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When is a podcast not a podcast? When it’s a paycast.
So here’s the problem. Podcasting is popular. If you believe the numbers awareness is up and around the 50% mark and the number of people listening each week is anywhere between 14% (UK, RAJAR) and 22% (US, Edison) and those listeners are super loyal; they really love podcasts. It shouldn’t be surprising then that lots of people want to make podcasts and to do so commercially. This applies to celebrities, brands, newspapers, broadcasters, …. and anyone who happens to run an audio platform, and this is where we might hit an ontological problem.
To understand it we have to go back to the start. Podcasting is made possible by RSS, a fairly simple bit of code that tells whatever app or software you use to listen to podcasts that a new show is available and where to find it. The credit for this goes to Dave Winer in creating a simple and most importantly free means of delivering media files to users as soon as they became available. Now, whilst we’re used to seeing things happen immediately in news and media apps on smartphones today, not only does RSS pre-date all this it’s open source which means any app can point at any piece of content and download it. You could even go and write your own. I’ve just scrolled through my ‘phone and found well over 40 different apps that describe themselves as ‘podcatchers’ and that’s just the ones not being pitched as apps made for specific shows. I’m sure there are a lot more. In the list are some big names in the field like Pocketcasts and TuneIN, but also apps like Entale which add images, or clip sharing tools. There are apps for discovery, ones that will work as alarm clocks, or ones that will add a beat to a podcast for workouts. There really is an app for anything. Some are paid but most are free. Some are there to make a business and some seem to be one developer hoping to make something that people like. What unifies them is RSS. They all point at this open-source and this means they’re not paying licensing fees everytime they write a line of code.
This is the way it’s been since 2004: the code is free, the apps are (usually) free and podcasts are free. This is great for podcast listeners as it means they get access to a world of content on the device of their choosing for free. That sounds like a win to me. Over time, these podcasters have found a voice. My colleague on the New Aural Cultures project Dario Llinares does a good job of exploring this here. In podcasts there is a definite voice. It is a sound that it is authentic, intimate, and free from the limitations of broadcast convention. This often comes from the fact that we listen on headphones but more than that podcasters recognise that listeners always opt-in to the listening experience – it’s always a choice and so the moment we hit play we are invested. This allows for greater intimacy, greater detail and a format that means you can spend more time on a tiny edit if you want to, or you can just record it on your laptop and post it online almost un-edited. Both are fine in this space.
When we put all these bits together what we have is a grammar of podcasting. This about a sound where presenters or reporters are part of the narrative, where questions in interviews are rarely framed as such, where hosts often preceed the show with an introduction that reflects on the moment ahead (we have Marc Maton to thank for this) and where music helps move us from section to section. The language is often far freer and host have the freedom to hold a view or to open up more than might do elsewhere. More than that, there’s innovation here.
Speaking at the RadioDays Europe Podcast Day in London, George the Poet talked about his award-winning podcast not as spoken-word, or music, or a podcast per se but as something that he didn’t want to ‘put in a box’ By not defining it, he had freedom to make choices based on creativity, rather than a genre or medium rulebook. From this comes a sense that more things are possible here. If we had to make a sum a formula on this, it might be something like – authenticity + intimacy, or maybe [intimacy + authenticity] x innovation.
Of course there are some ‘cookie cutter’ formats that I’m starting to shape out as part of my teaching. There are interview shows and discussions (I call these ‘conversations’), there are news shows and investigative podcasts (We might call these ‘ narratives’) and there are comedy shows and dramas (I call these’ fictions’). There’s work to do here but you get the picture? Whilst the market is wide we can pin down some traits that cut across genres. Some of these do become formats, from those inspired by WTF to do deep dive interviews with stars, to those trying to achieve Serialesque status by opening up cold cases where the reporter is an integral part of the story. But all this leads me to a question.
