When Serial hit the digital airwaves in October 2014, the podcast world was taken by a storm. Suddenly, people who had previously been oblivious to the niche world of on-demand audio content were frantically awaiting the next instalment of the weekly show that delved into the minutia of an 15-year-old crime.
Amidst a flurry of media coverage and word-of-mouth publicity, Serial grew bigger and bigger, reaching 230 million downloads across two seasons. In the intervening two-and-a-half years, interest in podcasts has continued to soar, with big media organisations such as Buzzfeed and The New York Times investing heavily in the medium, while independent producers found themselves with more success than they could have dreamed of just a few years previously.
As a result, more and more people are turning to podcasts for everything from politics to comedy, while bloggers, authors and YouTubers are leveraging audio content as a way to expand their audience. But where technology and media trends may have evolved simultaneously in the past, the tools available to both podcasters and podcast listeners remain surprisingly stagnant, unable or unwilling to provide the resources necessary to sustain the growth of the medium.
But despite the move towards on-demand digital content in almost every other industry, three-quarters of our listening time is still traditional radio. Adam Martin is the chief content officer at Acast, a podcasting platform that launched in April 2014 and has quickly become one of the most popular apps for podcast listeners, particularly those on Android devices. Part of his role is to shift perceptions of podcasting away from the idea of the geeky white middle-aged man podcasting from their garage, but he finds the historic lack of streamlined technology is a barrier.
“Once you hook people on to podcasts, that’s it. I don’t know anyone who’s stopped listening to podcasts after they start, but the tech needs to be accessible,” said Martin. “Instead of expecting people to download apps and look things up, we want to go to where people already are. We use Facebook Instant Articles integration and a Twitter player to show people snippets of audio they’ll find interesting. We don’t want to corrall them into a walled garden and force them to listen through our app; we want to be a part of the social media channels they already frequent and serve up content to them there. You have to break down the barriers to access podcasts, remove the friction and go to where the people already are.”
While using existing platforms may be a way to hook in new listeners, they’re still faced with a plethora of confusing listening options. iTunes is perhaps the most popular way to access podcasts on the go for iPhone users, but despite creating the technology that gave podcasting its name, Apple has been surprisingly slow to catch up with the increasing popularity of audio.
“Apple Podcasts is more like a library than a platform. It has very little interaction with the creators and the algorithm is very limited.”
Only last month, a rebrand saw the app change its name to Apple Podcasts, but it seems the rebrand remains superficial. As podcast industry expert Nick Quah notes in his newsletter: “We know nothing new about whether the company plans to revamp the podcast app’s underlying user experience (long criticised as being virtually unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago), provide any further analytics support, […] increase the sophistication of podcast discovery and publisher promotion, provide additional pathways for monetisation, or clarify the editorial and symbolic significance of the podcast charts.”
For creators, having a podcast on iTunes is a must, but also a frustrating experience. Adam Barker currently hosts two podcasts, one of which is #NOTlistening, a comedy show launched in 2012 that has since amassed more than 100,000 downloads. He explained: “iTunes [now Apple Podcasts] is more like a library than a platform. It has very little interaction with the creators and the algorithm is very limited, so smaller podcasts struggle to get exposure while the bigger podcasts always dominate.” Hence the perennial “rate us on iTunes” plea every podcast listener will be sick of hearing.
Surfacing smaller podcasts
With so many listening platforms competing for what is an ever-growing audience, listeners are left without a podcasting equivalent of Netflix, while aspiring podcasters don’t have an audio version of YouTube or WordPress where they can upload rough content and form a community, evolving and learning as they go along.
Laura Thomas is a freelance nutritionist who realised that there was a gap in the market for a podcast about health and wellbeing that wasn’t an NHS show or a faddy “clean eating” one. Last year she finally launched Don’t Salt My Game, but had no idea how complicated it would be to create even a short, interview-based, low-production podcast.
“I’m not a sound engineer, and I don’t expect to have a podcast that sounds like Radiolab, but even just the sheer number of different programmes I need to use is unbelievably time-consuming,” she explained. “It would be great if I could just use one app to record, edit, add tags, export and share, rather than loads of different bits which all work differently and can all go wrong.”
(Above: Laura Thomas, host and producer of Don’t Salt My Game)
Thomas regularly receives questions from people who are looking to start their own podcast. “I try to advise them, I suggest a couple of books and tell them the software I use, but although people want to do it in theory, in practice it requires so much more work than people might think. Even just getting my podcast indexed on iTunes was a struggle, and finding brands willing to advertise and sponsor as an independent is really hard – partly because the brands themselves don’t really get it, and partly because it’s hard to access the necessary stats – so you have to be willing to invest a lot of time and money for potentially little return.”
“It’s time to mix up this medium and play with what audio can be”
One of the hurdles for podcasters is the expectation of quality. With so many people being introduced to podcasts through the likes of Serial and This American Life, it can feel like you need something equally slick in order to compete for people’s listening time, although Adam Martin of Acast thinks this is a misconception.
“What excites me are people who are coming at it with a different sensibility, who have maybe only listened to a few podcasts and have never listened to Serial, but they send you a piece of audio and it just sets your world alight. They’ve thought about it uniquely and differently and that’s what I want to see happening. It’s time to mix up this medium and play with what audio can be.”
While some podcasts do seem to thrive despite a lack of polished production and engineering expertise, it’s hard to imagine a Zoella of audio: someone podcasting grainy, barely edited chats from their bedroom amassing millions of followers.
One reason for the relative lack of investment in new podcasting technology may be the scepticism that interest will last, along with the innate lack of coolness that radio used to be known for. When Serial took off among trendy millennials in a way no-one could have imagined, executive producer Ira Glass was quoted ad nauseum claiming it was a “bubble”, and worried media pundits wrung their hands at the prospect of venture capitalists getting overexcited and it all tumbling down.
(Above: Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, Credit: Peabody Awards)
One person that didn’t agree was Tamar Charney. Charney is managing editor of NPR One, an app from National Public Radio in the US that allows users to listen to their favourite shows, while supporting the non-profit organisation. She said: “There’s been a lot of speculation that podcasting is a bubble, but for now we are only seeing podcast listening increase.[…] I’m not seeing any signs that podcasting has peaked – if anything, there are lots of unrealised niches.”
“Apps that provide a level of curatorial vetting of podcasts will become more and more useful”
Charney thinks that there’s a huge opportunity for technology to step into the gap: “The trick will be how to make sure that the right listeners find the podcasts that meet their needs. That is where discovery apps and apps that provide a level of curatorial vetting of podcasts will become more and more useful.”
Although the rise of podcasting was swift and steep, there doesn’t appear to be a drop in sight. Despite the barriers to both creation and consumption, the number of podcasts out there continues to grow along with their listener base. When technology starts focusing on the huge market opportunity that audio content creates, who knows what potential opportunities could lie ahead for an industry that has for so long been overlooked, yet flourished nonetheless.