There’s been a lot written about Podcasting over the past few months, partly on the back of shows like Serial but also after projects like Radiotopia smashed their kickstarter goal. Podcast content is getting better, and listening is on the up. It’s been a steady growth, but one that only now seems to be making a mark. There might be a few reasons for that. The video above is about a development exercise at podcast start-up Gimlet Media and gives an insight into the opportunities the smartphone brings. The thing about podcasting that made it so great, also held it back a bit. Whilst various people put together the parts that made podcasts work, they made those tools Open Source. Whilst Apple made a good go (probably the best) the experience hasn’t changed much. What the video above shows is the suggestion that there could be a better way of listening, one that lets you be more social and dig deeper into content.
Originally podcasting was about pushing content out to computers in waves, with listeners stacking up podcasts on a computer until they got round to syncing up their iPods. This migrated onto phones, with content downloading overnight on home WiFi. In time this move again towards streaming, and this where things catch up with podcasting. As an on-demand medium it emerged ahead of Netflix, Amazon Prime and even YouTube. So, the ideas were there but the audience wasn’t ready to engage and the technology was a bit clunky. Now the audience have shown they want more controller, and the tech has caught up.
As Ira Glass suggests in this interview, things have finally fallen into place
No. In fact, if anything, podcasts are like world music or soccer — one of those things where everybody is like, “next year is gonna be the big year when all of America is playing soccer!” [laughs] Although I guess at this point, a lot of America is playing soccer. But for over a decade, people have been saying, “Everyone’s going to listen to podcasts!” — and no one ever did.
Finally, a lucky congruence of a bunch of new, really good podcasts, but also the fact that the technology has changed made for a lot of new people finally hearing podcasts. It used to be for you to listen to a podcast, you had to download it to your computer and then synch it to your phone — there are now all these ways where you basically get an app for your phone like Stitcher or the podcast app for iPhones. You push a button and say, “Oh, I want this one,” and then you have it on your phone and you can listen. It’s super-easy
Apps like Pocketcasts, and the new Acast are making steps to change that. By making podcasts accessible they’re reducing friction. By adding social sharing they can make the experience of listening more social. The latests version of TuneIn have sussed that, and soon the rest will catch up. We share photos of our lunch, tweet about TV shows, so why not press a button and share our listening? The lesson from Serial is that as many people heard about it from their social networks than the media.
The decrease in costs of mobile streaming, and the increase in coverage is another big step. Now everyone has the means to listen sat in their pockets, and as more car manufacturers add smart dashboards there’s even more reason to look at podcasting as a real rival for our attention. No longer are listeners chained to the home or office wifi.
So, as the tools get better, and as producers start to take it more seriously then the conditions for podcasting look much better. Of course, we’ve been here before. In 2005 Odeo tried to create a platform, but in a pre mobile world they were probably a bit ahead of the curve. Equally, early networks like podshow were probably a bit ahead of the game. Audiences have caught up now, and the market feels more ready for the content. Podcasts are making money, and more importantly podcasters can earn a real living from their art. It seems that the recent attention on podcasting could be another fad, but equally it could an indication that the planets aligned – the audience are more open to it and the tools have got better. The next step will be to make it relevant.
