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Streaming into the future - Part 2: Podcasts

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:00
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As a child, I used to marvel at the way my parents and grandparents talked about the radio. They used to describe sitting by the radio to listen to the news, or a musical performance or a ‘radio show.’ For them, the radio was (usually) a large wooden cabinet that sat on the floor of the sitting room. For me, it was a handheld box of plastic with telescoping antennae that (for most of the time) didn’t get used because I was too busy watching the television.

Cast your net broadly...

As I got older, I began to enjoy when WJR (one of the local radio stations in Detroit) began to play old radio shows and to produce new radio shows. The weekly airing of CBS Mystery Theatre or the occasional re-broadcast of Fibber McGee and Molly allowed me to begin to understand the power of audio and the way that it fired the imagination. Whether it was the sound of a creaking door, making me nervous as I listened to Mystery Theater, or the crashing sound of all the junk falling out of Fibber McGee and Molly’s closet, sound made the story come to life.

Fibber McGee and Molly
From 1935 to 1957, Jim and Marion Jordan performed on the radio as Fibber McGee and Molly. This long-running programme became the template for situation comedies to this day.

Of course, we listened to music on the radio, too.

As times changed, in the US, there was less and less demand for radio drama, comedy, ‘variety’ programming. The US radio market, from its inception, has been driven by commercial advertising revenue, and this has meant that what is to be found on the radio was connected to what advertisers and sponsors would wish to be associated. In other countries, like the UK, where there was public funding for media, there has continued to be more diversity in programming. Throughout my youth, growing up in the US, radio became divided between music and talk-radio.

You can’t imagine my joy upon discovering BBC Radio 4, when I moved to the UK. I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoy The Archers; although I’m more likely to listen to the weekend Omnibus rather than the daily programme. 

Radio active

Around the world, radio still commands about 80% of the audio market. In some countries, it is well into the mid-90% range. The low cost of consumer radio technology has meant that it remains one of the most widespread broadcast media formats in the world. It is estimated that each week about 3 billion people will listen to the radio. Advertising revenue from radio is expected to exceed $40 billion.

Radio is a broadcast medium. This is to say, that the same content is made available to everyone who tunes in. Unlike a service such as Spotify, radio doesn’t allow you to choose what to hear. Instead, you may choose when to listen, but you’ll hear whatever the station is playing.

Radio stations will either seek to provide a range of different types of content, to appeal to a wide range of listeners, or will focus on specific types of content to address their local market. This is why, within a given geographical locale, you may have multiple radio stations broadcasting different types of content (rock music, country music, ‘oldies’, news radio, talk radio, etc).

Listen narrowly...

Around 2004, podcasting started to take off. While it had been around, in one form or another, for a while; it was the increasing availability of portable MP3 players (like the iPod) and the growing availability of broadband internet that allowed the medium to begin to achieve traction.

The key difference between radio and podcasting is that the latter is not a broadcast medium. It is narrowcast; meaning it is designed to appeal to a specific audience and is consumed where and when the listener chooses. There is no need to seek to develop content that can appeal to the widest possible audience, because the audience is choosing the specific. There is no need to be geographically relevant, because anyone can access the content. There is no need to schedule programming, because the listener will download or stream the content whenever they wish. Further, most podcasts are based on a subscription model - meaning you can get the latest episode delivered to your device by signing up to the ‘feed’.

Image courtesy of Relay FM (http://relay.fm)

The development of podcasting networks, like RelayFM, reflect the potential for commercial advertising revenue as an income stream for this new medium.

While podcasting is still small, in terms of revenue generation, it is growing. It is estimated that advertising revenue for 2019 will reach about $850 million, and will rise to more than $1.6 billion by 2022. That is an estimated 188% growth over 3 years! The potential, and growth, of advertising revenue in podcasting has led to the development of podcast networks. These are companies that have been established to produce and host multiple podcasts (in some cases hundreds) under a single banner. The podcaster (who creates the content) shares in any revenue generated through advertising sold by the network. This has allowed individual podcast creators to gain at least some financial benefit from their work.

For advertisers, podcasting is an exciting new area for exploration. When you have access to a more defined audience, it is possible to target advertising more specifically. For example, if you have a podcast about a specific video game you are also likely to know the demographic that engages with the game. Therefore, you will have greater specificity about who is listening to the podcast and can advertise products and services that are likely to appeal to this more narrowly defined group. In turn, this group may be more likely to find the advertised goods and services to be relevant to them and more likely to make a purchase. 

While streaming media has changed the way we consume music, but hasn’t changed the nature of music, it has had a profound impact on the way that spoken word content is being created. The success of podcasts like Serial (produced by National Public Radio) has reintroduced long-form and episodic audio content to a mass audience. 

When the first series of Serial was launched, in 2014, telling the story of Adnan Syed, podcasting became a truly mass media; as millions began listening; and inspired a raft of other programmes. Image courtesy of Serial Podcast (http://serialpodcast.org), This American Life (http://thisamericanlife.org) and WBEZ Chicago (http://wbez.org).


Rise of the independent podcaster

Further, as the majority of podcasts are produced by independent companies or individuals, there are fewer restrictions on the way that they may approach the development. This, in turn, allows for content to be released that may appeal to a very niche market or be more biased (for better or worse). There is less need to be concerned about offending the listener, because the listener will have sought out the podcast.

While there are the podcasting networks, and some of the large media companies have started to produce podcast content, the majority of podcast creators are individuals or small teams. The cost of producing a podcast is relatively low. To get reasonable audio quality you’ll need a good microphone (which could cost around $100) and a computer. If you’re very serious you might soundproof a room in your house, but plenty of podcasts are done in bedrooms and around kitchen tables.

There are online services that will host your podcast for free, or very low cost. This has put the market within reach of individuals who have a story to tell, have a passion for a topic or just want to share their thoughts.

Apple's Podcast Directory has become one of the most valuable tools for listeners to discover new content. In a medium which has new shows appearing constantly, 'discovery' has become critical. 

There are about 95 podcasts dedicated to listening to people play dungeons and dragons listed on the Apple Podcast Directory. There are thousands of podcasts dedicated to politics; ranging from discussions of global issues to neighbourhood-level. There are thousands of comedy podcasts, by well-known comedians as well as unknowns, in nearly every language you can imagine.

The range of categories to be found on different podcast directories is astonishing and continues to grow - as podcasting is creating new genres and new audiences. People who may have been unlikely to listen to the radio, for spoken word content, are discovering podcasts that appeal to their specific interests.

The technology of podcasting may be internet-based, rather than ‘over-the-air’ broadcasting, but this new medium is returning to us some of the joy that can be discovered through the imagination, conversation, and information of audio content.


Geoffrey is a qualified architect, who has worked in the US and UK on projects in the US, UK and Asia. He has been involved in teaching, leadership and management of higher education for more than 20 years; and was the Course Director for undergraduate architecture at University of the Arts London from 2004-2016. He has taught and lectured in the UK, Canada, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, and South Africa. He is the author of ‘The Design Process in Architecture’ (2018) and ‘Architecture: An Introduction’ (2010) as well as numerous articles for magazines and journals. 

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