The Benefits of Narrow-mindedness (in podcasting!)

Fotosearch_blindersPodcasts have gone mainstream – that is the inescapable conclusion as audiences for online audio grow exponentially.

‘S Town’ made by the producers of the earlier hit ‘Serial’, has become the latest star in the podcast firmament achieving 10 million downloads in just four days. The series – recorded over 3 years – revolves around the compelling story of John B McLemore, an exceptional and talented middle-aged man from a small town in rural Alabama.

S-Town and Serial have both proved – beyond doubt – that podcasts have mass appeal, and are challenging traditional radio broadcasters for the way in which people access audio programming.

But their broad success hides another potential draw of podcasts – to serve niche groups of listeners which radio stations have traditionally overlooked.

The beauty of podcasts is that they are ideally suited in catering to more select audiences and interest groups. They can narrowcast in contrast to the broad reach of terrestrial radio networks.

Niche podcasts can range far and wide serving a multitude of differing audiences; from those curious about the intricacies of international finance and how money makes the world go round, to others fascinated with astronomy and what makes up the whole universe turn.

Technology has democratized the airwaves (or at least the on-line audio pathways). Anyone with an internet connection, a microphone, a laptop and sound-editing software can theoretically put themselves on the same playing field as NPR, BBC and other established broadcasters.

Such access also means that the quality of the some of the offerings from DIY podcasters is of wildly variable quality. Just as the internet has put ‘fake news’ and respectable reporting on the same platform – so it also allows sub-par podcasts to bracket themselves alongside stellar productions.

If niche interest podcasts are to stand the test of time – as well as stand out amid an increasingly crowded field – they must serve up high quality, focused programming. As more and more podcasts are launched so producing a polished and appealing product becomes increasingly important.

My own experience in producing and editing the World Bank podcast series, ‘Between 2 Geeks’ is illustrative of this trend. Another example of similar programming is ‘Pocket Economics’ made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Both podcasts are squarely aimed at a particular constituency – in this instance those interested in international development. Both have been made to a high standard – technically and editorially – so they that offer a stimulating, informative and convenient (i.e. not too long) listen.

Podcasts are an ideal medium for numerous other organizations which possess a specific field of expertize, to connect with a particular audience. Think-tanks, universities, even hobbyists, can use this tool to serve – and even reach beyond – existing constituencies, generating new interest and awareness in their areas of expertize.

Additionally audio has the ability to generate an intimate and personal connection with listeners, in a way that largely eludes print and television. Good stories and strong presentation generates loyal audiences. With the right pieces in place, podcasts can create communities and become a tool in joining together like-minded individuals.

But ultimately the loyalty of listeners will not be won with the subject matter alone. Amid the growing chatter of on-line programs, niche podcasters will succeed by ensuring that their content is compelling, conveniently packaged and above all interesting.

Either way, podcasts – both for broad and narrow audiences – are the destination of the future for great audio.

The Podcast Gold Rush

golden-microphoneFool’s gold or a golden age? These are the two divergent views on podcasts that are being voiced as on-line audio garners more and more attention.

As explained in a previous blog I sit firmly with the ‘golden age’ viewpoint. Podcasts represent the greatest opportunity for accessible high quality audio since BBC Radio began broadcasting from a makeshift studio in central London ninety five years ago.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but the development of smartphones, growing access to the internet, and the innovations of digital recording technology are unleashing a new bonanza of audio production.

But firstly to address the detractors. Jessi Hempel from Wired sees the podcast phenomenon as overblown with an uncertain future. ‘Like those blogs of yesteryear,’ she writes, ‘the promise feels huge. But as that brief era also taught us, the golden age doesn’t last.’

She cites an estimate of 180,000 active podcasts, suggesting that many of them are like the prospectors of the Wild West who ended up with handfuls of gravel as opposed to the riches of their dreams. She also contends that most people still haven’t figured out ‘how to listen to them yet’, and that podcasts are hard to share given the lack of user-friendly platforms that would make on-line audio simple to produce and be heard. As a result Hempel says, ‘only 17% (my italics) of Americans have ever listened to a podcast’.

Only 17%! That amounts to 55 million people – a figure that would make most radio executives weep with joy. In addition that number which dates from last year is an increase of 16 million or 5% from 2014 – a rate of growth that is the stuff of fantasy for those same executives.

This phenomenal expansion is being driven by a combination of new technology and innovative content.

Podcasts cater to a wide variety of listeners’ interests as well as allowing access cut to the convenience of the consumer. Content can be disseminated in whole programs or alternatively smaller bite size segments (The Moth). They can be heard in weekly episodes or binged upon marathon sessions (Serial).

Digital technology also means that there is a far more ‘democratic’ environment for program makers to produce and broadcast their wares. Where once studios, a radio frequency and sound technicians were required, now there is only need for a computer, an internet connection and a basic understanding of user-friendly software.

New technology also means that listeners need only a mobile phone or computer to hear the podcasts.

And where America is currently leading in popularizing on-line audio the rest of the world is likely to follow. According to recent research global access to smartphone technology is exploding with 7.1 billion in 2014, compared to approximately 7.5 billion a year later. Most of those new phones are being taken up by people in the developing world with the greatest growth in the Asia/Pacific Region and Africa.

All of this goes to highlight the vast untapped riches of podcasts, not only in the US and other developed countries but around the world.

Savvy investors, broadcasters and media networks are waking up to the possibilities – commercial and otherwise – of this new audio landscape.

Just this week The Economist reported that ‘an industry to support podcasting is developing’.  It cited a number of examples of new media companies devoted to hosting and monetizing on-line audio.

But the podcasting ‘industry’ is in its infant stages and as such it is destined for big shake-ups.  Writing in Nieman Lab two months ago, Joshua Benton laid out his assessment for the future of this newly popular medium which he summed up as, ‘exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents’.

Benton foresees many of the current podcasts falling by the wayside leaving a more modest number of polished productions, along with a few commercial ‘platforms’ upon which the audio can be made and uploaded.

Amid all the uncertainty of this nascent medium, one of the few certainties seems to be that as it develops, many podcasts that exist today will face into obscurity.

Those quality podcasts that remain and stand out, then have a chance of hitting the rich seam of large audiences. They will also create usher a new era of inventiveness and creativity for audio. That will prove equally true of commercial and public service productions for listeners from Los Angeles to Lagos.

So for any doubters – the gold age is for real and there are riches to be won for those pioneers who venture into this new and exciting territory.