It’s been just over a year since the masses “discovered” podcasting in the wake of Serial’s blockbuster success. The wildly popular show was said to have reawakened a neglected art form—a breakthrough as important as the first directory of podcasts in iTunes a decade ago.
Now Serial is back with season two. Within minutes of the release of the first episode, dozens of websites had covered the news. The show is a phenomenon. Some see Serial’s success as proof that we’re in the middle of a podcasting renaissance. But we’re not there yet.
“After all these years, podcasting is still really nascent. It’s clear that they’re not going to grow in a hockey-stick like fashion,” said Joel Withrow, the audio product manager at Slate’s Panoply network.
The industry is still grappling with some very basic questions about how to reach new listeners and improve content discovery for existing listeners. While content becomes more sophisticated, the delivery of that content has seen only incremental improvements. And solutions don’t come from a few shows going viral.
“It can still be hard to find your way into the medium,” said Withrow, who leads Panoply’s efforts to improve distribution and the listener experience. “But we probably shouldn’t be chasing the goal of going viral anyway. A lot of those people don’t stick around to subscribe.”
There’s no question that Serial was overwhelmingly positive for podcasting. The show racked up more than 100 million downloads, grabbed the attention of the mainstream press, and excited people about the medium after a long period of stagnation. The reporting itself was incredibly good, making it a strong ambassador for the podcasting brand.
Alex Blumberg, the co-founder of Gimlet Media, said Serial’s success was instrumental in helping him raise venture capital for his podcasting startup. “Serial permeated the popular consciousness enough that now you don’t have to be like ‘a podcast is like a radio show,’ and that whole song and dance,” he explained in a February 2015 interview with The Observer.
Blumberg’s Gimlet Media is one of many organizations benefitting from the renewed interest in podcasting. Over the last 18 months, half a dozen new podcast networks launched with high-quality shows—including Gimlet, Panoply and Radiotopia. Public radio stations doubled down on the business case for podcasts, well-known media companies signaled their intentions to develop original programming, and sponsorship dollars followed the increases in listener numbers. Oh, and the President also taped an interview in Marc Maron’s garage—a story that became bigger than the actual substance of the interview.
These anecdotes seem to indicate the mainstreaming of podcasts. The data tells a different story.
In Edison Research’s latest consumer trends survey, awareness of podcasts was up only slightly. In 2012, 29 percent of Americans said they’d listened to at least one podcast. In 2015, the year after Serial had the greatest shot yet of proving podcasting’s lasting influence, 33 percent of Americans reported to listening. Familiarity with the term podcasting was nearly flat as well—up by only one percentage in 2015 from the year before.
While podcast listening hours increased by 37 percent over last year, the number of overall listeners increased modestly. This suggests a deeper challenge: the industry’s growth is coming largely from a small base of hardcore users, not from a surge of new listeners.
Roman Mars, host of the popular design podcast 99% Invisible, described the situation during a keynote speech at this summer’s Podcast Movement conference. “I was jealous when Serial ‘invented’ podcasting…80 percent of the world doesn’t know what the fuck we do,” he said. The crowd clapped, cheered, and nodded in agreement.
Podcasters are not happy with their options for reaching listeners either. A July survey from the audio sharing app developer Clammr showed strong satisfaction with equipment and software available to create podcasts. But it also uncovered deep dissatisfaction with the tools available for podcasters to grow their audiences—and consequently, revenue opportunities.
“It’s like hand-to-hand combat. There’s no clear path for podcasters to find people to listen to their stuff,” said Parviz Parvizi, co-founder of Clammr.
When iTunes first started cataloguing podcasts, it was hailed as the next big thing for new media. That was true from a content perspective. Suddenly, content producers had a direct line to a mass audience without having to go through traditional radio channels. While the vast majority of shows were poor quality and attracted few listeners, the podcasting genre supported new kinds of storytelling, interviews, and talk formats that didn’t fit with traditional radio.
But the discovery and promotion tools for podcasts haven’t evolved much. When iTunes launched its podcasting service, there was no streaming Netflix, no Kindle, YouTube had been in existence for four months, and the smartest phone on the market was a Blackberry. Aside from cosmetic upgrades to apps and a surge in use of mobile devices, the listener experience largely remains the same—a striking revelation considering how much web-based content has evolved.