What happens when something sounds like a podcast, but it isn’t free? This becomes a question over whether podcasts are a genre? a medium? or a style of making audio? Maybe none of this matters. Who cares right? It’s a word. Radio is still radio, even when we listen on our ‘phones or smart speakers. It’s the process that’s important and the technology is just an enabler that changes over time. Whilst the technology agnostic argument is strong, we can’t ignore the ‘medium is the message’ argument here. If the status of podcasting is built on the idea that it is open and the that the medium we have is built on that concept, then surely the 2 are interwound so closely that without one you risk losing sight of what we’re here for.
All this came into focus with the launch of Lumimary a subscription service with a free app but a whole bunch of content behind a paywall. This is not freemium model, where most of the stuff is free but longer episodes, bonus content, and supporter exclusives are only for the few who want to stump up the cash. This is a full-on subscriber service that also make an app that aggregates other free shows, whether the producers want them to or not (read the coverage in podnews for more on this). Of course, Luminary are not the first to do this. Audible have a bunch of shows, as do Spotify and even BBC Sounds to a point. Each is investing money in their shows. Whilst Spotify does have a free account, their content is typically not available via RSS and so to listen you need to go to their app. I’ve just started to listen to their series on The Clash made with the support of BBC Studios. It’s a great series and whilst the music rights would have made podcasting hard, it would not have been beyond them. By keeping it platfrom exclusive, it’s restricting the audience and maybe that’s the idea. Spotify wants to be a destination app. Their recent investment in buying business who make podcasts suggests that they want more of this. If you like the look of the Audible shows you’ll either need to pay, or binge eveything in your 30 day trial. But this does raise the question ‘what is a podcast?’ If the shows like West Cork or Show and Tell sound like podcasts, are they? Or are they something else? Paycasts maybe?
The democrat in me says that podcsts should be free and use RSS (or whatever follows it). In a web post Dave Winer said the same.
- If it doesn’t have an RSS feed it isn’t a podcast #
- Please if you make a podcast, remember that. It’s actually a lot more important than you probably realize.#
- The reason it’s important is this. As long as there are RSS feeds for every podcast, no tech company, like Google, Apple, Amazon, etc can own podcasting. It remains an open platform. It and HTML/HTTP are pretty much the last bastions of the open web.#
- A reporter told me the other day that he was doing a podcast in the 1990s. Not possible, I said. RSS didn’t exist until 1999, and we didn’t define the podcasting features until 2001.#
This means these other shows are something else. That said, the fact that other platforms recognise the impact of this form of content and want to invest in it is great news for the audio industry and the talented students I teach. Only 3 years I argued with radio scholars that podcasts were not radio and that broad brush cliams that it was were not helpful. Today, they seem to agree with me but those arguments apply here. A broad brush claim that it’s all the same and labels don’t matter risk ignoring what’s actually happening. If the medium is the message, what happens when that medium changes?
One of the things that I love about podcasts (there are several) is that anyone can start one. There’s no bouncer at the door telling you that can’t come in. There’s no commissioning editor, no pitching, and no licence. All you need is an idea, a device that you can record on, and somewhere to dump your files. Given that mobile ‘phones and laptops can all record, then chances are you’ve got something that you can use close to hand. If you don’t mind limiting your creativity, or losing some of your archive then plenty of hosting sites offer a free plan where you can post your creative outpourings online for nothing. You don’t need to edit your shows, but if you do there are free editors like Audacity or the more complex Reaper. Paid systems like Audition or Hindenburg might do a better job, but free is free, right?
In fact, in a survey by The Podcast Host the most popular editing system was the free one, Audacity.
So, making a podcast is free. There’s no-one to tell you what to do, and unlike YouTube I’ve heard of a podcast being taken down (if you have let me know!). There’s nothing stopping you….. but wait.
The guys at NPR Training have just published a ‘read this first’ guide on podcasting that reflects a lot of my thinking on podcasting and the challenges.
