A Look into the Business and Social Potential of the Medium
By Clifford Michel
As I got on the 5 train on my way back to Staten Island, I popped in my earbuds and began to play one of the most entertaining pieces of audio ever produced. But before I pressed play, a piercing gasp from the lady standing next to me drew my attention–as well as from everybody else on the train. She sheepishly looked around and her iPhone’s screen revealed it all. She was listening to “Serial,” the same podcast I was about to play.
“Serial” is a true-crime drama that took the country by storm this past October. What was more surprising about “Serial” was the medium it was offered on: podcasts.
Podcasts have long been viewed as a fledgling medium that attracted dedicated, but still undeniably small, fan bases. For the longest period of time the medium has been ignored because of its inability to be profitable. Even the most popular podcasts, such as “Radiolab” and “This American Life,” depended on donations from listeners and the arm of public radio, which produces many popular podcasts.
“Serial” has changed all that and more. For the first time in its short history, podcasting is being looked at as a serious medium and is expected to have serious market potential.
The New York Times reported in late November the podcast is listened to over 1.5 million times per episode and close to 40 million people listen to some form of podcasting, something that has advertisers and creators heavily interested.
Every medium has its specific advantages that tickles the interests of advertisers and for podcasts, the advantages make up the perfect melting pot. Many podcasts are narrow casted, meaning that through the theme and focus of the podcast attract a specific target demographic. This means that advertisers have a higher chance of reaching an audience that is seriously interested in their products.
And as a diehard fan and podcast enthusiast, I can tell you that it’s absolutely true. So many times in life you might feel like you just don’t have enough of the culture you crave to immerse yourself in. Honestly, how often can a journalism major dissect low and highbrow culture without getting the typical eye roll (thank you, Slate’s Culture Gabfest).
The truth of the matter is, not everyone is like you. Not everyone wants to talk about soccer for hours on end, not everyone understands the ins and outs of the movie industry like you do, or why punk rock is still the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Everyone is different and that’s why so many people turn to podcasts to get extended, intimate, and in-depth looks into the topics they hold dear.
I know personally that I would probably go crazy if I couldn’t hear three soccer fanatics dissect state-side soccer or listen to three analysts question my stance on the power of the courts.
Podcasts also provide a focused audience. Unlike TV and even some new media sites, podcasts function much like audiobooks in that if your attention waivers, than the listener will begin to lose track of the narrative. And since podcasts are often listened to on commutes and during non-thought provoking activities–such as washing dishes or working out–listeners are locked in when a 20 second ad spot pops up.
Podcasts also provide an avenue for new media sites to expand into different verticals, which, even for new media stalwarts, has been a difficult issue. As digital media websites expand, there is an underlying fear that advertising dollars aren’t, The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2013.
To offset this, new media companies are trying to expand into different verticals to garner larger audiences and increase engagement through cross-promotion.
Public radio stations across the country were the first to take advantage of this. WNYC, New York’s public radio station, produces two podcasts that are ranked as most popular by ituneschart.net: “Radiolab” and “Freakonomics Radio.” Both podcasts sometimes cross-promote, advertise, and draw money directly from audience members through donations.
WBUZ, Chicago’s public radio station, and NPR, a national radio syndicator, also employ the same tactics.
Slate, a popular online magazine, has invested huge resources in podcasts. It now produces a little more than 14 different podcasts that each focus on specific topics. Slate podcasts range from sports, politics, or literature to pop culture, parenting, or finance.
The resources are paying off already as Slate has tripled its audience in only a year to six million downloads a month. That’s six million times that a listener is exposed to advertisements and valuable cross promotion for the magazine.
Another undeniable benefit of podcasting is happy talk. Happy talk is a communications theory that states that the more normal engagement personalities engage in, the more attached the listener becomes to the media programming and personalities themselves; it’s the reason that your mother is smitten with the local weatherman’s goofy antics.
As podcast hosts divulge into their own personal lives, develop chemistry, and develop little insiders, it’s almost impossible to not get a bit attached.
So do me a favor. Grab your Android, Windows Phone, or iPhone and become part of the podcast renaissance.