The Wall Street Journal’s report that Apple’s upcoming iOS 6 software release will include a standalone podcast app for all iPhone users is another shot across the bow when it comes to live radio listening, but it’s potentially a boon to public radio stations that produce great podcasts. Update on June 26, 2012: the app is now available in the Apps Store.
Why are most of our podcasts NOT great podcasts? I’ll get to that.
First, the app. When iOS 6 launches sometime in September, it will include a separate app for podcasts. The app will allow users to discover and immediately download or stream and listen to podcasts. No need to subscribe in iTunes on the desktop and then remember to sync for new episodes. We don’t have full details yet, but it’s likely the app will automatically download episodes of podcasts you’ve subscribed to, and have other features.
Android users have had this functionality for some time, and iOS users have been able to acquire it for a couple bucks with apps like Instacast and Downcast, both of which I recommend highly. There are others, as well. But Apple’s decision to include a free podcast app on everyone’s iPhone could give a new lease on life to public radio podcasts.
Is this ubiquitous app-to-come a threat to live radio listening? Absolutely. It’s another terrific option for users who want more listening choices in the car, while jogging, in the gym ... and it makes subscribing and listening to podcasts an impulse action. (It also blurs even more the once clear distinction between streaming and podcasting. The best way to think of it is perhaps as audio, plain and simple. But “podcast” is the term used by these apps and it’s one that users understand.)
Is this new podcasting app good for public radio? Yes, because podcasting is a big business and even though we were podcast pioneers back in 2005, as an industry, we’ve not realized our full potential.
A sidenote: Mobile listening is exploding and many stations could be successful in the future by creating a showcase for what they do best — audio — on new, smarter platforms for mobile.
Yes, but podcast listening is flat to falling, right? We seem to think so, as an industry, and we keep talking about podcasting becoming irrelevant. This may be true for public radio podcasts, but if it is, it’s our fault. Look elsewhere. Twit.tv boasts a roster of 28 active shows. In 2009, "Chief Twit" Leo Laporte said he was making $2.25 million a year with his Twit.tv business (from advertisers and listener contributions), with annual expenses of $350,000. Twit revenue grew to $4 million in 2010 . Laporte spent $1.3 million to build new professional studios and announced a plan to increase revenue to $8 million dollars a year in 2011. Twit has more revenue, and a lot more listeners, than many public radio stations.
Are there other podcast success stories? Yes. 5by5, founded by Dan Benjamin, offers around 15 shows right now. Benjamin doesn’t talk numbers, but his shows often rank in the top iTunes podcast downloads and he says he’s making money. Mule Radio Syndicate is a smaller operation but it’s also offering top-ranked podcasts, including its most recent and high profile acquisition from 5by5: John Gruber’s The Talk Show. And Slate? They're getting a million downloads a month and growing, with 19 podcasts.
Public radio has top-ranked podcasts, too. On any given day, This American Life, Radiolab, The Moth, Wait Wait, TED Radio Hour, and Fresh Air are in the iTunes top podcasts list.
Why aren’t more public radio podcasts in the top ranks? Perhaps we’ve made the wrong assumptions about the format. We’ve assumed that podcasts are little more than on-demand repeaters of existing radio shows. We’ve opted for easy-to-produce, but bland repackaging of our on-air content. So we create podcasts of our feature length stories all tossed together in a jumble. No one subscribes. Even more strangely, we manufacture and adhere to arbitrary standards, like: podcasts longer than 20 minutes don’t work. This American Life, many Radiolab episodes, as well as almost every other successful podcast out there proves this isn’t true at all.
What makes a compelling and successful and perhaps financially sustainable podcast? The same things that make good radio:
- A well-defined premise: what is the show about?
- Compelling content of any length: what will make me listen from beginning to end?
- Smart guests and meaningful topics
- A host that listeners can connect to
Sometimes, an existing show easily becomes a podcast, like This American Life. Sometimes, segments of a show are the most compelling kind of presentation, like The Moth and Fresh Air. The Radiolab podcast is a mix of both. But podcasts are also a destination for new ideas in search of existing or new audiences. A number of stations are pushing their most innovative ideas to podcasts — Minnesota Public Radio and WNYC are good examples. In fact, MPR has used podcasting to incubate Dinner Party Download for broadcast. PRX created How Sound to showcase good storytelling and how it gets made, not expecting a hit podcast. But How Sound has found a growing audience. There are lots of ways to look at the podcast market, but the most important things to note:
- This is a space for compelling, interesting content — and a space that you must take as seriously as the live radio space. If you don’t dump all your long form features on the radio in a big jumble without context or meaning, then don’t dump them in a podcast.
- This is a space where ultra-high end production values aren't required. A quality sound recording and minimal editing can result in great content.
- This is a space where you can grow audience for new shows and concepts, and superserve an existing audience of fans with easier access to their favorite shows.
- This is a space where you can grow revenue, if you’re willing to try new approaches and learn from the successful players.
The explosion of listening on mobile devices, combined with apps that make finding and listening to podcasts easier than ever, makes a smart audio strategy more interesting and important than ever for public radio.
I don’t listen to live radio much anymore (yes, I’m still a member of multiple public radio stations), but I listen to a lot of podcasts. Here are my favorites.
Public Radio Podcasts
- Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin
- Fresh Air
- TED Radio Hour from NPR
- The Moth
- The Tobolowsky Files (not specifically public radio per se, but it airs on KUOW, WFPL and other stations)
- Under the Influence
- Dinner Party Download
- All Songs Considered
- How Sound from PRX
- Planet Money
My Favorites From Elsewhere