As I’ve already posted, I am fascinated by Serial. Not just the podcast itself, but the reaction to it. A few months ago I set up a google alert to keep a track of stories, posts and other news about it, and whilst the number returns is smaller than it was there’s still a couple of stories a week that add something new to the story. Clearly, other people are still as fascinated about it as I am. It also seems that new people are also still discovering the series as well, with new tweets popping up everyday as another listener disappears down the rabbit hole. There certainly is something about it. Back in February Ira Glass told a journalist they were still getting 500,000 downloads a day for the show, and in March Dana Chivvis from the show told Miranda Sawyer they’d passed 75 million downloads . Now, that sounds impressive but if we assume they’re counting each episode as single downloads, and we assume that everyone who downloads the first episode will then get hooked and get the rest, then you do end up with a more realistic figure of 6.2 million listeners. That said, 6 million listeners for something they expected would manage a few 100,000 is remarkable. But, not only did listeners go slightly mad Serial, so did the media. Journalists talked it Serial making podcasting mainstream, with the New York Times’ (now late) media reporter David Carr calling it the mediums first hit. If you look at the media hype, he’s probably right. The numbers were good, but the NPR podcast Invisibillia stormed past Serial in early 2015 with a bunch of new subscriptions. Of course, it’s these new listeners that are problem. ITunes uses new subscriptions and comments to create their charts, so if a stack of people are hitting subscribe on their iPhones then that will push a show up the chart. If what they makes them want to say something, or voice an opinion, then that too adds scores to the door and will push it up the chart. You’ll perhaps have seen the video that Ira Glass did promote Serial, now that will have helped. As will the first episode going as a special version of This American Life . This is a fantastic kick start, as no doubt the people who love the show would like Serial – not least because the team work to the rules Ira Glass put in place for This American Life. It sounds like the spin off it is. Same people, same rules, same level of journalism. But therein lies the problem. As Aaron Crocco points out on medium, not everyone gets that advantage. Most podcasters have to come the long way round of pushing out show after show, hoping the audience will grow. It’s not easy. But, if like Serial or Invisibillia you can launch on 260+ radio stations across the US and on of the worlds biggest podcasts then you have an advantage. Let’s assume you can use another show to promote you, hopefully you can persuade their listeners to subscribe. If you can, that could well give enough of a spike to get you into the iTunes chart – which in turn could then scoop up more subscriptions from the people who missed your promotion but spotted you when wondering what the heck to listen to! Bit by bit, you might build an audience. The problem is, are you adding new ears?
When Edison looked at Serial as part of their Infinite Dial survey at the start of 2015, they found that actually a fairly small number of people were aware of Serial – but the awareness rate amongst podcast listener was much higher. Not surprising, since research from 2014 by the same team said that podcast listeners were prolific. Not only did they spend more time with podcasts that any other audio form, they listener to a lot. So, when promoting something new you might be pushing at an open door – especially if Ira Glass is holding it open for you. It can help as well if, like Alex Blumberg, your former employer lets you tell your audience where you’re going, If you’re at all interested in podcasting, you should listen StartUp as it’s fascinating insight into the world – it’s also a well told story and uses many of the same approaches that worked in Serial, but they’ve also taken a great approach to the ads. Blumberg hopes that his new podcast business, Gimlet, can be the one that breaks through and becomes the Netflix of audio. Certainly, the timing seems right. There is renewed interest in podcasting. So, what made Serial special? Well, it benefitted from all of the above. A good start is important, but then plenty of movies and Tv shows have hired big stars only to see them flop. There has to be something worthwhile once you get there, and Serial did that. The Ira Glass school of radio has some great graduates. They know how to tell a good story, and the one they found was really good. There was much with which to engage, which journalists, academics and listeners all did. For them, it was all about the story, and the ethics. Yes, let’s not forget the ethics. Especially when the star witness who declined to appear in Serial went on the record. Of course, Serial could have had all of this and not gained traction. Serial was actually a combination of elements. They had a good start (what a Gimlet investor described in Start Up as an ‘unfair advantage’) and found a good story, which they crafted and crafted well. Timing was a factor here, because this is the age of the app – where apps like Stitcher are now appearing on the dashboards of luxury cars. This means that there are devices out there ready for content. Podcasting in the past was a faff, and the temptation was stick with what you know. Now you can read a tweet about a podcast on the bus and be listening to it a minute later. So, the question is will we see another Serial? Will season two be as big as season one? Well, they’ve got an audience hooked – so the first episode is already eagerly awaited. If they can find the right story it should do well. Other producers should see hope in the success, but let’s be realistic. Even in the most developed market only around 33% of the population has EVER listeners. That’s a good number, but in podcasting that may be less important, as there is evidence to suggest that the intimacy of podcasts means that audiences are more likely to engage with the advertising. Serial was good. It was well made. It had a great story and did a great job in getting people to talk about podcasting again. It raised the benchmark for podcasters, but we can only hope that those who follow will use their own skills, ideas and creativity to make their mark – rather than copy Serial.
