Once hailed as a revolutionary medium which was primed to sweep away traditional radio, podcasting has found a unique niche within the web. Neither expanding nor declining massively in importance, the podcast’s strengths are also its greatest weaknesses.
Podcasts allow a unique connection with a content producer, free from restrictions of commercial radio like time checks, stings, ads and having to break for news and weather updates. Podcasting also has low barriers to entry, given all that is required is a microphone, some editing software and a place to host the files.
But for all of its advantages, podcasting as a medium has some serious challenges to surmount to compete with video, images and text as high-performing web content, which appeals to advertisers.
Its most fundamental problem is the fact that it is not a visual medium. Content that makes the most immediate impact is far more likely to elicit reactions such as sharing. Having to pay close attention to a story that unfolds via audio over a long time period won’t draw the same response.
More than that, the very term “podcast” comes from it being a broadcast that you can listen to on your iPod (other portable music devices are available, of course, and desktops can download and play podcasts as well). This requires either streaming from the device and the data bill that comes with it, or else fiddling around with syncing and downloading on a weekly basis. It also usually means seeking out the podcasts rather than letting them find you, something generally only of interest to more advanced web users.
There are signs that the main podcast players are wising up to this, with the Guardian and Maximum Fun network, to name just two, using the likes of SoundCloud to create shorter clips which people can embed and share more easily than an hour -long MP3 file.
However for many major news organizations, which are examining every possible online revenue stream as print revenues decline, podcasts have failed to cut the mustard. The New York Times last year cut all but three of its podcast outlets. Compared to banner advertising or other forms of online advertising, there is an inherently insecure call-to-action within podcasts, given the reliance of users to recall a webpage URL to look up later.
Podcasts deliver the best results for both artist and audience when they play to their strength: giving freedom to explore niche topics in intense detail. For the audience, this means they get access to great content and connect with a community of like-minded folks, while for content producers it allows them to promote other things and even demonstrate they can produce great work for other media channels.
It is in the latter area that podcast producers are finding success. The Independent Film Channel has now commissioned two TV series based loosely on podcasts (Maron featuring comedian Marc Maron and the bizarre but hilarious Comedy Bang Bang) while the Ricky Gervais Show, an animated show based on the Office star’s podcasts, has also proven to be successful.
Podcasts may not be perfect for online communities with a short attention span but where there is a clued-in and switched-on audience willing to take their time, they can help build a network of committed advocates. Direct monetization may prove difficult, as scale and reach are not the medium’s strong suite, but so long as there is someone willing to produce interesting content and an audience willing to listen, podcasts will continue to have their place alongside other formats.
Image credit: Seven Morris