Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Podcasts vs. Broadcasts: Who's on top on the charts?

One of the things I love about life in these Internet times is that if I can imagine it, it probably exists. This has been the case on YouTube for several years and more recently in the world of podcasting. As a former radio person myself I was hoping this cornucopia of content would come to be with the advent of satellite radio in the early 2000s, but alas no. That, sadly, largely turned out to be a variation on the same old morning zoo formula, or, arguably worse yet, castaways from commercial radio. OK, yes, the odd interesting thing made it to satellite, but overall a hugely lost opportunity to do truly interesting things with at home and in-car audio that for the first time could break out of geographical boundaries, formats, and finite time slots. Oh well.

In between now and then I have done probably 99% of my listening online, whether it’s to music streaming services, radio stations that use the Internet for live broadcasting and archiving their shows, or to podcasts that live exclusively online. And why not. The world is now our audio oyster. Furthermore, I have no trouble confessing to being a binge listener. 

I love that so many podcasts defy categorization. They aren't exactly journalism or even entertainment in the way broadcasting has long defined entertainment…with genres and formats, timed and packaged and built around segments that move briskly from one shiny object (or audio equivalent) to the next. And what's more, the people tend to talk like, well, real people, and what would have once been considered bungles or outtakes are just left in..the coughs, the mistakes, the mispronunciations. It's about the content, not the slickness of the production, or the dulcet tones or ego of the announcer, and in this way it has opened up an entirely new universe of possibilities.

So along I went, listening to hours and hours of podcast accompaniments as I rode transit or pounded the pavement to and from meetings and events. Then, a few months ago, this happened: The mainstream media proclaimed that 2014 was the year podcasting officially broke through. After ten years of being around, and ironically, the same year the iPod classic was discontinued. There were now more than 1 billion podcast subscriptions and a monthly listenership of 75 million, a 300% increase from 2009.

But...why now? The easy answer is that all the pieces have come together, which is actually a complex network of people, technologies, and behaviours that generally require years to take root. As the world seems to love a listicle, let's go a bit deeper on this topic, but in an easy to digest, bullet pointed way.

5 reasons why podcasting broke in 2014
  • Internet access or sound file playability in cars
  • Distribution through personal recommendations on Facebook, Twitter, etc
  • Emergence of podcasting networks as filtering and discovery mechanisms
  • Smartphones and apps have turned our favourite small screen into portable personalized media machines, usable while we’re pedestrians, transit passengers, at work, and while driving, using the odd aux cable or technologies such as Bluetooth. 
  • Podcasts are multi-purpose media, encompassing everything from hobby to art form to educational outreach to product marketing and perhaps, most annoyingly, self-marketing, but what can you do. (Wait, I know. Not listen?)

Also, unlike satellite radio, they're mostly free and don't require additional subscriptions or equipment. But there’s podcasting and there’s podcasting, and until quite recently the podcast charts were dominated by shows that were radio shows that just happened to be made available as podcasts. Not the same thing. And not because I’m a pod purist, but because I’m interested in the what, why, and how of things outside the infrastructure of mainstream media finding their audiences in ways other than legacy systems and mass marketing. 

Now, yes, there were a handful of what I will call ‘podcast native’ shows that were always high in the iTunes charts, most notably Marc Maron’s provocative, one guy in his garage interview show WTF, and already established media personalities such as Adam Carolla who also rated highly. But for the most part the podcast charts were made up of public radio programs, with organizations such as NPR, CBC, and BBC  making up the bulk of entries.

So, in the context of the breakthrough of podcasting so widely reported over the past few months I decided to run an quick analysis of the top podcasts to see if and how the ratio of broadcast to podcast native has changed over the years. As I am back living in Canada I used the iTunes chart as my data source, but the ratios for the US charts are almost identical. I broke down the top podcasts into categories of podcast native, shows that originated as broadcasts, shows that are hybrids, and added a few notes here and there. Oh, and these jpg's can be clicked on to be enlarged because I completely get that spreadsheet legibility is challenging in this format.

And if you don't have the time or inclination to do the math yourself, here's the quick tally: Podcasts, once the gangly, misfit younger sibling of professionally produced radio shows, now outnumber broadcasts 2 to 1 on the charts. We have 7 shows from NPR, 2 from CBC, and 1from Global News. Everything else on the chart is podcast native, or born on the Internet.  I should also mention that iTunes statistics are but a single measure of podcast consumption, as not everyone listens through iTunes, and the algorithm is a mix of downloads, subscribers, and possibly reviews...Apple doesn't say. Nonetheless they're standard, and as such are a reasonable indicator of the landscape.

But more importantly, what conclusions can we draw from this admittedly quick and dirty analysis? It seems pretty safe to say that the major media brands will likely continue to be well represented on these charts. They are home to high quality productions, skilled hosts and reporters, and excellent distribution networks. More interesting is that as time goes we're seeing the polished productions of the legacy institutions taking a backseat to things that start as hobbies, obsessions, or what the heck projects, and end up proving that there are gaps in the marketplace that the pros could not or would not see. And that there is, in fact, entertainment without an entertainment industry.

This post also appeared on Medium.

Related Posts: 
Notes from Podcamp 2015: Fragmentation Nation
Notes from Podcamp Pt 2: Niche-o-nomics
Podcasting: Art, craft, or reaching the niches?

Erratum: Thanks to broadcaster & podcaster Dan Misener for pointing out the following regarding his show: He writes: "A quick correction re: #28 in your list. Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids began as an indie podcast, then aired for a summer on CBC Radio, and is now once again an indie affair."