Podcasting Perspective

When I talk about podcasts here I’m really talking about tech, or tech-adjacent podcasts, for example those on the 5by5 network. I’m aware that there are a lot of successful podcasts that are born out of the traditional commercial media landscape. This is not about them.

The podcasting world is streaked with misinformation and firmly held beliefs without substance. But nobody seems interested in challenging the status quo, content instead with mediocrity.

For example, here’s one of the lies you’ll hear about podcasts: The intrinsic nature of the medium means that podcasts are transient content.

Wrong. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the podcasts that are in vogue are irrelevant a couple of weeks after they air. That’s not any kind of indictment, that’s just the reality. But just because these creators are unwilling (or don’t have the capability) to create evergreen content doesn’t mean that this is the only way of doing things. The medium, in this case, is conflated with the content. You are not making content that people want to refer back to, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.

The podcast world suffers critically from the “first past the post” effect. There are a few networks and people who got there first and did something of adequate quality for long enough to become the major players in the scene. The problem is that almost everyone who came after them assumed that the route to success would be to replicate what was already working. There’s a tight parallel to be drawn with the tech writing scene: every 4 seconds a Daring Fireball clone launches. Enthusiastic newcomers see that Gruber makes half a million dollars a year from his site and it seems like a no-brainer — this is what you have to do to succeed.

The problem in both cases is that your odds of emulating their success are made infinitely smaller by the fact that they are already filling this niche.

But that’s hard to see, because confirmation bias pushes you to look at the success stories, instead of the astounding mass of failure stories. The failure stories don’t get told, anyway, because no one reads those blogs or listens to those podcasts.

So when you hear from the big guys that “podcast sites don’t matter”, this seems like incontrovertible truth. But the fact is that whilst this might be true for them, it’s certainly not true for everyone.

They don’t know any different, because they’ve reached a point where they are making enough money from what they do to rely on it. Changing things up and properly trying new experiments is too risky.

Podcasting, in fact, is a medium that lends itself very well to the communication of evergreen content. But you have to have the content first. A great, functional, attractive site is important — but only if you’re using it to showcase great audio of lasting relevance.

Do you know why the unprepared, lazily edited, rambling and soon-irrelevant podcast is so popular?

Advertiser dollars!

Nothing more, nothing less. Have you ever listened to a ten minute ad read for Squarespace or Hover and felt ever so faintly disrespected as a listener? Have you ever heard the words “so, what do we have to talk about today?” and wondered if the hosts could have put in a tiny bit more effort? These moments are your accidental glimpse at an unfortunate truth: you are a number in a statistic that convinces an advertiser to put down some money.

Online advertising, on blogs and on podcasts, is a shaky raft in a storm right now. It’s getting harder and harder to prove to advertisers that it’s worth it. In order to make money from a podcast, you need to get in as many ad reads as you can. So a show that could take 30 minutes stretches out to two hours (to accommodate 20 minutes of ads). And instead of taking a month between each show to research, plan, even script, you get weekly shows that cover a few recent topics in a heaping mound of burbling.

Which is fine! That is their jam, and it is totally working for them. But let’s not pretend that’s the only way!

And please let’s dispense with the fallacy that number of weekly downloads is a solid indicator of quality. A lot of established hosts will tell you that their “numbers speak for themselves”. All the numbers tell you is how many people have subscribed in the past and forgotten to unsubscribe. The main thrust for most podcasts is getting new listeners — that’s why they are perpetually asking you to rate them on iTunes.

More planning, scripting, better designed websites, genuine respect for the listener and their intelligence, less lip-service of current hot topics — these are all opportunities to blow the current crop of podcasts out of the water. In fact there are people who have already raised the bar in these areas. For example, John Chidgey, whose show Pragmatic (now retired) has a wealth of well-researched, solid information, well presented.

John’s show did well, but in my opinion he’d have done a lot better had he had a solid connection with the cult-of-personality crowd that have the chokehold on tech podcasting.

This is on podcasters and listeners to change.

Podcasters: you are not going to make money on your podcast. You’re not. Stop thinking that you’re going to retire and live off ad revenue. If you are super lucky you will make enough to cover costs. Instead, why not just focus on making something that will still be worth something in ten years? Something you can repackage and sell as an audiobook? Something that doesn’t have lame ad reads and awkward silences and self-congratulatory back-patting? Something that says to the listener, you are important!

Listeners: Simple. Stop rewarding these fancy-pants babblers with your attention. Have a hard think about what you’re listening to. Is it of any real value? Or are you just listening by rote, or because it’s a touchstone of your digital peers? Does it enrich your interior life, or just provide you with some stupid in-jokes to tweet?