid by the internet and trod by print and video before it. A path that reimagines a media’s packaging presentation, delivery, consumption and content. With print publishing, we read what we were delivered every morning: the news that’s fit to print. The fit represented a one-way funnel of information sharing and one-to-many relationship between publishers and their audience. Everyone read the same stuff, controlled and filtered ahead of time. And then… the internet. With cable television, we watched what was shown to us every evening: nightly news, sitcoms. All were media highly programmed by broadcasters and consumed passively and regularly for a few hours every night. Everyone saw basically the same shows within a cable bundle. And then…the internet. Enter the web and humans devoted less time to the printed page, cable TV, and the movie theater as passive consumers become active participants in choosing what, when and how they consume. Today, niché networks abound for every interest, programs and content are all on-demand, wifi and mobile proliferation enable consumption on the go. Thanks to the internet.
Radio was the unit of media the internet hadn’t given back to us in a shiny new model because the traditional version seemed to work fine on the web. Broadcast radio streams at relatively low cost and it was inherently ‘mobile’ given the ubiquity of in-car stereos. So radio was carbon copied to sections of websites where you could stream from a browser, extending known audience listening power to computers but no true innovation. This industry is inclined to idealize what’s next. We think in fast forward about new mediums and models, staring from the bleeding edge into the unknown where we paint the future. In media, we’ve moved with fervor from text and video into the expansive possibilities of virtual and augmented reality. I’m all for it, but we can be blind to notion that technology can continue to transform traditional media. It may have taken longer, but the internet has developed and begun to mature its version of radio, the podcast: niché, on-demand, high-quality, low-friction.
Below are some thoughts on what’s contributed to the rise:
Voice as Media - the recent trend of Voice technology as function, efficiency and enjoyment finds a powerful entertainment outlet in the podcast which generally takes one of two vocal formats: conversation or storytelling. For all of human existence, we’ve had a desire hear stories and increasingly we’ve displayed interest in listening to conversations that appeal to us. The podcast is the power of storytelling and conversation in its rawest form.
On-Demand - Touched on earlier, with every episode available across platforms at any time, a power listener can enjoy a new show for hours while the new listener can try out a single episode anytime. Traditional and internet radio didn’t provide this open flexibility and so lost the opportunity for different types of listeners to emerge, growing the overall audience. In certain ways, you can argue that the content of radio hasn’t changed in decades, people listened to detective stories and murder mysterious on AM radio before television. What change was listener preference for a new type of packaging and delivery of radio. We still love compelling narrative, we just want it on our time and in formats that fit our lives.
Shorter Episodes - Very few podcasts are more then 45 minutes and most successful shows run between 18 and 30 minutes. The content is short enough to fit into a variety of slots during someone’s day, it doesn’t have to wait for a free hour in the evening. Audiences are also left wanting more which leads to binge listening or at the very least a regular, dedicated
Production Quality - From interview style shows to stylized weave narratives, podcast quality has come along way. While its a more open form of media for creators currently, moving from two guys and mic into a full production staff has meant an inevitable improvement in the content itself.
And a few more thoughts on what the podcast can become:
Its Malleable - Chris Dixon wrote that the podcast is in its infancy and so its not clear how to do it 'right’ yet which is exciting. I agree. Successful forms have emerged but I suspect many more to come. Consider what can be done with genres like fiction, documentary, travel, youth, and education as well as forms like surprise endings and surprise participants. As yet undiscovered new voices will emerge as platforms like SoundCloud allow anyone to try. Podcast advertising, which employs traditional media’s separatist model while allowing hosts artistic freedom in ad presentation, underscores how much creative unknown remains for podcast structure and production.
An Open Media and The Network - A product of its malleability, podcasting wide-open right now. Products like Raur are leveling the playing field to accommodate democratized creation. This is fantastic but likely won’t last forever. The best rise to the top. For podcasts, that will reflect in dedicated listenership and downloads. That may also reflect in the creation of networks of successful shows that cross-promote and can facilitate better revenue opportunities across a collection of podcasts. Gimlet, Midroll, and Radiotopia are early varieties of these networks.
Listening and the Multi-tasker - The potential listening market for podcasts is not just the commuter. There are without a doubt unrealized listening hours in the commute, but an even larger market exists in the office worker with headphones in. The podcast may be the only media aside from music that can be consumed while doing other things. Mundane tasks at work for example. Many podcasts require less direct concentration then other forms of media. I would be shocked if the listenership for popular podcasts didn't grow significantly during working hours in the coming years. Furthermore, cooking, cleaning and other home tasks now have an entertainment companion that isn’t restricted to a screen or text. This may be where podcasts discover an entirely new audience.
I’ve not talked about Serial on purpose because I don’t believe its the only reason we should be paying attention to podcasts nor the only model for success. I will say I’m obsessed with the show and the team behind it has broken new ground. Serial demonstrates that with fantastic content and highly stylized editing, there’s a ravenous audience for the medium. The number of times that I’ve heard friends mistakenly say that they watched the last episode of Serial is a testament to its production quality and narrative intrigue. While Serial is not the crowning achievement of podcasting, this type of paradigm shift requires two things: a gradual groundswell of support and a spark that leads to the new form taking a lasting hold. Its entirely possible that Sarah Koenig has lit the fuse.