Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The 3rd wave of podcasting & how we got here

It is “raucous and…conversationally rich…and stupidly comforting”, wrote Nicholas Quah, describing the singular nature of podcasts in HotPod, his newsletter on the dramatic changes taking place in the world of direct to listener audio production aka podcasting.

And it is now into its third wave, according to people who got their feet wet during wave one of the podcast revolution. 

We'll hear from a group of these early waders shortly, but first a quick surf through the chronology of the audio format that broke free from the confines of broadcasting formats and the things with knobs we came to know in our homes, cars, and workplaces.

2003- 2008
Wave 1.0

The pioneers doing the homesteading, without much in the way of commercial intentions or aspirations. Apple incorporates a podcasting platform into iTunes midway through 2005, making it a built in feature for the at first tens of millions, then later hundreds of millions, of iPods in circulation. During this period the first iPhone was released (June 2007), creating another ‘baked in’ environment for podcast distribution and consumption.

2008 - 2014
Wave 2.0

Apple launches app store (2008), the superstars-to-be of podcasting start podcasting, e.g. Marc MaronAdam CarollaJoe Rogan (2009), the number of podcasts produced doubles during this period, and mobile phone penetration triples.

2014 –  ? 
Wave 3.0

Serial – the most listened to podcast in history, breaks the record for fastest time to five million downloads and leads to the public perception that 2014 is the year podcasting broke. The ecosystem of devices, creators, listeners, apps, distribution platforms, discovery via recommendation, sharing, and/or reviews reaches a point of maturity. 

It should come as no surprise then, that podcasting was recently given a forensic, this-is-your-life treatment at an event called State of the Podcast 2015hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Cambridge, MA.

A panel comprised of esteemed podcasting pioneers and practitioners, and moderated by Harvard Law School clinical professor Chris Bavitz went back in time to recall the early days of the technology, and the form, and went on to share their views on where things are likely to go from here.

The panelists: Broadcaster and Podcaster Christopher LydonKerri Hoffman and Jake Shapiro of PRX, and Benjamen Walker host of Theory of Everything PodcastThe discussion went kind of like this:

Christopher Lydon:

In 2003 blogging was the first run of the podcast world; it had all the “crackle & pop of media” but with added enthusiasm and openness. Dave Winer, credited with inventing bloggingthought what the world needs is an MP3 that can be syndicated, and the result was the first podcast, that I hosted in 2003.

It coincided with the beginning of the war on Iraq, when 70% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. The New York Times should have been running banner headlines, but it was bloggers and podcasters saying things no one else was. 

It was the restoring of public conversation that had become dilapidated, and this became a place to have a reasonable conversation.

Benjamen Walker:

Between around 2004 and 2006 there was a lot of excitement in the field --  and lots of gigs as ‘podcast consultant'. Then came the dead time, and now it’s the time of hype, with the money trucks dumping money everywhere, but I think that rather than focusing on that we should be thinking about what comes next.

The term 'podcasting' hits peak Google circa 2006

Jake Shapiro:

PRX (Public Radio Exchange, an online distribution platform for digital audio and radio programs) was launched in Fall 2003. RSS for audio seemed like a silly, trivial thing at that time.

Odeo, a podcasting platform founded in 2005, was the first interesting startup in the area (started by ex Google employee Evan Williams). 

Ed. Note: And from the ashes of Odeo came a messaging app, first called Twttr. You probably know it by its more fully voweled name.

That same year Apple caught on to the surge of interest in podcasting (leading to the demise of Odeo) and incorporated a podcasting platform into iTunes. This also built the technology into the 30 million iPods that were then out there, a number that would reach 400 million by the end of 2014.

The second wave of podcasting was accidentally triggered by Apple, with the launch of the app store and the iPhone. People realized ‘these aren’t just smartphones…these are radios!’ Audio had been a bad fit for the web, but mobile could fix this, and mobile has become the way for billions of devices to become a listening platform for audio.

Kerri Hoffman:

In 2003 we had a tagline we used for PRX: "Making public radio more public". It was a moment of having direct to consumer consumption of media, news, stories, investigations – it’s what podcasts have enabled

In 2014 we launched the Radiotopia network, to build a platform for talent, people like Ben (Walker), and to consolidate the back office, things like marketing, cross-promotion, and sales. Within 2 years we’ve increased our growth by tenfold. This tells us a lot about the public’s interest in consuming this kind of content, about the ubiquity of the technology, and that the shows can survive. For a long time shows would get to a certain size and then plateau. That’s why this is an exciting time for what comes next.

Benjamen Walker:

Thinking about the waves of podcasting -- I see it more as a Rashomon narrative -- all 3 happening at the same time: The technology story, with Dave Winer and RSS, the money story, in which Roman Mars hijacks public radio model with his Kickstarter for 99% Invisible, and now the art form story.            

I think people that are making a lot of the great podcasts are people who left public radio because they could do more on the outside than the inside; so I feel like public radio isn’t taking the risks they once did.

teach a podcasting course at a university in NYC and it’s interesting…none of the students want a job in public radio – they want to be the next Roman Mars. They want to do their own podcasts.

Kerri Hoffman:

The risk point is a good one. Part of the future will be a lot more experimentation, a lot more fails – and that’s not something that public radio is accustomed to. By the the time they launch a show they’ve done a million polls and pilots. In podcasting, where it’s digital only, a network effect of like-minded shows and talent is what’s going to get the lift.

Moderator Chris Bavitz

Are podcasters now playing more to advertisers? Is it becoming a more commercial medium?

Kerri Hoffman:

The producers we work with can always say no to advertisers. What advertisers are waking up to is that listeners are selecting, they’re subscribing…they’re a more dedicated fan base, and the advertisers are waking up to that reality. Since we work in both broadcast and podcast we’ve seen a shift of some of the dollars from the broadcast to the podcast side…and that wasn’t happening even 2 to 3 years ago.

Benjamen Walker:

Advertisers jumping on the hype train can benefit us all. The discovery piece is so hard, with so many podcasts out there – some people hear an ad, according to research, and think ‘oh, ok, this is a good podcast'...because it has ads on it.

Kerri Hoffman:

The power of the micro donation (associated with podcasts) is a new thing, compared to the public radio philanthropist, who you want to mature with you. With podcasts people give 5 dollars or 10 dollars just because they’re in a moment…all of that has really changed; that’s against standard fundraising practices.

Jake Shapiro: 

Podcasting can transcend its public radio origins…the content, the technology, everything – the dominant white male techie crowd. We can now move beyond the constraints of the world of broadcasting. PRX was born out of public radio institutions but to bridge the gap to something new. We don’t have a tower, we’re built digital, for the web, but we still distribute broadcast shows (e.g. The Moth).

We offer a platform, a back office, and it’s an opportunity to incubate new shows. For example Radiolab started as something that was done after hours at WNYC. 

Part of the joy of the Internet is to match passions to people. You don’t need to reach a million people. You can do things that are really good and that are designed for small audience.

Bonus Feature!
Click here for an interactive history of podcasting timeline