The Fall and Rise of Podcasting

Abstract

This research looks at podcasting; the practice of creating, producing and distributing, in the most, audio content in the form of programs. Programs include but aren’t limited to news, sport, documentary, education, dramatization, review, preview and comedy. The goal is to show how important podcasting has become in relation to mainstream media and its impact on audiences as an alternative to, or enhancement of, contemporary radio broadcasting. This has been done by examining research from the Pew Research Centre for Journalism, Edison Research and others. Through analysing, interpreting and reviewing existing material this research highlights how podcasting has moved from a perceived threat to radio to the greatest supporter of modern radio medium.

The Briefest of Histories

Born ostensibly in 2005, podcasting (US Oxford Dictionary ‘Word of the Year’ for that year) promised to give a voice to anyone with an opinion and an internet connection as blogging had done for anyone with the ability to type, and an internet connection. The primary output to begin with was confusion; podcasters didn’t know what they were doing, audiences couldn’t find what they wanted and radio stations were scared their business model was under attack.

However, in most countries the airwaves were and still are administered by governments. Many of which issued, for large fees and with heavy regulation, licences for radio broadcasters to use a specific band of the radio spectrum. Radio stations believed podcasters would steal their audiences and associated advertising revenue. Podcasters believed they were offering audiences unbiased, niche content without the intrusion of advertising in its many forms. Neither saw the benefits of the other until the BBC started offering the majority of their programs as podcasts. ‘Timeshifting’ as it became known was the ability for an audience to listen to a program when they wanted instead of being locked into having to listen when the program was broadcast. From a radio audience’s perspective, timeshifting became the single most important feature of podcasting; being able to listen to their favourite programs when and where they wanted.

The BBC is widely acknowledged as being at the forefront of the podcasting revolution insofar as seeing the advantages it offered its audiences. Rather than being a threat to their terrestrial programming, Simon Nelson, Controller of BBC Radio and Music Interactive said, “These technologies can transform the value we deliver to audiences and make our programmes more accessible for both new and existing audiences.” (Nelson, 2005, Speaking at Music Radio 2005).

While the mighty and great producers were either decrying podcasting as a fad or embarking on experiments on how to use this new tech to bolster their existing audiences, individuals were revelling in the inexpensive startup costs. As Ben Hammersley explains, “…the low cost of producing audio for the internet means more interesting stuff can be done. QuietAmerican.org, for example, is a beautiful collection of sound recordings made while travelling around south-east Asia. Too short and context-free for broadcast, they’re perfect for downloading or listening to online.” (Hammersley, 2004, ‘The Guardian.com’, Audible Revolution, para. 20).

The Big Spike

Screenshot 2015-11-08 14.29.50

As with may technologies the fanfare around the launch often outshines the actual promise. This is true too of podcasting. In 2005 it seemed everyone wanted to be a podcaster and know more about podcasting. The graph above is a Google Trend of the word podcasting over the past ten years. The most interesting element of this graph is not the sudden rise or steady decline after the initial excitement but the ‘long tail’ that continues to now. This long tail of steady interest indicates the ongoing support of podcasting. In comparison, if Google data was available for radio in Marconi’s time we would see a similar shaped graph with interest peaking around launch but being more modest over the past ten (or even 100) years.

While this graph represents Google search requests, Eddison Research analysed the various audio based channels available to audiences and which ones are being listened to the most. They discovered that on average individual users listen to content for 6 hours and 8 minutes per day. Of this, 30% was dedicated to listening to podcasts, 21% to AM/FM broadcast radio, 23% to the user’s own library of music, 12% to the new streaming audio providers, 9% to TV music channels and 5% to satellite radio. To be clear this research was based on surveys of podcast listeners defined by anyone who had listened to a podcast within 24 hours prior to being surveyed. The immediate highlight of this research is the passion of podcast listeners for podcasts; “if you listen to podcasts, you listen to a lot of podcasts.” (Webster, 2015, Share of Ear, para. 1).

Screenshot 2015-11-08 19.00.14

 From Little Things Big Things Grow

The most recent data from The World Bank suggests that in 2006, 17.6% of the world’s population had internet access (2014, WorldBank.org, Internet Users/100 People). Fast forward to 2014 and that number has  more than doubled to 40.6%. With regard to the growth in podcasting, Nancy Vogt of the Pew Research Center for Journalism states, “The percentage of Americans who have listened to a podcast in the past month has almost doubled since 2008, from 9% to 17% by January of 2015. The percentage listening in 2015 was up two points over 2014 levels (15%).” (Vogt, 2015, Podcasting: Fact Sheet, para. 3). When taken into consideration with the vast increase people with access to the internet as TWB data shows, these small increases in podcast listening percentage points equates to massive real increase in actual audience numbers. As Andy Bowers, executive producer of podcasting for Slate.com, put it; “A big reason for all the attention, of course, is the wild success of ‘Serial’…” (Bowers, 2014, Podcasting at 10). Created by the producers of This American Life, ‘Serial’ is a true crime, 12-episode audio play, set pre-9/11 about the murder of a young Asian-American school girl and the cold-case investigation into her Arab-American boyfriend. For podcasting ‘Serial’ is considered a game changer although others contend it to be a heart starter or maybe just a return to the halcyon days of the radio play; without the ads. Caroline O’Donovan contends ; ‘…we’re in the midst of a podcast renaissance.’ (O’Donovan, 2014, ‘Niemanlab.org’).  ‘Serial’ was also broadcast as regular programming on This American Life and will be available from Nov 24th, 2015 on the Pandora streaming service.

