Published in Bello Collective, October 2016
I grew up listening to podcasts. They came delivered in the form of an iPod on the school bus to high school. Even back then, I remember how early podcast adopters would talk about the watershed moment for podcasting that was just around the corner. Almost a decade later, it’s a little disheartening to see just how untapped the world of audio content continues to be. Podcasting is still that niche culture and despite leaps and bounds in technology, most of the same headaches of podcast-listening from my days of the school bus are still here over a decade later. Finding content remains mired in word of mouth. Support systems for content makers are still weak. Public radio continues to be ambivalent toward digital distribution. The term “wild west” still feels apt. The truth is that podcasting, despite having a wholly unique value proposition in the world of content, has moved like a change resistant snail compared to other digital platforms. When looking at the rest of the world of content, audio remains overlooked.
We need more people figuring out the problems holding the industry behind. We need more listeners demanding organizations like Apple do something with goldmine under their feet. We need better methods of support than “kick in a buck” and “please use my promo code.” We need voices away from the best interpretations of public radio. Podcasting is older than Snapchat, Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook, yet entire self-sustainable industries have bloomed on less intuitive content platforms. If the internet has taught us one thing, it’s that content continues to be king. So why has podcasting continued to be so slow in addressing the constraints holding it back? The audio industry has squandered an opportunity for the last decade, but it’s starting to feel like people are waking up. Let’s take a dive into the ways podcasting can finally begin turning the corner into an industry.
Build an actual podcasting taxonomy
iTunes opened it’s podcasting directory in 2005. Since that time, it’s database has grown to over 250,000 unique podcasts (and counting). You would think with a catalog that large, there would be significant efforts to allow users efficiently search and find new and similar podcasts, but you’d be wrong. Unfortunately, the single most important database and platform for podcasting is essentially the same as it was over a decade ago. Podcasters and listeners alike are wholly reliant on a limited curation in the form of “New & Noteworthy” and “Staff Picks”. Search parameters often return a noisy list of programs mixed in music, musicians, and movies. If you found a new podcast, chances are you didn’t find it from using the iTunes search function. There is no system of tagging, no recommendation based listening habits, no content-related metadata beyond broad category descriptions.
Think about consumption habits today. The success lies in effective content curation. People are sucked into hours of YouTube based squarely on its recommendation pane. Netflix watchers chose their movies based on specific content collections. Spotify’s best features are in its ability to find new music for its users. All of these rely on an effective taxonomy or content classification structure. Independent of iTunes, there needs to be a classification system developed for podcasting: one that accurately reflects how listeners choose what podcasts they listen to. A taxonomy that takes into account factors like how the podcast is distributed, what is the format of the show, what topics does the podcast cover, how long is the show, and what are programs similar to it.
We need to do better than word of mouth. We need a way for listeners to find new podcasts. Finding a way for listeners to new programs organically is absolutely critical for the audio industry to mature beyond the year 2005.
Hosting is a mess. Between Libsyn, Podbean, Soundcloud, Blubrry, and the cavalcade of startups professing to be the “Instagram of Audio” there is still a huge element of uncertainty in audio distribution. The biggest issue is a lack in standard of measurement across podcast RSS Feeds. We measure Youtube in views, Twitter in retweets, and online print by unique page views, but there still remains debate over what is a threshold of success in podcasting. Even worse, each podcasting operation seems to have their own set of measurement that is held pretty close to the chest, and debates around downloads vs. listeners create an even more muddled environment for companies wishing to advertise in the space.
2016 has proven to be very encouraging for solving the hosting problem. There seems to be hope on the horizon with companies like Acast, Pippa, and Art19 creating podcast-focused platforms. The greatest challenge for podcasters is avoiding the race to the bottom on advertising rates as dynamic ad insertion drives down the price to sponsorship. It’s pretty clear that only one or two hosting platforms will win out as the industry standard, but until then, the competing startups have made big strides to make in making hosting intuitive, measurable, and profitable.
Another kind of diversity in audio
Audio, like a lot of creative mediums, has a representation problem, but podcasting specifically has a deeper diversity problem: diversity of voice. There is a gaping chasm when it comes to diversity of background. Audio is extremely entrenched by backgrounds of white, upper middle class, higher educated, left leaning individuals who have always gravitated towards creative mediums like radio and podcasting. The fix is in seeking out those outside of those bubbles. It’s practically a running joke that audio evangelicals are de facto linguistic experts on vocal fry. Representational problems aside, the lack of diversity creates another barrier problem for podcasting growing beyond the tipping point. Like a Netflix stocked only with socially conscious documentaries, the audio industry needs to continue to cultivate high quality programming outside the realm of those that have traditionally dominated podcasting.
The fix is in seeking out those outside of the email lists, followers, and subscribers. It’s going to neighborhoods and organizations and convincing them why this medium of storytelling matters. Projects like Anacostia Unmapped should be the new roadmap in engaging new voices. It means attracting storytellers who never considered audio as platform rather than culling from the usual pool of producers.
Swift boats to compliment aircraft carriers
Everywhere you look, there is a sizeable poaching of talent from radio and podcast producers to larger media organizations who are looking to pivot, in an effort to stay relevant in the 21st century. Scripps is forging a path forward sans print, Audible is diversifying away from books, and Slate is finding success as the a juggernaut in podcasting. What seems to be missing from the equation are independent, podcast-first companies.
Podcasting companies are few and far between, but ones not owned by larger institutions are even fewer. You can count them on one hand (e.g Gimlet, Maximum Fun). That’s an issue. Organizations like Scripps, Audible, NPR, and the Slate Group aren’t set up to innovate and pivot like the MaxFuns of the world. They’re aircraft carriers. Large, powerful vessels geared to take on tasks at scale and with overwhelming resources. But changing the course even 3 degrees on aircraft carrier is a massive undertaking requiring layers and layers of restructuring. What we need are more swift boats. Nimble companies able to chase successes and take risks. Navies can’t function with aircraft carriers alone, and podcasting can’t survive on massive, vertically integrated media companies. We need an ecosystem — one that rewards risk and breeds innovation.
It’s a great time to be audio. The world is still wide open and there are claims all over this industry just waiting to be staked, but in too many ways the last decade was a missed opportunity. The next decade won’t be. Until then we need more talented individuals demanding answers to the big issues surrounding audio. It’s high time podcasting matured into the industry we all know it could be.
Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of emperors wearing new clothes in podcasting, or maybe just too much patting of each others’ backs. With networks becoming bigger parts of the equation, larger media organizations gobbling up assets, and shows finally making their way into popular culture, it’s hard not to argue that some sort of tipping point is being reached, but there’s plenty of innovating to do before anyone should be calling it days work. Podcasting can and should be doing more. There is so much more left to accomplish before it becomes the industry we all know it can be.