Podcasting. A medium we caught up with

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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.

UPDATE: Take a look at my chapter in the New Aural Cultures book where I develop this theme using the ideas expressed in the Hype Cycle