The term ‘podcast’ is over a decade old, and the file formats are no different than those used for music, so why the recent surge in popularity and interest? Podcasting is finally maturing into a multi-faceted industry, underpinned by—and dependent upon—the alignment of concurrent developments in production, distribution, and consumption, each reinforcing the others. In a Digg feature from 2014, Stan Alcorn investigates how the audio-based media fits into an era defined by social network shareability (“Is This Thing On?” by Stan Alcorn:
“Audio never goes viral,” writes radio and podcast producer Nate DiMeo. “If you posted the most incredible story — literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”
For some radio makers, social media incompatibility is a sign of countercultural vitality. [Podcast host, producer, and founder of the Maximum Fun network, Jesse] Thorn has called his own work “anti-viral,” and believes that entertaining his niche audience is “still so much better than making things that convince aunts to forward them to each other.”
For listeners, a defining value of the format is that the experience they provide is individual and immersive. But the flip side is that podcasts are difficult to skim and share, and this limits their value to advertisers who have been conditioned to prioritize mass audiences. Consequently, many early podcasts were either low-budget, hobby-made talk shows regarding hyper-niche topics, or programming originally produced for traditional radio and republished online. Shows in the former category slowly built followings by embracing the unique dynamics of their on-air personalities, and treating their listenership as an intimate community of friends. Eventually, this context became attractive to a certain type of advertiser (“Ads for Podcasts Test the Line Between Story and Sponsor”—Dino Grandoni in The New York Times):
“When the host is personally reading the ad and telling a story about the product in her own words, it lands with the audience in a different and more authentic way than a traditional ad spot,” said Mark DiCristina, marketing director at MailChimp, an email marketing company that is one of the most prolific podcast advertisers.
Host-read advertisements are said to be cheaper, more personal, and more cohesive in the context of the show, and therefore suited to those many podcasts that have come to be defined by these characteristics. Alternatively, some shows more clearly delineate editorial and advertising responsibilities, believing that this fosters a healthier relationship with their audience. Within niche shows, traditional advertising spots can still find well-targeted and therefore high-value audiences. It is possible to adopt a style that is suited to the format and the expectations of fans without implicating the hosts.
As these factors of advertising and audience engagement have become disentangled and better understood, advertisers have expanded their influence in the industry. The mission of their involvement has shaped recent development of podcast apps and networks. Automatic insertion of targeted ads (based on location, time of day, listening history, etc.) is an emerging feature of podcast apps, which were previously differentiated from music and audiobook apps based upon subscription management mechanisms. Independent podcasting networks—such as the aforementioned Maximum Fun, along with EarWolf, Radiotopia, and Gimlet—offer another means of streamlining the coordination between advertisers and creators. Networks enable advertisers to reach a broad audience across multiple shows while ensuring the quality of those shows by providing creators with funding, production resources, and communities of listeners
The first season of the hit show Serial was a major crossover success, garnering attention across traditional and social media. Since then, the format has enjoyed more mainstream moments of notoriety, including Barack Obama’s guest appearance on WTF (a show that Marc Maron hosts in his garage). Mainstream coverage of such events has drawn new listeners to the format.
Podcasts have undoubtedly benefitted from the increasing speed and dropping cost of cellular data networks. Streaming data is no longer prohibitively expensive and slow so, more than ever, podcasts are suitable for listening while on the go. The rise of Netflix and YouTube has also brought with it a deep change in user behaviour that plays to the favour of pocasts: a shift from appointment-based TV and radio toward asynchronous consumption, wherein each member of the audience may watch or listen at their own convenience and pace.
This confluence of factors has pushed the podcast industry past a tipping point, toward a critical mass that will sustain further investment and popularization. There are a variety of viable business models for creators, networks, and platforms, and even greater diversity among shows, as they proliferate to target the tastes of an expanding listenership. Vanessa Quirk summarizes these factors in Guide to Podcasting, a report for the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The report indicates that there is still plenty of room to grow: podcasting has now matured across various dimensions to the point that they are prepared to attract and absorb the migration of those overwhelming masses who are still holding on to more traditional media, which represent massive potential for growth:
Podcasts are finally positioned to achieve mainstream penetration, mostly because of mobile phone adoption and technologies that have lowered the barrier to entry. Although podcasts still face significant challenges—including a branding problem, ease of access (especially for Android users), and dashboard technology—these should be resolved in the following five years or so. The real challenge will be growing an audience that is comparable to that of other media, such as TV, radio, and video.