Podcasts: Can They Hear Us Now?

For more than a decade, podcasting has been in a constant act of becoming. Until recently, it had been a decidedly niche affair, with slow incremental growth among passionate podcast listeners—myself included. But from the beginning, when shows needed to be sideloaded onto early iPods, podcasts struggled under clunky distribution mechanisms. Even in the untethered smartphone era, it was easier to listen to a podcast but still difficult to habituate many people to time-shifted radio. Worse, podcasting is an afterthought for Apple—and it shows. The iTunes interface for podcasts and the later iOS Podcasts app are among the worst designed consumer experiences Apple ever has developed.

And yet, we are seeing serious interest ramp up in the format because of a confluence of forces. The breakout popularity of Serial was enough to merit a parody on Saturday Night Live. Networks such as Panoply, Earwolf, and Gimlet are joined now by internet radio providers (such as Spotify and iHeartRadio) as additional distribution vehicles. Meanwhile, Google stopped ignoring the format and developed a podcast distribution platform for Google Play. And finally, the connection between smartphone and car has now become commonplace. Drive time is fertile ground for lean-back, on-demand listening.

Despite the fact that about 50 million-plus people listen to a podcast each month, ZenithOptimedia projects ad spend at a mere $36.1 million. What is a publisher to do with such bad math? Try different inputs. The benefits of podcasting for both B2B and business-to-consumer (B2C) publishers likely outweigh immediate revenue.

To start, entry is cheap. Get a decent microphone and a room with some sound baffling. Your laptop has all the tech you need. Then, it is all about the relationship with the listener. Media brands that do podcasting swear by the loyalty of listeners and the rich connections subscribers cultivate with the podcasters. The interaction is unique and thrives in social channels in which hosts and listeners often engage regularly. Audio is intimate in a way video and text-plus-an- image are not. These hosts get in your head, quite literally. And that is a place publishing brands need to be. I have discovered writers and sites solely because I found and appreciated them first via podcasting.

Publishers should think about podcasting as a social medium. It is the chatter and commentary around a podcast-— the supplementary notes to each show, the ability to alert users of new shows via social—that give the vibe of a shared experience.

Speaking of shared experience, it is not surprising that this format translates perfectly to live events. Slate’s long-running Political Gabfest and other audio shows have live road versions in major cities that sell out. On the advertising side, revenues may be small, but the format and impact of the podcast host-read are a unique part of a publisher’s ad portfolio. In fact, I have had programmatic ad buyers tell me they hope podcasting never goes programmatic because it would ruin the special nature of its ad model.

Oddly enough, this medium has proven especially appealing to direct marketers who can attribute sales to specific shows the old-fashioned, direct-response television (DRTV) way—with custom URL callouts. The recidivism among podcast sponsors is quite high, and it opens up for publishers new veins of DR clientele.

Finally, there is opportunity for real innovation here on both the editorial and revenue side. Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series is a wonderfully layered audioscape of long-form, highly opinionated personal journalism. Republican operative Mike Murphy’s Radio Free GOP anti-Trump series uses ironic/comic radio jingles and his own wry storytelling to recall classic radio days.

And podcasting is surging just as content marketing/native advertising is ready to meet it with some great branded content opportunities. The sci-fi hit The Message was really funded by GE Podcast Theater and created by Slate’s Panoply podcast network.

Will podcasting ever be a ubiquitous mass medium? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be. In some ways, on-demand audio is at the forefront of post-mass media. This is where we might learn to be more niche, more personal, and more intimate—perhaps even more creative and effective communicators who actually commune with audiences.  

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I say this with love: Podcasting needs an upgrade. I am struck by the lack of genuine innovation around its content, distribution, discoverability, and monetization.