These are all thoughts that I’ve been developing for a conference paper. Once it’s all ready, I’ll post it here together with some of the results of a survey I did last year amongst some Serial listeners.
For a long time TV has know a lot about the power of emotional connection. There have been whole shows built around it, putting everyday people front and centre and sharing their stories. Daytime TV is full of this kind of stuff. From Jeremy Kyle to DIY SOS, people who need help or just a thank you have been made the starts. But, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on radio. Until now…
This is from the great Kyle and Jackie O in Sydney. These guys are big stars there, and were poached from their old station a few years back with much noise. They’ve been constantly pushing the show forward since then. There are cameras in the studio, and they film a lot. They have big guests, big personalities and lots of attitude.
There are several things I like about this piece. Firstly, this a driveway piece of radio. The kind of story that demands your attention. From the story itself to the way Jackie tells it, it’s attention grabbing. We then get the woman on-air and the narrative comes to an emotional and well planned climax. This takes skill and planning, so well done to the team for pulling that off. By taking on ideas that have worked on TV the station are really taking the game to the other places that compete for our time and our attention. This is good for radio. It’s should be an obvious thing to do, especially as radio is such an emotional medium.
The other thing about this is the visualisation. This is something that is new in radio, and whilst not everyone agree – it is part of the our future. This is a great example of it done well and where it adds value. Here is something the audience will want to see and share – it’s been shared over 260,000 times on Facebook already. The act of going online to view is itself an act of connection. Connection that suggests a great sense of engagement with the brand. Engaged listeners are loyal. It’s also a great introduction to the brand for anyone who wasn’t already aware or listening. Visualisation is a complex thing. Some videos are cheap and throwaway, and that’s fine because they are there as a tease or a hook. This is more nuanced. It’s the denouement of a radio story. It’s a big feature and something where you don’t want bad camera work, or bad editing to get in the way. By sneaking a camera into the car, and then getting the sound editing right this is something that looks and sounds good. Again, not an easy task but one that really smells of quality, and that’s important.
Increasingly this is what radio stations will need to do. Hire great personalities, and let them be themselves on-air. Invest in great ideas. Build reasons for the audience to listen, and these might be emotional. And finally, remember the visual elements. Build on them and invest in them. That doesn’t mean you do radio differently, but you reconsider what a radio station institutionally.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock without access to the internet, you will have already heard about the podcast Serial. A much-hyped spin off of the already successful This American Life, Serial has generated interest like no other podcast I think of since the early days of Ricky Gervais almost 10 years ago.
Here’s a quick precis if you have missed. it. Serial is the work of some of the This American Life team based at WBEZ in Chicago. Overseen by the very talented Ira Glass Serial does something a bit different, as rather than being a collection of stories told in single episodes,this is one story told over multiple episodes. The story in question is a 1999 murder in Baltimore. A suspect was found, arrested and convicted. The problem is the evidence, is at best shaky. So, Serial is a sort of a cold case murder mystery – although, it’s not.
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
Of course the media tackles stories like this all the time, what is new here is that this isn’t on broadcast media it’s a podcast. After turning their radio show into a podcast hit, the team clearly felt the opportunity was there to do something different in this space. What they have created has been a hit from the start. Podcast fans knew it was coming, they even made a video to tell people who don’t listen to podcasts how to listen to this one.
