12 weeks is a long time in Podcasting
So, I’m just back from the NetStation 2015 conference, in the lovely city of Braga. I’ll leave the story of my trip home to social media, but here’s the paper I presented with relevant links. The conference will publish the full academic at a later date, but here’s the version I actually presented.
In the past ten years a lot has changed. There are more podcasts. More listeners and more ways to listen, and certainly podcasting feels like a medium that is part of the media establishment. Podcast networks have emerged, and a few people made money. But still podcasting didn’t quite make the impact many thought it would. Podcasting did not kill radio. As we’ve heard already, Radio is still very much alive.
But in considering more recent histories we could perhaps retitle this paper as “Serial – 12 weeks is a long time in podcasting” since this is the period of time over which the first season of this landmark podcast ran for at the end of 2014, when everything seemed to change yet again.
When Ben Hammersley quickly pulled the word “podcasting” out of the air for his Guardian article in 2004, the revolution he was writing about was a new and emerging amateur-led movement that re-appropriated the tools around it. The environment into which Serial emerged ten years later has changed significantly. Changes which I will suggest were important factors in the success of Serial, but also tell us where we are now
In the mid 2000’s Podcasting seemed to threaten the very nature of what of what we do in radio. It swept aside the need for the radio schedule, and put listeners in charge. Podcasting was a converged medium in its purest form, as it pulled together the tools we already had and levelled the playing field.
It appears to be both a threat and opportunity for radio as Markman and Sawyer note that “While the Internet has not yet killed the radio station, both Internet radio and podcasting have continued to grow in popularity… Podcasting can therefore be seen as both a boon and a challenge to traditional broadcasting”. No longer are radio stations restricted by what they can put out on their linear channels, for public radio especially this has been a significant opportunity over the past ten years
Audiences have also seen growth, to the point where 33% of Americans report listening to podcasts and 17% do so monthly. Indeed it has been postulated that we are now enjoying a “Golden Age of Podcasting”
There was much to commend Serial, but in what was already a good year for podcasting something it about captured popular attention in ways that other podcasts hadn’t quite managed
The podcast launched in October 2014 and was a multi episode journalistic series that told the story of the murder of 19 year old Hae Min Lee in 1999, and the subsequent arrest and conviction of her former boyfriend Adnan Syed. Whilst crime stories and journalism were not new for podcasting, Serial achieved something new. Popular success.
listeners were drip-fed the story over 12 weeks, with the reporting team working on the next episode in the intervening days; Producer Julie Snyder suggests their choice of format and platform offered more flexibility – as podcasting allows for listeners to catch episodes as they appear, or to binge on the entire series at the end. This fits in well with a renewed interest in story
Telling a serialized story with cliffhangers and plot developments and stuff is not conducive to broadcast radio because it’s difficult for listeners and it’s difficult for stations to program. That’s the awesome thing with a podcast: We can do a story that unfolds over time. You can either go along—we’ll release them every Thursday—or people can binge once they’ve all been released.
Their true crime story and choice of narrative drew natural comparisons to the rise in serialised fictional stories on contemporary television such as True Detectives – comparisons the producers accept, and often cite as inspiration.
Listeners became so engaged in the story that many woke early each Thursday in order to listen as soon as new episodes went online. With some going as far as running listening groups in bars and cafes. To some extent it was this treatment of true crime that drew many to the story. Equally, the high production values of the podcast also drew in many listeners, as it seemed to reject the amateur status they has once associated with the medium.
Serial set a new level for success in podcasting, and attracted a mass of popular interest, online and in the media, and has been described as the “Podcast we’ve all been waiting for” “the future of radio” and “Podcasting’s first breakout hit”
The Guardian reported that it achieved 5 million iTunes downloads faster than any podcast before it, and by April 2015 it had achieved over 80 million downloads from every country in the world barring North Korea and Eritrea.
To understand some of the reasons for success we should consider the background to the podcast and the people and institutions involved. Serial was developed by This American Life, and whilst that team has produced stories that last longer than a single episode, for Serial to tell one story over 12 episodes was a departure. To do so exclusively online was significant, and seems positive recognition of podcasting as an opportunity for growth on a platform with which the brand had already enjoyed success.
In theory, the openness of the podcast platform should mean that any podcast can be successful but the reality is that new unknown podcasts rarely achieve the instant success seen by Serial. More often than not podcasts require a head start, which often comes from being associated with a familiar producer, brand or personality.
