Sunday, February 23, 2014

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching the Niches?

I spent this weekend at an event called Podcamp held on the campus of Ryerson in Toronto. Despite the name, Podcamp is about more than podcasting, but I’ve been thinking a lot about podcasting lately, so most of the sessions I attended had something to do with that. 

So…what do we know about podcasting, generally speaking? At its most basic it’s an audio file, that can be recorded on a laptop, a tablet, or even a phone, then uploaded to the web, and made available to anyone and everyone via aggregator sites such as Podcast Alley  and Castroller and sold or given away for free on iTunes. Globally there are about 250,000 podcasts available via iTunes (and a small number that don’t use the iTunes store). Most podcasts are free and last summer iTunes reached the milestone of 1 billion podcast subscriptions. For comparison purposes, there are reported to be over 150 million blogs on the Internet, so do with those numbers what you will. (Ed. Note: The fast math: there are 1/4 of 1 million podcasts and 150 million blogs, so the proportion of podcasts to blogs is something like .0016%, though I urge you to check my calculation and decimal points. I'm a blogger, not a statistician dammit).

So, you ask, and rightly so, is podcasting radio, but on a platform that is available to anyone? Is it for amateurs who maybe have their eye on becoming professional one day? Is it for hobbyists? Are podcasts the ‘zines of audio, there to capture the nooks and crannies of culture not mainstream enough to warrant coverage in the world of broadcast or commercial publishing? It depends who you ask, but to me the great podcasting hope is that it can deliver to listeners the things otherwise not available, for reasons of geography, for reasons of subject matter, or for reasons of style or format.

At one time we were limited in our listening by geography, and that changed first, in a limited way, with shortwave radio, and on a larger scale when radio stations began streaming their broadcasts on the Internet. At other times we were limited in our listening according to what was deemed popular enough, or ‘good enough’, to attract a large audience. This was the law of the land as broadcasting infrastructures cost a lot to operate and there was a fixed amount of space on the radio dial. Podcasting removes not just the infrastructure cost but the dial is well. Welcome to the world of infinite air time and space.

Go ahead, touch that dial, you now have choices. Lots of choices.

Which brings up back to the Podcamp event. One of the sessions was led by two guys who, for 25 years, helmed morning radio shows in one of the biggest markets in North America. In such jobs it is not uncommon to have a good run of anywhere from a few to 10 years, only to get let go due to a change in station format or the less precise “change in direction”, often used at the uncomfortable meeting in the program director’s office. They either get picked up by a competing station, change markets/cities….or become realtors.

Seriously, that’s what usually happens. Nonetheless, morning shows are prestigious jobs with pay rates, according to some googling and asking around that I’ve done, that tend to be in the $300,000 - $500,000 per year range, with the rate of pay going higher, even into the 7 figure range for those deemed to be star talent. If they can bring in the numbers aka listeners it translates to ad dollars and that's what radio is ultimately selling. As someone enlightened me during my first commercial radio job in the 1980s: Music? That's what we play in between the ads.

Anyway, this is the professional merry go round that the morning radio guys on the panel had been on for years, getting hired, getting let go, getting wooed back, getting offered new perks, that’s just how it goes. And then in their mid 50s they got let go again and that time seemed scarier than previous times. But this time they had another way to be on the air, so to speak, without being on the air at a radio station, and that was via podcasting. So that’s what they did. They set up a basic studio and did their show and made it available online. It was basically the same thing they did on their radio show, but with more swearing. That’s one of the ways they described it.  At the Podcamp panel one audience member asked them what their podcast is about, what its values are. The response: “We’re trying not to starve.”*

And this is the point at which part of me wanted to scream “Please!!!” Instead, I took my time collecting my things and eventually left the room, in search of something more illuminating. Jump cut to the session I attended today, hosted by a guy who works as a teacher and does six different podcast series, which you can check out here. In all he’s done about 1000 podcast episodes over a 6 year period. Some series have 100 to 200 episodes,  another has about 500 episodes.  

And why does he do them? “I do all the podcasts I do because I love doing them”, he said. “I don’t take ads, I don’t do marketing, To me podcasting is not a marketing tool, it’s an artistic process.” This was quite different from much of the rhetoric heard over the weekend – about finding your authentic voice, becoming a marketing affiliate, optimizing for search, etc -- so I started jotting down quotes verbatim. He continued: “If what you’re doing brings you joy, feedback doesn’t matter,  page views don’t matter, uniques don’t matter, page rank doesn’t matter, SEO (search engine optimization) doesn’t matter…even listeners don’t matter…much."

