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Podcasts aren’t “back”, a new type of podcast has arrived

Posted on 21 November 2014

Marco Arment challenges the “podcasts are back” narrative:

“What’s apparent from most of the recent podcast stories is that most of their reporters have talked to very few sources and either don’t listen to podcasts themselves or have just started. Most podcast listeners and producers know that the truth is much less interesting: podcasts started out as a niche interest almost a decade ago and have been growing slowly and steadily since. Over many years, growing slowly and steadily adds up.”

He goes on to theorize three reasons why the “podcasts are back” narrative is catching on:

“The most likely explanation of these “Podcasts are back!” stories is threefold:

  1. Serial, an offshoot of This American Life, got a ton of listeners quickly. But This American Life has been the biggest podcast in the world for most of the last decade, so a heavily promoted offshoot becoming very popular doesn’t indicate much about the market as a whole.
  2. “Gimlet Media, a podcast production startup, just raised a bunch of money from investors, publicized by their very popular StartUp podcast. StartUp became popular quickly not only because it’s very good, but also because it was started by a very well-known producer of very popular podcasts, including This American Life and Planet Money. Again, not a strong indicator of the overall market.
  3. Midroll, a big podcast ad broker, talks to the press a lot and has grown well recently. Selling podcast ads is a pain in the ass, producers love the idea of someone else taking care of it, there are very few ad brokers, and Midroll is probably the biggest. But that doesn’t mean there are suddenly far more listeners — it’s just easier to put ads in shows.”

I can’t speak to point three, but I think points one and two are true, and actually part of a larger point.

Podcasts aren’t back.

A new type of podcast has emerged.

The Netflix Production Era For Radio

As Arment says, both Serial and StartUp come from veteran producers of This American Life and Planet Money, two established and highly popular podcasts.

But in actuality, neither one of these shows is a podcast, any more than Breaking Bad was a hit series for Netflix. Sure, the show had a huge second life on Netflix, and even attracted fans who only watched it via streaming, but it was an AMC broadcast TV series first, created with commercial breaks and the one-hour format in mind. It was a hit TV show that people liked to watch on Netflix.

Similarly, This American Life is a radio show, stretched to and constrained by the time lengths dictated by the broadcast schedule. It is hugely popular as a podcast, but it found its primary success on radio. Planet Money is a little different, as a sort of radio/podcast hybrid, but its producers, as I understand it, still have to think about how stories they produce are going to fit in as segments on other NPR programs.

Neither Serial nor StartUp have any such constraints. You won’t hear either of them being beamed over the airwaves. Where This American Life and Planet Money are broadcast-plus-podcast shows, Serial and StartUp are podcast-only. To continue the analogy, they are House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. These are shows that require you to adopt new delivery services (podcasts and streaming video, respectively) in order to get in on the cultural conversation around them. That’s new.

It is true that neither Serial nor StartUp are the first podcast-only productions. They’ve been around (and successful) for years. Arment characterizes the field this way:

“There’s a lot of tech shows (and a lot of tech listeners), but most of the biggest are professionally produced public-radio shows released as podcasts, with other strong contingents in comedy, business, and religion, followed by a huge long tail of special interests with small but passionate audiences.”

I could be wrong, but from what I can tell the vast majority of podcast-only podcasts, the ones focused on tech, comedy, business, and religion, were and are talk heavy productions. One or two people with a microphone talking to each other or to guests or to just the audience. Some had studios or studio-quality mics, and more and more started getting proper editing done, but they are, at their core, talk shows.

This American Life is not a talk show. Planet Money is not a talk show. They have talk segments, but as a whole these are highly-produced story-based programs, with sound effects, musical scores, and documentary-style storytelling. To go back to the TV analogy, the professionally produced public-radio shows like these ones are network TV dramas and the tech, comedy, and business podcasts are YouTube channels. I’m not saying one is better than the other or that the people involved are more talented or legitimate in the traditional broadcast world, jus that the traditional broadcast world, of both TV and radio, had access to a certain level of quality that the internet-first content creators didn’t have.

That changed for television creators with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and I’d argue that’s changing for radio creators with the success of Serial and StartUp (and the entire 99% Invisible/Radiotopia network). Suddenly the broadcast world is no longer the only game in town. In the past, people who wanted to make high-quality productions had to get funding from and fit into the traditional system. Now, a new model is being carved that allows certain people to circumvent that by going the digital-only route. At the moment it helps if you are Kevin Spacey or one of the producers of This American Life but the point is this: people like Kevin Spacey and producers of This American Life are actively choosing the digital-only release as the best venue for their creative efforts. These are the best in the business and they are choosing to leave the old business model behind. Instead, Radiotopia is crowdfunding hundreds of thousands on Kickstarter and Gimlet is raising over a million in funding from investors and listeners.

Podcasts have been around for years, yes. But not these sorts of podcasts. Not with this sort of money. That’s what’s new here. And I find it very interesting.

So what does this mean for radio? I published my thoughts on this over here.

Filed under: radio

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