There first tip is ‘don’t just throw spaghetti at the wall’. In other words don’t just throw something out and hope it sticks. The first step, they say, is to really work out what it is you are doing and who you are trying to reach. This is advice I give to all my students in all of their work. By working out how you are hoping to reach, you know how to talk to them and how far you can push them. Some podcasts almost trade on their ability to be offensive; either because they swear (a lot) or they talk about things like sex or serial killers in ways that some radio listeners would find offensive. Because podcasts are an opt-in medium then the listeners find the content that they want and that suits them, and this leads me to a key point in some of my recent work. When thinking about the key traits of the medium, I’ve come to realise that innovation is supremely important. If we think of the most successful podcasts, then what often differentiates them is that they have innovated. Podcasts like ‘Welcome to Nightvale’ and ‘Serial’ both presented forms that were not already present in podcasting and have now been copied, copied, and copied. You can see this at work in the award winning British podcast The Griefcast an interview show where comedian Cariad Lloyd talks to other comics about death. This is a great example if an idea that would never have made it passed a radio commissioner but that really works as a podcast. There’s focus here and a good reason why you’d want to share it.
Some of the biggest podcasts are unusual. If someone told you 2 years that the Royal Albert Hall in London would sell-out a spoken word event where 3 people you’ve never heard of would read out and discuss self-published amateur pornography I think you’d have found that hard to believe. But that is what’s happened.
It’s official – the largest podcast gig in the world has SOLD OUT!!! A few standing room available via https://t.co/FPzzSWSWJV
We can’t wait – see y’all Thursday at the Royal 👏🏼 Albert 👏🏼 Hall 👏🏼 x pic.twitter.com/sXyON3UF6I
— My Dad Wrote A Porno (@dadwroteaporno) June 19, 2018
It’s happened because the idea had cut-through. It innovated and it’s core theme was simple. His Dad has written a bad novel and it’s funny. Through word of mouth and hard work it’s now a global hit.
Both NPR and the Podcast Host talk about quitting. Maybe because the show isn’t working or because you’ve just lost your mojo. Bearing in mind that the reason why many people favour podcasts over radio is the sense of authentic intimacy they generate. Listeners can feel really connected to their shows and you can see that if you visit the Facebook groups many shows start, or even the ones started by listeners that the hosts aren’t even in. There is some sense here, but it raises a question. Some podcasters are keen to monetise their shows. They attend events like Podcast Movement to learn how to make better shows and how to turn it into a living. But this comes back to the original point; anyone can have a podcast. You don’t have to be good and you don’t have to have an audience. It’s a very competitive field and no-one has a right to an audience. Even the biggest shows can find that something hasn’t worked.
In the iTunes world your position in the chart can be significant factor in how many people can find you. Unlike the singles chart, the iTunes podcast chart is not a listening chart but a chart of attention tracking new subscriptions and listener comments. This is why podcasts urge you to subscribe and comment and why shows like the ITV Love Island Podcast can go straight to number 1 in the UK chart. The arrival of a Google Podcast App, is a big step change here and may go someway to changing things, but in the meantime podcasters need to recognise that getting into the chart is no easy task. It takes patience, innovation, or a big platform to shout from. Of course, none of that matters if the reason you have a podcast is simply to have a voice. It’s easy to obsess about the data, to worry that the listener you once in Toronto seems to have left you, or to check the iTunes every week. Whilst data is important, the most important thing is you. If you believe in what you are doing, or you just enjoy it then carry on.
But, you should question if podcasting is the right medium for you. Don’t do it because it’s cool. Don’t start a network because you think that would be a good thing to do. Don’t do it badly. If you must do it, do your best job and put the time in.
Over the past year I’ve been pushing forward an idea that as we begin to understand podcasts more, the more we need to define this work as a defined discipline. Back in the 1990’s academics concerned with radio did the same and out this came from radio studies, a movement which generated a network, a journal and a conference. All of this allowed radio to be taken more seriously and allowed academics from different disciplines to come together. One thing I’ve often noted at these conferences is how few people actually spend their time teaching radio. Whilst many people you talk have worked in radio, this is by no means a universal background. What is fascinating is that for so many of these researchers radio is a part of their work in another field. They might be interested in media histories, narratives, music, or language. The same can be said of the current interest in podcasts.