Making Cents

Behind the hype and buzz of podcasting, with the cries of free media and a voice for the people, were the money men. However, the digital economy has always struggled to get consumers to pay for digital content; ones and zeroes. Even the largest traditional news publishers who have millions of loyal buyers of their printed daily newspapers find it difficult to get consumers to pay for the same news delivered on their digital devices. As Michael Rosenwald of the Columbia Journalism Review puts it; “The takeaway from Reuters’ vast new study of the world’s digital news consumers is that the disruptive trends publishers have been grappling with the last few years have crystallized into something more lasting, not just in the United States but around the world.” (Rosenwald, 2015, Digital News Consumers Unlikely to Pay for Content and Increasingly Block Ads). These trends include users deploring online ads and payment gateways. Additionally, ad blocking has gone from being a dark art of geeks and hackers to dinner party conversation for mums and dads.

This is where podcast producers went back to the early days of radio and started acquiring sponsors to support their podcasts. Producers who wanted to move from being hobbyists to professionals needed to create cash flow to support themselves in their new full time podcast producing jobs.

Audiences are more comfortable with sponsorships than traditional advertising because of the personal endorsement and thereby trust that was being built by the producer, who was in most cases the host of the podcast. Sponsorship differs to advertising because it is produced by the host and typically in the style of the program at the most appropriate time. A typical sponsorship agreement will include the host reading a prepared and agreed script or mentioning the sponsors product or service during their show. If you can remember the Kellogs Comedy Hour on 2KY you’ll understand the power of sponsorship. Advertising however is externally produced content and typically an interruption to the program. Sponsorship is more targeted to the audience of the podcast than advertising can be. Rebecca Greenfield says, “… listeners like and trust hosts. Their [sponsorship] messages sound more like a friend’s recommendation than [advertising]. (Greenfield, 2014, ‘FastCompany.com’)

In addition to individual program or even episode sponsorship networks started to evolve. Originally these were loose collectives of producers who pooled their marketing resources, hosting costs and cross promoted each other shows. Today, that scene is vastly different as the money men start three new podcast networks operations in the past six months; Infinite Guest from American Public Media, SoundWorks from PRI, and Radiotopia from PRX. (2014, ‘FastCompany.com’

The End of the Beginning

While in the early days of podcasting the hype and buzz were so loud, so focussed and so threatening, it would have been supremely ignorant of radio industry to see the technology as anything but threatening. However, after the shouting and noise gave way to rational thought those who had kept their heads could see the synergistic opportunities that podcasting offered radio. As the table below shows, the various channels offer both pros and cons to producers and users. When a program is made available across more than one channel then a win/win situation is created and more listeners are created for better content.

PODCAST TERRESTRIAL STREAMING
PRODUCERS PROS Low entry $ point No extra cost when audience grows Potentially lucrative business
CONS Gaining market share Competition High marketing costs
USERS PROS Timeshifting & program choice Familiarity Niche choice
CONS Download expenses Broad (un)appeal Expensive

As the ‘Serial’ distribution model demonstrates, multiple delivery channels could well be the future model for radio programming which indeed some of the more forward thinking television networks have recently engaged; terrestrial, on demand, download, mobile, streaming and partnerships with other distribution channels. Rather than fighting each other for audience ear or eye time, modern programming looks to engage with consumers and deliver the content they want in the mode they need at the time they desire.

So it seems Gil Scott-Heron was only partly correct when he sang, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’; it will most likely be streamed, downloaded, shared and podcast.

 

Bibliography

Allison, 2015, ‘Transom.org’, Advertising, Podcasting and Public Radio

Greenfield, 2014, ‘FastCompany.com’, The (Surprisingly Profitable) Rise of Podcast Networks

Hammersley, 2004, ‘The Guardian.com’, Audible Revolution, para. 20

O’Donovan, 2014, Harvard Nieman Lab, This American Life Tries to Turn its Radio Audience onto Podcasting with its New Show Serial

Pike, 2013, ‘AllenPike.com’, The Fall and Rise of Podcasting

Rosenwald, 2015, ‘Columbia Journalism Review’, Digital news consumers unlikely to pay for content and increasingly block ads

Stevenson, 2014, ‘Slate.com’, Don’t Count AM/FM Radio Out Just Yet

Thompson, 2005, ‘BBC.co.uk’, Podcasting Could Be a Revolution

Valance, 2005, ‘BBC.co.uk’, Podcasts Send Mixed Signals to Radio

Vogt, 2015, Pew Research Center, ‘State of the News Media’, Podcasting: Fact Sheet

Webster, 2015, ‘EddisonResearch.com’, Share of Ear Study Shows Dramatic Increase in Podcasting Consumption

Weiner, 2014, ‘Slate.com’, The Voices: Towards a Critical Theory of Podcasting