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Whatever Happened to Podcasting?


“Podcasting” is the term describing the creation and consumption of on-demand video and especially audio. It was the “next big thing” – about six or seven years ago.

And today? Not so much.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of podcasting going on out there. It doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people making and listening to them. It doesn’t mean podcasting lacks a place in our media portfolio.

But podcasting is most certainly off the media radar. Just ask Google. Google Trends shows that news headlines for “podcasting” peaked in 2005 (and one of the headlines was “Will Podcasting Hit it Big? (And What Is It?)”.

Despite data showing only modest and unchanging interest in and usage of podcasts, it remains a category with a number of sure “hits.” Public Radio’s This American Life, for example, reportedly averages about 800,000 downloads per episode. Leo Laporte’s TWiT podcast gets an estimated 250,000 downloads per episode. Big time comedy podcasts from established personalities like Marc Maron and Adam Carolla have tens of millions of communal downloads. And as we ride down the long tail, consultants and coaches effectively use podcasts to connect to their tribes and stoke leads, regardless how large or small.

So here are some of the primary obstacles standing between audio podcasting and greater fame and fortune for the category and those who play in it.

1. The metrics are few and far between

Libsyn is one of the primary providers of hosting and metrics to podcasters, and their metrics are limited primarily to download counts, referrals, devices, and locations. And they are the state of the art.

Once a podcast is downloaded to your mobile device, how you interact with that podcast – whether you interact with it at all – is a mystery. And the fact that many podcast apps automatically download the latest podcast from your favorite show makes the picture even murkier. You may not be listening to the podcast, and you may not even be aware it has been downloaded.

The potential advertiser has no sense of who’s listening or for how long – or even whether they’re listening.

Naturally, there are more direct ways to assess the actual effectiveness of a podcast (effectiveness presumably being what the advertiser ultimately wants): By promo codes the user enters on special landing pages, or by seeing what happens when a podcast goes live and fills an auditorium with fans, as the Slate Political Gabfest does on a regular basis. Still, advertisers love metrics, and they’re scarce in the land of podcasting.

2. It takes a thousand words to paint a picture

A picture, however, is worth a thousand words. Hence pictures are the most popular ingredients on Facebook. On YouTube, videos are browsed by thumbnail – by picture. You can get the gist of a video by its thumbnail, but this is much less true in audio because the audio thumbnail is not part of the content as the video thumbnail obviously is.

This is why the most popular podcasts (according to iTunes) tend to be shows that are also heard on public radio. They are brand names – made famous by radio. They are already pre-aware and do not depend on podcasting or on discovery to make them famous.

It’s hard to discover content that must be heard – front to back and again and again – to be appreciated.

3. Video and pictures favor short attention spans; Audio does not

In our short attention span world, the longer it takes to get to or through something, the harder it is to adopt it.

Vine videos are six seconds long, but what is the value of a six second clip of audio?

4. Podcasters are following the example of radio. That’s a mistake.

Audio on demand is not radio. The whole premise of radio is that it’s there when you need it – a show is three or four hours long not because the producers and host of that show expect you to hear every minute but because they expect you to pop in on your commute for 20 minutes and hear enough of the content you want to get by. The show is built to collide with some portion of your commute – not to be heard by you from beginning to end.

5. Podcasts tend to be too long

While motivated fans will tune in their podcast content no matter how long it is, skimming a podcast is really difficult, and the longer it is the harder it is to skim. And “hard” translates to “work” – something consumers like to avoid when it comes to their audio entertainment and information resources.

Perhaps the worst sinners here are radio stations themselves, which publish three hour long podcasts of their tentpole shows as if the kind of content consumers want on demand is identical to the kind they randomly encounter during their morning drive. Wouldn’t it be better to provide the highlights that most people want?

6. Podcasters don’t get to the point fast enough

Long intros, excessive introductory banter…these are huge turnoffs to potential listeners who must sample every podcast from the beginning. In a world where half of viewers reportedly don’t get through the full length of a 2-minute video, what fraction of listeners get past a molasses-paced introduction?

7. Most audio is not easily sharable

The best way to discover something is not via a thumbnail-packed digital platform but because someone you know has recommended it. Unfortunately while most web pages can be shared, this is not so for most audio files themselves (exceptions include Soundcloud, NPR, and others). It’s easier to share individual podcasts on mobile apps, such as Stitcher, AGOGO, and Apple’s own Podcast app, but in some cases the app shares the show – not the episode (boo on you, Apple) – despite the fact that moments or episodes are what people want to share, not entire shows.

A hit song has a hook, while a hit podcast has a highlight.

So what’s the future of podcasts? Given all of the factors noted above and assuming these obstacles remain in place, it will be much like the past.

And the big headlines of 1995 will stay in 1995.

Postscript: I have some fresh research on podcasts produced after this post was written, and it’s incredibly eye-opening. I’ll be sharing that soon.

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