Academic interest in podcasting is diverse. Whilst some early work (like my own) came from what we might broadly call ‘media and cultural studies’, a quick search for academic work now produces more results from researchers in education. For these researchers podcasting is a means to offer learning materials to students in new and interesting ways. Podcasts let researchers publish their work, to offer on-demand lectures via MOOC’s, or to let students revisit complex lectures and make better notes. Podcasts are interesting to media scholars, to those working in digital media, but also to academics you like listening to them. Whilst each study might reach different conclusions, their interest in the same space is grounds for a shared banner under which to work.
Over the past few months I’ve had a the pleasure of working with Dr’s Dario Llinares and Neil Fox on a book on podcasting that we think will be first true collection of academic work in podcast studies. Our authors are from diverse disciplines, writing about podcasting from a range of perspectives. I’ll write more when the book comes out, but it’s already clear that 2018 will be a year when studies of podcasting enter the world of academic publishing in a big way.
It’s very easy when thinking about podcasting, to slap the label “radio” on to it. Over the years I’ve probably done the same. To be fair, it’s easy: both rely purely on sound and they share many conventions. The walls between them are porous, with people and ideas flowing each ways. Talent has left (willingly or not) radio for podcasting, whilst others have seen radio as a route into broadcasting. However, times change and so has the medium of podcasting. Over the past year I’ve been thinking more and more that there is a need for a rethink about how we talk about podcasting.
Earlier this month I was invited to talk at JPOD – a podcasting conference in Malaga (organised by the excellent Isaac Balantas). I used it as a chance to float some ideas about how podcasts and radio and why we need to avoid linking the two. My realisation when writing the presentation was that if we always think of podcasts as being radio, then we risk losing sight of podcasting could be and the only real winner in that conversation is the radio industry.
We already know that radio listening is experiencing problems; which can be eased by including the good news about the growth of podcast listeners. If the radio industry claims podcasting as its own then it shows expansion and innovation. Of course, radio has shown it can use new technology to find ways to get content to listeners and the podcast platform is part of that. For radio stations podcasting offers a great new route to listeners; it allows radio shows to let listeners catch up with shows, share them and find stuff that they would have missed on the radio. The problem comes when we start thinking about independent content; because if we think of it as ‘radio’ do we run the risk of ignoring what makes it special?
Perhaps a good starting point is this recent piece in The Guardian, where one of the medium’s founder reflects on his work in the light of recent political turmoils. Chris Lydon makes Radio OpenSource and has been since podcasting was a thing. “Podcasting is different to radio – institutionally as well as functionally,” he told The Guardian. It is, he says, a space where anyone can have a voice, where it shouldn’t matter what you do because if what you does has relevance the audience will find you. This is where radio is different to podcasting. It is functionally different: it has a different sound to radio, where if the content is relevant it doesn’t matter if the audio quality is poor or the content rambles on. What matters is that someone reaches an audience. Listeners can focus on podcasts and often focus on what they hearing, giving it their full attention. This means that more nuanced or narrative work can work well. Listeners enjoy a more intimate relationship with podcasts, and see them as more authentic. Podcasts also lack rules.
The podcasters in this video agree that podcasting is not only a great medium, but one that has much to commend it. Sarah Koenig from Serial suggests that when they started out she knew nothing about podcasting, and whilst that might shock us; it’s actually a good thing. It means she worked from a story-first basis. The more rules you apply to anything, the less you can do and that’s why calling podcasts ‘radio’ is a bad thing; as it brings with it perceptions of what radio should sound like – and how long the episodes should be.
