Hype, Hope, and History Converge for International Podcast Day

Oct 08, 2018

Article ImageBelated Happy International Podcast Day (IPD)! Don’t worry if you forgot to send out your IPD cards. It’s still a relatively new celebration. This is only the fourth year, and those of us entrenched in the field are aware that where it falls on the calendar and where it stands in awareness is the same--right between National Father-in-Law Day and New Year’s Day.

Podcasting itself has been around much longer, of course. I started distributing my radio show as a downloadable podcast back in the day of 28.8Kbps modems--September 15, 2004 to be exact. And since then, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs, riding on the digital revolution from relative obscurity to next-big-thing status following the success of Serial, all the way to today when what you read shows some cracks in confidence on the content and audience growth sides of the industry.

But you know what? That’s OK. Because having a massive burst of enthusiasm followed by feelings of disappointment is totally normal for emerging technologies. Research and advisory company Gartner put a name to it - the “Hype Cycle.” And if we look at the path of podcasting, according to Gartner’s model, what’s next on our journey will be good for all of us.

Since 1995, Gartner has plotted the buzziest technologies of the year along the hype cycle, a five-phase presentation of emerging technologies’ maturation. While it's earned its fair share of mockery (The Aranda Ignominy Curve) and been used as a foundation for satire (The Trump Presidency), you gotta admit it makes a lot of sense. The hype cycle starts with “Innovation Trigger,” which is basically a thing happening, being created or sometimes just getting talked about that sets off something else. For podcasting, the initial trigger was the internet and emerging online content syndication technologies like RSS (really simple syndication), with growth coming alongside ubiquitous high-speed internet. Still, it was a stick-it-to-the-man medium that appealed to a small subset of people who wanted to break all the rules, level the playing field, and make “broadcasting” available to everyone.

The first burst of mainstream growth came with the advent of iPods and other mp3 players, then limited-internet-connected mobile phones, and finally the iPhone. Suddenly, podcasts were like radio for the new generation growing up attached to their phones. It was 2007 and podcasters were well on our way up the steep incline of visibility and awareness. Major media even started toe dipping, then stopped investing during the economic downturn of the late 00s.

But then comedians came into the fold. People like Marc Maron and Adam Carolla started their own podcasts to give them an outlet for their work that they could control. It became clear to many talented entertainers that this was a great way to reach new levels of fan engagement and build new followings. It was a career maker and/or saver. Popularity grew, and mainstream media started coming back to the medium. Sports podcasts became popular, NPR made the medium an expanding outlet for quality audio journalism. We saw the beginnings of more storytelling-based podcasts. 

Then WHAM! 2014, just days after the very first IPD, Serial was released. And we hit what Gartner calls the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.” The medium was replete with enthusiasm and optimism. Talent from the bigger podcasters like NPR were leaving and starting their own podcasting ventures. It seemed everyone was starting a podcast, including the biggest names in journalism like The New York Times. Slate even started its own podcast network, Panoply. 

But, as futurist Roy Amara observed, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” And that brings us to today, and phase three, the “Trough of Disillusionment.” Panoply shut down their content creation. Buzzfeed fired its in-house audio team. Amazon laid off the Audible Original podcast creation staff. The ad dollars aren’t materializing as fast as producers fantasized, and creating high-quality podcasts was just harder and more expensive than they had thought. And, as noted by Poynter’s David Beard, “The latest shiny object is selling a nonfiction story or video series to television, cable and streaming outlets.”

But, as I said, it’s all OK. Because phase four is “The Slope of Enlightenment,” and there’s reason to believe podcasts already on it. For one, the industry is still growing steadily. In their annual “Infinite Dial” study, Edison Research found that 44% of Americans aged 12+ now say they have listened to a podcast, up from 40% from last year. It’s also becoming more and more popular for smartwatch and in-car entertainment.

Yes, there’s some consolidation and reshuffling of companies in the space, but at the same time, there are new entrants. With all that new in-car and smartwatch listening, it’s a no-brainer that commercial radio is now aggressively entering the space. Even Slate’s former editor in chief, Jacob Weisberg, is still invested in podcasting - quite literally. He’s joined forces with Malcolm Gladwell and the two are launching a new audio company.

So, what’s in the way of our reaching phase five, the “Plateau of Productivity?” For one, people need to stop trying to think of podcasting as mass media. It’s not and it shouldn’t be. It’s always been a very one-to-one medium that reaches people on a personal level.

People need to stop obsessing about revenue and think more about value, connection, and engagement. Podcasting’s niche communities may be small, but they’re built around passion points, and that type of highly-targeted audience is worth its weight in gold from a brand-building perspective.

Lastly, people need to remember that we’re still relatively early in adoption in most English-speaking countries and just getting started in nearly every other market worldwide. As the number of non-English podcasts grow, distribution increases and more Android-users start listening on smartphones, we’ll start seeing exponential increases.

But we in the industry need to keep pushing it forward and working together to demonstrate why we love this medium. I don’t know that I’d go as far Tom Webster, Edison’s VP of Strategy did, with his hypothesis that to grow we just need "more high-quality crap," but we for sure can't stop innovating or inspiring new types of quality audio content. It is not good enough to just keep trying to make Serial over and over.

This started as a medium for revolutionaries and it should be kept that way. There are still a lot more stories, whether real or fictional, to be told. There’s the opportunity for a sort of blending with audiobooks. There are more diverse voices, untapped geographies, and languages...then there are millions and millions of people who don’t listen to podcasts because they haven’t found one they like yet.

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