Can radio learn from podcasting?

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Following a tweet from Radio Guru David Lloyd, I’ve realised I perhaps should post some more about this relationship between radio and podcasting.

David made a couple of great points about what podcasts do that radio doesn’t, or at least has forgotten how to:

The title matters
Personality profile matters
The beginning matters
Timeliness helps
Promotion takes skill
and there’s also a nod to relaxed authenticity

For me, there’s plenty that radio can learn from those cheeky upstarts in podcasting. Many of the big formats in the podcast world are genres that radio thought were dead. A quick look at the biggest shows of the past few years and you’ll see drama shows and podcasts that build on personality, at the very time that commercial radio sees all that as bad thing and explores more ways to take presenters out of the loop. Of course, all of this comes at a price but it tells us that listeners do like speech content. It’s something I pondered about in a book chapter almost 20 years when thinking about happens when a platform like DAB comes along.

Long tail.svg
By User:HuskyOwn work, Public Domain, Link

Whenever you add more space then not only are there opportunities to go more niche, but there’s also an imperative to do so. In the radio world (especially on FM) the costs of working in that space and the finite nature of the platform pushes people into the mainstream. Even when it’s niche, these formats deal with the hits of the niche. It’s the Long Tail in action.

Podcasting sits firmly in the niche zone of the tail. It’s home to podcasts on pretty much every subject you care to mention, and obviously if you can’t find it then you can make it. The message of the long tail is that we all have some niche interests; an interest which when viewed on global scale becomes something which not has appeal but also, potentially, is a scalable commercial opportunity. In the current market this is where radio is making the most of podcasting and pitting new niche content into that space, whilst keeping their traditional models firmly in the mainstream. Perhaps, though, a lesson might be is that the mainstream if fickle and increasingly less relevant.

Most of the time, Spotify can do a far better of catering to our music needs than radio can. My students far prefer it. They love the control and the lack of adverts. So, they don’t listen to (enough) radio but they do listen to podcasts. They love the niche topics, the deep dives and personalities that they can engage with. Radio can learn a lesson here. In an age where pretty much every song is a click away, music is no longer enough to pull in the listeners; stations need to curate, weave stories, and generate content that makes listening compelling.

Lloyd also made a point about personality. In podcasting personalities can somehow seem bigger, unshackled as they are from formats and daily meetings with a PD keen to ensure that their talent hit all the key demo’s. In my experience of listening to and researching podcasts and podcasters, in most cases their personae is natural. it’s authentic. It’s just how they are. I’ve suggested in the past that podcasts benefit when a dual-ended intimacy, where they are recorded in intimate, personal spaces (the home) and consumed intimately (alone and on earbuds) which creates this sense of ‘hyper-intimacy’. The listeners know that their hosts are at home, not least as this often stated in the podcast. I recently invited Rosie from the Podcast ‘Shagged, Married, annoyed‘ to talk to my students. She talked about how they record at home at the dining table. Work commitments once meant they had to use a studio in London and it didn’t feel the same.

In podcasting being authentic has become a hallmark, certainly in the non-narrative formats. This lesson seems to be bellying across into radio, as stations start to hire from the space and looking for ways for this more relaxed style of delivery to come out; especially in narrative and scripted programming. I can see this style coming out in TV and Radio programmes as the hosts take on more relaxed styles, ones that feel less time-pressured where the topic can take centre-stage much more.

Perhaps another way in which radio can learn from podcasts is about ideas. A quick scan of podcast lists will show you an array of formats, genres, topics and ideas. There’s just so much stuff out there (I won’t even start on the ‘peak podcast’ here) that bland ideas won’t cut through. By way of example, look at the BBC Podcast You’re Dead To Me. It brands itself as ‘the history podcast for people who don’t like history’ In other words, they’re looking for the nuggets that make history interesting

The format of the show is simple. An engaging host, plus a fun academic to explain the history and a comedian, who may or may not know something about history. In the round they work through some ideas, have a laugh and share a few insights and fun facts along the way. it’s a simple format, that is consistent and delivers on its subtitle. The lesson radio *could* learn here is that serious topics don’t have to be boring and people are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for.