Podcasting is different to radio

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It’s very easy when thinking about podcasting, to slap the label “radio” on to it. Over the years I’ve probably done the same. To be fair, it’s easy: both rely purely on sound and they share many conventions. The walls between them are porous, with people and ideas flowing each ways. Talent has left (willingly or not) radio for podcasting, whilst others have seen radio as a route into broadcasting. However, times change and so has the medium of podcasting. Over the past year I’ve been thinking more and more that there is a need for a rethink about how we talk about podcasting.

Earlier this month I was invited to talk at JPOD – a podcasting conference in Malaga (organised by the excellent Isaac Balantas). I used it as a chance to float some ideas about how podcasts and radio and why we need to avoid linking the two. My realisation when writing the presentation was that if we always think of podcasts as being radio, then we risk losing sight of podcasting could be and the only real winner in that conversation is the radio industry.

We already know that radio listening is experiencing problems; which can be eased by including the good news about the growth of podcast listeners. If the radio industry claims podcasting as its own then it shows expansion and innovation. Of course, radio has shown it can use new technology to find ways to get content to listeners and the podcast platform is part of that. For radio stations podcasting offers a great new route to listeners; it allows radio shows to let listeners catch up with shows, share them and find stuff that they would have missed on the radio. The problem comes when we start thinking about independent content; because if we think of it as ‘radio’ do we run the risk of ignoring what makes it special?

Chris Lydon: Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty
Chris Lydon: Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty

Perhaps a good starting point is this recent piece in The Guardian, where one of the medium’s founder reflects on his work in the light of recent political turmoils.  Chris Lydon makes Radio OpenSource and has been since podcasting was a thing. “Podcasting is different to radio – institutionally as well as functionally,” he told The Guardian. It is, he says, a space where anyone can have a voice, where it shouldn’t matter what you do because if what you does has relevance the audience will find you. This is where radio is different to podcasting. It is functionally different: it has a different sound to radio, where if the content is relevant it doesn’t matter if the audio quality is poor or the content rambles on. What matters is that someone reaches an audience. Listeners can focus on podcasts and often focus on what they hearing, giving it their full attention. This means that more nuanced or narrative work can work well. Listeners enjoy a more intimate relationship with podcasts, and see them as more authentic. Podcasts also lack rules.

The podcasters in this video agree that podcasting is not only a great medium, but one that has much to commend it. Sarah Koenig from Serial suggests that when they started out she knew nothing about podcasting, and whilst that might shock us; it’s actually a good thing. It means she worked from a story-first basis. The more rules you apply to anything, the less you can do and that’s why calling podcasts ‘radio’ is a bad thing; as it brings with it perceptions of what radio should sound like – and how long the episodes should be.

It’s a though developed here by Adam Ragusea. Podcasts are, as he suggests, the ultimate ‘opt-in’ medium. Listeners find what they want, subscribe to it and then find the time to listen to it. This means that listeners potentially more loyal, more engaged and more likely to listen to the whole show. It also means you’re free from talking to a half engaged audience; the one that’s listening because they tune in when surfing between stations. It can (and probably) should serve niche audiences. That’s great news if you make a podcast. You don’t have cater for a broad audience, and probably shouldn’t try.

I’d also suggest reflection on the other part of the Chris Lydon quote above. Podcasting is different institutionally to radio he says. I’d suggest in some ways he’s dead right and dead wrong. Podcasts can emerge from back-bedrooms, activists and people looking to create popular content with a different agenda. This content sites outside the institutional frame of a radio station. It’s not radio. It does not aspire to be radio. Shows like ‘My Dad Wrote A Porno‘ might draw on the experience of radio, but they don’t work like radio. Then there are shows like Serial; A show made by a radio company (This American Life) but not as radio content. In this regard the content is not radio, but it sits within a radio business. This distinction means we can (and should) think of differences between radio (as a medium) and radio businesses. It means a radio station can use the podcast space to push out different forms that does not have to sound like the stuff they use a transmitter for.

So, think of like this:
Some radio shows are distributed as podcasts – for them, podcasting is a PLATFORM
Some podcasts are made by radio businesses, but they are not radio. They use the space
Some podcasts don’t aspire to be radio, so stop calling them radio. They are podcasts