Content creators still largely rely on word of mouth, recommendations within other shows, or curated lists from podcast enthusiasts. For non-celebrities and creators outside the world of public radio, there’s no obvious path for getting word-of-mouth traction. At a more basic level, tracking how people interact with audio files is almost impossible, which is one of the reasons advertisers have been slow to get comfortable with the medium.
“We have a platform problem. Podcasts were created in a world where people were downloading and storing everything—not unlike a CD or book collection. The podcasting paradigm is still oriented this way,” said Parvizi.
One could argue that we’re just now exiting the dark ages of podcasting—not in the middle of a renaissance. But the age of discovery is upon us.
Forging a new path to distribution and discovery
The brightest minds in podcasting are grappling with how to solve these problems. Is the answer a better recommendation engine? Ways to interact with a show in real time? Or does publishing itself need an overhaul? There’s no shortage of ideas.
Slate, which launched its Panoply Network in February, is taking the platform approach.
Sometime in the first half of 2016, Panoply will start publishing shows through its own technology stack, which will “put more tools in the hands of our podcasters to syndicate their content far and wide, both by traditional RSS and a more open, flexible API,” said Withrow. This stems from Panoply’s acquisition of Audiometric in August.
Withrow was short on the details, saying only that the platform opens opportunities for extensive experimentation, such as improved metadata and real-time recommendations—for example, providing sports content in reverse chronological order, or all shows related to Hillary Clinton.
A handful of other podcasting leaders have taken the recommendation approach in a more limited way, mostly targeting consumer apps. Top public radio shows and stations launched some of the first custom apps designed for a more immersive listening experience, followed by other podcasting networks.
This fall, Midroll launched Howl, an app and publishing tool featuring a collection of comedy podcasts from Earwolf and Wolfpop, as well as a backlog of more than 600 of Marc Maron’s WTF interviews. Midroll is also funding experimental one-off shows through a monthly premium subscription.
Although Howl still doesn’t include content outside of the comedy universe, Midroll CEO Adam Sachs has said in an interviews that the goal is to integrate as much as possible over time and make it the “go-to listening player for all people.” Unlike iTunes, which basically acts as a cataloging tool for podcasts, Howl is designed to serve and recommend content in the same way that video streaming services do.
The Swedish podcast hosting company Acast, which offers dynamic ad insertion, is also making headway. Buzzfeed and the Financial Times recently ditched SoundCloud for Acast to improve ad delivery and analytics for their popular shows. Acast is also focused on strengthening its recommendation engine for a better real-time listening experience.
The first decade of podcasting was all about compiling and listing shows. The coming years will be about serving content customized to each listener.
The platform model is a way to improve monetization and cross-promote shows. But it’s more than that. It’s a reaction to the lack of innovation in the space. iTunes, which has long been the default player for the vast majority of listeners, offers very little in the way of discovery. A user must know what they want in order to find it. (In a recent interview on the Re/code Decode podcast, social media investor John Borthwick said Apple had “systematically” underinvested in the podcast app “just enough to keep it alive.”) If Apple continues to underinvest in iTunes, something else will eventually take its place as the go-to place to listen.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe social discovery is the missing piece of podcasting. If the platform is the pool, they argue, social media is the diving board.
The case for social media as a discovery tool isn’t clear-cut. Facebook and Twitter are the dominant promotional outlets for many podcasters. But the shows themselves—mostly long-form interviews, monologues or narratives—don’t often translate into readily shareable moments for these outlets. Panoply’s Withrow called podcasting and social media “like oil and water.”
This dilemma spawned a new kind of interactive, curated experience designed to increase sharing but not diminish the strengths of long-form content. Product Hunt, a Reddit-like product discovery site, takes this approach to integrating podcasts.
In late September, the site launched a channel devoted to audio and hired Alex Carter, an entrepreneur who co-created a social-based podcast app called Knomad, to lead the channel and procure content. Carter is an enthusiastic believer that social media is the clearest path into the world of podcasting for new listeners. Part of his job at Product Hunt is to find the most compelling podcasts and encourage users to rate and comment on them–one episode at a time. So far, the top individual episodes posted to Product Hunt get only a few hundred upvotes and a handful of comments (as opposed to thousands for other top products on the site), but Carter said it’s too early to judge success. “It’s still so new.”
National Public Radio is experimenting with a somewhat similar strategy. In early November, it released earbud.fm, a site with 200 episodes of user-recommended content, filtered by categories such as “tell me a story” or “so many feels.” In a statement announcing the product launch, NPR Editorial Director Michael Oreskes described the project as away to bring podcasts into the same cultural realm as books, movies and music. The long-term strategy is still unclear, however.