Being part of one of the biggest brands in public radio, also brings with it a further advantage, that of experience. Serial was produced by an experienced team of radio producers, lead by Sarah Koenig with editorial advice from Ira Glass – who as the showrunner of This American Life has built a detailed formula through which all their stories are told. These are techniques which are used to full effect here and helped Serial win a Peabody award for journalism in 2015.
Serial was also able to draw on the financial resources of a well-resourced organisation, something else which few podcasts could aspire to
You’ll notice here that Serial has a style. Like This American Life it is marked by natural narration. Good research and Vivid interviews are important; as is music – which for Serial was scored specifically. The journalism was forensic and the production standards are high. Both were factors in the success
The podcast thrust Sarah Koenig and her production team into the spotlight, triggering TV interviews, news stories, and spoofs. Listeners created memes, tweeted about the show, told their friends, made T-Shirts, produced podcasts and discussed theories with fellow listeners on reddit.
It was success that the producers did not expect, with Koenig telling an audience “I never meant to create a fever… I didn’t know if it was even going to work.
These independent listener authored paratexts became a defining feature of Serial, and is activity which is not surprising given the content. As the American Academic Jason Mittell suggests the format “encouraged and even demanded forensic fandom to fill in the gaps between episodes”. This would be activity that would catch the attention of listeners friends on social media and draw in new pairs of ears to the podcast and create a positive spiral of promotion and engagement
The success of Serial also shows the role in which changing technology is playing. Movement from iPods to iPhones and iPads means that podcasting is becoming more accessible,
In 2013 Edison researchers noted that 34% of podcast listening was on a mobile device, by 2015 this had risen to 55%
It could be that Serial arrived at the point at which audiences had finally left their iPods in the drawer in favour of the shiny new iPhone. In my own 2014 survey amongst Serial listeners, I discovered only 4% of them used an iPod to listen – against 68% who used a smartphone.
When it comes to consuming any media content audiences must first navigate the technologies used to deliver it. In the early days of podcasting this was a task that required both skill and some patience. In his 2007 article Enrico Menduni suggested, that whilst the philosophy of the medium was valuable the process was a barrier, a barrier which has now been largely removed by the smartphone.
So, in preparing the launch of Serial Ira Glass took to TV, and proved that if his elderly neighbour could manage it, then so could you.
It could be podcasting was a medium the audience knew about but had forgotten, or that they needed telling how easy it’s now become in the age of mobile apps
So, is 2015 going to be the year of Podcast as some suggest?
In the past ten years the process listeners need to go through to listen to a podcast has changed. Iphones have replaced iPods and the process has gained spontaneity.
This is a shift that has not gone unnoticed by Ira Glass who highlights here the shift from downloading and syncing, to making choices on the device you will ultimately listen on.
This reduction in friction means that content is more accessible, more searchable and more shareable. Social media gave listeners a platform to talk about Serial, and the apps they listened with provided the means to share episodes (or moments) with their friends and followers. These same apps will also play a role in the ‘Serial effect’ by suggesting new podcasts for these newly engaged listeners.
In the next ten years,, we may in fact be talking about ‘appcasts’ where listeners are finding, consuming and sharing audio content on mobile devices, content that may increasingly be delivered by music streaming services like Spotify.
So, 2015 could be the year of the podcasting app. As the rise of the smartphone, the presence of podcast apps on smart-dashboards means that podcasts are now as accessible as FM in places where once radio had dominance. This is without doubt where the growth has happened, and where it will continue.
Podcasting is a medium that like any pre-teen is starting to find its own identity. As it does new techniques and new opportunities will emerge. Ones which will challenge what radio stations as institutions do, as they permit expansion of ideas and content across a myriad of platforms and devices.
whilst the ‘Serial effect’ has added audience to other podcasts and there is renewed interest in the medium we should remain cautious. As whilst Serial has enjoyed widespread attention it has not made podcasting fully mainstream (yet!). Edison research from 2015 reveals that whilst 10% of the general population were aware of Serial, this rose to 29% amongst those who had listened to a podcast in the past week – suggesting that whilst Serial had an impact, it achieved greater impact amongst those already predisposed to listen in the first place. However by offering a well told and compelling story at a time of technical and social change, Serial may serve as the gateway through which new listeners discover the medium. In this regard Serial is important, partly because we talked about it and the established media took it seriously, but also because it became a useful symbol of what was happening to the medium. Steady audience growth, better technologies, and increased skill in production and marketing means that podcasting now feels more grown up. More serious and more viable. Serial did not achieve this alone, however it has a place in podcast history by highlighting how far we have come.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is now a ‘second age’ of podcasting happening. I’ll thrash out some thoughts on this and post them soon.