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Podcast or Paycast?

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?