"People aren’t used to hearing the word ‘joy’ any more", he pointed out. "They think it makes you vulnerable. But as far as I’m concerned, f!@# it. Podcasting brings me joy. Press record, press publish, nothing else is necessary for a podcast to exist…any hurdles beyond this are fixable or fictional. Regardless of how many people hear it the week you put it out…your podcast is always there. Your potential refreshes constantly. If I talk about Mork & Mindy on my podcast and somebody searches on that, they might find my podcast."

And to those who might be a bit podcast-shy, his advice: “You’re not that great but you’re not as bad as you think.  And you want to know what ‘authentic’ is…it’s stumbling the first couple of times. Podcasting is not radio…it is its own medium.”

As an example he points to the podcast of a guy named Mark who does the Mark. My Words. podcast a few times a week. He records it on his phone, during his walk to work, which, judging on the length of the podcast, seems to be a six to eight minute walk. That’s the whole podcast. A guy walking to work and talking about things that are on his mind. 

One of the most successful podcasts out there, Marc Maron’s WTFstarted in a not dissimilar fashion. After 25+ years as a comedian, the attendant drug and alcohol problems, and on the brink of a second divorce and the financial ruin that can accompany such life milestones, his manager informed him he was ‘unbookable’. Maron then retreated to his garage, where he set up his laptop and a mike and a small table and started doing a combination of monologues and interviews, with friends famous and not so famous. The whole thing was often a therapy session for all involved. And that included listeners. Downloads grew exponentially. Maron started doing the podcast in September 2009. By January 2011 he was getting 230,000 downloads per week, by January 2012 the weekly number had jumped to almost 700,000 downloads. At the end of 2013 WTF hit 100 million total downloads.


I believe the enormous popularity of Maron’s podcast comes from how unlike it is to what people are used to hearing. Whether it was on radio shows, TV shows, at live comedy shows, or even on podcasts. And that is what podcasting, in my mind, is purpose built for. The personalities, the topics, and more abstractly, the textures, that don’t fit into other mediums. In a word, difference. 

Commercial radio, in a word, is about sameness. Why? Because mainstream media is built to hit the middle of the bullseye. The point of doing so is to capture the largest possible chunk of the market, and then getting to charge the highest prices for advertising. That’s how the system works, and understanding that is important for people wondering why they can’t crack it. It’s largely a system based on common denominator (you can add the word ‘lowest’ in front of the phrase if you’d like, it’s up to you) and not offending people. And that’s how the Black Eyed Peas end up holding the record for the top selling digital single

And here’s where things get challenging. For all the amazing podcasts out there, for the time being at least, most of us will hear about only a handful of them. The logjam seems to be on the marketing and promo side, and marketing and promotion for independently produced podcasts is usually done on a low budget or no budget basis. Word of mouth and social media curation are a start, but we still have a list of top podcasts that is primarily an on demand version of popular radio shows, and a few star podcasters, like Adam Carolla and Joe Rogan, both of whom come from broadcast and comedy backgrounds. Not exactly cottage industries. Still, a better situation than the old model of broadcast for the many, but, admittedly, an imperfect system.


If you're wondering about what the listenership numbers look like for podcasts, a spokesperson for the largest podcast hosting company revealed the following: As of Fall 2013 a single podcast episode that been available online for 30 days averaged 141 downloads. If you're getting 3,400 downloads you're in the top 10%, with 9,000 downloads you're in the top 5% and if you're getting 50,000 downloads or more per episode, congratulations, you're a 1 percenter of the podcast world. And this is despite the fact that a recent study by the Pew Research Center reported that 27% of U.S. Internet users aged 18 and over have downloaded podcasts.

But in between the guy who records his podcast into his phone while walking to work and the one percenters is a cornucopia of audio splendor. The Fogelnest Files, Overthinking ItHarmontown, The Mental Illness Happy Hour and who knows how many more that I've never heard. Shows that would probably never get onto 'real' radio, for reasons that don't even matter any more, and are there for your pod pleasure. Just remember to tell people when you hear something good. For now that's probably one of the most effective things we can do.

Until then, I'll point you to some of the best networks for podcasts:

An interesting loop...these guys went from success in traditional broadcasting to staying ‘on the air’ via podcasting. They then ended up getting back on the air, ‘terrestrial radio’ as it’s called in industry circles, and now their podcast is an edit of their nightly radio show.



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The 3rd wave of podcasting and how we got here
Podcasting vs. Broadcasting: Who's on top of the charts?
Jesse Brown: 1-man thorn in the side of Canadian media
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