It’s perhaps interesting to note that even at this point, they don’t let on what the story is going to be – even though they’d been working on this for about a year. Maybe it’s journalism, maybe it’s not. We’re just told it’s going to be good, and it’s going to be big. Something about it caught our attention, it could be the fact that by the end of first episode there were more questions than answers. It could also be that the host was as confused as we were, Koenig is quite about the fact that they are making these as they go and she flips between guilt and innocence as she goes. This feels like a brave move for any journalist or storyteller. Not only do they not seem to know where the story will go, but they’ve no idea how it will end – but, end it must as they’re only planning 12 episodes. The wonder if it’s partly our desire to second guess the story
This is The Wire of podcasts. Like the acclaimed television drama, it takes a novelistic approach. Just as one would not open a book in the middle and hope to understand what was going on, Serial needs to be listened to from episode one and in order. It cannot be dipped in and out of but, fortunately, one wouldn’t want to as it’s utterly addictive. Like The Wire, the series is predominantly concerned with crime and racial tension in Baltimore, it has redefined people’s expectations of the medium and, while David Simon’s masterpiece is considered by many to be the greatest TV show ever made, Serial might just be the best podcast.
They are not alone in wondering if this is not only the best podcast ever, but also the most successful ever. This story from Salon puts the success down to timing Podcasts are a blossoming medium at the moment because they are free, easy to find and sample, and once subscribed to, they obligingly turn up on your smartphone, a device that 60 percent of Americans now possess, whether you go looking for them or not. There may be some truth in that. Many commentators in the US are saying that podcasting is enjoying a The mobile networks may be partly to blame here, kicking our FM chips from handsets and pushing radio into the background on smart dashboards. What is there is the podcast app, usually Stitcher. Maybe it’s also smarter people are in the game. For example, the collective have been hugely successful in kickstarter projects, most recently setting a goal $250,000 and more than doubling it with over 200,000 listeners chipping in just over $620,000 to build out their podcast network. Admittedly, these are mainly US market shows, often drawn from the PRX public radio shows that back the network. That aside, something is going on and Serial has been able to surf that wave. Perhaps more will follow.
The show itself, though, is incredible. There’s mountains of real journalism here. Real journalism, the sort that involves reading piles of papers, hunting down records, knocking on doors and hunting out people who don’t want to talk to you. They’ve done all of this, all on tape and played out for us to hear. We also hear their worries about the story,and the implications of it all. What they are quite clear about is this is not a campaign to free Adnan, although that doesn’t stop the media , if their investigation supports the conviction, then that’s an end to it say the team. This is about the story, about the questions, and the human side to what happens in a case like this. If you’ve ever listened to anything from This American Life you will know that they tell stories exceptionally well. They craft them, using words, music and actuality brilliantly. There’s a narrative, and a definite palate to the techniques they use.
Whatever the key is, they have a hit. It’s claimed it’s the fastest ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads and is number one in iTunes on 3 continents. It’s spawned praise from journalists around the world, as well listening parties, and redditors busily doing their own investigating and speculating. There’s even a podcast dedicated to picking over the content of the podcast, a podcast fancast seems like something new to me – at least to this extent. So, maybe it’s the narrative that has us hooked? Personally, I think it’s a perfect storm. The story is solid, and well told; the success of their previous work gives the team not only a platform to sell their new idea but also the credibility to suggest it will be worthy of our time. There’s also the renewed interest in podcasts, fuelled by the rise of smart devices in cars and pockets. The Ricky Gervais podcast had this. It was something new, it felt different and the more people who turn it, the more who follow. Perhaps it’s the fixed release date, where we need to wait for the new episode to drop, playing heavily on the tricks of event based TV like Dr Who. All these have come together, and maybe other podcasts will see bigger audiences as listeners start browsing their podcast apps. This could be the tipping point, where podcasting grows up and listeners (and sponsors) take it seriously. It could equally be something we look back on favourably and wonder when it will transfer to TV. Whatever happens, listen now so at least you’ll know what everyone else is talking about