Podcasting is in vogue right now. The so called “Serial Effect” – named after the phenomenally popular 2014 series which revisited a 15 year old murder case from Baltimore – has led to a surge of recent media, investor and consumer, interest in the genre.

Publishers actively talk about finding “the next Serial” and there’s been plenty of commentary about podcasting enjoying a golden age.

But is the podcast garden as rosy as its advocates suggest? Let’s take a look at the evidence. 

The case for: great output

If “Content is King” then audiophiles are spoilt for choice right now.

Much of the best podcasting content – typically “topped and tailed” from radio programmes broadcast on the BBC or NPR– is available both on demand and for free. But, with the cost of entry low compared to many other content forms, their dominance of these markets are being challenged by newer entrants.

In the States, shows like Criminal, The Message and Invisibilia, have added breadth and depth to the podcasting field, sitting comfortably alongside long-running staples such as This American Life, WTF With Marc Maron, and Radiolab. Meanwhile, other new entrants include non-media brands like Slack and Red Bull, who are using podcasts to build a “deeper connection” with their audiences and enhance their brand. 

It’s a method British newspapers like The Times and The Guardian first explored a decade ago; and although they’re not as active in this space as they once were, the opportunities podcasts provide for brand extension have been enthusiastically embraced by publishers ranging from The Economist through to The New Yorker, The New York Times, BuzzFeed and Slate.

And it’s not just publishers, brands and non-media companies who see the allure of podcasting.

Just as top screen talent has increasingly gravitated towards television in the past decade, radio and audio services are – once again – basking in the Hollywood sun. Alec Baldwin, Girls star and writer Lena Dunham and comedy actress – turned unqualified relationship advisor – Anna Faris, are just three celebs who have creatively engaged with the podcasting format.

Audiences have never had it so good.

The case for: new investment

Alongside an expansion of creative content, the podcasting arena has also seen a substantive growth in new investment as players explore the potential for different business models.

Late last year Gimlet Media, a digital media company and podcast network based in New York, raised $6 million in Series A funding as part of a $30 million valuation. The story of Gimlet’s journey is captured in their popular StartUp podcast, the first season of which documented the founding of the company.

2015 also saw the launch of Panoply, a podcasting network owned by Slate, but designed to support “media brands, authors, personalities, and premier organizations.” Partners benefit from the “production, marketing, sales, and audience development services” previously honed by Slate following their decision to go against the grain and focus on audio, rather than video.

A year in, and Panoply’s partners include advertisers such as Acura, Netflix and Delta, as well as media outlets like The Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal and Inc. The network benefits for advertisers from this approach are clear, as to are the opportunities for content creators who are able to tap into the experience that Slate bring to the table. 

The case for: income diversification

For established radio shows and podcasts, an emerging source of revenue is live shows. Radiolab Live took the long-running show on the road, with a 21-city tour met by enthusiastic audiences and sold-out theatres. Meanwhile, This American Life – which last year celebrated its twentieth anniversary – has experimented with an online store, a TV Show and several live shows which are now available to stream or download.

Others, most notably 99% Invisible and the Radiotopia collective, have embraced crowdfunding.

Season 3 of 99% Invisible – “an award winning radio show about design, architecture and the 99% Invisible activity that shapes our world” – unlocked $170,477 in funding from 5,661 backers on Kickstarter. His goal had been a more modest $42,000, with the intention of using the monies to hire a former intern from the show. 

The creator of 99% Invisible, Roman Mars, has subsequently been involved in a further crowdsourcing effort; Radiotopia. Described by one journalist as “a kind of Justice League for smart documentarians and sound artists,” Radiotopia shows – such as Love+Radio, Theory of Everything and Song Exploder – enjoy over 10 million downloads every month.

As a podcasting collective, “Radiotopia empowers independent producers to do their best work, grow audience and increase revenue,” with its website going on to explain: “At its core, Radiotopia cultivates community — for both listeners and makers alike.”

These efforts have been supported through grants from the Knight Foundation and several major crowdfunding efforts. Their goal in 2014 to raise $250,000 was smashed, when 21,808 backers pledged $620,412 to the cause. At the time, it was the highest funded radio/podcast project in Kickstarter history.

The case against: audience size and stagnation

Perhaps the strongest basis to argue against a podcasting renaissance is found in the audience data – listenership smaller than you might think. 

In the States, 2015 data from Edison Research and Triton Digital found that awareness of the term podcasting was flat at 49% of the US population (aged 12+) and that only a third had ever listened to a podcast. Just 17% had done so in the past month; and 10% in the last week.

This reveals a much smaller audience than media coverage for podcasting would suggest. Media commentators have to remember that their habits are not necessarily universal.

Nonetheless, podcast consumers tend to be well educated and more affluent than the population at large.  And those who embrace the genre, tend to do so enthusiastically, listening to an average of six podcasts a week.

This offers some cheer for sales teams and advertisers alike, and of course it’s worth remembering that the 17% of the US population who listen to podcasts each month still equates to c. 46 million people.

 The case against: the dominance of music/radio streaming

Podcasting data for other markets is much harder to come by. Nonetheless, Ofcom’s 2015 UK Communications Market Report noted that “there were 238 million requests for radio content on [BBC] iPlayer in Q4 2014.” However, much of this (195 million requests) was for programmes currently on air (simulcast listening) with just 18% (43 million) being for on-demand content.

The same report also noted that 5% of survey respondents listened to podcasts via an app on their mobile. This is considerably lower than most other types of radio consumption via mobile devices; either through apps or in-browser listening. 