It’s a though developed here by Adam Ragusea. Podcasts are, as he suggests, the ultimate ‘opt-in’ medium. Listeners find what they want, subscribe to it and then find the time to listen to it. This means that listeners potentially more loyal, more engaged and more likely to listen to the whole show. It also means you’re free from talking to a half engaged audience; the one that’s listening because they tune in when surfing between stations. It can (and probably) should serve niche audiences. That’s great news if you make a podcast. You don’t have cater for a broad audience, and probably shouldn’t try.
I’d also suggest reflection on the other part of the Chris Lydon quote above. Podcasting is different institutionally to radio he says. I’d suggest in some ways he’s dead right and dead wrong. Podcasts can emerge from back-bedrooms, activists and people looking to create popular content with a different agenda. This content sites outside the institutional frame of a radio station. It’s not radio. It does not aspire to be radio. Shows like ‘My Dad Wrote A Porno‘ might draw on the experience of radio, but they don’t work like radio. Then there are shows like Serial; A show made by a radio company (This American Life) but not as radio content. In this regard the content is not radio, but it sits within a radio business. This distinction means we can (and should) think of differences between radio (as a medium) and radio businesses. It means a radio station can use the podcast space to push out different forms that does not have to sound like the stuff they use a transmitter for.
So, think of like this:
Some radio shows are distributed as podcasts – for them, podcasting is a PLATFORM
Some podcasts are made by radio businesses, but they are not radio. They use the space
Some podcasts don’t aspire to be radio, so stop calling them radio. They are podcasts
Writing in the Radio Times this week the controller of BBC Radio 1 restated his views on the future of radio. he notes that:
We are living with the HD generation – that’s the heads-down generation, who spend all their time looking at a small screen. And here are some scary facts for those of us who listened with Mother, or under the duvet to John Peel: today, one in three children has an iPad, while one in seven has a radio; and compared to ten years ago, radio has lost more than 50 per cent of 10- to 14-year-old listeners.
The challenge here is that the radio under the duvet has been replaced by an iPad or an iPhone. Not only that radio has competition. It must not only share the media day with TV, but also YouTube, social media and streaming platforms like Spotify. There are a number of challenges here. Firstly, to gain attention radio (stations) need to be in the place as the media they want to compete with. That’s simple enough, as apps like radioplayer make listening to radio on a phone really easy, but actually it needs to go further than that. Even before he was in charge of Radio 1 Cooper made the point that radio had to work out what it would look like on a screen, and whilst this experience has improved there’s a long way to go.
Take a look at this new studio at Capital FM. Like their neighbours elsewhere in Leicester Square Global have built a studio that puts video at the heart of what they do. This is not about saying ‘radio is dead, let’s make tv’ but about reconsidering what it is that radio stations do. Do they just turn out radio shows and go home? or do they build branded content that can be pushed out to social media. This might be about cool YouTube videos, silly Vine’s, Facebook Live or videos that can be shared.
James O’Brien’s devastating attack on The Sun newspaper over their hypocrisy on the recent racist attacks.
As well as looking ahead to the other things that radio can do, we must also look over our shoulder at the rush that’s coming up behind us. Next week I’ll be talking at a (academic) conference about Beats 1, a radio station created by a tech company to drive attention to their product – rather than build audiences that can be sold to advertisers or is part of a public service remit. This seems like an endorsement that rather than radio being nullified in the digital age there is perhaps more demand, and also opportunities to innovate. Beats 1 does not sound like Capital FM, and podcasts (mostly) do not sound like LBC.
Of course, for all this to turn the decline in audiences around requires innovation and some tough decisions. There will be winners and losers, but these are exciting times for radio; as Ben Cooper concludes
Young audiences are key to the future of the broadcasting industry and if we don’t adapt, we will die. What happens at Radio 1 today will happen for the rest of the BBC tomorrow. So there is a job to be done to ensure that the teenagers of tomorrow are under their duvets listening, watching and sharing the BBC on their phones and iPads.Long live radio – everyone is watching.