“We understand this is a particular challenge…so we devised a system to use audience recommendations vetted by a team of external and internal reviewers to come up with the most interesting and impartial recommendations,” said Orskes.
Carter also thinks episodic curation is the key to the social experience. Adding a social layer doesn’t necessarily mean interacting with a podcast as soon as it’s posted, he says. Rather, his ideal listening platform would operate kind of like a Facebook feed—bringing together the most relevant content based on preferences, location, and how friends are interacting with it. That’s how Carter designed his app, Knomad, before moving over to Product Hunt. “People are passively discovering content all the time on Facebook. That’s how it should be for podcasts.”
Clammr’s Parvizi sees the social layer differently. He thinks creating shareable moments is the best way to unlock content buried deep in podcasts. “Podcasts are the wrong unit size for discovery. Audio tends to be long, and when something is unfamiliar, you aren’t going to engage in deep ways,” he said.
This echoes the conclusion of Stan Alcorn’s influential 2014 essay on why audio rarely goes viral. Podcasts almost never get shared like pictures, video, or articles across the web—partly because of their length and partly because they offer no clear visual component, he argued. “The audio that has gone viral takes a different tact: short, tailored specifically for SoundCloud, and providing a near-immediate pay-off that fulfills the headline’s promise.”
Clammr is designed to solve that problem. The app allows users—mostly content creators looking for a new way to get their podcasts heard—to select short audio clips from their phones or the web and share the bite-sized pieces on other social media networks. The sound bite acts as doorway into longer content; Clammr is working on stronger recommendation capabilities to open the door further.
No one has created a viral hit with millions of listens on Clammr. But after testing out the beta over the summer, Parvizi is encouraged by the high level of engagement. Around 70 percent of users were regularly coming back to the app two months after they signed up. Those are retention numbers similar to apps like Snapchat and Instagram.
“Audio is on its own island. To listen to a podcast, you have to go to Podcast Land. That’s a barrier that presupposes someone is already into audio. The idea is to make bits of audio present where people already are,” said Parvizi.
These are just a small sample of the publishing and sharing tools emerging for podcasts. They represent a welcome change for a medium that has seen incredible innovation in content development over the last decade, but very few breakthroughs in content delivery.
The biggest breakthrough of all is still on its way.
Driving toward the renaissance
Smart phones are widely considered the most important asset for podcasts. And, it’s partially true. But it might actually be a much older technology that will help podcasts break into the mainstream: the automobile. “What will make a big difference is when you have a podcast app in every car,” said Withrow.
When it comes to audio, car is king. Nearly 90 percent of Americans listen to AM/FM radio weekly, and more than half of that listening time occurs in the car. So when will podcasts start to fill in that vast chunk of time?
It’s already happening. According to Nielsen, more than one-third of smartphone owners have listened to web-based audio in the car—a significant boost over the 21 percent who reported tuning in to web-based audio in 2013. In its consumer survey from earlier this year, Edison Research found that 58 percent of people who listened to at least one podcast per week were streaming web-based audio in their cars. Demand is clearly growing for all kinds of on-demand audio, including podcasts.
Today, roughly 10 percent of automobiles are connected to the web. By 2020, that number could climb to 90 percent if you include both new cars from the factory and existing cars retrofitted with web connectivity. Seeing that trend, leading automakers and tech companies are competing to install smartphone-like interfaces to deliver (among many other things) easier access to on-demand audio. Apple’s Car Play and Google’s Android Auto, for example, will enable the easy integration of native or third-party podcasting apps. These web-connected displays built into vehicles could do more for on-demand audio than any new app or social sharing tool.
“Think about how many people listen to radio. It’s not like a small percentage of people are the only ones using their ears. It’s that they have intentionally found good content. If we could lower the bar for everyone else, many others would probably demand it,” said Parvizi. “The car is an obvious target.”
The tools are all coming together to take podcasts out of the dark ages and into the renaissance. The last year has brought more business and technological innovation to the medium than at any point in the last decade. And if the flurry of activity is any indication, the next few years will bring far more. This is why we can finally envision a future when podcasts rival terrestrial radio and match the sophistication of on-demand content across the web.
Viral hits like Serial are an important way to get people excited about podcasts. But making them loyal, repeat listeners will require far more investment in the tools to improve the experience.
Now go enjoy season two.