 

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Image: Ofcom 

More widely, Ofcom’s 2015 International Communications Market Report noted that “between 2013 and 2015 there was an increase in the use of streaming audio services among mobile phone owners, with around three in ten mobile phone owners using their device in this way in Italy (33%) and the US (31%).”

Of course, not all is this is going to be podcasts. Radio simulcasts and music streaming dominates the audio market. Not podcasts. Pandora had 81.1 million active users at the end of 2015 (down 0.4 million from the same period in 2014) while Spotify has around 100 million active users.

The case against: willingness to pay

Just as music streaming services have to work hard to convert audiences to turn them into paid subscribers – with the majority continuing to be freemium users – so podcasters face many of the same challenges.

For all of the impressive numbers manifest in the Kickstarters campaigns of 99% Invisible or Radiotopia, the number of people willing to financially support this output is small.

Season 3 of 99% Invisible attracted 5,661 backers (versus 3 million downloads per month and over 30 million downloads in total). Radiotopia attracted over 20,000 backers, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to the 10 million + monthly downloads the collective enjoys.

It would be interesting to see how much revenue NPR  or podcasts from UK broadcasters such as LBC, Absolute Radio and the BBC would attract if audiences had to pay for it.

For instance, it’s worth remembering that Ricky Gervais’ record breaking podcast in the mid-2000s gained a spot in the Guinness Book of Records when it was offered for free, rather than after it became a paid-for product and an animated TV series. Would it have been so successful if audiences had been charged for it from the get-go?

The future: thinking differently

Many musicians recognise that the only way to make money is through live performances. Album and singles are the tools to get people to come and see you play, but they’re seldom massive money-spinners in their own right.

Some podcasters already acknowledge this reality. UK comedian Richard Herring is just one podcasting proponent who uses this channel as a means to develop a profile which he seeks to convert to paying audiences for his stand-up shows.

In the States, membership schemes – like Slate Plus – offer ad free podcasts, previews of content and discounts on live events and merchandise. Whilst Jenna Weiss-Berman, director of audio at BuzzFeed, in a Tow Center report written by Vanessa Quirk, argued other parts of the business could underwrite podcasting content:

“We’re not trying to get 10 million listens. We have things on the site that easily get 10 million hits. We’re trying to do something that shows that BuzzFeed has many different sides. We’re trying to dive deeper…That’s what BuzzFeed is great at — the things that make a bunch of money can support the things that make less money.”

Free shows such as Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review are also doing things differently. The BBC’s self-professed flagship film programme has morphed beyond its broadcast hours, to create a user experience which goes beyond simply being a downloadable version of the on air show. The bickering duos award-winning brand of wittertainment features additional – often substantial  – amounts of pre and post-show podcast only content, a live video stream, playlists, competitions and behind the scenes footage on Snapchat.

It’s a model surprisingly few “programme as broadcast” podcasters have emulated. Yet in an increasingly competitive space, the need to standout and provide both added value – and a more immersive experience for your core audience – may become increasingly important. 

The future: new causes for optimism

Arguably, it’s was Apple’s initial integration of podcasting into iTunes – way back in 2005 – which first helped take this genre mainstream. Fast forward to 2012 and their launch of a standalone podcasting app helped give podcasting a second wind. (This was upgraded to a pre-installed and undeletable podcast app on IOS 8 in 2014.) It will be interesting to see if the growth in distribution channels for podcasts will help to create even further momentum.

Lisbyn, just one platform in this space, now hosts 25,000+ podcasts and podcast content will soon be available on Spotify, Google Music and other channels too, as publishers look beyond the confines of established outlets like iTunes and Soundcloud.

Distribution aside, the format of podcasts can also be a challenge for producers to overcome. But, again, here there are causes for optimism.

In car listening – through Internet enabled dashboards and USB plugins for your smartphone – makes it easier than ever to listen to a wider range of content in your car.

Discoverability – for all of the content out there, it can be hard to find if it’s outside of the iTunes Top 100 – is starting to be addressed through initiatives like Satchel, which in Feburary was awarded $35,000 (£25,156) from the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund – with a particular emphasis on enabling “users to search for podcasts in their area using the GPS and locations services on their mobile device.”

Panoply has launched a new content management system called Megaphone (with Gimlet being one of their partners) which features dynamic ad insertion, geotargeting and copy-splitting campaigns and much needed performance analytics for podcasts ad campaigns. These innovations may mean the end of the traditional presenter read adverts for sponsors.

The new app, Anchor, is providing new opportunities for audience interaction (think online comments, but in audio format) whilst the hotly tipped Clammr is hoping to solve the problem of sharing audio which may enable content to go viral in the way that video more easily does. 

We’re not in the podcasting Golden Age…. But we might be soon

In addressing some of the fundamental strategic challenges faced by the podcasting format – including discoverability, ad innovation, analytics and virability – podcasting may well be able to make its next great leap forward.

Tackling these technological considerations may well help to unlock new audiences; with connected cars, continued uptake in smartphones and other tech trends, also helping to support this industry.

The fundamentals, in terms of content, are arguably already there. But the key now is to improve usability and bring podcasting in line with the way that audiences consume content in 2016.

As much as I love podcasting, with just under half of the (US) population even having heard of the term, there is clearly still some way to go before podcasting goes mainstream.

Can a media format be truly having a renaissance if it remains a niche concern? I’d argue that it can’t, but that we may well be ushering in this long-prophesised podcasting boom some time soon.