The Buzz About Podcasting

Every day, you see a new article about podcasting — in radio newsletters, media trade publications, the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Washington Post.

Certainly, the audience is growing. The weekly audience in the United States has nearly doubled in the past three years according to Edison Research. I see similar numbers here in Canada.

What’s really happening with podcasts? What are the opportunities for broadcasters?

To get a better idea, I went to the Podcast Movement conference earlier this month in Chicago. More than 1500 podcasters and fellow travelers were there — a 50% increase over last year’s get-together.

One thing I can tell you for sure — podcasting is most definitely a thing. It was the most dynamic, passionate, plugged-in audio/radio conference I’ve attended since the early 80s. I’d forgotten that radio used to be this much fun. The energy of the podcasters was infectious, driven by their mission to take their podcasts to the next level.

And the sessions were like celebrations — though the industry still faces challenges, the ability of great podcasts to build engaged audiences was clear in success stories from socially conscious podcasters as well as pure entertainers like filmmaker Kevin Smith.

And yes, commercial radio was represented as well — just a handful for now, but they were there eyeing the scene with curiosity and a look to the future.  (You could pick them out in their navy blazers and their executive coifs.)

Who Listens to Podcasts, and Why?

You know that conventional wisdom about younger listeners not wanting to hear any talk? Well, no one told the millennials who listen to podcasts. Podcasting is spiking most sharply among 18-34 year-olds, who are now the largest listening demographic for podcasts.

Some of that has to do with how podcasts fit into the on-demand nature of millennials’ media habits. It also connects to millennials’ attachment with their smartphones, which are fueling the most recent growth in podcast listening. (Edison notes that more than 70% of podcast listeners say they

listen to podcasts most often on their mobile devices, up from 42% just three years ago.) There’s also something immersive about podcasts that seems to appeal to millennials’ need to fill every spare moment with rich experience. In the words of Eliza, the 17 year-old host of the Eliza Starting at 16 podcast, “I can’t just sit down and listen to music… I think of (listening to podcasts) as much closer to watching TV.”

Every bit as important, millennials see podcasts as being free of the trappings and restrictions of the traditional media — not just the uncensored language, but the often deeply personal expression that they would never hear on broadcast radio or the late night TV talk shows.

Who are the Podcasters?

The on-demand audio landscape is shifting from independent podcasters to aggregators and distributors looking to consolidate content and revenues.

The independents, many of them fiercely so, still represent the largest group of the 60,000+ podcasters estimated to be currently active.

Meanwhile, public radio has been the biggest incubator for the most successful podcasts, spawning writers and producers who were schooled on producing individual shows for the public airwaves (as opposed to the 24/7 formats that characterize commercial radio). While public radio continues to produce programming strictly for podcasts, many public radio folks have gone out on their own or joined groups, firms, or networks such as Radiotopia, Panoply, or Canada’s Pacific Content.

As podcasting grows, larger firms are playing a bigger role in developing the industry. Scripps has placed a big bet on commercial podcasting, recently purchasing Midroll and Stitcher to make them the largest single aggregator/distributor outside of public radio. Podcast One, from Norm Pattiz formerly of Westwood One, has become another major player, thanks in part to an investment from Hubbard Broadcasting.

Further consolidation could come from the big global digital firms. And with programming that stretches beyond what they see as the “Brooklyn hipster” sensibility of most of today’s podcasts. This ad-free service would be offered as part of Audible or separately by subscription.

What’s Next?

There was consensus at the conference that podcasting needs to clear three major hurdles to continue its growth:

  1. Discovery/Marketing — how can the industry make it easier for listeners to find the podcasts that would best suit their tastes?
  2. Measurement — currently dependent largely on data on downloads vs. actual listens, how can podcasters give advertisers the metrics they need to base their ad buy, and the information to help podcasters fine-tune their podcasts to maximize listening?
  3. Monetization — how can podcasting get its fair share of advertising and/or subscription revenue?

Measurement has particular importance as a pre-requisite to maximizing advertising revenue. On that front, the Internet Advertising Bureau in the U.S. is leading an initiative along with NPR and a few major ad sellers to come up with a standardized currency. They hope to introduce it this Fall. Meanwhile, Nielsen says they are also developing a currency.

They hope to introduce it this Fall. Meanwhile, Nielsen says they are also developing a currency level measurement.

What are the Opportunities For Commercial Boadcasters?

Though definitely late to the party, private broadcasters broadcasters can still get a seat at the table.

Their airwaves can promote podcasts, helping to solve the marketing issue. (It should be noted though that the experience of most podcasters is that they get even greater impact from cross-promotion on successful podcasts).

Their airwaves can promote podcasts, helping to solve the marketing issue. (It should be noted though that the experience of most podcasters is that they get even greater impact from cross-promotion on successful podcasts).

The bigger opportunity lies in broadcasters’ ability to provide seasoned and popular talent. One key caveat: a re-set is required. Podcasting does not follow the same rules as broadcast radio. While commercial radio has focused so obsessively on managing tune-out, talent must be given the permission to take the risks necessary for podcast listeners to tune-in, choosing their podcast over the 60,000+ contenders at their fingertips.

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